The creation of Centrelink in 1997 started a new era of social service delivery in Australia.
The Agency has the following functions: ... the provision of Commonwealth services in accordance with service arrangements …
Centrelink launched as a new cross-department service delivery agency in 1997. At the time, Prime Minister John Howard labelled it the largest change to social security since the Social Services Consolidation Act 1947.
The government hoped that Centrelink would present the human face of the government. Today, Services Australia delivers Centrelink’s programs and services to customers.
Splitting service delivery and policy responsibilities
Before Centrelink, the Department of Social Security (DSS) was ‘monolithic and multifunctional’ (Halligan and Wills 2011:16). The government had been criticised over longstanding issues, which meant that people who needed payments and services might not have been getting them.
Through the Commonwealth Services Delivery Agency Act 1997, social security functions were split across different agencies.
Centrelink became responsible for delivering government services and payments to social security customers. DSS became the Department of Family and Community Services (DFaCs) and remained responsible for social security policy, evaluation and research. Today DFaCs is the Department of Social Services.
Engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
At launch, Centrelink inherited DSS’s service delivery model for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. This model included large offices in urban centres and Community Agents based remotely.
Some of Centrelink’s leaders saw the need to achieve change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Gudanji Arrernte woman Pat Turner, who was Executive Director of Centrelink’s Indigenous Unit, argued that connecting DFaCS and Centrelink with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was critical to continue improving services (Turner 2000).
Centrelink experimented with alternate delivery approaches to achieve change. One model was developing small Customer Service Centres in remote communities. Officers could then personally help customers. Research by academic Will Sanders indicated this improved service delivery (Sanders 2003).
From 2001, the agency expanded the Community Agents Program (CAP). They also established Remote Area Service Centres. Expanding CAP was a recommendation in the 1986 Remote Area Task Force report.
While imperfect, this customisation of service delivery for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was a significant change in social security policy from the 1940s.
This Act established Centrelink as a statutory agency in the Social Security portfolio and established the governance arrangements for the agency. The legislation did not provide specific detail about service delivery.
Australian Government (1997) Commonwealth Services Delivery Agency Act 1997, Federal Register of Legislation, accessed 15 March 2023.