The circular experience of a Centrelink client

Centrelink: the bane of many parents' lives.
Centrelink: the bane of many parents' lives. Photo: Fairfax

For 30 years I've managed to avoid dealing with Centrelink.

But after Treasurer Joe Hockey's helpful exposure of paid parental leave double-dipping in May let me know exactly what I was entitled to, the time had come to deal with the behemoth Department of Human Services. I needed to sort out future payments.

First step: get a CRN. Or maybe a CAN. The website instructions are unclear which particular customer number is needed.

I spend half an hour going in circles between the Human Services website and the new all-singing, all-dancing online myGov portal.

You have to register for an online account to get the magic number, but you need the number to set up your online account.

Eventually, after a bit of frustrated googling, a mothers website throws up a link to a page not yet seen that generates a CAN. Or maybe a CRN.

All the department's pages say Centrelink's stand-alone web portal's days are numbered and you really should be using myGov.

But applying for a new payment on myGov repeatedly ends in "page not found" errors, forcing a return to the (imminently defunct) Centrelink portal.

It looks identical to the myGov site but doesn't throw up any errors. Well, not the same errors.


Finally, after managing to answer all the questions, I get to the point of ticking the apply for parental leave pay box - only to get told I have to visit a shopfront.

Round one to Centrelink.

Waiting in the shopfront a couple of days later, I spot at least a dozen signs asking if I'd rather be "in line or online?"

Centrelink reported more than 100 million online interactions and 43 million phone calls last year while encouraging even more people to avoid face-to-face meetings.

After a 35-minute wait I'm talking with a real, live person who says the customer number I managed to extract online is the wrong type.

"It's easiest to come in and wait and get the number," he says.

After establishing I really am me and don't exist in the system already he suggests starting the payment application from a computer at the centre in case there are any difficulties.

Fortunately I'm armed with details of every hour I've worked for the past year, every international trip taken since 1994, my baby's due date and various other bits of information the DHS website said was needed.

Most of it proves superfluous.

The application is quickly completed except for unspecified supporting documents.

One of the customer service staff explains this is proof of birth that doesn't yet exist, as the application established. She says it will be fine as long as this is submitted within 14 days of birth.

Just shy of 90 minutes after walking in, I'm done.

Round two to your correspondent. Possibly.

It turns out Centrelink is legally required to send letters pretty much every time you talk to it.

Department official Grant Tidswell says he'd rather not have to send these because they just confuse people and increase demand on already overrun phone lines.

I got a letter. It again demanded that (still unspecified) supporting documents be lodged quickly.

This time, I decide to brave the help line.

Centrelink says its average waiting time is 19-25 minutes but I've heard horror stories of new mothers spending an hour attempting to connect, another hour on hold and 40 minutes sorting out the problem while wrangling a small baby.

Fortunately I don't join the 13 million people a year who can't get through, instead being put on hold after an automated system provides helpful information on a completely unrelated topic.

"Wait times are currently more than 30 minutes," the system warns and sure enough, I'm on hold for the best part of an hour before getting to speak with a real person.

After explaining myself, I spend another 10 minutes on hold and eventually am told that letter is sent out automatically to everyone and can just be ignored.

Round three - I don't know.

Let's just call it a draw.