So I’m back in Australia, and after two fantastic adventures in America and Thailand, I’m back home and right up against the pointy end of this whole unemployment business. My plans to secure work in Australia while I was gallivanting all over the world didn’t play out how I had hoped, so with my expectations in my boots and my pride scattered over the footpath somewhere, I fronted up to Centrelink to enquire about unemployment benefits. What follows is an account of my week-long dance with the bureaucracy.


Monday 14 October

I’ve never been particularly enthusiastic about the efficiency of operations in the Department of (so-called) Human Services. But I was determined to keep my cynicism in check and give the system a chance to work. So I fronted up just after lunch time and spoke to the guy with the iPad taking names and numbers.

Naturally his first question was what my Centrelink number was. I told him I didn’t have one that it was my first time, and to be gentle. He took my name down and added me to the list. I asked him how long it would be before it was my turn. He gave me what I think he imagined was a sympathetic smile and said “probably about forty-five minutes”. I settled in to wait, and worked on memorising some more of First Corinthians. I’m not really getting anywhere with that project either.

Half an hour later a Centrelink employee called my name and took me over to her desk. She asked me what my Centrelink number was. I told her I didn’t have one because it was my first time. She knew just what to do. She took me over to an office phone, dialled the number for the Centerelink hotline and handed me the receiver.

“Is this something I could have done forty-five minutes ago?” I asked, in that level and controlled tone of voice that my friends have learned to recognise as an alarm bell.

“Yes,” said the woman, and she walked calmly back to her desk, like it was a perfectly normal way to treat someone. On the flip side of the coin, she made my level tone of voice sound like Kevin Max’s vibrato.

I don’t know where the lady on the other end was speaking to me from. I assume Canberra, but it was clear that English was not her first language. But that was fine, I could understand her first question just fine:

“What is your Centrelink number please?” I explained that I didn’t have one, so she started looking through the database for anything that matched my name and date of birth. While I sat the waiting, it was all I could do not to burst out laughing as the Centrelink office background music wafted around me.

“Hey, we just met,
And this is crazy.
But here’s my number
Call me, maybe?”

Eventually the lady on the other end told me she had found and old record of me, dating back to my mother’s records, but unfortunately it was a child record. She asked for my permission to upgrade me from a child to an adult. I informed her that I have been trying to find a way to do that for a number of years now and that it was likely to be a long and complicated process. She didn’t even stop for breath before telling me no, it would just take a few minutes. Either she didn’t get it, or she was sick of smart-arses like me trying that joke out over the Centrelink self-help hotline.

Once I’d officially passed my bureaucratic adolescence, we were able to get onto the really good stuff. Like all my contact details, and how much my clothes were worth, and was I currently receiving dividends from being the chairperson of any corporations and how old my car was. The woman was being very thorough, so as not get any of the steps wrong. She appeared to be under the impression that I was an idiot, and triple checked everything before telling me three times the next steps I had to take. I had an appointment with a Centrelink adviser for the following morning, for which I would need one hundred points of identification and a separation certificate from my last employer. I also had an appointment made for me with the employment support agency down the road, to help me build a resume and connect me with potential employers.

After double checking that I understood I would need my separation certificate and one hundred points of ID the following morning, the call ended and I made my way out of the office. I glared as hard as I could at the original service provider who had wasted so much of my time. He didn’t notice.

I spent most of Monday afternoon chasing up my former employer for a copy of my separation certificate. They were very good about it, and I had been emailed a copy by half past eight the following morning, just in time for my second Centrelink appointment.

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