Three month reprieve comes after a bitter war of words erupted between the agency responsible for Centrelink and a major property company over the Abbotsford site.The Morrison government is facing calls to save a busy Centrelink office after it told the public sector union it would postpone controversial plans to shut the centre in inner Melbourne.
The decision to postpone the closure, one day after Services Australia announced suddenly that the office would shut for good from Friday, came after a bitter war of words erupted between the agency responsible for Centrelink and a major property company over the site.
The Abbotsford service centre, which is surrounded by some of Melbourne’s largest public housing estates, was set to close on Friday, but may now be saved after the landlord indicated its desire to continue the lease and Services Australia said it would await an offer.
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Services Australia officials informed the Community and Public Sector Union on Thursday the lease would be extended for three months and the closure would be postponed.
Alistair Waters, the union’s national president, said: “The CPSU is shocked and disappointed by Services Australia’s decision to close the Abbotsford site.
“While we welcome the delay, the need for face to face services isn’t going to magically disappear in three months.”
The development came only after the Guardian reported comments from the landlord, Salta Properties, which claimed it had learned of the closure of the Centrelink office on Friday through Twitter – and that it had offered to continue the lease on existing terms.
In a statement on Thursday hitting back at Salta’s claims, Services Australia said the offer to renew the lease had come via text message on Thursday, a day after the closure was announced.
“The landlord of the Yarra Service Centre in Abbotsford, advised Services Australia through its legal representative on 12 May 2020 that it will not agree to any lease extension beyond 22 May 2020,” a statement said.
“The current legal position stands as the landlord’s notice to vacate instructs Services Australia to vacate the premises by 22 May 2020.
“Today, 21 May 2020, Services Australia received an offer via text message to allow an extension to the lease for three months.We await a written legal offer.
“Services Australia will announce any changes to the services in due course.”
On Wednesday, the government services minister, Stuart Robert told the local MP and Greens leader, Adam Bandt by letter that the landlord had advised the agency they would “not retain Services Australia as a short-term or long-term tenant and will not permit any occupancy by the Agency at the premises after the lease expires”.
Robert said: “Let there be no misunderstanding – despite the Agency actively engaging with the landlord over an extended period, a lease agreement has not been reached.”
He claimed the landlord was “also unwilling to permit a lease holdover arrangement to allow further lease renewal negotiations, or to locate a suitable alternative premises”.
On Thursday, the landlord, Salta Properties, which is led by billionaire developer Sam Tarascio, flatly denied the claims, saying it was completely blindsided by the news.
A spokesman told the Guardian it had offered the agency a “lease extension on existing terms and was awaiting a formal reply”.
“Salta Properties was shocked to learn late yesterday on Twitter of Centrelink’s decision to vacate the premises,” he said.“This morning it reached out again to Centrelink to confirm the premises remain available and it is welcome to stay.Salta is waiting to hear back.”
The spokesman said the landlord had received a deed of extension and replied with comments.
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“Salta never heard back,” the spokesman said.“Salta remains open, as it has all along, to allowing Centrelink to remain open at its current address under a lease extension on existing terms.”
In a statement issued on Wednesday, a Services Australia spokesman, Hank Jongen, also said the outcome of “comprehensive lease negotiations” meant Centrelink was required to vacate the building “before the lease expiry date of 22 May 2020”.
On Wednesday Services Australia said it would close the Abbotsford service centre from the end of Thursday, and would be directing people to the South Melbourne office more than 6km away and on the other side of the city.
It has been the scene of some of the largest dole queues during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Bandt.
Kristina Costalos (@kcostalos) Thousands of people outside @Centrelink offices across Victoria this morning.
This was just half of the line at Abbotsford.Many have been queuing since 8am…@10NewsFirst pic.twitter.com/tXlV6gl44E
March 22, 2020 Robert was under pressure on Thursday to explain the confusion over the future of the centre.
Bandt demanded a written explanation and warned of a potential censure motion, while Labor’s government services spokesman Bill Shorten claimed the minister needed to “stop hiding behind fanciful stories”.
“The minister must immediately reach out to the landlord and ensure Abbotsford Centrelink remains where it is,” Bandt said.
Shorten accused the government of a “reckless plan” to close down Centrelink shopfronts, claiming that service centres at Mornington and Newport, Newcastle and Tweed Heads were also on the chopping block.
City of Yarra councillor Stephen Jolly said on Thursday the council would pass a motion offering a council building in the nearby suburb of Richmond for a long-term lease as a Centrelink office, including one year’s free rent.
Robert has been contacted for comment.
Topics Centrelink Australian politics Melbourne Victoria Welfare Adam Bandt news.