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Thursday, 14 October 1999
Page: 9690

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL (10:39 AM) —I rise to speak on these bills this morning because the public sector is one of the key institutions of government, serving the people of Australia and governments of either political persuasion. The Public Service Bill 1999 and the cognate bills, the Public Employment (Consequential and Transitional) Amendment Bill 1999 and the Parliamentary Service Bill 1999 , are being put before the Senate for the third time in two years.

These bills seek to bring reform to the Public Service, yet improvements to the legislation passed in the Senate have been rejected by the government in the House on two previous occasions. The bill originated in the days of the former Keating Labor govern ment, following an acceptance of a majority of the recommendations of the McLeod review. However, the 1996 federal election was called before the bill was introduced.

Following that election, the minister for industrial, now workplace, relations, Peter Reith, examined the McLeod review, and following the release of a discussion paper and a roundtable inquiry by the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee, the bills were introduced to the House on the 26 June 1997. The bills went through the two houses of our parliament, and the Public Service Bill 1999 left the Senate with 52 amendments. These amendments were rejected by the government in the House and the bills were laid aside.

Rather than adopt the recommendations of the Senate or make changes to the administration of the APS through the normal transparent channels, changes to regulations were utilised to make a number of important alterations. These included, amongst others, giving more powers to departmental secretaries and agency heads in relation to the management of staff. These changes aroused the concern of the Senate Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances. Even the chair of that committee, the former senator Bill O'Chee, gave notice of his intention to seek disallowance of the regulations, but he was placated by the minister and all was quiet again. But not for long. The bills were reintroduced, principally in their original form, on 5 March 1998. Again the bills were passed by the House and introduced into the Senate. Once there, the bills were passed after receiving 95 amendments. Yet again Dr Kemp rejected the amendments and laid the bills aside, thus presenting the government with a double dissolution election trigger.

The Howard government's agenda has always been to have this legislation as an ace up its sleeve. It drafted the original legislation knowing that it would not be supported by the Labor Party as the bills gave too much power and discretion to departmental and agency heads, and they weakened the job security and professional standards of Public Service employees. With the political climate milder this year than last, the Labor opposition hoped that the government would be more amenable to amendments when the bills were again introduced into the House of Representatives in March. None of the Senate's earlier recommendations had been incorporated.

These bills still went too far in enhancing the powers of departmental secretaries and fragmenting the Public Service, and did not go far enough in protecting the independence and professionalism of the service and the employment conditions of public servants. Luckily, upon the passage of this package of bills through the House of Representatives on 27 September 1999, the government did agree to 52 amendments of the 74 originally proposed by the ALP. These 52 amendments resulted in almost half of the 78 clauses in the bill being amended—an admission that the original bill was severely flawed.

The government acknowledged the need for a more bipartisan approach, resulting in a piece of legislation that should provide a satisfactory legislative framework for the Public Service for many years to come under governments of either major political persuasion. The key amendments agreed to include: (1) strengthening APS values and giving the Public Service Commissioner the power to issue directions on these and to evaluate the extent to which agencies uphold the values; (2) recognising that the APS is a career based service to enhance the cohesion of Australia's democratic system of government; (3) recognising that the usual basis of employment is as a permanent employee; (4) preserving existing promotion appeals rights; (5) providing for a genuinely independent and full-time Merit Protection Commissioner with functions and powers specified in the act; (6) ensuring consistency across the APS in handling allegations of misconduct and limiting the sanctions that can be imposed; (7) ensuring that a determination made by an agency head has no effect to the extent that it would reduce the benefit to an employee of any individual term of condition applicable to the employee under an award, certified agreement or AWA; (8) providing ministerial determinations which could override awards, certified agreements and AWAs that will only be permitted in exceptional circumstances and are disallowable instruments; (9) placing constraints on management reducing the classification of employees without their consent; (10) strengthening protection against unfair dismissal; (11) ensuring that prime ministerial directions to agency heads about APS management are published in the Gazette; (12) retaining access to the unfair dismissal provisions of the Workplace Relations Act for senior executive service employees; (13) ensuring a greater role for the PSC in the management of the SES; (14) providing greater transparency in setting the salaries of agency heads; and (15) including a fuller statement on the responsibilities of agency heads, which includes an acknowledgment of the agency minister's accountability obligations to the parliament.

The Howard government has been systematically undermining the position of the Australian Public Service ever since it came to office. Apart from slashing vital jobs from the public sector, departments and agencies have been given considerable scope by the government to use certified agreements and AWAs to override parts of the Public Service Act 1922, effectively undermining the security of Public Service employees. The Workplace Relations Act 1996 and Workplace Relations Regulations 1996 allow APS employers to override prescribed provisions of the Public Service Act 1922—relating principally to dismissal and retirement of people from the APS—in their certified agreements and Australian Workplace Agreements. These and other procedures leave too much open for personal bias and interpretation by departmental and agency heads to the detriment of APS employees.

The job is not over. Following the changes made in the House of Representatives, Labor outlined three key changes that we sought before we could agree on these bills. These three changes related to (1) the protection of workers' entitlements following machinery of government changes, (2) the processes for the review of employment decisions and (3) the types of employment available in the Public Service, particularly for temporary employees. Negotiations on these issues have been going on over the past few days. We have been concerned that machinery of government changes could be used as a means of reducing the remuneration and other conditions of APS employees. The amendments agreed to by the government are not perfect, but offer adequate protection to workers. Promotion appeals will be retained by a three-member review committee and the decision of this committee will be binding. The final details are still to be nutted out in regulations, but we are satisfied with this outcome.

The major sticking point with the government, however, has been Labor's objection to extending the use of temporary employment, as it will do nothing to improve the job security and, more importantly, the morale of APS employees, which at this point in history is at an all-time low. Unfortunately, the government has not agreed with our proposals and, as Senator Faulkner has outlined, we will be moving an amendment to limit temporary employment to 12 months, to 18 months in some circumstances and to three years in exceptional circumstances to be declared by a Public Service Commissioner's direction, which will be a disallowable instrument.

The government still proposes to employ people for up to six years for a supposed temporary task. Departments and agencies should not be absolved of responsibility for their employees. APS employees deserve, at a minimum, security of their employment tenure. We remain concerned that the government will push to casualise or make temporary the employment of many APS employees. A recent survey of CPSU members discovered that 50 per cent of APS employees believed that their job was less secure than it was 12 months ago. Currently, any temporary employee who has 12 months continuous employment becomes an ongoing employee. We believe that our amendment will make this bill fairer and more reasonable and will offer more to the Public Service and its employees. We hope that the Democrats and Independents will agree with us on this one outstanding issue and support it.

The forgotten part of this debate deals with the Parliamentary Service Bill 1999 . The bill has much the same origin as the Public Service Bill 1999 and establishes a separate Parliamentary Service. While many of the provisions of this bill are the same or similar to the Public Service bills, the main points of interest relate to the appointment of the Clerk of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives, the mobility of staff employed by the parliamentary departments—SES and non-SES staff—to allow for the movement of staff between the Public Service and parliamentary departments without a break in continuity and the right of return for employees working in non-APS Commonwealth agencies, and the creation of the position of the Parliamentary Service Commissioner, who may be different to the Public Service Commissioner. As Senator Faulkner has detailed, the Presiding Officers have agreed to amendments to this bill. Three additional amendments, which were supported by the Senate on each occasion the bill was debated previously, will also be moved.

This package of bills covers a range of matters, but there are also other significant matters that are subject to reference by this parliament that have not been covered. These include important issues, such as the evolving changes in the nature of the SES, including chief executive officers, as a result of the devolution of responsibility for staffing matters to individual agencies, such as selection, tenure and independence, remuneration including relativities, mobility and career development; the impact of agency bargaining in contributing to the development of a more efficient, productive and independent Australian Public Service, accountable to the Australian parliament; and the extent to which performance pay is being incorporated into agreements negotiated by individual agencies, the disparity between agency agreements in performance pay and the impact of such agreements on agency performance, accountability and transparency.

All these issues directly reflect on the levels of morale within the service and the quality of the service. If we want to improve these factors, the first step is to create a remuneration structure that is fair and equitable and that works objectively.

In conclusion, what we have now is a more balanced, fair and equitable package of bills, but there are still many outstanding issues relating to the Australian Public Service that need to be resolved. At the end of the day, we need to be able to create a public service that is both unified and has people with the morale to get the job done. For this reason, it is vital that we continue to work towards a fair outcome that these amendments, in part, will provide.