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Wednesday, 16 February 1977

Mr FRY (Fraser) -Firstly, I must assure the honourable member for Bradfield (Mi Connolly) that, contrary to his accusations concerning the attitude of the Opposition towards public servants, I have no innate hostility towards the Public Service as such. I can assure the honourable member that as a former short-term public servant I have a very high regard for the integrity and ability of public servants. I have defended their integrity, their ability and their working conditions on many occasions in this House. I share the concern of the honourable member for Hotham (Mr Chipp) that so few people are interested in this Bill, because it involves some very important principles; but I must say that I was concerned at his suggestion that perhaps we should consider not only bringing outsiders into the Public Service as permanent heads of departments but also bringing them in as Ministers. We all should be very much aware that it was precisely because such a situation existed in the American political system that Watergate was allowed to develop. It shook the whole foundation of the American nation. People who were not responsible, were not elected and were not subject to recall by the people were given power and they abused that power tremendously. The Watergate scandal shook the whole nation and it is still recovering from it. So I do not think that anybody should seriously consider the proposition that people who are not elected and who are not subject to recall should be given great powers in government.

I oppose this Bill very strongly. My basic objection to it is not just at the political level and does not concern just the privileges or rights of public servants. It is that this Bill strikes at a basic democratic aspect of our government and our Parliament in the handing over of power from the Parliament to public servants- at the handing over of power from elected people, people who are subject to recall, to people who are appointed. I know that elected people- Ministers in governments- cannot take responsibility for every decision that is made right down the line. Responsibility has to be delegated to public servants. This is a long established principle. But that does not mean that we should give responsibility to public servants virtually to appoint permanent heads of departments. I believe that that is what this BUI does. It seriously erodes the power and responsiblity of the Parliament, the Executive and the Government to appoint permanent heads by putting tremendous power in the hands of the Chairman of the Public Service Board. I think this is the basic principle about which we should be concerned.

We have to understand that the Bill has been prepared by public servants and it is natural that they will look after their own interests when drafting Bills. I do not doubt that that is a responsible attitude for them to take. But, while protecting their own interests, I do not think that there was any need for public servants to be given the power virtually to control the appointment of permanent heads. Their security of tenure can be protected- I think it is reasonably well protected- without giving them that extra power. I think they have enough control over the system now- too much in some ways. This power would really add to their control of the system and would allow them to manipulate it. They could do that in the following ways: Firstly, as I said, they could do it by means of the tremendous powers that would be vested in the Chairman of the Public Service Board. He would select the committee that would recommend permanent head appointments. Membership of that committee would be confined to permanent heads of departments. So a committee of permanent heads would recommend who should fill permanent head positions. The Chairman of the Public Service Board would control the short list of established candidates.

The Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser) confirmed in his second reading speech that a Prime Minister could suggest that other people be placed on the list, but he conceded that the Chairman of the Public Service Board would have the discretion to refuse to put those people on the list. He would have the right to veto the inclusion in that list of the nominations of the Prime Minister or the Government. I do not think that this is advisable. I think that it would create a very dangerous precedent. The Chairman of the Public Service Board would have great power over the established permanent heads and, as I said, he would virtually have power to veto the Prime Minister's proposals. I have no objection to permanent heads feeling secure in office. I think that it is a fundamental principle in the Public Service that they should feel secure in office. This can be done. This is a matter altogether different from that which gives the committee control over the appointment of permanent heads.

I believe that under the guise of opening up the possibilities of people from outside the Public Service being appointed as permanent heads, this Bill in fact makes it very unlikely that any outstanding candidates from outside the Public Service will in fact even consider being attracted into the Service. The Prime Minister went on to say in his second reading speech that, notwithstanding the list that the committee prepares, a Prime Minister can appoint somebody over the head of the Public Service Board. The catch is, of course, that the conditions applying to such an appointment are so bad that no serious candidate would really have a second look. He would have no security of tenure at all. On the change of government he could be sacked. At the most he would have a 5-year term. I do not think this proposal is a reality. In fact the power still lies with the Chairman of the Public Service Board and the control he has over that committee. Not only does he have a substantive vote on the committee but also he has a casting vote which really strengthens his power.

The way the candidates are to be drawn under this Bill is quite confusing. They can come from 3 sources. Firstly, they can come from the initial list of candidates prepared by the Chairman and his committee. If that is not satisfactory the position can be advertised and other names added to the list. Of course the Prime Minister can add further names to the list subject to the discretion of the Chairman. This is a quite ridiculous situation. I think a much cleaner approach to this question would have been achieved if the recommendation of the Coombs report had been followed. The Coombs report put up the proposition that there should be just the one list and that that list should include any nominees of the Government, the relevant Minister or the Prime Minister. This would have been a much cleaner approach and it would have put everybody on a much better basis. With the present suggestion an outsider has very little chance and very little going for him. The terms and conditions are just not attractive. The Coombs report said that there should be only one list.

Dr Coombsalso made the important suggestion, which is at variance with this Bill, that the committee should be appointed by the Government and not by the Chairman of the Public Service Board. This would give a much better balance to the committee and would reflect the views of the Government to some extent. The suggestion was made that permanent heads should be statutory officers who would serve a fixed contract for a government and that when that contract comes to an end at the change of government, if the new government does not wish to renew the contracts, the officers would return to a pool and be guaranteed other positions. This would be a much cleaner approach and people would know where they stood. At the same time it would allow for outsiders to come in on a reasonable basis and not be at a disadvantage as they are under the provisions of this Bill. There is a guise of opening up positions to outsiders but in fact the practicalities are that the positions will be most unattractive to outsiders. This merely reinforces the mortgage that established permanent heads have on positions of permanent heads. I would be very surprised if outsiders came in in the same way as they did in the period of the Labor Government. I do not want to enter into debate whether that was good or bad, but I do not think it would happen under this new arrangement.

I think the Coombs arrangements would have been much more desirable and much more democratic. They tended to keep the power in the hands of the Parliament- in the hands of the Government and in the hands of the elected people. The power was divided between the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and the Minister concerned. I think the Minister concerned in a particular department should play the principal role. I think this was accepted in our government. This Bill tends to take the power out of the hands of the elected Parliament and put it in the hands of public servants. The way the committee is constructed puts power in the hands of virtually a one-man band. The unknown quantity about this proposition is the effect that the other Bill proposed by the Government, the Commonwealth Employees (Redeployment and Retirement) Bill, will have on the Public Service. Here of course a grave threat is hanging over the heads of public servants because of the rather insidious proposal for management initiated retirement.

While this Bill may protect the conditions and secure the tenure of permanent heads- there is a very small number of permanent heads in the bureaucracy- there are thousands of middle range officers who will be under threat if this other Bill is passed. I suggest that members of the House should look at this very closely. The concessions many senior public servants will be granted under this Bill could well be offset by disadvantages in the Bill concerning redeployment and retirment. I suggest that the overriding objection to this Bill is that it represents a further erosion of the control of the bureaucracy by the Parliament. I think this is a most important and fundamental aspect of the Bill. The provisions of the Bill take away some of the responsibility of elected people and give it to appointed people who are not responsible in the sense that they are not subject to recall. I think it is very important that these sorts of powers should remain very much in the hands of a government. This situation, of course, would present no problem where the basic philosophy of a government happens to coincide with the basic philosophies of senior public servants. If they are in agreement there will be no problem. But of course great problems could occur where there are different philosophies and where a reformist government has to deal possibly with conservative public servants. I recognise the other situation where sometimes very progressive permanent heads would have the problem of dealing with a very conservative government. It cuts both ways. I acknowledge this. I repeat that I think all members of this House should be very much aware that this Bill in fact represents an erosion of the power of the elected people, hands much more power than is necessary over to appointed permanent heads and gives them the opportunity of reinforcing their entrenched position within the bureaucracy. When one looks at the Bill carefully one sees that it merely strengthens their position and erodes the power of this Parliament.

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