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Monday, 20 August 2012
Page: 9138


Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (16:57): I am pleased to be speaking on the Public Service Amendment Bill 2012 as it gives me the opportunity to talk about the excellent work that that fine body of men and women who populate the Australian Public Service do on behalf of the Australian people and the government of Australia, day in and day out. Around 120,000 of them turn up to work to make our airports safe, to patrol our coasts, to ensure that pensioners and family benefit recipients have their payments made and their inquiries answered, to ensure that tax returns are done on time and that people pay as much tax as they should and no more than they ought, and to ensure that members of the Australian Defence Force are properly supported in far-flung places of the globe as indeed they should be. I should also mention that excellent work of the men and women who assist in providing services to this House.

The bill implements some of the changes recommended in the report, Ahead of the game: blueprint for reform of Australian government administration. The report arose out of the Moran review of the Australian Public Service, a review I had a little bit to do with in a former life. On 8 May 2010, the then Prime Minister announced that the government had accepted all the recommendations of the report. This bill takes forward some of those recommendations for a modern, contemporary employment framework which will help give the APS greater agility and help make it more responsive to the community and to government. Implementation of these reforms will result in greater efficiency and a more effective use of Commonwealth resources. It will facilitate and accelerate the cultural shift of the APS towards operating, as the minister said in his second reading speech, 'more effectively as one Australian Public Service'.

The amendments in the bill are an important part of modernising the Australian Public Service to ensure it has the capacity to cope with the challenges of the future. In every single one of the challenges we face as a nation, the Australian Public Service is at the front line in delivering both the policy advice and the services that will assist us as a nation in confronting those challenges. The amendments will reposition the Public Service Commissioner and the APSC to deliver on the broad reform goals of the public service workplace. The bill will empower secretaries and the leadership group to deliver on the policy goals of the government through greater independence in operation and greater accountability in performance.

There are three significant sets of amendments in the bill. Part 1 of schedule 1 to the bill provides new descriptions of the roles and responsibilities of secretaries, particularly in relation to their stewardship of the Australian Public Service. The revised descriptions make clear the service and performance expected of secretaries, and strengthen secretaries' accountability to their ministers in the performance of their role and in discharging their responsibilities. The new, proposed section 61A of the act requires an annual review of the performance of a secretary to be carried out in accordance with a framework established by the secretary of the Prime Minister's department and the Public Service Commissioner. This will provide greater accountability, transparency and oversight of the performance of secretaries.

The second set of measures will reposition the Public Service Commissioner and the APSC to deliver on broad reform goals and increase their responsibility for Australian government policies on APS agreement making and on pay and conditions. The commissioner will have three broad functions. The first is to strengthen the professionalism of the APS and facilitate contentious, sorry, continuous improvement—probably contentious improvements as well!—in workforce management in the APS. The second is to uphold high standards of integrity and conduct in the APS. The third is to monitor, review and report on APS capabilities within and between agencies to promote high standards of accountability, effectiveness and performance. The bill specifically recognises the commissioner's role as the central authority for APS workforce development and reform.

The third set of measures represent a revision of the APS values. The blueprint recognised the power of values as a foundation for reform and thus took the opportunity to revise the APS values as a means of assisting cultural change, which would in turn help to achieve the desired APS performance. The values and the employment principles are statements about the essential character and philosophy of the APS. They define what the APS is and how it should operate. These amendments seek to implement the blueprint's recommendations to revise the APS values and to establish APS leadership groups. The APS values are to be revised in order to replace the current set of 15 with a shorter set of five, and to introduce a set of employment principles. They are: committed to service, ethical, respectful, accountable and impartial—hard to cavil at any of these being employment principles.

The proposed APS values and employment principles together capture the essence of the existing 15 values, blending contemporary ethics with enduring principles of public administration that go to the heart of the Westminster model. No important concepts have been lost. Agency heads and APS employees will be required to uphold the values and the employment principles. Agency heads and SES employees will also be required to promote them, reflecting the key responsibility that they have as leaders within their agencies to set the tone for the right culture.

It is important that we continually review the legislation that enshrines employment arrangements and the performance of work within the Australian Public Service. It is one of our most important and enduring institutions. From time to time, the capacity of the public service is stretched to breaking point. One of the important functioning principles that we as a government have adopted is ensuring that we run a tight budget and that we return the budget to surplus as promised, and I know that this has placed a degree of strain on public service agencies. But I know with equal force that the men and women of the public service are committed to delivering services on behalf of the Australian government to the people of Australia.

Of course, a tight fiscal environment is not the only threat facing the men and women of the Australian Public Service. We know that there are alternative proposals as to how the APS should be regulated and funded. For example, we know that, if the opposition come to government at the next election, they will make huge cuts to the Australian Public Service in order to fund the $70 billion black hole in their policy costings. This was confirmed as recently as today by the Leader of the Opposition. They have a mammoth target. Make no mistake: to be able to bring in anything like the $70 billion of savings that will be necessary for them to meet their commitments, they will have to take to the Australian Public Service with scissors to a degree that has never been seen before.

We have had a taste of what coalition policies mean for the public service around the country. We have seen what their state colleagues are doing in Queensland, for example, where a recently elected Premier, without forewarning, is taking to that public service. Against the promises and assurances made that front-line services would not be under attack, we are seeing exactly that in Queensland today in the health system, in the education system, in the public transport system—in fact, there is no sector in the Queensland public service that will escape the scourge of public sector job cuts.

In New South Wales, my own state, we are seeing the shape of that looming up as well as the O'Farrell government starts to take a cleaver to front-line services. The people of New South Wales are starting to see front-line services at risk because of the ideological desire to slash public sector and front-line jobs.

It is disturbing that the coalition seems, in some of the statements that have been made by some of the opposition spokespeople, to be embracing the policies of the UK Prime Minister David Cameron's guru Phillip Blond, who seems to be in vogue at the moment. Mr Blond has been advising the coalition about the notion of the so-called 'big society'. There is every sign that the coalition is adopting this conservative government approach to our public services in Australia. We have already heard the family spokesperson saying that a coalition government would cut federal oversight of aged care, child care, employment and family services. We have seen the devastating impact on recipients of aged-care services unless you have a strong cop on the beat, ensuring that those most vulnerable people in our community, people who are reliant on federally funded aged-care services, childcare services, health care and the like are not kept on their game by strong federal oversight.

People in this country will have a lot to fear if there is an adoption of the Blond approach to public sector administration. It is a failed approach. Since it was adopted in the UK, 7,000 charities have been forced to close the door. This is the agenda which seeks to enliven civil society. Have no doubt about it: the 'big society' agenda is nothing more than a big smoke screen for slashing government services and the people who provide those services.

I would like to make a few observations in response to what was said by the member for Mackellar just recently. One of the measures in this bill which I think has merit is the one which enables the Prime Minister to re-employ former secretaries of APS departments to bring them back into service and to ensure that they may commit their knowledge and expertise in the service of the Australian people and the Australian government. We saw an example of that most recently when Ken Henry, a man who has served all sides of politics in this country with great distinction and a man who sometimes has been defamed in this place for the advice he has given to government, has been re-engaged by the Prime Minister to assist in bringing together the Australia in the Asian century white paper to bring dozens of years in economic and social policy advice to bear on that important issue. When that report is finally released I know it will be a great contribution to public policy debate in this country.

I listened carefully to the member for Mackellar's objection to putting in place within the Public Service Act just that sort of arrangement—as I listen carefully to all the comments the member for Mackellar makes in this space. It does not sit easily with her track record that the objections were that somehow you would have a lack of security in the top echelons of the Australian Public Service. The words used were 'a swingers list'. I have to say that the word 'swinger 'and the Australian Public Service are not generally used in the same sentence around this place. That sits very uneasily with their track record in government.

Let us contrast what happened when Labor was elected to government in 2007. You never saw a night of the long knives, but when the coalition government was elected in 1996 you did see a night of the long knives. In the first 12 months, APS departmental secretaries in their dozens were axed from their jobs, as were almost 16,000 public servants.

The coalition's objections are hollow. The bill is a good one and should be adopted in its totality. I commend the legislation to the House.