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Wednesday, 13 June 1984
Page: 2961

Senator DURACK(8.49) —The Public Service Reform Bill 1984, the Members of Parliament (Staff) Bill 1984 and the Merit Protection (Australian Government Employees) Bill 1984 make a number of reforms to Public Service legislation. Any major reforms to Public Service legislation or to the Public Service in this country are a matter of some significance and importance. I am pleased to say that the Opposition supports the measures in the Bills, with perhaps varying degrees of enthusiasm. I must confess that my enthusiasm for these reforms is somewhat tempered, having studied them to some extent for the purpose of this debate. I say that because I had read a good deal about the reforms that the present Government was going to introduce to the Public Service . I think the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans), who is the Minister at the table, had some grand words to say at some stage of his career about the Public Service and the new dawn of administration that would be ushered in by the election of a Labor government.

Senator Dame Margaret Guilfoyle —A blueprint for government.

Senator DURACK —A blueprint for government, was it? It is an apology for a blueprint for government. Certainly we have heard a great deal from the Minister for Finance, Mr Dawkins, who has responsibility for the Public Service. In that capacity he has been getting a lot of headlines, I suppose mainly in the Canberra Times, about the great reforms that the Government will be making to the Public Service. So it was with some sense of disappointment, when I read the fine print of this legislation, that I discovered that really the reforms contained in it are nowhere near as grandiose or as significant as we would have been led to believe by the rhetoric of the Attorney-General and the Minister for Finance and, no doubt, others who have contributed their bit to the so-called significance of this matter.

Indeed, the rhetoric has even been transferred to the draftsman-perhaps I should say the drafter, in this age of sex discrimination, affirmative action and so on. We have a Bill which is nothing more than a very complicated amendment of the Public Service Act and some related legislation, hailed as a Public Service Reform Bill. This Government is trying to catch on to the rhetoric of 1832 and so on. One would have thought that at least a Public Service Reform Bill would be a new code to express this 'new dawn' or this 'new blueprint' for this Government's administration of the Public Service. But, as I have said, all we find is a thoroughly complicated, probably unnecessarily complicated, piece of drafting which would be better described as a Public Service Act amendment Bill. That is all it is.

There are some benefits contained in this legislation. The provisions that it makes in relation to secretaries of departments are welcome. It undoes some amendments that were introduced by the Fraser Government in relation to the way in which permanent heads, or what are now called secretaries to departments, are to be appointed. The Fraser Government's amendments created, in a sense, two classes of permanent heads in that either one was an established candidate or one was an outsider. I think that amendment was introduced by the Fraser Government only because of the politicisation of the Public Service by the former Whitlam Labor Government which had made some very highly political appointments to the positions of heads of departments during its period. Prime Minister Fraser was concerned to try to put some brake on that.

One of the claims of this Bill is that it changes that situation. Nevertheless it also introduces the concept with which the Opposition agrees. It is certainly creating again two classes of secretary-one who is appointed from within the system and one who is appointed from outside the system on the basis of a five- year contract or a fixed term of five years. It is not a contract in any sense of the meaning of the word 'contract' as I understand it. The Attorney and I have had a little discussion recently about what is a contract and what it amounts to. Maybe he has another view on it; I do not know. The fact of the matter here is that a person who is appointed from outside the Public Service to a fixed term position as a secretary or a head of a department can have that position terminated without any trouble at all. I do not know how we will induce people of any merit to take on jobs of that kind when such jobs can be terminated as easily as that.

The concept contained in this legislation in relation to secretaries or heads of departments is, I think, a beneficial one on the whole. It certainly provides an easier method of getting rid of an unsatisfactory head of a department than does the old legislation, although it can be done only if there is a report from the Chairman of the Public Service Board. The main problem will be whether the Public Service Board is prepared to bite the bullet and do its duty in relation to secretaries of departments and permanent heads of departments who are unsuitable but who cannot be classified in such a way as to be totally inefficient, incompetent or incapable in the very narrow senses that one has to define those words. So although there is certainly an advance it may be only a theoretical one. I hope that is not the case. I hope that the Public Service Board will exercise its responsibilities in this area and will, as I have said, bite the bullet in respect of permanent heads, or secretaries as they are now to be called, who are manifestly not up to the job but in other respects cannot have their appointments terminated.

As I have said, this new procedure is to be welcomed. Whether or not it will be beneficial depends on the way it will be administered, particularly by the Public Service Board. The notion of review of the position of secretaries every five years is also good in theory but will it really work in practice? Again it will depend very much on the people who are administering it and how far the permanent heads are going to abide by the spirit of the legislation. Of course there will be secretaries of departments who have highly specialised qualifications who cannot just be shunted off to another department. I would have thought that the time-worn methods of handling these problems by sending them off to be an ambassador here or a high commissioner there, or whatever, will still prevail.

Another matter which I think is of some benefit is the abolition of appeal rights for officers who are members of the Senior Executive Service, which is another name for the Second Division. We are supposed to have been very impressed with the creation of a senior executive service. When one looks at the fine print it is virtually the same as the former Second Division although there is some rhetoric in and about the legislation which would suggest that it will be something significantly different from the existing Second Division. Again we can only hope that that will be the way it will work. But the way the legislation is drafted does not give us very much hope that it will be. For argument's sake let me refer to a document that was issued in May this year called 'An Overview of the Australian Public Service Reforms'. I suppose this is a sort of precursor to the second reading speech. It obviously has a little more information in it than the second reading speech has. It talks about promotion in relation to the SES-the Senior Executive Service-and states:

Power to promote a person will rest with the Board, after a vacancy has been advertised, applicants have been assessed by a selection committee, and the Board has received a recommendation from the Secretary of a Department.

This new Service will be one in which the Board has a major concern, control and inspiration. The Board will ensure that we have a high powered, new look managerial Service in which people can be moved about, picked out of one area, put into another and so on. There is nothing terribly new about that. That is probably the way in which the Public Service Board and the Public Service have to a large extent operated anyway. Under the heading 'Promotions to Senior Executive Service offices' it is stated that new section 49B will read:

The Board may, in writing, promote an officer to a vacant Senior Executive Service office.

It continues:

The Board shall not exercise its powers under sub-section (1) in relation to an office in a Department except in accordance with a recommendation in writing made by the relevant Secretary.

If one looks at the old Public Service Act one sees that it states that appointments to the Second Division or any other division are to be made by the secretary.

Senator Dame Margaret Guilfoyle —Big deal.

Senator DURACK —Is it not a big deal? The Attorney-General, the author of the blueprint for this new administration, is more interested in talking to somebody else in the back of the chamber than in listening to the debate. If he is absorbing this debate through the back of his head perhaps he will be able to explain what the difference is between the old and the new. We have, I think, a classic example of the very considerable difference between the rhetoric on this subject and the translation of it into the nitty-gritty of legislation and, I fear, administration. This is a classic example-I have pointed them out on many occasions-of the Government's yawning gap between promise and performance. The Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) is, of course, the master of that art. I fear that the Minister for Finance, Mr Dawkins, and the Attorney-General are not bad performers of that art themselves. It is incumbent upon the Opposition to point out these huge discrepancies, these yawning gaps, and to expose them to the public for what they really are.

There is also a great deal of rhetoric in relation to the proposals, which we have heard a lot about, such as industrial democracy, equal opportunity, staff mobility, the merit principle and so on. The merit principle was adopted by the previous Government. Indeed, the previous Government had legislation passed which abolished the old divisions of the Public Service and so on. So really there is not much new in the proposals in this legislation. As far as equal opportunity is concerned, the Public Service has had an equal opportunity unit for some time. What has that equal opportunity unit been doing all this time in the Public Service? It is hard to see what new policies and what new administration will result from anything that is contained in this legislation.

One of the most important aspects of the legislation is the approval it gives to and the ability it provides for permanent part time work in the Public Service. I believe that is a really new, significant and important provision that is introduced by this legislation. It is very important because it is something we would hope to see translated into industrial conditions generally. Legislation of this kind could well give encouragement to employers and industrial tribunals in the private sector to provide for this opportunity. If we are really talking about the elimination of discrimination-particularly sex discrimination, discrimination in the area of employment of women and the opportunities for women-the creation of permanent part time employment is of great significance. But it is not just limited to women. There are other people in the community who would benefit considerably by the opportunities afforded by part time work on a permanent basis.

I do not want to give the impression that there is nothing of any great significance in this legislation-I have mentioned two or three matters that I think are of significance-but I do complain and protest about the extent to which this Government has created a notion that it is bringing in some completely revolutionary reforms of the Public Service of this country. If it had been really serious about the reform of the Public Service it would have tackled some of the serious difficulties in the Public Service. There is no mention of the problem of tenure in the legislation, which is one of the major matters that has to be tackled if the Government is seriously to deal with the question of reform of the Public Service. Whether that should be introduced and dealt with is perhaps another matter. I do not want to debate it tonight, but it is something of fundamental importance to the Public Service.

One matter which I do think should have been tackled in any legislation that pretends to be a major reform of the Public Service is the problem of doing something adequate about contract employment. There is provision for the engagement of consultants by Ministers and members of parliament; it is welcome and I think it will have some benefit. The Opposition certainly sees it as beneficial. When we return to government we will want to make use of it. As has been pointed out by the Minister some document mentions the Valder report of the Liberal Party Committee of Review which made similar recommendations. I thoroughly approve of those proposals, but they do not go anywhere far enough. We badly need to have far greater facilities for contract employment and a far more favourable attitude to contract employment in the Public Service than has been traditional. I really see nothing in this legislation which is going to provide any significant difference.

Senator Gareth Evans —Senator, is that the view of your Party?

Senator DURACK —The Attorney-General and I had a discussion in an Estimates committee recently about the problem created by this matter. The Attorney- General asked: 'Is that the view of the Party?' One of the real reasons for creating the office of Special Prosecutor was to enable experts to be taken on a contract basis for relatively short periods to do specific jobs. The Attorney- General set up the new office of Director of Public Prosecutions, which the Opposition strongly supported. I found when we came to discuss the problems of the transfer of people from the Public Service to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions that a real difficulty was faced because unfortunately the legislation did not provide adequately for the employment of people by the new Director on that basis.

I got lost, as I always do when I listen to the endless technical explanations from officers of the Department of why things cannot be done. I hope that the Attorney-General is sympathetic to the need for something to be done about this. However, I have given the example of a most important new office of Director of Public Prosecutions which will give the Commonwealth a much more efficient prosecuting arm. Yet I cannot find anything in the Public Service Act or this legislation-perhaps the Attorney-General will be able to tell me that there is something-that will enable a problem of this kind to be overcome. I can find no reference to anything that will enable people with expertise in particular areas to be employed readily to do a particular job without going through all the technical rigmarole and so on required to do something directly which ought to be able to be done indirectly.

As I said, the legislation has some merits and the Opposition welcomes it for that reason. However, it certainly would be wrong to see this legislation as carrying out reform by major surgery on the Public Service of this country. Nevertheless, we should be thankful for what it does and, as I said, the Opposition supports it. I am just sorry that this Government simply does not seem to be able to do anything or introduce anything in this Parliament without indulging in an enormous amount of rhetoric, without building it up as something far greater than what it is. I suppose we should be used to the way in which this Government approaches matters of reform. It likes to think of itself as a great reforming government. The Attorney-General likes to think he is going to be a great reforming Attorney-General. We know what a disappointment he has been to many people who believed his rhetoric. This seems to be something which is quite familiar now with this Government. I thought this practice applies only to the Attorney-General but it seems to be endemic to this Government and its Ministers. This piece of legislation is no exception. In fact, it is a very good example of the extent to which the rhetoric just simply is not matched by the performance, the legislation or the administration which is said to give effect to it.

The Opposition has some relatively minor amendments that it will move during the Committee stage. I do not propose to deal with them now. But we will give this legislation our support and hope that the Senate will give the legislation a speedy passage this evening.