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Thursday, 4 December 1986
Page: 3361


Senator VIGOR(1.22) —The Australian Democrats will not be supporting the Opposition's amendment. This is the first occasion on which we have seen the Opposition's amendment to the second reading motion. I was not handling the Public Service Legislation (Streamlining) Bill 1986 when it went through the House of Representatives. However, I have acquired responsibility for it following the reorganisation of the Australian Democrats due to the retirement of Senator Siddons. The Australian Democrats indeed support what is a significant and long overdue reform of the Public Service staffing arrangements. Until now, staffing arrangements under both Liberal and Labor governments have been very strange. It was, for instance, possible to appeal against a decision to promote another person, even if one was not an applicant for that position. Where appeals were involved, it took an average of nine months to fill a vacancy. Anyone who has ever applied for a Public Service position, particularly an applicant from outside the Service, will know what it is like waiting month after month for news of whether or not one's application has been successful or, in fact, whether that application might have disappeared into a void.

The criteria on which promotion decisions are based are to be widened to include potential for future career advancement and ability to perform a variety of jobs at the same level. This is eminently sensible. One can only regret the fact that it has taken so long to implement staff selection criteria aimed at increasing the flexibility of the Public Service and the promotion of employees with suitable management and leadership potential.

One of the most controversial areas in Public Service staffing has always been the treatment of redundant and inefficient staff. Under the present award system, it can, for instance, take up to two years to deal with surplus staff. The demotion, transfer or sacking of inefficient staff has to pass through so many appeal and transfer procedures that managers are really in rather a desperate situation. Important extreme alternatives have been brought into play and we have seen evidence of them as a result of questioning at Estimates committee hearings. In fact, staff have been retired not on inefficiency grounds but on the grounds of disability. I believe that the new provisions for dealing with inefficient, redundant and unqualified staff are fair and they apparently have the support of the relevant unions. We look forward to the consequent improvement in Public Service efficiency and morale.

The Bill contains a number of other administrative amendments which we support, subject to the reservations that are expressed in the amendments which have been circulated in this House and which particularly concern retirement provisions and equity. At present there appears to be no equity in the administration of the invalidity provisions of the Public Service Act. There seems to be no attempt to ensure fairness in the application of the provisions between the lower levels and the senior levels. Somehow in the drafting of the legislation, the senior executive and First Division levels have not been included in the early retirement provisions. I would be very pleased if the Minister could give me some indication of why this has happened. This may mean that senior officers are considered to be above the normal human frailties which afflict their subordinates. It would be very useful to get some idea of why there is this difference in dealing with this part of the Public Service.

We have already heard about the abuse of the system in relation to early retirement. The imputation was that the abuse was occurring at the lower levels. I am not certain that that is necessarily so. I think the Minister for Finance will have to put up a pretty good case to convince us that this is not happening in other parts of the Service. I would like to know whether the Minister has given consideration to the possibility that the invalidity provisions have potential for greater abuse at the senior executive level by rewarding people for services rendered as an effective means of retiring them. As Senator Walsh has pointed out on a number of occasions in this place, these people can undertake other jobs and earn more money.

It has come to my attention that there is a predominance of cases in the upper levels of the Public Service in which these provisions have been exercised in a favourable sense allowing officers to achieve higher pensionable levels by promotion just prior to retirement on the grounds of invalidity. The scheme is thereby abused by giving rewards beyond those achievable by merit. Some of these senior ex-public servants are even finding further lucrative rewards in consultancy, sometimes with the same department that has retired them on invalidity grounds. Perhaps it would be beneficial for the Senate if a survey were made of invalidity retirements at the senior executive level to establish how many ex-public servants are involved in consultancy work for the Public Service and are thereby supplementing their income to levels beyond that which they may have earned when they were being employed. I certainly have reported cases of this. It is all very well to talk of the waste of taxpayers' money in not recalling lower level retirees for re-examination by medical practitioners. But probably more money could be saved by re-examining retirees from the senior executive levels. It is the senior level public servants who determine the fate of the lower level Public Service staff who retire early. To ensure that equity prevails, the system must be seen to be just and to apply equally over the whole Service. Provision must, therefore, be made in the Bill to ensure that this happens.

Another area that needs to be looked at very carefully is the abuse of these provisions by those who administer them. It is a standing joke in the Public Service that those who disagree with their senior management are frequently retired early. This stigma is seen as a means of retribution. We must also ensure that loyal and hard working public servants who have unwittingly caused political embarrassment are not subject to such actions. We must have some provisions to ensure that public servants, such as whistle blowers, who report problems within their own areas, are not discriminated against in the Public Service. This legislation is not the place to do it, but I believe that the Government should look at this problem. We must ensure that such people are not further exploited by being required to be re-examined with the possibility of being redeployed at even a lower level than before. The use of these provisions for dealing with difficult management problems has, in fact, also been used in the past by departmental secretaries. It has even been used to have deputies retired for disagreeing with the views of the person in charge. On the basis of reports I have received, I have reasonable grounds for believing that this has happened.

I wish to spend just a very short time on section 13 of the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act. Section 13 requires that a written statement be given of reasons for an employment decision. Some bias on the part of the selection committee will often go undetected unless that bias is recorded on paper. I have had examples drawn to my attention of cases where selection panels have completely misunderstood something about a particular applicant or what was involved in various educational attainments, particularly where these educational attainments have unusual wording because of the institution from which they were obtained. It seems to me that it is very important that there should be some type of review process and that the understanding of a particular committee should be able to be queried or challenged. Frankly, in their rush to install an insider to a particular job, it appears that some people may make untenable claims, such as dismissing relevant qualifications as being inappropriate. For instance, one person who had qualifications in government and political science was considered to be quite unsuitable because the panel said that a scientist was not wanted. What they wanted was somebody with a social worker background. That seems incredible, but apparently it does happen. This case actually went through the appeals process and was successful. The absurdity of the written reason gives people who have been discriminated against an opportunity to confront the discrimination and do something about it. Without a written statement of the reason, it is much less likely that the instances of prejudice, bias and insider operation will, in fact, be detected, recognised and corrected. I commend the Bill to the Senate. I will be addressing only very briefly the contents of my amendments during the course of the Committee stage. I repeat: The Australian Democrats are not supporting the Opposition's amendment.