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Wednesday, 31 August 1994
Page: 719

Senator SHORT (5.46 p.m.) —The Merit Protection (Australian Government Employees) Amendment Bill 1994 proposes amendments which would see some increase in the functions of the Merit Protection and Review Agency. The key amendments include a clarification of the agency's role in relation to the establishment of joint selection committees. In particular, it is proposed that the principal act be amended to make it plain that it is a function of the Merit Protection and Review Agency to provide heads of government agencies with services in connection with the establishment, constitution and operation of joint selection committees.

  These amendments would facilitate the wider use of joint selection committees and appear to provide a statutory basis for the use of those committees in all agencies which come within the jurisdiction of the Merit Protection and Review Agency. They also provide for the Merit Protection and Review Agency to undertake specific employment-related functions—for example, where there is a spill of positions or to establish an order of merit at the request of both the Commonwealth department or authority concerned and the relevant union. Those are the two main amendments.

  On the whole, the amendments appear to be largely of a technical or streamlining nature. They do not appear to involve any increased administrative burden for Commonwealth departments or statutory authorities. According to the government—the coalition accepts this—there is no expected financial impact stemming from the amendments. The Merit Protection and Review Agency's services in relation to joint selection committees are already generally provided on a user-pays basis. The bill proposes an amendment that would consolidate the agency's ability to charge for the services.

  For the benefit of the Senate I will briefly outline the background to the Merit Protection and Review Agency because it is an agency that is not very well known but is a very important organisation. It has been around since the Merit Protection (Australian Government Employees) Act 1984 provided for the establishment of the agency as an independent statutory authority responsible for handling the grievances of public servants and appeals relating to employment decisions. It replaced an old appeals tribunal that had been around for very many years.

  Broadly, the Merit Protection and Review Agency's role is to ensure that personnel management practices of Commonwealth departments and authorities reflect accepted principles for human resource management, including fairness, equity, ethics and accountability. It is also there to protect the rights of individual Commonwealth employees without limiting the ability of Commonwealth managers to conform with sound personnel management practices.

  The existing functions of the Merit Protection and Review Agency and its review committees, of which there are several, are similar in nature to the administrative review functions of the Ombudsman and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Generally, the jurisdiction of these two bodies does not include Commonwealth employment matters. Review committees currently able to be established by the Merit Protection and Review Agency include disciplinary review committees, redeployment and retirement appeal committees, promotion appeal committees, reappointment review committees and reintegration assessment committees.

  As I said, the key amendments proposed relate to the establishment and operation of joint selection committees. For some years, the government has sought to encourage more widespread use of joint selection committees as a means of streamlining selection processes in the Commonwealth public sector. In the past, use of these joint selection committees has been resisted by staff organisations because there is generally no right of appeal or review other than to the Federal Court.

  In December 1992, however, as part of the service-wide enterprise bargaining process, the government and relevant unions agreed to extend the use of joint selection committees in an effort to improve the efficiency and cost effectiveness of selection processes. Since then, these joint selection committees have benefited from more widespread acceptance and the number of transfers and promotions handled in this way has increased quite significantly. In the last year for which I have figures, 1992-93, the number of cases handled in this way was 1,578, which was up from 738 in the preceding year.

  Under current arrangements, the joint selection committees operate as independent statutory committees established under the Public Service Act or, in some cases, under legislation governing statutory authorities. While internal Merit Protection and Review Agency guidelines exist with regard to the operation of joint selection committees, at present there is no formal provision for the issuance of such guidelines. The amendments relate also in part to that.

  The opposition supports the legislation. The issue of greatest concern is the possibility that some of the proposed amendments may expose the Merit Protection and Review Agency to a range of new pressures and work practices not commonly faced by a reviewing authority. However, I think at this stage such concerns should not be overstated, provided that the agency maintains an arms-length involvement and, through that, resolves any conflict of interest. We will watch the results of the amendments carefully. They will need monitoring in the light of their scope, but the amendments are largely of a technical or streamlining nature. We will be supporting the bill.