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Thursday, 7 February 2013
Page: 434


Senator POLLEY (TasmaniaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (09:37): I rise to support this very important bill, the Parliamentary Service Amendment Bill 2012 [2013]. It seeks to amend the Parliamentary Service Act 1999 to reflect, where relevant to the Parliamentary Service, the changes that are proposed to be made to the Public Service Act 1999 by the Public Service Amendment Bill 2012. Although many of the provisions of the Public Service Amendment Bill are reflected in this bill, there are a range of provisions in the bill which are not reflected in the Public Service Amendment Bill and vice versa. Therefore, whilst it is fair to say that the Parliamentary Service Amendment Bill runs closely in conjunction with the Public Service Amendment Bill, it is a distinct bill that contains key differences.

This bill, along with the Public Service Amendment Bill 2012, responds to the recommendations of the March 2010 report Ahead of the game: blueprint for the reform of Australian government administration. The blueprint outlined a reform agenda to strengthen Australian Public Service performance so that it meets the needs of all citizens, provides strong leadership and strategic direction, contains a highly capable workforce and operates efficiently at a high standard. It was developed jointly by the Parliamentary Service departments in consultation with the Parliamentary Service Commissioner and introduced into the Senate in November last year. Following introduction, it was referred to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee for inquiry and report so that it could be compared with the provisions contained in the Public Service Amendment Bill. These amendments are an important part of modernising the Parliamentary Service. They are part of the continuous process of improvement that it must undergo to face the challenges of the future.

It is important to make a comparison of this bill and the Public Service Amendment Bill because, as alluded to earlier, the two contain some differences. Various items in the bill do not reflect provisions contained in the Public Service Amendment Bill, including amendments relating to acting arrangements that have already been made to the Public Service Act and miscellaneous amendments that achieve consistency with the relevant sections of the Public Service Act. In addition to this, the bill does not contain numerous changes being made in the Public Service Amendment Bill. This bill will not, for example, provide for an annual review of the performance of secretaries in the Parliamentary Service.

The main features of the bill make notable changes to the roles and responsibilities of secretaries in the Parliamentary Service, the functions of the Parliamentary Service Commissioner and the relevant code of conduct. The bill clarifies and revises the description of the roles and responsibilities of secretaries, as well as of the Senior Executive Service, to ensure that the Parliamentary Service has the organisational and workforce capacities to meet the needs of the future. The existing responsibilities of the secretaries, including managing their departments and providing information about the operation and administration of their departments, will remain. However, the secretaries would also be tasked with a host of new responsibilities such as providing stewardship in the departments and across the Parliamentary Service with other secretaries; engaging with stakeholders; and providing strategic direction and leadership. The amendments are designed to expand on the role of the secretaries so that departmental affairs are managed as efficiently, effectively, economically and ethically as possible and in keeping with the overall interests of the Parliamentary Service.

The functions of Senior Executive Service employees, or SES employees, will also be further defined and expanded. The amendments will fundamentally recast the chief functions of the SES group and focus on these employees providing superior strategic leadership. Individual SES employees will be expected to provide one or more of the following at a high level: professional or specialist expertise; policy advice; program or service delivery; and regulatory administration.

One of the most notable aspects of this bill is that it will also substantially redesign the functions of the Parliamentary Service Commissioner. The commissioner will be charged with new responsibilities, including inquiring into Parliamentary Service employees' reports of breaches of the Parliamentary Service Code of Conduct. The amendments will also provide that when the commissioner is examining these whistleblower reports, such as a conflict of interest or the contravention of an Australian law, the commissioner will have information-gathering powers equivalent to those of the Auditor-General. This is, of course, necessary to adequately probe whistleblower reports and uncover information which has the potential to expose widespread conduct breaches. The bill will also introduce new amendments to protect the information given to the commissioner under the new inquiry functions, as well as existing responsibilities such as inquiring into matters relating to the commissioner at the request of the Presiding Officers. Although the commissioner will be allowed to disclose this protected information in certain situations, such as in reports prepared for purposes connected with these inquiry functions, they will otherwise be prohibited from making a record, disclosing, or otherwise using this information. This is a vital amendment, as it adds an additional layer of protection to potentially sensitive information held by the commissioners to ensure that it remains confidential.

The amendments will also make the provision of information and documents to the commissioner inadmissible as evidence against a person in proceedings, other than for certain criminal offences. This will be the case where the person reasonably believed that the information or document was relevant for purposes connected with the performance or exercise of the commissioner's functions. This amendment is vital, as it protects those Parliamentary Service employees who have provided information to the commissioner that assists the commissioner in performing his or her duties. This bill makes key changes to the existing framework governing the Office of the Parliamentary Service Merit Protection Commissioner. The Merit Protection Commissioner will also be able to undertake whistleblowing inquiries into possible breaches of the code of conduct, where requested to do so by the relevant secretary and agreed to by the Parliamentary Service employee. The Merit Protection Commissioner will have information-gathering powers equivalent to the Auditor-General when undertaking such inquiries and will be charged with establishing written procedures for code of conduct breach inquiries. Like the Public Service Commissioner, the Merit Protection Commissioner will be subject to confidentiality of information requirements in connection with the information received during the performance or exercise of the commissioner's functions. The amendments will also make the provision of information and documents to the Merit Protection Commissioner inadmissible as evidence against a person in proceedings, other than for certain criminal offences.

The bill proposes significant changes to the provisions of the Parliamentary Service Act that deal with whistleblowing and whistleblower reports. Departmental secretaries will be required to establish procedures for handling whistleblower reports, including a clear pathway for the making of reports, so that all employees are encouraged to blow the whistle on possible breaches of the code of conduct. This will ensure that those employees who are considering blowing the whistle on possible breaches of the code of conduct will have greater guidance on how they can achieve this.

The amendments will also seek to implement the blueprint recommendations to repeal the existing Parliamentary Service values and insert five new values together with seven new Parliamentary Service Employment Principles relating to employment decisions and workplace standards. This creates a smaller set of core values that are more meaningful, memorable and effective in driving change as well as reinforcing the positive cultural environment for a high-performing Parliamentary Service. Every Parliamentary Service employee can look at this new set of streamlined principles and remind themselves of the importance of being committed to service as well as remaining ethical, respectful, accountable and impartial.

The introduction of a set of Parliamentary Service Employment Principles in the bill replicates the Australian Public Service Employment Principles contained in the Public Service Amendment Bill. These new principles will state that the Parliamentary Service is a career based service that makes fair employment decisions with a fair system of review, requires effective performance from each employee and provides workplaces that are free from discrimination, patronage and favouritism. The principles will also recognise the diversity of the Australian community and foster diversity in the workplace, and provide flexible, safe and rewarding workplaces where communication, consultation, cooperation and input from employees on matters that affect their workplace are valued.

The new Parliamentary Service values and employment principles together define the character of the Parliamentary Service as an institution and guide the way in which it conducts its activities and serves the Australian community and the government. They provide robust guidance on the culture and operating ethos of the Parliamentary Service and underscore its professionalism. This ensures that the Parliamentary Service will continue to provide professional support of the highest calibre to all parliamentarians, independent of the executive government of the day.

This government strongly believes in modernising the Parliamentary Service, and these amendments are an important aspect of that. Improving the operations of the Parliamentary Service is an ongoing process that requires immense commitment to ensure that government is equipped to confront the challenges of the future. All parliamentarians depend on a professional, nonpartisan Parliamentary Service. After more than a decade since the Parliamentary Service was created, this bill will ensure that the service can continue to provide a high level of support and advice, which will ultimately benefit the wider Australian community. I commend the bill to the Senate.