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Thursday, 7 February 2013
Page: 437


Senator MASON (Queensland) (09:48): The Public Service Amendment Bill 2012 seeks to simplify and refine the values that guide the Australian Public Service down to five key principles: the APS is to be committed to service, be ethical, respectful, accountable and, of course, impartial. To that effect, the bill contains numerous provisions of a technical and administrative nature which seek, among other things, to delineate the roles and responsibilities of departmental secretaries and provide for annual reviews of secretaries' performance and further define the functions and roles of the Senior Executive Service of the APS.

The bill is long and detailed, but I want to focus this morning on one particular provision, namely, the one that establishes the Secretaries Board as the lead forum of the Australian Public Service. The board will replace the Management Advisory Committee, which has played that lead role since 1999. In many ways, the bill merely codifies the status quo, as the Secretaries Board has already been in existence for the past two years. The board is to be the principal APS senior leadership group, composed of the secretaries of all the departments, the Commissioner of the Australian Public Service and such others as may be nominated by the secretary of the Prime Minister's department.

The bill enumerates the board's functions. It will have responsibility for the stewardship of the APS and for developing and implementing strategies to improve the APS. It will identify strategic priorities for the APS and consider issues that affect the Public Service. It will set an annual work program, direct subcommittees to develop strategies to address Public Service-wide issues and make recommendations back to the Secretaries Board. It will draw together advice from senior leaders in government, business and the community. All these roles and responsibilities, as all senators would agree, are very important. I hope that the board will provide the APS with the necessary leadership to tackle issues and problems that affect the Public Service as a whole—the entire Australian Public Service.

One such issue, which I have raised many times over the years, is Public Service absenteeism. It is one that I have pursued for the past eight years through Senate estimates, in government and out of government, as well as in this chamber, most recently about three months ago. The facts are simple: the rates of unscheduled absence in the Public Service have been increasing steadily over the past 10 or so years. In 2001-02, the median unscheduled absence rate was 8.9 days per year per employee, of which sick leave accounted for seven days and other types of leave for the remaining 1.9 days. In 2010-11, the rate of unscheduled absence climbed to 11.1 days per year per employee, of which sick leave accounted for 8.4 days. This means that in nine years, unscheduled absences in the Australian Public Service increased by 25 per cent, or 2.2 days per year per employee. The median figure hides a great divergence across government departments and agencies, with the levels of workplace absence varying widely from 3.9 days per employee all the way up to 23½ days per year per employee. There is a huge disparity between unscheduled absences across Public Service agencies. And 23.5 days median absence is a lot—that is almost five working weeks and, combined with four weeks of annual leave, this means that some employees are not at work for almost nine weeks, or two months, a year.

This is not generally the experience of those working in the private sector. While reliable data is hard to come by—and I will come back to that in a minute—Direct Health Solutions in their 2011 absence management survey reported that while absence levels across Australia fell for the first time in three years, public sector employees took 22½ per cent more time off than those in the private sector. Why this great divergence between the Public Service and the private sector, and why have the rates of absenteeism in the Public Service increased by 25 per cent over the last decade? Why? I wish I had the answer—indeed, I wish anyone had the answer.

Over the years I have received various suggestions from the Australian Public Service Commission as to why. One year, the absences were blamed on a particularly bad flu season. Another year I was told that the Public Service has an older age profile than the private sector, the implication being that the older you are the sicker you get. The APS is certainly more middle-aged that the rest of the Australian workforce, but it actually has fewer older workers than the private sector. In any case, the Public Service Commission does not actually collect data on absences per various age groups so the proposition that the age profile accounts for increasing absenteeism is merely guesswork and a hypothesis not supported by any collected data. The bottom line is that the commission does not know what is really causing this problem.

This might explain why over the past eight years I have been disappointed by the efforts that the commission has been putting in to tackle this issue. After all, if you do not know what is causing the problem, it is unlikely that you will be able to find a solution. When earlier this year I questioned the commissioner, Mr Stephen Sedgwick, as to whether he has a responsibility to act to reduce absenteeism, he answered:

I do not actually manage a hundred agencies across the Australian Public Service; I manage my own.

…   …   …

But we are quite keen—and we have—to share good practice and that is what we tend to do. In these circumstances we encourage good practice and we promulgate good practice.

As far as I have been able to discover, all this encouragement and promulgation of good practice seems to have been contained to the publication in 2006—two years after I first raised the issue of absenteeism with the commission—of a document called Fostering an attendance culture: a guide for APS agencies. It was a good document but, as I recently discovered, it has not been updated or reissued since 2006.

Apart from that, I also discovered that absenteeism has not been placed even once on the agenda of the Management Advisory Committee or that of its successor, the Secretaries Board, for the past five years. I have been told, though, that absenteeism has been taken up at internal human resources management forums. That might be the case, but numbers speak for themselves—a 25 per cent increase in unscheduled absences by Australian public servants in the past 10 years. One might think that this issue deserves deep consideration by the APS's lead forums.

At the Senate estimates in October last year the committee finally received a commitment from the commissioner that the issue of Public Service absenteeism will now be put on the agenda of the Secretaries Board, where it belongs. As I look at the board's functions, as enumerated in the bill before the Senate, it is clear that tackling the problem of high and constantly-increasing absenteeism is a clear instance of where the board needs to be—and I quote from the bill—'developing and implementing strategies to improve the APS'. As the board identifies 'strategic priorities for the APS' and considers 'issues that affect the APS', I hope that reducing absenteeism will be one such issue. I hope that the board will finally provide the much-needed focus and leadership to address this problem.

The new APS principles state that the Public Service is to be committed to service and to being ethical, respectful, accountable and impartial. A Public Service that is committed to service and that is accountable to the parliament and to the taxpayers is one that needs to put the issue of absenteeism high on its agenda and, more importantly, to act to finally address the problem, because it does not seem to be going away. I will certainly continue to watch this issue with considerable interest.