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Tuesday, 7 September 1920

Mr FOWLER (Perth) .- If the statements upon which presumably this measure is founded are to be taken literally, then we want something very much more drastic than this proposal. If, as we are given to understand, the Public Service is suffering from an incapacity to do work, and an inordinate desire to increase its remuneration, if it suffers also from what, to my mind, is the most serious offence of all, disloyalty to the Government and to its superior officers, then the mere appointment of an Arbitrator will not mend the situation a.t all.

While it is the fashion to throw stones at public servants, just as it is the fashion to throw somewhat bigger ones at members of- Parliament, I must confess that throughout the whole of my experience I have not found the bulk of the public servants of the Commonwealth one whit less conscientious or capable than men of similar occupation and rank of life outside. I have seen a good deal of the Public Service in one way or another during the years I have been in this House, and .1 confess my inability to discover any deterioration of the wholesale character that has been attributed to it. There are, no doubt, in the Service, as everywhere else, individuals who are anything but a credit to it, and it is one of the defects of the system that w© have not had a more direct and effective method of dealing with the waster who may have got into the Service in some fashion or other, or who may have developed, after entering the Service, certain defects of character that were not obvious when he first came into it. It is, I know, exceedingly difficult to get rid of such individuals. There are some of them about. I have come across two or three of them in my experience, and I have always regretted that there was not a summary method of taking them by the scruff of the neck and throwing them out. That is a matter which I think the bulk of the public servants would be very glad to see improved, because they do not want to be disgraced by the average waster. The majority of them want to do their work in a way that will be satisfactory to their own consciences, and creditable to the country and to the Service as a whole. If there are any individuals in the Service who come under the category of " slackers," I do not think they are to be found among those who have gone through the usual channels of appointment by examination and promotion by merit. There are at the present time in the Public Service, as we all know, a good many individuals who came in by "back doors" or "side door's" of various kinds during the war. There are a good many of them still in the Service who are simply keeping their positions comfortably for themselves, with very little advantageto the country. The sooner they are got rid of, and the Service goes back to what I might' call the standard official, the better it will be for the country. There has been gross abuse of the power by which these casuals have been brought into the Service, especially during the course of the war. One appointment after another has been made of individuals whose qualifications were more than doubtful, and whose recommendations to those positions were such as could not always creditably be made public. As to the Service as a whole, I have every reason to believe that to-day as good work is being done by the public servant as ever, and if there are any troubles, as we know there are, the public servants themselves are not entirely to blame for them. There has been general unrest throughout the community, and the public servants have to some extent been affected by it. The fundamental trouble as regards the Service is that, whilst salaries were rising outside, they were not accompanied by corresponding increases within. I believe that is at the bottom of nearly all the trouble we have had with the public servants during the past few years. The heads, such as Mr. McLachlan and those under him, have not observed the repeated increase in pay that has gone on outside, or, if they have, they have not considered themselves justified in following it up in the case of the public servants. Hence they became dissatisfied, and naturally appealed to the Arbitration Court, with the result that they obtained substantial increases which we have every reason to believe were justified on the evidence. If there has been confusion - and undoubtedly there has - concerning the various awards, this surely is not the fault of the public servants. Of course, they would all like their remuneration and conditions of employment to be on a uniform basis, and the honorable member for Yarra (Mr. Tudor) has made a very practical suggestion to this end, namely, that the whole of the arbitration work in connexion with the Public Service should be undertaken by one Judge. If this course were adopted, I feel sure that much of the confusion resulting from what appear to be inconsistent decisions will be brought to an end.

Mr Burchell - This Bill does not lay it down that a Judge shall not be the Arbitrator.

Mr FOWLER - No, but we may take it that a Judge will not be the Arbi- trator. Very much will depend upon the character of the man chosen. One can readily conceive that decisions may be very unsatisfactory to the Government on the one hand, or equally unsatisfactory to the employees on the other.

Mr Burchell - The principle the honorable member is arguing for is embodied in the Bill.

Mr FOWLER - I am not arguing for the appointment of an Arbitrator at all. I am urging a continuance of the present method under an improved system. If the Board, which we are going to create to govern the Public Service, is well chosen, and enjoys the confidence of the Public Service, it is possible that the difficulties now confronting Parliament will disappear entirely.

But there is one feature of the measure to which I strongly object, and which hitherto has received little attention. We do not want any political element in the control of the Public Service, but yet, in this Bill, it is proposed that every determination of the Arbitrator shall be placed before Parliament.

Mr Groom - That is the existing law.

Mr FOWLER - Technically no doubt it is but at present determinations of the Arbitration Court do not come before Parliament for review in the manner proposed by this Bill.

Mr Groom - The clauses referring to this matter are a reproduction of sections in the existing Act.

Mr FOWLER - Yes, but under the present Act they are decisions by a Court of justice, and under this Bill they may be determinations of a person to be appointed, and I submit that much greater danger may be apprehended from bringing a determination of an Arbitrator before Parliament for review than from submitting a decision of a Court of Arbitration. I contend, therefore, that until more justification is shown for the change it would be better to adhere to the [present system. We are sanctioning a good' many experiments in connexion with the Public Service generally. We have introduced certain Tribunals, we are going to have a Board of Control, and in this measure we propose to appoint an Arbitrator. I feel sure that if we dispense with the proposed Arbitrator and vest control in a well-chosen Board, supported by an efficient Court of Arbitration, the position will be much simplified, the Service will be more contented, and the position generally from the public point of view will be much more satisfactory.

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