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Wednesday, 15 May 1957

Mr COSTA (Banks) .- The bill before the House seeks to amend the Public Service Act 1922-1955. The amendments that are proposed have arisen from discussions of the Joint Council of Public Service

Organizations, which is composed of representatives of the Commonwealth Public Service Board and the various Public Service unions. I have had an opportunity to read the report of these discussions, which covered a very wide field, and it is apparent that not all the suggestions made by the council - particularly those from the Public Service unions - have been incorporated in the amendments that are to be made.

I wish to discuss the Public Service Act generally, with particular reference to the point of view of the Public Service unions. Of course, the bill before the House seeks to make some amendments which will be very acceptable to those unions, but on the other hand, the Opposition is not entirely pleased with some of the other amendments and, in fact, intends to move an amendment to clause 11 at the committee stage. The Commonwealth Public Service Board has had great responsibilities imposed on it by the Public Service Act, but I believe that the board, in certain respects, has not responded as it should have done. Section 17 of the Commonwealth Public Service Act requires that- (1.) In addition to such duties as are elsewhere in this Act imposed on it, the Board shall have the following duties: -

(a)   to devise means for effecting economies and promoting efficiency in the management and working of Departments by - (i) improved organization and procedure;

Various other responsibilities are imposed by the act, but in respect of the matter to which I have just referred, I contend that the board has not seen to it that an adequate organization has been established. In this respect, I propose to refer to the PostmasterGeneral's Department, because the Public Service Board is responsible for matters which affect the public servants who are members of that department. I want to refer particularly to the conditions at the Mail Branch of the General Post Office in Sydney. Members of the Opposition brought this matter to the notice of the Parliament some time ago, and on that occasion they maintained that the board should improve the organization within the General Post Office in Sydney. At the present time, accommodation in the mail branch is inadequate to meet the needs, not only of the staff, but also of the public. Accommodation which was intended originally for approximately 1,000 em ployees is now used by 3,000. The available space is therefore wholly inadequate, and the conditions under which the officers have to work are unhealthy. The New South Wales Factories and Shops Act provides that each employee should have available to him a certain number of cubic feet of space. The conditions at the Sydney mail branch are such that only about onethird of the prescribed space is available for each employee. This matter is the responsibility of the Public Service Board. It should investigate the conditions there, instead of leaving the responsibility entirely with the Postmaster-General's Department.

Because of the crowded conditions, it is not possible for mail matter to be dealt with promptly, with the result that serious delays are occurring day after day. Because of insufficient space and shortage of trained staff, many bags of overseas mail matter cannot be handled and have to be stored. Even first-class mail matter has been delayed for more than 24 hours, while second-class mail matter is often delayed for periods of two or three weeks. The position at the mail branch should be attended to, not only because the accommodation is inadequate for the volume of mail matter that is handled, but also because it is having a deleterious effect on the health of the employees. Recently, a doctor said to me - without any solicitation on my part - "What is wrong with the employees of the General Post Office? " I replied, " I do not know. What do you say is wrong with them? " He answered, "They are a very unhealthy lot of men. I have some of them as patients, and it seems to me that they are simply fading off the earth ". The Postal Workers Union has complained about these conditions, and I think it is time, since the department itself has not improved them, for the Public Service Board to have a look at the matter.

I come now to another matter that is also covered by the bill. I refer to the proposal to amend the act in order to provide for the transfer and promotion of officers to extra-territorial duties. The Minister said in his second-reading speech that there is a doubt whether the act adequately covers officers who may be transferred outside Commonwealth territory. It covers Commonwealth employees in Papua and New Guinea, and in various Commonwealth territories, but there is a doubt whether it covers fully the public servants who are promoted or transferred to ambassadorial positions overseas, or sent overseas on immigration work or to take up trade commissionerships. The bill proposes to amend the act to remove any doubt that such employees will have the benefit of its provisions. The Opposition supports that proposal.

There is possibly some doubt remaining, however, as to whether the Superannuation Act and the Commonwealth Employees Compensation Act cover such officers in the same way as the Public Service Act, as amended by the present measure, will cover them. I suggest that the Minister should examine that aspect in order to make sure that there is no doubt that such officers as I have mentioned will be covered by these acts also.

The next matter to which I wish to refer is the provision relating to the employment of temporary employees. At present the positions of temporary employees in the Postmaster-General's Department and other Commonwealth departments are subject to review, and have to be reviewed, every three months. The bill proposes to amend the act to extend that period to twelve months. I have examined the last annual report of the Public Service Board and I find that there are 153,600 public servants in the Commonwealth Public Service proper. Of that number, 44 per cent. - the huge total of 68,000 public servants - are temporary employees. I believe that that position should be rectified. A man who has been employed in a temporary capacity for twelve months and has given satisfaction and shown that he warrants the award of permanency of employment, should be made a permanent employee.

The number of Commonwealth public servants employed on a temporary basis is far too high. I know that it is necessary to have some temporary employees in big public departments, but there are far too many of them. We would get far better and more contented service from these employees if they had security; and the way to give them such a feeling of security is to give them permanency. In some sections of the Postmaster-General's Department, men have been employed on a temporary basis for twenty years. That is a ridiculous position. A servant who has been employed in a department for as long as that, and whose position is reviewed every twelve months, would not tend to be a very contented servant and might not give to his work the best of which he is capable. The Opposition believes that that matter should be examined.

Now I turn to the right of appeal against dismissals - a matter that has for a long time been contentious. The unions concerned think that a temporary employee who is dismissed, should have the right to appeal against his dismissal. They believe that the department should not have the right to terminate his services arbitrarily, without his having an opportunity to appeal.

The other matter to which I wish to refer concerns clause 8 which seeks to amend section 29 of the act. It provides as follows: -

.   . Where -

(a)   the Board makes an alteration of the classification of an office in a case where there is no other office having the same designation and classification as that office; and

(b)   the Board declares, by notice published in the "Gazette", that that alteration is related to an alteration in respect of which a notice is or has been published under the last precedingsubsection, the Board may, in that firstmentioned notice, direct that sub-section (3.) of this section shall not apply in relation to that first-mentioned alteration and, in that case, that sub-section does not apply.

The Minister should explain that outstanding amendment. It is the general practice that when a position in the Public Service - and the salary appertaining thereto - is reclassified, in fairness to all the officers in the service the position becomes vacant so that all officers have an opportunity to apply for promotion to it. The same principle applies when a position is down-graded. It is declared vacant, and possibly the officer who has held it does not care to continue to occupy it at a lower salary. I should like the Minister to explain to what special position this amendment is to apply.

The next point concerns the monetary penalties that may be imposed on an officer on commission of an offence. The bill proposes to amend the act so as to increase the penalty for a minor offence from 5s. to 10s. A maximum penalty is provided for a minor offence. For more serious offences the penalty is to be increased from £5 to £20. The Minister said in his secondreading speech that this action will lessen the gap between the monetary penalty that may be imposed and the more drastic penalty of reduction in salary or status, or dismissal.

I foreshadow that the Opposition will move an amendment to this clause. We believe that a right of appeal against penalties should be provided, irrespective of the value of the penalty. As the act now stands, a penalized employee has a right of appeal when the penalty is £2 or over, but not if the penalty is below £2. The Opposition's amendment will seek to make the right of appeal general.

I turn to the provision for the entry of returned servicemen to the Commonwealth service. This provision has been widened so that ex-servicemen who have passed the required number of subjects in a public examination but who are not entitled to the award of a State education certificate, may be appointed to the service. The Opposition does not object to that provision. We believe that the educational bars to the entry of ex-servicemen to the Public Service should be eased. The act does not stipulate exactly what the required standard is. I think the standard is to be lower, and I consider that should be explained.

I come to the promotion of officers within the service. Secret files and dossiers on its officers are kept by the Government. When a provisional promotion is made these records are examined, and the officer seeking promotion may be rejected on the ground that something detrimental, which he may know nothing about, is contained in his file. The unions, and the officers, feel that they should know about anything that is detrimental to their officers. I have worked in the Federal Public Service myself and I know that such a policy is dangerous. The officer in charge of a department may be of the type who will get a " set " on another officer. He could insert in the records something detrimental to that officer's chances of promotion. The unions, and the officers concerned, feel that they should know about the entry so that any fault may be rectified. At present such secret reports may be used against officers appealing against provisional promotion. Only the chairman of the appeals committee would have knowledge of what was in the record, but he is supposed to be independent, and his mind should not be made up by anything that he has seen there, especially when the officer himself has no knowledge of it. For these reasons, we believe that the present system should be reviewed.

The composition of the appeals committee is not altogether satisfactory, and the officers of the department are not happy about it. The annual report reveals that very few appeals against provisional promotion are successful. For the year ended 30th June, 1956, there were 12,709 appeals in all. Of 10,160 lodged on the ground of efficiency combined with seniority, only 429 were upheld. Of 2,549. lodged on the ground of superior efficiency, only 113 were upheld. The joint council feels, in short, that the composition of the appeals committee should be looked at.

The unions also consider that the present method of attachment of salary where there has been a judgment against an officer is unnecessarily harsh. The judgment is placed before the paying officer, and the person who has been the subject of the judgment must submit to his wages being garnisheed

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) - Would that not happen to some one in private employment?

Mr COSTA - Yes.

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) - Is the honorable member suggesting that the public servant is at a disadvantage compared with the private employee who is subject to a garnishee order?

Mr COSTA - No, but we believe that too great a deduction can be made from an officer's salary. We believe that the act is out of date. Section 64 (3.) states -

If ihe officer fails to prove to the satisfaction of the Paying Officer, within the time specified by the Paying Officer, that the judgment has been satisfied, the Paying Officer may from time to time deduct from any moneys due to the officer such sums as are in his opinion necessary to enable the judgment to be satisfied, or may direct the deduction therefrom of such sums, and shall pay, or direct the payment of, those sums to the judgment creditor:

Provided that in no case shall a deduction be made which will reduce the amount to be received by the officer to less than Two pounds per week, or to less than one-third of the amount which would, but for the provisions of this section, be payable to the officer.

That is a very severe provision. Under it, an officer who is receiving £15 a week may be deprived of £10 of it, and be left only £5 with which to sustain his family. This matter was discussed at the joint council meeting. One recommendation was that no attachment should reduce an officer's salary below the basic wage, which is, after all, supposed to be the least on which a family can live. It was also suggested that an officer should have left at least 75 per cent, of the basic wage; but I think the final decision was that the deduction should be left to the discretion of the paying officer. If he has not that discretion he might be obliged to reduce the income of a debtor to £5 a week. The act was framed a long time ago and should be modified in favour of the officer whose salary is attached.

The unions are also concerned about section 66 of the principal act, which gives a department the right to dismiss automatically any officer who participates in a stopwork meeting or strike. That is too great a power to place in the hands of a department. The section provides that any officer - . . . directly fomenting, or taking part in any strike which interferes with or prevents the carrying on of any part of the Public Services or utilities of the Commonwealth shall be deemed to have committed an illegal action against the peace and good order of the Commonwealth, and any such officer or officers adjudged by the law after investigation and hearing, to be guilty of such action, shall therefore be summarily dismissed by the board from the service, without regard to the procedure prescribed in this act for dealing with defences under the act.

We believe that that provision is too severe. It applies with greater severity than the provision governing outside industry. It was used recently in New South Wales in connexion with men who had a genuine grievance. The Labour party believes in using strike action only when there is a genuine grievance which cannot be rectified by other means. The strike is then the only way to attract the attention of the responsible authorities. We believe that public servants, like the employees of outside bodies, should have the right to use that weapon as a last resort. Consequently we say that this provision is too severe.

The unions have been petitioning the Public Service Board and the departments to modify this provision. Recently, the provision was used in Sydney against officers of the Mail Branch of the Postal

Department who had been provoked into taking strike action. They held a stopwork meeting and, because of that, the responsible officer dismissed temporary officers and suspended permanent officers on the spot. In order to rectify that position, the whole of the officers of the Mail Branch walked off the job as a protest against the sackings and suspensions. We believe that conditions in the Public Service should be the same as conditions in outside industry. The unions concerned have asked the Government to look at this matter when it is reviewing the position. The occurrence in Sydney which I mentioned indicated that there is something radically wrong with the Mail Branch in Sydney because this is the first time in the history of the Commonwealth Public Service that the men have taken strike action. It emphasizes the need for the Public Service Board to see that conditions in the Mail Branch in Sydney are improved.

Those are my final conclusions about the bill. I thought that this would be an opportune time to raise the matters that are not pleasing to the Public Service unions. I hope, that the various matters upon which I have commented will be given due attention by the Government. When the bill goes into the committee stage I propose to submit a suitable amendment. I shall provide the Government with a copy of this proposed amendment if it so desires.

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