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Wednesday, 16 February 1977

Mr CONNOLLY (Bradfield) -The contribution made to this debate by members of the Opposition I think displayed very clearly to the House the depth of scepticism and suspicion which they have for the Public Service as a whole. I would like to preface my remarks by just trying to put this legislation in its true political and historical context. When the Labor Government came into power after 23 years in the political wilderness it believed quite definitely that the Public Service was against it; it had to be reformed at all costs. It was prepared to use the legislation as it then stood to achieve its objectives. Various speakers on the government side have already referred to a number of personnel who were appointed as First Division officers by the Labor Government of the day under circumstances which were regarded at the time as being antipathetic to the overall interests of the Public Service and certainly the political well-being of the nation. In fact, I think the point was rather clearly made by a journal called Victorian Viewpoint, which I understand to be the journal of the Victorian branch of the Administrative and Clerical Officers Association. This is what it said about the political independence of the Public Service:

The great danger to the Australian Public Service and of course to the public servant himself or herself arising from these appointments -

That is, the appointments to which I have just referred- is the political independence of the Service which has always been held in the past to be beyond reproach. The question now being asked by sections of the Press and by the public is whether the political independence of the Public Service is being subordinated. The ultimate possibility arising from such appointments is that the public servant's promotional opportunities or even his security of office in the future may depend on his political affiliations and whichever party is in power.

Of course, those remarks have to be seen in the context of the considerations of the average public servant with regard to his own permanent status in what he believes to be a career service. I personally have rather strong views about the excessive influence given to the concept of career appointments and permanent status in the Public Service. But the difficulty we are facing, especially at the top echelons, is quite simply that

First Division officers responsible for departments obviously have a fundamental bearing not only on the quality of advice given to Ministers but also on the methodological approach of the department and of the officers below the permanent head as to how the instructions of Ministers and the Government will be carried out. Within that context, therefore, the actions of the Labor Party during its 3 years in office are explainable, although one may not necessarily accept the thesis upon which they were based.

To say, however, that this legislation which we are debating today is somehow or other going to upset fundamentally a balance which obviously both sides of this House do not regard as being satisfactory is, quite frankly, overstating the case. I refer in particular to the Leader of the Opposition's concept of 2 tiers of First Division officers. I think it should be the view of all honourable members of the House that it is not an unreasonable expectation for people, both men and women, who have given a lifetime of service to the Australian people and to the Public Service of the Commonwealth that the system be based on the principle that those officers who have worked their way through the second and third divisions of the Service over a period of years and so gained substantial knowledge should be given the opportunity of being selected as First Division officers. On the other hand, it is quite obvious that the government of the day must have a capability of bringing people into the Public Service on the basis of merit- I em- phasise that point- even if those who have merit happen also to have a point of view similar to that of the government of the day.

I submit that this legislation achieves both of those objectives. On the one hand, permanent officers of the Public Service will be eligible for these top positions and at the same time the Government, through the machinery established in this legislation, will be expecting the Committee made up of the Chairman of the Public Service Board plus at least 2 other permanent heads to take into account not only officers of the permanent Public Service but also other personnel in the private sector and elsewhere who may be nominated for positions in that context. The Bill also emphasises that if the results of that procedure are not considered to be satisfactory outside appointments may be made by the Prime Minister through the machinery which is also established in the legislation. In other words, we have a considerable degree of flexibility. That is something which the existing legislation quite obviously does not give us.

The provisions under the existing arrangements are twofold: Firstly, a Minister on assuming office is stuck with whoever he has as the head of his department and, secondly, he may, through the Executive Council and with the approval of the Governor-General, bring in other personnel. But the weakness in the present arrangement is that the concept of permanency, which was obviously defined initially to refer to public servants who worked their way up through the Service, is also then applied to personnel brought in from outside. They are brought in, as I have stated, essentially because the government of the day presumes that it cannot find personnel of that level who can adequately carry out its political dictates and wants to bring in outsiders. Having done that, however, it is illogical to suggest that those people should then be given the full rights and privileges of permanency as would be given to any other members of the Public Service if they have not had a similar background. That is one of the major factors in this legislation.

It has been stated, for example, in clause 25 that those who are removed after a period of 5 years, if they are not public servants, should be given a necessary honorarium and so forth, all of which- I emphasise this point- will be public knowledge because it will be gazetted for anybody to read. So there will be no deals under the table and so forth. The second category of people- those who are permanent public servants under the normal definition of the wordswill have the right of being able to return to a position equivalent to that which they held previously. The legislation takes into account the not infrequent possibility that an officer of the Second Division or an officer of the Third Division- in fact this was the situation with one of the Whitlam appointments initially- would be in a position where his career spectrum would be taken into account in relation to the position to which he would return following his removal from the First Division.

The Labor Government was aware, upon assuming office, that the Public Service Act made no provision whatsoever for the termination of the appointment of a permanent head on any grounds other than those narrowly defined such as inefficiency. As a result of this the Whitlam Government, for example, appointed no fewer than 3 ambassadors in Geneva representing Aus.tralian interests in Europe. They were all very fine gentlemen, but surely this was an expensive way to solve the problem. Other officers were sent on extended leave because there was simply no position to which the Government of the day wished to appoint them. This situation was created because the Act that time made no adequate provision for the termination of those First Division appointments.

Regrettably in a sense, but quite understandably, the amendments now proposed in this legislation will not cover existing appointments to the First Division of the Public Service; but at least these amendments go a substantial way towards ensuring that those situations will not be created in the future. After all, the government of the day does have a responsibility to ensure that officers who are earning salaries in excess of $40,000 a year are actively employed at all times while they are being paid from the public purse.

Within this context I should like to make reference also to section 25 placitum (2) of the Public Service Act. There is a growing tendency in the Public Service, especially at the First Division level, for officers to place too much emphasis on the policy aspects of their responsibilities and insufficient emphasis on the administrative and financial affairs of their departments. In the United Kingdom, for example, the equivalent to a First Division officer is, m every sense of the term, the 'senior finance officer' and he ultimately is responsible for everything that takes place within his department and is, of course, answerable for its activities to his Minister and to the Parliament. Under our legislation, however, First Division officers do have the delegation to pass most of their administrative powers on to more junior officers in the department who are held responsible for any misdemeanours that take place. I believe that this is a section of the Act which wil have to be amended. I am aware that the Auditor-General is currently examining this matter.

If the emphasis which the Opposition wishes to place upon this legislation is that we are attempting to politicise the Public Service, I refuse to accept that criticism on the ground that we are trying to prevent the recurrence of a situation which existed for a period of 3 years whereby appointments were made to the Public Service on fundamentally political grounds. Those appointments had a very serious effect upon the morale of public servants and thereby upon the capacity of the Public Service to serve the government of the day. There were too many examples of junior officers, in particular, realising that the way to success, even in the Public Service context, was by pleasing their political masters. I do not suggest for a minute that this trend will ever go away. It is a fact of life that some ambitious men and women will take a short cut wherever they can.

The fact remains that this legislation represents the first attempt that has been made to overcome what has become in recent years a very serious problem. When the Public Service Act was originally drawn up, in 1922, the concepts of the permanent status of public servants and an apolitical Public Service were very real. As pointed out by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr E. G. Whitlam) and agreed by the honourable member for Hotham (Mr Chipp) and by myself, the fact of the matter is that public servants today are able to express their political views, as does every other citizen of the country. What is important is to ensure that their personal views are not allowed to be reflected in the quality of the advice which they give to Ministers or in the manner in which they carry out their responsibilities. I commend this legislation to the House.

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