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Opposition Senator comments on his new portfolios and on the subject of a republic

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Maybe more mea culpa. The Federal Coalition is making a lot softer noises since the last election, as we would have just heard from Senator Vanstone, and this new sharing, caring attitude looks like it may even extend to the Commonwealth Public Service. South Australian Liberal Senator, Robert Hill, is a regular commentator on this program, alternating with ALP Senator, Chris Schacht, and under the new Coalition frontbench make-up, Senator Hill is no longer Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. He wanted a domestic portfolio, and is Shadow Minister for Defence and also Shadow Minister for Public Administration. Senator Hill, good morning.

ROBERT HILL: Hello, Matt.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Well, before we look at your new Shadow portfolio responsibilities, the Australian newspaper is today carrying a report which suggests that even after being re-elected leader, John Hewson was talking about quitting when the two-day post-mortem, here in Canberra, forced him to junk the GST. Did he mention anything like that to you?

ROBERT HILL: No.

ROBERT HILL: I mean, do you think that he would have considered that, however?

ROBERT HILL: Well, I don't think so. He certainly, after the election, was wondering what was the appropriate course for him to take, and I was one of those that urged that he should remain; that we'd all signed onto the policy program that had been rejected; that he was basically a young politician in political terms with still a lot to offer, and that he should continue and it was in the best interests of our party and Australia that he do so. And he clearly chose that course and I'm glad he did.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: All right. Let's look, then, at public administration. Are you going to be taking some steps to rebuild bridges between the Coalition and the Federal public sector?

ROBERT HILL: That's the way I see it, Matt. There has been a perceived view that we have been anti-public sector - I've heard it often on your program. I think it's come out of the fact that we've talked about a smaller government service, greater efficiencies. In fact ....

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Public servants, bureaucrats eating their young, chopping the Public Service off at the knees.

ROBERT HILL: Yes. Well, in fact, our social programs are totally dependent upon the Public Service and it is time, I think, for us to rebuild an understanding that we not only appreciate but recognise the Public Service is so critical to the social agenda that we wish to implement. And part of my responsibility is now to look at the public sector as a key function in our system of government and to see how we can help improve it.

So instead of simply looking at cuts, what I'll be looking at is issues such as recruitment and promotion systems, grievances, grievance systems; the opportunity for specialists is a debate that I've had something to do with in relation to foreign affairs - specialists as against generalists, whether they get a fair opportunity in the public sector ; questions such as travelling allowances, all the retirement benefits. Retirement, I think, is going to be a big issue. Superannuation for public servants is going to be a big issue in the next few years, and it's time that we, as a party, and an alternative government, looked seriously at these issues again, and that's a responsibility that I'm taking on.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: It's a big change in rhetoric, at least. I mean, should public servants believe that?

ROBERT HILL: Well, it's not a change for me, I would hope that you would admit.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: I concede that.

ROBERT HILL: And I guess it's - I heard a little bit of your interview with Amanda. I think perhaps, in some ways, we became a little too narrow, preoccupied with the economic debate. What we are really about and what the Liberal Party, historically, is about is the benefit of the total community. And as we broaden that agenda, a major sector - as I just said - of the Australian community is the Federal Public Service and my responsibility will be to have a look at the sector, at the service, and in fact look at whether they are being well-treated by our system and how we can further enhance their status in society.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Is it isolated in Canberra? Do you agree that there's a need to shift public servants to decentralised departments?

ROBERT HILL: I think that depends on where the service can be best performed, and obviously, also respecting the wishes of public servants. If it's a delivery of a service that is most appropriate out of Canberra, then I think public servants would agree that out of Canberra is the right place. But there are lots of advantages within Canberra in communication between services. Again, if you take my previous experience in Foreign Affairs, where you have all the embassies, where you have the Defence Department located, all the departments that obviously interlink, there can in fact be a greater cost in separating those functions, so I don't think that one can just, you know, speak without looking at the particular instance that one needs to address.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Okay. You're also preparing a paper which will take a wider look at constitutional reform. What are the specifics of that? What will you be looking at?

ROBERT HILL: Well, there is a view also, I think, that the Liberal Party is wanting to avoid the constitutional debate. That's not so. Certainly, in the run-up to the last election we were concerned about the economic debate and a million Australians unemployed, and I guess, I would say - after today's statistics, the fact that almost a half of Australians earn less than $12,000 and that the gap between the haves and the have-nots is greater than ever - we were concerned that that debate would be diverted by the Prime Minister into the constitutional debate.

But now that the election is over, we recognise that there are constitutional issues on the table that Australians are interested in, and we have a responsibility to encourage that debate and to show a lead. And at the Federal Executive of the Liberal Party, a week or so ago, I urged that they put that on the agenda of the Federal Council which will be held in August and I think that they will do so. So I hope that meeting, which is the principal organisational body of the Liberal Party will address a series of papers on constitutional reform.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Will that include tackling this issue of a republic?

ROBERT HILL: It's got to include the issue of the monarchy - there's no doubt about that. What we've been concerned about is this short-cut term of a republic in that it means so many different things to different people.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: And what does it mean to you?

ROBERT HILL: There is no simple definition in terms of the form of Australian constitutional structure to which we might move. At the one instance, one might say 'Well, just simply try and replace the Governor-General with a nominated or an elected person', but the problem then becomes the various conventions. Can they be incorporated in written form? And one keeps going down the burrow till you start examining the role of the States, the role of the Senate. Is there to be a major new constitutional structure? Is that the way to go in Australia? And is it really necessary?

The thing about our existing system is that it has stood the test of time. It is stable. It's not supposed to achieve magic solutions. What it's supposed to achieve is a stable structural environment in which government can operate. So it's really a question, in my view, as to whether, with the evolution of time and the changed nature of Australia, the multicultural nature of Australia, there needs to be change. I would start the debate from the point of view as to whether there needs to be change, and put before the community - in our instance, put before the party as well - a series of papers as to alternative structures that would be open if Australia wants to head in that direction.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Okay. Robert Hill - thank you, Senator Hill. Thank you, Liberal Senator Robert Hill, who is now the Shadow Minister for Defence and for Public Administration. Quite handy to have him on tap, so to speak, to talk about public service matters in this town.