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Australian Capital Territory: Police Commissioner comments on an additional $155 million funding from the Federal Government.

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CATHY VAN EXTEL: The federal government announced yesterday the additional $155 million it was handing to the Australian Federal Police would help prevent poaching if skilled staff. But other reports suggest the money will be quickly eaten up by contract terminations, remuneration packages and superannuation payments. Joining us now to clarify is the AFP Commissioner, Mick Palmer. Thank you for joining us this morning.


MICK PALMER: Thanks, Cathy, very much.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Can you explain exactly what the additional money will be spent on? Will it be pay rises or redundancy packages?


MICK PALMER: It’s a decision by the government to give us an addition $155 million for a range of reasons, including allowing us to continue the upgrade and reprofiling of the organisation to position it properly for the challenges of the next century, particularly that includes, of course, completing the certified agreement that we are presently in negotiation with the association in.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: So what are you saying then, that the money is being spent on pay rises and improved conditions for police, or it will also be used for the paring off of staff?


MICK PALMER: It’s a combination of those things. Obviously the money is not just money for us to use as we see fit, it’s money that’s related to a range of conditions that we presently enjoy, including the AFPAS conditions and, of course, is money that is targeted towards allowing us to settle the certified agreement should it be accepted by the membership. And that will of course, in my view - and of course I don’t pre-empt the decision of the members - significantly increase and improve their conditions, modernise the remuneration basis that the organisation works on, remove a lot of the technicality of course that presently drives the way in which we’re able to reward our people and the way we’re able to roster and profile our people, target our people to the job that needs to be done.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: So what proportion of that $155 million would go to redundancy packages?


MICK PALMER: I don’t know that any will go towards redundancy packages. None of this money is targeted towards redundancy packages at all.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Although you accepted that it would be split between pay rises and the moves to cut down the number of staff?


MICK PALMER: No, I didn’t say that at all. The situation is this, that we have some 1,700 of people coming up for the end of a 10-year tenure towards the middle of next year, having commenced on contract employment in 1990. Obviously that was always going to be a difficulty for the organisation which probably wasn’t properly considered at the time that we entered this process 10 years ago, and of course it now coincides with a pretty busy year for Australia as well as the AFP with the Olympics schedule for September of next year.


Clearly, therefore, it was in our interest if we could to negotiate arrangements which moved us away from the problem that we would have in negotiating with so many of our people in that early part of next year. What this is aimed at doing is settling the present contract arrangements, allowing people to have access to their AFPAS payments without needing to sever employment.


See, one of the problems with the contract issue initially was that the only way that people could get access to their AFPAS payments, which amount to 12.5 per cent of salary per annum for each year of completed contract, was to leave the organisation. Well, part of this process is to allow us to give access of that money to the people without them needing to leave the organisation. So it’s really aimed at quite the reverse from accelerating redundancies or losing people, but rather creating an environment where people do not need to leave to access their money.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: So in terms of how the AFP is doing, is it fair to call it cash-strapped, as some are describing it?


MICK PALMER: I don’t think so. It’s amazing to me frankly, Cathy, that so many people attempt to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This organisation has never enjoyed a higher reputation, has never enjoyed better funding. It is coming out of a number of years of tight fiscal constraint. It has never been more strongly supported by any government in its history. It’s never been better funded and has never had a brighter future, and yet I still hear people from within the organisation talking down the morale, the results, the achievements and the financial situation of an organisation that really has never been in better position.


Having said that, of course we need to be careful and properly manage the money that we have and demonstrate the effectiveness in the way in which we manage the money that we’re given, because this is big money.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: So how does all this fit in, then, with the recent readvertising of sergeants’ positions in the ACT and plans to cut those positions by a third? Could this extra cash be used to prevent such a downgrading of senior jobs?


MICK PALMER: It’s not a downgrading of any senior jobs. What is happening in the ACT is what is happening across the organisation, and that is to make sure that we are paying people for the skills they have and the jobs they’re expected to do. We have gone through what we call a job size reprofiling of the organisation, to have a look at the organisation and see what the various skill levels are, what the various responsibility levels are in the organisation, with a view to making sure that we do have the people where they should be.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: So what you’re saying now is essentially a third of the sergeants shouldn’t be there?


MICK PALMER: I’m not saying that at all. That’s ....


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Was the organisation too top-heavy then?


MICK PALMER: The organisation may well have too many supervisory positions in certain areas and may well be wasting skills of people who have skills they’re not properly utilising because of the jobs they’ve been given to do. What we’re about doing, what the taxpayer should expect us to do, is to make sure we get maximum value out of our people, that we put people with certain levels of skills where they can best use them, that we make sure we are not wasting positions which are not properly supervisory positions, that where people are being wasted in those positions we move them to where they can be better utilised and where the jobs don’t require, for example NCO or other supervisory expertise, that we move people in a developmental capacity into those jobs. That’s simply good management, frankly.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: You were talking about the current position of the AFP and the fact that it’s probably the most well-funded it has been in the past. Certainly you’ve been going through quite a reform process now for a number of years. We’re hearing from staff that the change process has been going on for too long. Can you accept that?


MICK PALMER: I can understand what they’re saying, and obviously it’s difficult times for people in organisations who are subjected to change.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Can you give them an idea of when it will end?


MICK PALMER: No, never. Every organisation ... you should well recognise that. I mean, the speed of change in the wider business and social environment is such that if you stand still you go backwards. We’re going to be subject to continuous reassessment and development if we are to stay relevant to the environment which we have to deal with.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: You’d need to balance that, though, with stability in the organisation.


MICK PALMER: It seems to me the more you deal with change the more you ought to get used to it, and we really do need to be able to deal with a fluid environment because that’s the environment in which we’re working. The speed of change has increased dramatically in recent years, and anybody that thinks that an organisation can afford to stand still and stabilise, as you say, and remain at the sharp end and retain its relevance, is frankly up with the fairies.


Clearly we need to do this in bite-size chunks, and we are, and I understand the uncertainty that some of the early changes have caused to people. And, of course, we’re not likely to take on such an ambitious reform program in the continuous nature as we have taken on over the past five years. In 1994 when we embarked upon this present reform initiative, if you like, it was a very ambitious program which was aimed specifically to reposition and reprofile this organisation to ensure that it had the skills and the operational focus necessary to deal with the challenges beyond 2000. The nature of that change is likely to lessen a little, but we need to understand that we’re going to be continually reassessing ourselves.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Do you feel that you’re almost there in terms of achieving a national law enforcement body with a more sophisticated profile?


MICK PALMER: Yes, I do. I think we’ve taken some enormous steps forward. I think the achievements and results achieved by the Australian Federal Police over the last several years have been really quite outstanding. I think both in the national and the community sense we really are developing a very, very high level of professionalism.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Has that been at the expense, though, of the support of your officers, the morale of staff? Certainly members of the AFP association have been voting on a no confidence motion in you - we’re expecting the results at the end of the week - but surely you must be concerned that that’s even occurring?


MICK PALMER: There’s two things. We’ll talk about the second one first, if you like, the no confidence motion. It’s not for me to speak about a no confidence motion about myself, I suppose, but this is clearly and demonstrably, and has been explained as such, an industrial issue. It’s a fairly normal industrial ploy by associations at a time when they are negotiating certified agreements and trying to get the government’s attention. Frankly, I think it’s not a very clever move. I don’t think it’s an appropriate move, but that’s a matter for the association to consider. I think my views are shared by the Industrial Relations Commissioner who has been deeply involved in the negotiation process.


It seems to me if you want to get the government’s attention in terms of how well they ought to pay your members the best way to do that is to talk up the organisation and point to its high level of result, its motivation, the motivation of its people, the commitment of its people, and not talk it down in terms of low morale and discontent and malcontent. People have been talking about low morale in policing ever since I’ve been a police officer - that’s nearly 35 years. I’ve been talking to people and working with people who’ve talked about the job being RS ever since I joined it. In my view you assess the morale of an organisation by the results it achieves and by the commitment of its people. You look at the AFP and look at both of those issues and tell me it suffers low morale. I’ll go along with low morale any day of the week.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: So what you’re saying, then, is if there is a no confidence motion against you on a national basis, you would read that simply as industrial flexing of muscles rather than of any comment about the program that you’ve taken the AFP down?


MICK PALMER: Of course I wouldn’t dismiss any no confidence motion and I haven’t already. I mean, I was aware when the motion started in Sydney in eastern regions at a time of fairly high level of uncertainty. I read what they said and I’ve considered what was said. But as I have said before publicly I am not in the business of just being popular, I’m paid to do what is necessary and what is right. I do that as far ... not suggesting for a moment everything we do is right. That’s absolutely what motivates me and if some of the things we do are unpopular in the short term I have to say so be it. I can’t be driven by confidence or no confidence motions unless they’re motions passed against me by the government.


But I understand what’s driving this. My own view is that it’s not a particularly sensible thing or valuable thing to do, and I’ll assess the results if and when they’re publicised. I don’t think it does the organisation, its maturity or its professionalism any good at all in the eyes of the government and other key stake holders.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: Commissioner, thank you very much for taking time out to talk to us today.


MICK PALMER: My pleasure, Cathy.


CATHY VAN EXTEL: That’s the AFP Commission, Mick Palmer.