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Shadow Minister outlines ALP public service reforms giving greater independence and job security to departmental heads.

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Monday 9 August 2004

Shadow Minister outlines ALP public service reforms giving greater independence and job security to departmental heads


TONY EASTLEY: The Federal Oppos ition says the criticism of the Government by the 43 senior figures demonstrates problems in the way the public service operates under the Howard Government. Labor's spokesman, Craig Emerson, has promised to make big changes to ensure public servants provide independent advice, under a Labor government. 


He spoke to Louise Yaxley a short time ago and outlined Labor's plan to give departmental heads fixed-term five year minimum contracts and remove discretionary performance pay bonuses. 


CRAIG EMERSON: We do need to return towards more traditional public service and it's ironic the Prime Minister says he is a traditionalist, but he's put senior public servants on non-ongoing contracts where they can be sacked on the whim of the minister and that provides no incentive for senior public servants to give fearless and frank advice. 


It goes further too, that the Howard Government has introduced performance pay for the top levels of the public service and again, who determines the performance - the minister - so of course senior public servant is going to want to please the minister, to get the performance pay and give the advice that he or she thinks the minister wants to hear.  


That's the wrong way of going about it. We do need a truly independent public service and that's then highlighted by statements released by eminent Australians just in the last 24 hours. 


LOUISE YAXLEY: What evidence do you have for your comment that public servants have been intimidated during the time of the Howard Government? 


CRAIG EMERSON: Oh, the children overboard fiasco was a prime example, where you had ministers saying they weren't told anything, public servants obviously being intimidated by ministerial staff into pretending or shutting up about the fact that children were not, in fact, thrown overboard. 


That was a set of statements made before an election, very conveniently; the truth came out after the election, very conveniently, but if we had had a fearless and frank public service and proper accountability the truth of that matter would have come out before the election.  


We don't want to see a repeat of that. I mean, it's important for Australia's democracy that we don't have a repeat of the truth being thrown overboard and under a Labor government there will be a return to a traditional public service, where people can begin their careers and have a good career in the public service without having to look over their shoulders every day wondering whether they're going to be sacked by the minister or someone further up the line who he himself or herself is being intimidated by the minister. 


LOUISE YAXLEY: You're also talking about changes to ministerial advisors, meaning that they could be forced to appear senate committees or parliamentary committees. 


CRAIG EMERSON: There have been innumerable examples in the last eight-and-a-half years of ministers asserting that they did not know. I mean, John Howard is the Sergeant Schultz of Australian politics - he knows nothing.  


They build these firewalls where they can say that ministerial staff did not convey to them vital information. And we never get to know the truth of the matter, because the ministers hide behind their staff and the staff cannot be called, under current arrangements, before a senate committee.  


Well, we will change that, in circumstances where ministers continue to hide behind their staff. If the minister says, as he or she should, under the Westminster system, that's fair cop, I take responsibility, the buck stops with me, that's fine, there's then no need to call ministerial staff.  


But where they, in a cowardly act, hide behind ministerial staff and then the ministerial staff can't be brought to account then the Westminster system has broken down and it has broken down under the Howard Government. 


TONY EASTLEY: Labor's spokesman Craig Emerson, speaking there with Louise Yaxley.