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Monday, 20 August 2012
Page: 9142

Mr SIMPKINS (Cowan) (17:12): It is nice to have the opportunity to speak tonight on the Public Service Amendment Bill 2012, given the very wide-ranging debate which has been allowed to occur after the comments by the member for Throsby. When I was looking around for some media commentary or discussion on this bill, there really was not much there. This bill has not inspired too many people in the general public. When we look back we see that the second reading speech by the minister was made on 1 March 2012. I am not sure it has inspired the government either, given the length of time it has taken to bring the debate back to the House—some 5½ months have transpired. The panel which created this report headed the Ahead of the game:blueprint for the reform of the Australian government administration was originally commissioned, as I understand, in September 2009. A panel comprised almost entirely of senior public servants were asked to have a look at the public service. The report was commissioned and the report was released on 2 March 2010—again, a little while ago now.

On 8 May 2010, 25 months ago, then Prime Minister Rudd said he had accepted all of the recommendations of the panel and their report. But, of course, shortly thereafter, unfortunately for the then Prime Minister, he was no longer the Prime Minister. But in any case there has been quite a delay, so their priorities have obviously been elsewhere.

I think it is agreed that we all need to be very carefully about the need to strengthen leadership in the Australian Public Service, because, ultimately, the Australian Public Service serves the people and the government of the day, whose policies need to be enacted. It goes to the public service to initiate and bring those policies to this place in the form of bills, and then ultimately to implement those policies on the ground.

I am not quite sure I agree with the member for Throsby's comments that the public service is on the forefront of every big thing that has happened in the country. I am not so sure I would say that was the case. Really, the public service exists to bring the policies the government puts before the election—or in the case of this government, after the election as well—to the point of initiation and implementation.

It is important that we be very clear that the public service should not in any case be political or self-serving. It behoves the government to ensure that their actions do not politicise the public service in any way. A public service that is seen to be politically partisan in its activities undermines confidence in the public service. That is obviously not the case with the public service. We have confidence in so much of what the public service does. But government and the public service should be very careful in the way the public service is seen to be performing its duties.

The shadow minister, the member for Mackellar, has conducted negotiations with the government minister. This has seen an agreement that there will be coalition amendments that will be accepted by the government and government amendments that will be accepted by the coalition. That is very good news.

In this country, sadly, there is a history of certain appointments having been made by governments. I look back not very far to the Labor government of New South Wales and the creation of a burgeoning unallotted list, which constituted $16 million in salaries each year for SES or very senior public servants who were employed but were not actually required to do any work. So it is probably par for the course that the original concept of this bill, before the amendments had been agreed on, would have seen this government given the opportunity to create such a list.

When we speak of such a list, and the idea of being given a pay grade but no actual responsibilities, it is exactly the sort of thing that can create a perception of loyalties to those who created the list or brought people onto it. I think that is very clearly a bad idea for a public service, because it will in some ways create the view that there is a level of loyalty owed to those who make the appointments.

As the member for Mackellar said after the last election, one thing that had interesting implications was when Dr Henry provided a certain level of advice to the Independents, which undermined and cast doubt upon some of the election figures of the coalition, yet, not long after that, allowed those figures when the government needed the figures to match up for them. Then, he resigned as Treasury Secretary and received an appointment from the Prime Minister, again for quite a deal of money, as I recall—on a pro rata basis for part-time I think it was some $307,000 a year. If you create a system whereby people can be appointed again on an unallotted list—can be appointed to do a particular task—and the Prime Minister gets the opportunity to make those appointments, it can be highly desirable for a person to seek one of those appointments. When you have an important public service position involving an important role in the post-election administration dealing with the Independents and you then go to a government appointed position at the end of the earlier appointment, there is the possibility that some people might perceive that as being something of a conflict of interest. That is very bad for the public service.

It is such a good thing that the Special Minister of State has listened to the shadow minister, the member for Mackellar, and has seen the light in this regard. It was a great example of what actually happened, with regard to Dr Henry. We now see, and maybe the government can also see, that there is a level of risk that it might undermine the position of the public service, or senior members of the public service.

As I said earlier, it is obviously clear to the public service that it must remain impartial, but it is also right for the government of either persuasion not to put people in a position which would cause the public to have less confidence in the impartiality of the public service. It is certainly good that those amendments have been agreed to and that we will see them come up during the consideration-in-detail stage of this bill.

I appreciate the opportunity to make some comments on this matter tonight, and I appreciate the government embracing the amendments that the member for Mackellar has put forward. I think that we will have a much improved bill as a result.