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Monday, 20 August 2012
Page: 9146

Mr WYATT (Hasluck) (17:33): I rise to speak on the Public Service Amendment Bill. In preparing to do this I read the report Ahead of the game: blueprint for the reform of Australian government administration to see what propositions were being included; I also read the explanatory memorandum to the public service bill. I agree that many changes were proposed to the legislation by the report which will modernise the public sector and create a sense of change and reform—and this will be to the betterment of the country. The Public Service Amendment Bill makes a number of amendments to the code of conduct for public servants and to the changing values and employment principles for APS employees, both of which are specified in the Public Service Act 1999.

The Public Service Amendment Bill has been introduced in response to the report Ahead of the game: blueprint for the reform of Australian government administration, which was released in March 2010. The bill aims 'to strengthen the management and leadership of the public service and embed new practices and behaviours in its culture'. I think that all of us in this chamber would agree that doing so is an absolutely necessary undertaking, because the public service provides advice and direction to ministers, and this shapes the policies and key strategic services and programs as well as the interrelatedness that exists within a federation. To that extent, the public service fills its role tremendously.

The report Ahead of the game: blueprint for the reform of Australian government administrationproposes reform to the Australian public sector in four key areas. The first is:

… forge a stronger relationship with citizens through better delivery of services and greater involvement of citizens in their government …

If the legislation enhances this, then our implementation of the legislation has significant merit. The second is:

… strengthen the capacity of the public service to provide strategic, big-picture policy and delivery advice addressing the most difficult policy challenges of the day …

The third is:

… invest in the capability of the public service workforce through improved recruitment and training processes, greater mobility and alignment of working conditions across agencies, and a new, more consistent approach to employee performance …

I would assume that all the members of the Senior Executive Service would be subject, as much as were other public servants, to such requirements so that, if they were working on contract, they would then on merit apply for the position again and that, if they won the position, they would be appointed in accordance with normal prevailing practice. We have seen some variation to this practice, and this is of concern. When you give unfettered power to an individual or a small group of individuals, some practices come into play that are not consistent with merit selection processes in the public sector.

The report also states:

introduce a stronger focus on efficiency and quality to ensure agencies are agile, capable and effective, backed up by measures to help them plan and improve their performance.

The blueprint recommends nine key interdependent reforms which seek to deliver better service for citizens; create more open government; enhance policy capacity; reinvigorate strategic leadership; introduce a new public service commission to drive change and provide strategic planning; clarify and align employment conditions; strengthen workforce planning and development; ensure agency agility, capability and effectiveness; and improve agency efficiency. I would have thought that our current public sector does a lot of that now. Under the tweaking, the one that excites me most is its responsiveness in the way in which it will engage with citizens, the private sector and relevant sectors for which it develops programs, policies and strategies that will make a difference to the lives of all Australians.

Let me assure you that many constituents in all electorates will welcome these changes if they happen uniformly. But, equally, let me assure you that they will be very cynical and will continue with their anger and frustration. It is an opportunity to create ongoing employment for senior public servants outside their contract, guaranteeing them a continuance in employment with no significant change in salary. The recent Ken Henry appointment reflects this to some extent. That is where I have constituents raise with me the golden opportunities that are given to individuals within senior executive positions and the salaries that continue beyond the expired contract into new roles, where appointments are often seen as political. Every Australian would love the opportunity to go into a new role without having to go through a merit selection process, because people see themselves as having skills commensurate to the types of tasks required for the jobs in the public sector.

Every Australian worker knows that, on the expiration of a contract, they are without a job until they find another through a process of competing, on merit, for a new position within an organisation. They would love the opportunity to be directly appointed to a high-salaried position without going through that process. The blueprint sets an ambitious and interlinked reform agenda that seeks to improve services, programs and policies for Australian citizens. Above all, it recognises that, to be strong, the APS must make the most of the talents, energy and integrity of its people. I would have thought the appointment processes would require integrity whereby, once you finish a contract, you compete for a position on merit and undertake that role. I have been in the position where, as a public servant, you look to the whole fabric of integrity within the bureaucracies you work in. The proposed reforms therefore seek to boost and support the APS workforce and leadership and to embed new practices and behaviour into the APS culture. I do not have a problem with that. I think it has significant merit.

Of concern, however, this bill will give the Prime Minister greater power to extend the employment of departmental secretaries, allowing the Prime Minister to create new positions for secretaries who have resigned or whose contracts have ended. Wouldn't it be great if we could offer the same opportunity to every Australian in the workplace, so they did not have to compete and could be given high-salaried positions on a basis equal to that proposed? The Prime Minister recently did this when Mr Ken Henry resigned from his position as Secretary of Treasury in April 2011, being appointed as a 'special adviser' under section 67 of the Constitution.

The unattached list is common practice in the public sector at both national and state and territory levels, and there are people who have spent considerable time on unattached lists receiving salaries provided by the taxpayers and the battling families of Australia. I would hope it is not a practice that will see the transition of retired members or secretaries into special appointments without a merit selection process. I acknowledge that we have to seek skills and expertise when we assign a task that requires thinking outside the square. But there are other ways in which we have done it successfully in the past.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, in his 2020 forums, sought the views of ordinary Australians and people with jobs and specialised knowledge in particular areas to be part of the forward thinking that he had in mind when he established the Rudd government's credentials in the period in which he led government. I did not see him appoint particular advisers to continually give him advice. Should this legislation be passed, the Prime Minister will have the power to create similar roles for any secretary who resigns or whose contract has expired. I wonder if that would apply to somebody who reapplied for their position but did not win it on merit and were given the opportunity of being slotted into a plum role.

The coalition does not oppose the body of the bill. At present the Prime Minister only has the power to appoint departmental secretaries to another role if their department has been abolished or if she has terminated them from their position, both being rare occurrences in the current public sector. The changes to section 60 will allow the Prime Minister to appoint departing departmental secretaries to new roles should they resign or when their terms of service expire and are not renewed. This has the potential to be the beginning of a practice similar to the New South Wales unattached list, which applies at the chief and SES levels.

Another interesting thing I read was that there would be minimal financial implications, although the report itself states:

In a number of areas, reform would require an up-front investment. For example, a new funding model would be required to support the APSC’s additional responsibilities, including the coordination of workforce planning and agency capability reviews. Similarly the citizen-centred reforms, such as developing and establishing an APS-wide citizen survey, would require some resourcing early on.

Over the long term, however, it is anticipated that the reforms (when implemented as a package), would deliver efficiencies and a return on investment. By building capacity and improving effectiveness, several reforms will drive effectiveness and efficiency gains across the APS such as reducing the burden of internal red tape.

All the way through, the report is embedded with some tremendous thinking around the changes that are required, but it does not diminish the importance of public servants.

What diminishes the importance of the process is the way in which this legislation will allow the Prime Minister—it does not matter whether it is a coalition or Labor government—to make appointments outside of the normal, expected behaviour that has predominantly governed the way in which appointments are made in the public sector.

I support the coalition's proposition to amend the legislation by removing changes to section 60 of the Public Service Act, which will allow the Prime Minister to extend the terms of departmental secretaries who have resigned or whose contracts have ended. I support the sentiments expressed by the member for Canberra that public servants do play a key and vital role, that their pathways and their career progression are certainly based on merit standards. It is based on a set of criteria and they know with certainty that they have the opportunity to apply and be part of their or another agency. I think there are many meritorious elements of Ahead of the game, but I certainly could not support a proposition that gave unfettered power to a prime minister to appoint whoever.

Sometimes within the public sector you do not have the particular type of knowledge or skill that is required in the shaping of a strategic direction or the detailed advice in respect of legislation. This could apply to specialised areas of advancing scientific fields, such as gene technology. In those instances there is not a problem in bringing in the right people to provide the level of advice. We have used committees effectively for that range of expert advice without having to appoint a retired or senior public servant—secretaries in particular—at the whim of a prime minister. It is better that we have integrity within the public sector and that we never diminish it.