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Monday, 20 August 2012
Page: 9155

Dr LEIGH (Fraser) (18:11): I am fortunate enough to be a member for a seat based in the ACT, and that means that I have the privilege of representing, meeting and working with a large number of public servants. Public servants form a significant part of my constituency and I am proud of the work they do and the contribution they make to a better Australia. Labor is committed to the highest standards of integrity and conduct in the Australian Public Service. We on this side of the House understand the importance of a strong, effective, efficient Public Service. There is a similar tradition on the other side of the House, a tradition that goes back to Robert Menzies, a tradition carried through with the member for Wentworth, a tradition that recognises that it is through having strong and dedicated public servants that we are able to implement policies that we believe will create a better country.

But I am concerned when I see in this place the growing incursion of American-style attacks on public servants—the notion that government is not the solution; government is the problem. Nowhere is that epitomised more than in the coalition's pledge to cut 12,000 Public Service jobs as the first way of filling their massive funding gap. It is through that almost Pavlovian response that whenever coalition members are asked how they will manage to meet their budget shortfall, what cuts they will make, they go immediately to firing public servants. The member for Wright said that he feels for the Canberrans who would lose their jobs were an Abbott government to be elected. I am sure my constituents are grateful for his concerns, but I suspect they would rather just keep their jobs.

We see these sorts of antics when the member for North Sydney is giving particular examples of the Public Service departments that he would axe. The member for North Sydney is an honourable man, but when it comes to speaking about Public Service departments he has something of the Rick Perrys about him. Members of the House will remember Governor Perry as the man who dropped out of the Republican race when he could not manage to remember the third government department he was going to cut. The member for North Sydney has said that he will cut at least three government departments. The only difference between him and Governor Perry is he can remember them.

He wants to get rid of much of the department of health, which he believes is overstaffed—odd, really, given that it employs about the same number of public servants that it employed when the Leader of the Opposition was the minister for health. He wants to get rid of much of the department of climate change, and the department of defence materiel is also in line for the cut.

We on this side of the House have a different view of the Public Service. Our view is that there is a valuable contribution made by public servants. Obviously those closest to my heart are those in my own electorate, but nationwide there are public servants day in, day out making a contribution to building a better country. In May this year I moved a private member's motion calling for a strong Public Service. The motion moved:

That this House:

(1) recognises the important role played by the Australian Public Service in upholding and promoting our democracy and its key role in ensuring stable government;

(2) commends the Australian Public Service on continuing to be one of the most efficient and effective public services in the world; and

(3) condemns plans by the Opposition to make 12,000 public servants redundant.

In terms of the importance of a strong Public Service, I draw the House's attention to the Centre for Policy Development's report The state of the Australian Public Service: an alternative report. Authored by James Whelan and commissioned by Miriam Lyons, CPD's executive director, the report goes through a range of aspects of Public Service reform, including pulling out some quotes from parliamentarians about the importance of the Public Service. The report, for example, notes the member for Wentworth judiciously observing:

I think the critical thing to ensure is that Government delivers its services efficiently at every level but you’ve just got to be smart about it.

That is what we have in this country: one of the most efficient and effective public services in the world. We saw that when the global downturn hit. The rapid fiscal stimulus that saw Australian household payments out before Christmas 2008 was only made possible thanks to dedicated, hardworking public servants. We were able to put in place rapid fiscal stimulus, and we were able to do it in a way that was directed to households thanks to the efficient work of public servants.

When dealing with natural disasters, public servants are there making sure people receive their government payments, sometimes within days of a disaster hitting. There are public servants going into workplaces to make sure that conditions are safe. There are public servants keeping infectious diseases out of the country. There are public servants finding the best ways of protecting our natural environment. There is more to the Australian Public Service than the work they do in policy development, implementation and service delivery. There are a range of jobs performed by local public servants, and those public servants are often contributing to their community outside their hours. I see their passion for community translating into a greater local benefit in the ACT with our higher than average levels of volunteering and participation in sport and recreation.

In other states of Australia we see exactly that dedication as well. When the Queensland floods hit, for example, Centrelink worker Gillian Harman spent a month volunteering in flood-hit Queensland, in Dalby. After she finished volunteering, Centrelink worker Ms Harman returned home on Sunday night and the next day went straight back to work in her Centrelink office in Guyra, northern New South Wales. As the then minister for human services, the member for Sydney, informed the House, Ms Harman was tragically killed that Monday going home from the office.

I remember once hearing Vice President Al Gore make the point that on September 11 at the Twin Towers it was the government workers who were the only ones running up the stairs. When natural disasters hit, we are proud to have strong public servants doing the job that they do so ably.

What concerns me is the coalition's strong commitment to making Public Service cuts. Their policy at the last election, 12,000 public service cuts, appears to be just the tip of the iceberg. Asked on 7.30 on 8 May whether or not the coalition would get rid of 20,000 Public Service jobs, the member for North Sydney refused to rule it out. Of course the coalition has form on this. They went to the 1996 election saying their plan was to reduce departmental running costs by two per cent. I actually have a copy of this policy document in my office. You can even see on the back, 'Written and authorised by Andrew Robb,' now the member for Goldstein.

Did the coalition do just that? Sadly, no. They went much further. They had said they would achieve their targets by not replacing a proportion of those who left over the first term of the coalition government through a process of natural attrition with no forced redundancies. They said there would only be up to 2,500 positions. That is what this policy statement with 'Andrew Robb' on the back of it says. But when they came to office we saw, in 1996-97, 10,070 public servants retrenched; in 1997-98, 10,238; in 1998-99, 9,061 public servants. So upon winning office the Howard government got rid of about 30,000 public sector jobs—about 10 times more than they said they would. The CDP report notes:

The Coalition’s desire to reduce the size and cost of the Australian Public Service taps into ‘small government’ movements that have been prevalent here and in other western countries since at least the 1970s. The values, visions and policies of these movements are currently expressed by the Tea Party in the United States and ‘Big Society’ in the United Kingdom.

I note that the Minister for the Public Service and Integrity has said that he will support the amendment proposed by the member for Mackellar. But I do want to correct something that has been said by a number of opposition speakers: that these changes have something to do with Ken Henry. That in fact is not the case. The intention to broaden section 60 of the Public Service Act had been part of proposed amendments since 2006, initiated under the former government. I can understand why those opposite are keen to bring Dr Henry into this debate. Their attacks on Dr Henry are in some sense symbolic of how far they have moved from good economic policy.

Let's remember the career of Dr Henry, a man appointed as the Secretary of the Treasury by Peter Costello, a man who has faithfully served governments of both sides, somebody who advised the Hawke and Keating governments and, through his experience in the downturn of the early nineties, a man who was able to move rapidly when the global financial crisis threatened. He is also a man who assisted the Howard government in implementing the goods and services tax. He is somebody who operates very much in the bipartisan traditions that Australians hold dear.

But we have seen some frankly scurrilous attacks in this House on Ken Henry's reputation, I think probably stemming from the coalition feeling sore about the $11 billion black hole that Treasury identified in their 2010 election costings. These are costings that the opposition decided they would have done by a team of accountants, who were later found guilty of professional misconduct for claiming they had carried out an audit where in fact they had done no such thing. It was possibly better than using a catering firm to do your costings, as the member for Cook has advocated, but not much better. Those costings were later found to be out by a cool $11 billion. The response of those opposite is akin to the response of a rich kid whose maths teacher has told him he has got an answer wrong and goes straight to the principal and asks for the maths teacher to be fired. In the case of Dr Henry, they set about attacking his reputation, suggesting that the costings exercise was somehow political.

That was a low point, and a departure from what I think has been a strong tradition, on their side of the House as well as ours, that respects public servants and recognises that they impartially serve both sides of this House. I think no-one has done that better than Dr Henry. He has made his fair share of criticisms of Labor policies and coalition policies. But he has a core set of beliefs, he is driven by the value of making Australia a better place. I would call on those opposite to allow cooler heads to prevail and to focus their attentions on reforms, not on playing the man.

In the couple of minutes remaining to me, let me simply note that the bill proposes further amendments to the Public Service Amendment Bill 2012. That bill implemented legislative changes recommended by Ahead of the game: blueprint for the reform of Australian government administration. Those changes included a range of amendments aimed at good governance to sustain an Australian Public Service that is fit for purpose. The changes were: the provision of a performance framework for departmental secretaries, with the minimum length of initial appointment to be five years; and the revision of APS values, recognising the Public Service Commissioner's role and allowing the commissioner to undertake a special review in specific circumstances.

The first set of amendments in the bill concerns temporary employees and will restore the provisions currently in the Public Service Act that provide for subcategories of non-ongoing employment. The second concern is the protection of information and immunity from civil suit provisions. The amendments make it clear that information obtained by entrusted persons who are acting under the direction of the commissioner, or the authority of those assisting the commissioner, are protected from unauthorised disclosure or use. The amendments in this and the parent bill are an important part of modernising the Australian Public Service.

Every year, thousands of young and not so young people move to the ACT to take up jobs as graduates in the Australian Public Service. I am enormously pleased that, through a difficult period of efficiency dividends, Public Service departments are continuing to hire new graduates. I call on all Australian young people to consider a career as a public servant; it is a challenging one but a worthy one. Public servants in my electorate and throughout Australia are working hard to build a better country. I commend them for their work and I commend the bill to the House.