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Monday, 20 August 2012
Page: 9158

Mr FLETCHER (Bradfield) (18:26): It is a pleasure to follow the member for Fraser and I commend him on the way in which he has used this legislation to demonstrate that he is in support of public servants—and who would have expected that from a member from the Australian Capital Territory! I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Public Service Amendment Bill, which, as we have heard from a number of speakers, amends the Public Service Act 1999, with the intention of revising the Australian Public Service values; clarifying the roles and responsibilities of secretaries and amending their employment arrangements; revising and clarifying the roles and functions of the Public Service Commissioner; and improving the day-to-day workforce management of the Australian Public Service through a range of operational amendments.

The purpose of this exercise, we are told, was to position the Australian Public Service to continue to serve the government to a high standard and to equip it to meet current and future challenges and the expectations of the government in the Australian community. Those are all very worthwhile objectives. In the main, the coalition supports the broad direction of this bill, with one very significant exception which I will come to.

I would like, in the brief time available to me, to make essentially three points. The first is that we on the coalition side of the House, as much as those on the government side of the House, are strongly in support of the proposition that a high-performing Public Service is very much to be supported and desired. The second observation I would like to make is that some key recent trends in the Public Service tend to increase the urgency of improving the efficiency and performance of the Public Service, which, as we are told, is the objective of this bill. I want thirdly to make the point that one aspect of this bill that the coalition does not support is the provision which would make it easier to redeploy departing departmental secretaries.

Let me turn to the importance of the Public Service. Some 160,000 Australians are employed by the Australian Public Service, with the biggest number employed by the Australian Taxation Office and Centrelink, and the rest being employed in a whole range of other departments and agencies. It is certainly an uncontentious proposition that a high-performing and well organised Public Service is vital to the good operation of government. Under the traditional Westminster model that applies in Australia, departments manage and implement government policy across all of the range of policy areas for which government has responsibility. So the Public Service has a critical role to play in the overall system of government. As the former Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold, has noted, the range of things that public servants do is wide:

They deliver welfare payments and health benefits, identify labour market opportunities, issue passports, scrutinise tax returns and decide on migration visas. They administer grants and award contracts. Every day they make decisions that affect the hopes of citizens.

Therefore it is exceptionally important for the lives and wellbeing of Australians that all of these tasks are carried out as well as they might possibly be.

The blueprint for the reform of Australian government administration—the document which underpinned the legislative changes the House is now considering—made some key points about the importance of the Australian Public Service. It noted that Australia's prosperity would be influenced by the ability of the Australian Public Service to tackle future domestic and global challenges and that the Australian Public Service needs to respond to organisational challenges, including a tightening labour market and fast paced technological change. The report noted that capacity to provide high-quality, innovative and forward-thinking advice to government would be critical for addressing future challenges. I think we can all agree with those propositions.

That brings me to the second area that I wanted to address in the time available to me, which is to look at key recent trends in the Public Service and ask ourselves whether those trends are consistent with the objectives set out in the legislation before the parliament this evening. The question, really, is whether we are seeing the efficiency and effectiveness of the Public Service improving or, under this government, being threatened. We have certainly seen a massive blow-out in the size of the Public Service. Between the last full year of the Howard government, 2006-07, and this year, 2012-13, there will be an increase of some 20,000 staff in the APS.

I have asked a question on notice in parliament of every cabinet minister as to how many new departments, agencies, commissions, government owned corporations or such bodies have been created within their portfolios since the Rudd government was elected to office. Not all ministers have so far responded but, to date, some 34 different bodies have been identified—ranging from NBN Co., with about 1,300 staff, to the Australian Qualifications Framework Council, with three staff. Total staff across all those newly formed entities number around 4,700.

So we are seeing a growth in the Public Service. On ordinary principles of productivity and efficiency, when you see growth, at the very least you want to see a corresponding increase in output. Ideally, you want to see a greater increase in output to achieve an increase in productivity. That is, you want to see more being delivered per unit of input—in this case, per unit of labour input. I am sorry to say that it is hard to be satisfied that we are seeing that improvement in productivity.

What we have seen is an extraordinary increase in regulation and in the volume of legislation which is being generated. In the 42nd parliament, some 409 acts were given assent; and in the 43rd parliament, to date, some 273 acts have been given assent. The government would say that that is evidence that everything is going marvellously well. A competing view is that we are seeing an explosion of regulations being imposed—in many cases, ill-considered and poorly-thought-through burdens upon citizens seeking to live productive lives.

We could look, for example, at the introduction of the carbon tax, with its thousands of pages of legislation and the massive bureaucracy to administer the legislation. According to a report in the Australian 118 officials in the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency and the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities are part of the Senior Executive Service. Certainly it is an uncontentious proposition that the department of climate change has proved to be a very happy source of employment for a large number of people, many of them on very large salaries indeed by community standards, bearing in mind that according to taxation statistics 90 per cent of Australians are earning less than $100,000 a year. A very large number of people in the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency are earning significantly more than that.

Another area which raises concern about the efficiency of the Public Service, the purported object of the changes in this bill, is the increasingly chaotic administrative arrangements of the Rudd government and subsequently the Gillard government. The general principle for good administration in business and in government is to have a clear organisational and reporting structure so that you can then have clear accountability and good outcomes.

Unfortunately, the Rudd government and then the Gillard government have followed arrangements which have been the absolute antithesis of these principles. Historically, it has been accepted that you would have a cabinet minister appointed, with executive and political responsibility for each department of state. The cabinet minister would be supported by a junior minister, and in some areas there would also be support from a parliamentary secretary.

This produced a clear and logical structure. Each portfolio was represented in cabinet by one minister and each ministerial portfolio had one department. This meant, amongst other things, that junior ministers and parliamentary secretaries could operate clearly within the confines of one portfolio and there was a clear and direct relationship between the department and the portfolio minister. This basic approach was entrenched in reforms made in the late 1980s by the then Hawke government.

Unfortunately, since the commencement of the Rudd government we have seen a very significant deviation from this approach. Mr Andrew Podger, a former health department secretary and former Public Service Commissioner, has analysed these changes—both from those perspectives and in his current capacity as Professor of Public Policy at the Australian National University. He has been very critical of the approach to public sector administration under the Rudd and Gillard governments. It seems that what we have is a move from simplicity and accountability to complexity and confusion.

Certainly, the traditional rule of one portfolio and one cabinet minister has gone out the window. Following the most recent reshuffle by the current Prime Minister there are now six portfolios with more than one cabinet minister. Even more problematically, some cabinet ministers have responsibility across several departments. For example, Greg Combet is Minister for Industry and Innovation within the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education. He is also Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency within the department of the same name. Bill Shorten is another cabinet minister who has two portfolios—one within Treasury and one within the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

This approach of multiple cabinet ministers across portfolios can tend to mean a lack of accountability and a lack of clarity as to who has ultimate responsibility. I have no doubt that these arrangements will lead to administrative confusion and inefficiency and will undermine the critical relationship between a department and its minister, which is so important if the work of government is to be done effectively and if public servants are to be able to work clearly and effectively to achieve the priorities of the government of the day.

The chaotic arrangements that have been put in place under the Rudd and Gillard governments mean that many ministers are now required to manage multiple relationships with multiple departments and, more problematically, the departments are required to manage multiple ministers. No doubt there are also practical problems arising such as different departments using different IT systems and the question of whether it is necessary to have departmental liaison officers from multiple departments in the office of one cabinet minister.

The performance of this government when it comes to getting the best out of the Public Service has been a long way short of the rhetoric that underpins the bill before us this afternoon. If you look at how effectively cabinet government worked under the Rudd government, it is pretty clear that the guiding principle was to sideline cabinet as a proper decision-making body and have most decisions made by a kitchen cabinet, comprising the then Prime Minister and three other ministers. That chaotic approach has been reflected, I would argue, throughout the entire Public Service as it seeks to respond to the priorities set for it by government. If the government is not doing a good job of setting those priorities then necessarily the Public Service is not going to be very efficient and productive.

The final point I want to make is to highlight the perspective the opposition takes on one particular element of the bill before the House, which is the proposal to amend section 60 of the Public Service Act so as to give the Prime Minister the power to extend the terms of departmental secretaries who have resigned or whose contracts have ended. This is something that the Prime Minister recently did when Mr Ken Henry resigned from his position as Secretary of Treasury in April 2011 and was then appointed as a special adviser under section 67 of the Constitution.

If the bill before the House passes in its present form, the Prime Minister will have the power to create similar roles for any secretary who resigns or whose contract has expired, but without the scrutiny that is required under section 67. The coalition's concern is that, amongst other things, this is a measure that risks materially adding to the number of public servants and we do not think it consistent with good principles of public administration. It contrasts with that law, as it presently stands, under which the Prime Minister only has the power to appoint a departmental secretary to another role if that secretary's department has been abolished or if the Prime Minister has terminated that secretary from his or her position. Both of those things are relatively rare occurrences.

The amendment which is proposed in the bill before the House would allow the Prime Minister to, effectively at will, appoint departing departmental secretaries to new roles should they resign or whenever their terms of service expire and are not renewed. In the coalition's view, this has the potential to be the beginning of a practice similar to that which has been pursued in New South Wales for many years of having an unattached list at the senior executive service level within the Public Service. I am pleased to note that, in New South Wales, Premier O'Farrell has moved to end the unattached list arrangements, reportedly to secure savings of $16 million a year, by removing some 250 people from the list. The coalition is very concerned that this amendment would lead to a similarly wasteful and profligate approach in the administration of the Commonwealth Public Service, so that is an amendment we do not support.

I close by reiterating that we on this side of the House are very strong believers in the importance of a productive and efficient Public Service. To the extent that the amendments in this bill are designed to increase the productivity and efficiency of the Public Service, they have our support. We note that there is something of a gulf between the objectives stated in this bill and the way in which the Rudd and Gillard governments have conducted themselves and managed the relationships between ministers—particularly cabinet ministers—and the Public Service, which has tended to reduce the efficiency of the Public Service. We certainly hope that the objective of increasing productivity and efficiency is one that can be achieved and that this bill will make some contribution towards that. (Time expired)