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Wednesday, 13 June 1984
Page: 2970

Senator GARETH EVANS (Attorney-General)(9.53) —in reply-I thank honourable senators for their contribution to this debate, varied though the respective contributions may have been in their understanding appreciation of the scope, the force and the effect of this legislation. Honourable mentions should be made in relation to the contributions of Senator Giles and Senator Macklin. Perhaps an only slightly less honourable mention should be made to Senator Townley whose contribution to the debate, along with the usual amiable banalities and excursion through his current whims, fancies and preoccupations only marginally germane to the subject matter of the legislation, did, nonetheless, offer some thoughtful comments on a number of matters of interest.

As to his remarks about parliamentary disallowance of office-holder appointments of any significance, this is something that will appeal to a number of people, particularly on the basis of analogies drawn from the procedures in the United States of America where some very senior office-bearers do have to withstand very considerable parliamentary scrutiny, taking the form, essentially , of disallowance proceedings-to apply Australian terminology to them-before they can be confirmed in their offices. A couple of things should be said about that and its application to Australia. One is that it is very much an exaggeration to think in terms of congressional scrutineers having universal application to the otherwise patronage appointments of United States administrations. It is only the very tip of the iceberg that is dealt with in that way. Certainly one would not contemplate the kinds of Public Service appointments that Senator Townley seems to want to embrace in this procedure as being caught up in it in the United States.

Secondly, of course, it should be said that the situation which there prevails, involving a very strict separation of powers between the Executive and the legislature, is not the system, for better or worse, under which we operate here and, again, procedures of that kind, derived essentially from United States experience and a different constitutional system, can be thought of as having application to this country's procedures only with a very great deal of caution. Be that as it may, it is an interesting thought and one that perhaps needs to be further contemplated, particularly in the context of major office holders in the future.

Senator Townley also raised the question of the appointment of staff of members of parliament. I say only this: It is certainly contemplated by the Government that the Remuneration Tribunal will continue to have a role in this process in that it should be able to consider the matter and make recommendations to the Government even though it is certainly anticipated that the Government, as at present, will retain the final responsibility for deciding the allocation of staff. Any disposition towards churlishness on this point by Senator Townley or anyone else on the Opposition benches should be tempered by the realisation, if they are in any fairminded frame of mind, that this Government's treatment of members of parliament in terms of their staff entitlements has been infinitely more generous than that which was meted out to the then Opposition in the days of the former Government, particularly to front benchers. I believe that our performance in his respect has been characterised by both a spirit of generosity and an understanding of the needs of parliamentarians. I would not like Senator Townley's innuendos to the contrary to go unchallenged or unanswered in this debate.

Undoubtedly, the most fascinating contribution to the debate, however, was that of Senator Durack who presented himself tonight as some kind of alert, wide-eyed , athletic radical, aroused to almost a fever pitch of expectation, his adrenalin pounding, by my announcements and those of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) and Mr Dawkins in respect of our proposals in the Public Service area. He further presented himself as reduced to almost desolation by what he now sees to be the torpor, the inadequacy, of the final product. All this from the man whose contribution to public administration in this country was to develop bottom drawer bureaucracy to its highest art form since Federation; all this from the man whose contribution to the bottom of the harbour scandal probably did more to discredit the administrative credibility of the Fraser Government than any other single event in the lifetime of that unhappy Administration; all this from a man whose inability, well intentioned as he may, undoubtedly, have been and undoubtedly still is, to move legislation, litigation, paper or anything else became legendary in his own ministerial lifetime; and all this, moreover, from a member of a former government whose contribution to public administration, apart from the industrial relations disasters of the Commonwealth Employees ( Employment Provisions) Act and the Commonwealth Employees (Retirement and Redeployment) Act, was one of endlessly repeated non-response and inactivity to a series of very major and far reaching reports.

The Coombs Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, an initiative of the Labor Administration of Prime Minister Whitlam, reported in 1976 but produced practically nothing by way of legislative or any other response from the Fraser Government. The Bland Commonwealth Administrative Review Committee reported in 1976 with similar results. The search and destroy mission of the razor gang in 1981 produced all sorts of havoc and devastation which we are now gradually unwinding area by area but did nothing in the way of constructive reform of the basic elements of the Public Service itself. The Reid Committee of Review of Commonwealth Administration, analysing as it did wide scale managerial deficiencies, again was unmet by anything in the nature of constructive, let alone swift action. In a similar bag was the Connolly Committee, the Public Accounts Committee report No. 202, drawing attention, as it did, to numerous other inadequacies.

The approach of the present Government has been totally different. We thought long, carefully and thoughtfully in opposition about the problems of public administration in this country. We carefully analysed the Coombs report and all the other reports. We drew the best from them and drew up a working blueprint to the extent that one can in opposition. We produced working papers, policy papers and White Papers very early on in the life of this Government and produced, in response to that, legislation at the earliest opportunity which now comes before this Parliament. Very important and far-reaching legislation it is. We had some sort of grudging and belated acknowledgment from Senator Durack that there are two or three matters of significance. He deigned to identify as deserving this appellation the provisions relating to the appointment of secretaries of departments, provisions about part time employment, the creation of the Merit Protection Review Agency, and the separating out from the traditional Public Service Board the function of grievance hearing and redress which is, of course, of enormous significance to those working at the coal-face within the Public Service.

These are major changes on any view of the legislation, but they simply assume their place as major changes among many others in this package of legislation. I refer, for example, so far as the Public Service Reform Bill is concerned, to the establishment of the Senior Executive Service which was acknowledged by Senator Macklin certainly and just about anyone else who has looked at this as a major contribution administratively and structurally towards getting that mobility, that flexibility, in the senior levels of the Australian Public Service which is so desperately needed, in circumstances where the expectation of our senior administrators is of flexibility, mobility and of the need to perform in their particular jobs rather than being able to waddle along cheerfully in the backwaters of the administration that has been the situation in the past.

A whole set of administrative arrangements for resource management is provided for in this legislation. There are provisions empowering the secretaries to create, abolish and reclassify offices within departments in accordance with classification guidelines developed by the Board and within number and salary profile controls administered by the Department of Finance. There is a very considerable degree of devolution in the way in which departments can be organised and reorganised to meet the particular exigencies of the moment.

The dinosaur is beginning to move with the legislation. The way in which it creates new procedures, new structures, enables it to move with a much greater degree of dexterity and sensitivity than has been the case before. The legislation contains, again, a very clear statement of merit principles and prescribes forms of unjustifiable discrimination. Associated with that there is provision for the departments and prescribed authorities to formulate equal employment opportunity programs in a whole series of other interrelated measures and make non-discrimination and merit as the key criterion, the real working principle, on which our Public Service operates. It is not marginal or trivial stuff. It is absolutely central and absolutely important to effective public administration in this country.

The provision for departments and prescribed authorities to prepare industrial democracy plans to further genuinely participate in decision making within departments was derided in a very grudging fashion by Senator Durack as just some kind of trendy capitulation to the forces of modernisation, but it is of absolutely crucial significance to the men and women who really have to make our Public Service, our public sector, work. That is not deserving of the kind of churlishness which was expressed here tonight. The Members of Parliament (Staff) Bill contains provisions which rationalise the restructure not only of the rules governing the appointment of staff of members of parliament, which I have mentioned already, but also ministerial consultants. The legislation creates, for the first time, a proper framework for the use rather than the abuse on key projects of people who can bring to government relevant specialised or technically advanced skills, which is the sort of thing that Senator Durack seemed anxious in the abstract to encourage in his talk of contracts and contractual arrangements and greater flexibility but which he cannot recognise when he falls over them in terms of the legislation now in front of him tonight. What we had from the Opposition spokesmen tonight was churlish, silly, grudging stuff-a performance which shows all too clearly why it is that the previous Government lost control of its administration and, in the process, lost the confidence of the Australian public. Senator Macklin, by contrast, was absolutely right when he described this legislation as the most comprehensive package of proposals for reform of the Public Service since its inception in this country. That is the way to describe it; that is what we have here tonight.

Let me finish by simply repeating publicly to Senator Macklin and the Australian Democrats the assurances and undertakings that were given by Mr Dawkins, as the Minister in charge of these matters, during the discussions leading up to this debate on the three particular matters identified by Senator Macklin as being of concern, understandably, to his Party. First of all, as to the advertising of the Senior Executive Service vacancies, it is the case that in addition to notification in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette the normal arrangement will be to advertise all vacancies in the Senior Executive Service in a block in appropriate newspapers. In some cases display advertisements will be used and executive search services engaged. Secondly, as to the question of staff representation on selection committees for the SES, it is the case that promotion and appointment committees will be very carefully chosen, always including a representative of the Public Service Board and at least one member of the SES. On the third matter that concerned Senator Macklin and the Democrats -remuneration for the SES-it is the case that to assist in the recruitment of staff from outside the Service the Public Service Board has had aspects of the remuneration package under review, particularly those where reimbursement for expenses incurred are involved; for example, relocation expenses. The Government has also decided that fixed term appointees should be able to be covered by an endowment superannuation policy as an alternative to normal superannuation coverage. So we have acted, and will continue to act, in a way that is sensitive and I hope responsive to the very legitimate concerns that have been expressed in this area.

There are many other ways in which one could sing the praises of this very far- reaching, progressive and clear-sighted legislation, but the hour being as it is and the state of the program being as it, I do nothing more than commend this very important legislation to the House and wish it a speedy passage.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bills read a second time.