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Tuesday, 28 June 1994
Page: 2154

Senator HILL (Leader of the Opposition) (10.38 p.m.) —The Australian Capital Territory Government Service (Consequential Provisions) Bill 1994 is an important piece of legislation. However, I do not think a long debate on its provisions will change the positions that are fairly apparent around the chamber. Therefore, I will take account of the time at which this matter is being debated. This bill contains changes to Commonwealth legislation to enable the Australian Capital Territory to set up its own public service. It will amend the ACT Self-Government (Consequential Provisions) Act 1988, the Public Service Act 1922 and the Privacy Act 1988.

  The coalition supports the establishment of the ACT Government Service as an historic, important and necessary step by the ACT on the road to total self-determination. We supported the passage of this bill through the House of Representatives, although we had some reservations because of many issues in the bill which have been, and still are, the subject of disagreement between the ACT and the federal government and the relevant unions.

  These contentious issues include staff movements, known as mobility, between the ACT Government Service and the Australian Public Service; portability of leave credits for officers returning to the APS from the ACT Government Service, or on appointment to the ACT Government Service from the APS. They include the rights of APS officers who, after being compulsorily transferred to the ACT Government Service, are declared excess within a short period; and the lack of clarity about the roles to be played in the ACT Government Service by the Merit Protection Review Agency and the Remuneration Tribunal.

  We note that the government has attempted to address these issues through amendments to the bill and, in the case of the redundancy provisions, a change to administrative orders. The government has proposed the following: all leave credits for transferring and promoted officers will be able to be transferred between the services; mobility provisions be extended to APS officers who are compulsorily transferred to the ACT government service to allow them, for one year only on the government's proposal, to apply for transfer back to the APS under section 50 of the Public Service Act; for ACT government service employees appointed to the APS, prior service in the ACT government service will be counted as service in the APS; probation periods for officers in the ACT government service, whether ex-APS or ex-ACT, will be counted as probation served in the APS should they be appointed to the APS; the Merit Protection (Australian Government Employees) Act 1984 be amended to allow the merit protection agency to perform protective functions on behalf of the ACT government service; and the ACT Legislative Assembly be given the power, which currently rests with the Commonwealth, to overturn decisions of the remuneration tribunal relating to certain ACT government service employees.

  Mr Deputy President, the government has also proposed that APS officers compulsorily transferred to the ACT government service, and who are subsequently made redundant, in addition to their ability to seek positions in the ACT government service and the APS in the usual manner, will also be able to seek non-merit section 50 transfers to the APS within the first two years of the start date of the ACT government service. I understand that this is purely an administrative matter and not subject to legislative amendment.

  The coalition believes that this change is fair in its application to APS staff compulsorily transferred to the ACT government service who face retrenchment shortly thereafter. Despite the proposed amendments and changes, the public service unions and the Trades and Labour Council are still not satisfied; so much so that they have referred various matters raised in this bill, including the mobility provisions, to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. As I understand it, that matter is still part heard and is to continue.

  Why, therefore, do we have this unsatisfactory state of affairs? It was principally because in May 1992 the ACT's Chief Minister, Rosemary Follett, as part of a joint statement with the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, on the establishment of a separate ACT public service, gave an assurance that ACT public servants would not be disadvantaged by the move and that there would be full mobility.

  It might be said that the ACT Labor Government did not consider the impact of this promise on the independence of both services. It might be asked whether it considered whether this in fact would work. The bottom line is that this is another broken promise. The broken promise has upset the public servants; it has upset the unions, and the unions have taken their case to the Industrial Relations Commission, and this very unsatisfactory state of affairs continues to exist.

  Why did the ACT government break its promise? We are suggesting that perhaps it had not thought through the consequences of that promise. I guess why is something for the government to answer rather than for us to speculate upon. In any event, the situation is, as I said, a very disappointed ACT public service; one that we have tried to give some support to by the amendments that I will refer to shortly. Also, because the matter is still before the Industrial Relations Commission we are faced with the prospect that, upon arbitration, the decision of the commission could in fact override the consequence of this legislation; and I say that by virtue of the application of section 121 of the Industrial Relations Act 1988 which I remind you, Mr Deputy President, states:

In relation to an industrial dispute involving public sector employment, the Commission may, where it considers it proper to do so, make an award or order that is not, or in its opinion may not be, consistent with a relevant law of the Commonwealth or of an internal Territory.

I understand that certain undertakings had been given by the government to the unions that in the event that the commission makes a finding that is inconsistent with this legislation—in particular with regard to the section 50 transfers—the government is going to legislate again in accordance with that decision.

  What all that amounts to is that this bill is presented to us in a very unsatisfactory state. It is a pity that the government could not get its relations with the unions settled and this arbitration settled before the bill is put to this chamber. As I said, it should not be misunderstood that the reason why it has been unable to do that is because it made representations to public servants and held out a situation that it was not prepared to honour, and it is that disappointment that has caused the public servants and their unions to take this action. The responsibility for the unsatisfactory state of affairs that flows from this must be borne by Chief Minister Follett and Prime Minister Keating, who have jointly breached their promise to ACT public servants.

  The mobility provisions as they stand allow for all ACT government service officers to compete on merit for positions in either service. This is a concession that no other public service in Australia has, but is one which we believe is necessary to maintain the vitality of both services and encourage good people to stay with the ACT government service. In supporting the government's position on mobility on merit, the coalition recognises that the ACT is a unique employment environment. As we know, it has no strong industrial or manufacturing base which might provide sufficient alternative employment to people in the ACT. The public service will remain in the foreseeable future the major employer.

  Mobility on merit will result in improved public sector performance as effort is rewarded; it will promote greater flexibility in the public sector by allowing recruitment from a wider base; and it will increase opportunities for officers to enhance their experiences and abilities by encouraging mobility between agencies and services. The coalition, therefore, strongly supports the concept of mobility on merit. It is for that reason that the coalition decided, in concert with the ACT opposition leader, Kate Carnell, to propose an amendment to the bill to improve mobility provisions for former APS officers.

  Our amendment provides that mobility provisions between the APS and the ACT government service be extended to allow those APS public servants, who are compulsorily transferred to the ACT government service, to have two years in which to transfer back to the APS under the provisions of section 50 of the Public Service Act, should they wish to. The Labor Government's compromise that it is going to put to the chamber tonight is in similar terms, but for one year. That is pretty disappointing when the government's promise was for total mobility.

  We do not think that is a sufficient window of opportunity. That is why our amendment is in terms of two years. I might say that if we had not gone down that path, and if the Australian Democrats had not publicly expressed support for our position, there would be no compromise coming from the government at all on that issue tonight. I hope the numbers will stand and that we will be able to offer to APS public servants the two years that will give them that little bit of extra flexibility in planning their future.

  In proposing two years, we have recognised that APS recruitment and appointment procedures for people trying to secure appointment in advertised vacancies are excruciatingly slow, never mind for those trying to secure a section 50 transfer. While the coalition would like to see an ACT public service up and running and is willing to agree to the amendments, with the one exception that I have mentioned, the manner in which this issue has been handled by the government is clearly abysmal.

  This bill was to have been introduced into the parliament last year but the government failed to get the agreement of the unions and introduced the bill this session instead. That was at very short notice and the government had to seek our agreement to the introduction and passage in the one session, a legislative process contrary to the one to which it had earlier pledged to adhere. Nevertheless, we agreed. The government also had to do it without the support of the unions. Because of the internal affairs of the ALP, that meant that the government was in the position I outlined earlier of having to give the undertaking that it would amend this bill if arbitration led to a different conclusion.

  The situation today is only marginally different from that which the government faced last year. It follows that unless the government ultimately accepts the union line and grants full mobility or section 50 transfers the unions will not be satisfied and will continue to pursue their options through the commission, possibly even through the courts. From that perspective, it had been an unsatisfactory start to the business of the new public service.

  In conclusion, I note that the ACT is well on the way to complete autonomy. In that context, it is natural for the territory to have its own independent public service. It would be foolish to aspire to such autonomy while still in effect sharing a public service with the Commonwealth. It is unfortunate that this bill, which should have been a pleasure to pass tonight, has been the subject of so much conjecture. The coalition is disappointed by the breach of trust on the part of the ACT Labor government and the Federal Labor government—going back on the much publicised promise to ACT public servants of full mobility provisions between the APS and the ACT government service.

  This debacle of tonight's legislation highlights once again the Labor government's inability to keep its promises to the electorate—something so familiar to us from its broken tax promises and other broken promises—its habit of seeking to buy votes with promises of things that it cannot deliver, its failure to consider the consequences of its promises, its inability to work on a Commonwealth-state level, and its inability to negotiate realistic and equitable outcomes with the unions, its political bedfellows.