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Thursday, 16 May 1957

Mr WARD (East Sydney) .- Members of the Opposition are pleased to have the opportunity again of reminding the Government of a number of objectionable features in the Public Service Act to which they have directed attention in the past. On occasions, they have obtained assurances from the Government that their submissions will be examined, but, beyond those assurances, nothing has happened. I think it is about time that the Government, instead of merely giving assurances that the matters will be examined, took some action to correct the situation. It appears to me that if it were any section of the Australian working class other than the public servants - who, traditionally have never been inclined to adopt what might be regarded as direct action to obtain improvement of their conditions - the Government would not have proceeded along the lines that it has proceeded in the past. But because the Government knows that, traditionally, the Public Service of this country is an organization of workers who have accepted, not without protest, many conditions which they find objectionable, it has taken no action to improve their lot.

I want to refer, as the honorable member for Banks (Mr. Costa) referred so ably in his speech, to a matter that no member of this Parliament, individually, has approved - that is, the practice of giving the chief officers of the various sections of the Public Service the right to impose penalties up to £2 without the persons affected having a right of appeal. I think that that is an outrageous practice.

Let us examine why that is done and exactly what it involves. A chief officer is not restricted in his power to impose these fines. He can prefer a charge against an officer, but not only does he make the charge, he also conducts whatever inquiry is made and then he imposes a penalty. If the penalty does not exceed £2, there is no right of appeal. That applies whether the person who is charged admits that there is some ground for the charge being made against him. or asserts his innocence. Surely, if a person says that he is innocent of the charge preferred against him, he should be given a fair hearing, but not by the person who makes the charge, and certainly, when a penalty is imposed, he should be given a right of appeal.

How did this provision come to be included in the act and why does the Government allow this practice to continue? There is some rather interesting information in a journal called " White Collar ", a publication issued on behalf of Public Service organizations. Representatives of these organizations approached the Commonwealth Public Service Board with a view to asking the Board to take up with the Government the necessity for removing this objectionable provision. Let us examine the reply of the Public Service Board and the arguments it advanced for not agreeing to the suggestion that this provision be removed. It said -

Administrative disadvantages, costs of proceedings and loss of time would outweigh any benefit to the majority of officers.

Did anybody ever hear it said before that questions of the administration of justice must be determined on the basis of cost? The Public Service Board, which is supported by this Government, argued that, no matter how outrageous a decision was given against an officer, justice ought to be denied to the accused person in the Public Service merely because it would cost a sum of money to administer a fair scheme. The report in this journal goes on to point out that the Public Service Board argued that -

Disciplinary practices in other spheres were taken into account and in general most criminal laws provide that there is no appeal from summary convictions for minor offences, e.g. parking offences in New South Wales.

Did anybody ever imagine that a public service board or any other body of responsible people in the community would argue that a parking offence in the State of New South Wales was a criminal offence? It is a ridiculous and outrageous argument to advance. Strange to say, it is not an accurate statement of the position. Although to-day the average motorist would not bother to appeal against a nominal fine imposed for a parking offence, if he wanted to do so he could, because there is a right of appeal against such a fine. I know of no instance - certainly not in Australia - where penalties are imposed and there is not some right of appeal to a higher authority. According to my knowledge, there has been no case in the recent history of the administration of justice in this country where a person has preferred a charge against another person and then has determined his guilt and imposed a penalty. But that is what is happening in the Public Service to-day. This report states further that the Public Service Board said -

In the Armed Services there is no right of appeal, but for other than minor offences, an accused has the right to elect trial by Court-Martial. In the Army, for example, there is no right to elect where the monetary penalty is £3 or less.

Honorable members will agree that those were remarkable statements for the Public Service Board to make in combating the request of the Public Service organizations. Let me quote a case to show what can happen. Recently, in the State of New South Wales, a clerk employed in the Department of Customs and Excise exchanged blows with a carrier. According to the information given to me, this customs clerk was fully justified in the action that he took. It appears that the gentleman with whom he became involved in fisticuffs was an overbearing type who continually went into a section of the customs premises where he was not entitled to go. When the customs clerk objected to his being behind the counter, in a place which obviously was reserved for members of the staff, he refused to go, a fracas occurred, and blows were struck. The case was immediately dealt with by the Collector of Customs, because the other person affected rang the collector and lodged a complaint. It is to the credit of the Collector of Customs that, although he found the customs officer guilty of the alleged offence, he adopted the course of fining him £3. He did that deliberately so that the officer would have a right of appeal. The collector did not consider it was fair to find the officer concerned guilty of the alleged offence without giving him a right of appeal. The officer exercised that right. The appeal was upheld, he did not have to pay the fine, and nothing adverse was recorded against him. But what would have been the position had the Collector of Customs determined that the fine would be £2? This man would still stand condemned in the records of the department as guilty of an offence, because he would have had no right of appeal whatever. Surely no honorable member would advocate the continuance of such a state of affairs merely because the Public Service Board claims that in the absence of this restriction, the appeal system would cost this or that sum to administer.

When this matter has been raised previously, Government supporters and Opposition members have objected to the existing procedure, but I am very much afraid that Government supporters, having gone that far, have not continued to apply pressure to ensure that the position was corrected. 1 hope that they will take this opportunity of seeing that the Government acts reasonably. I join with my colleague, the honorable member for Banks (Mr. Costa), in saying that an amendment of the act to correct this state of affairs is long overdue. Indeed, the honorable member proposes in the committee stage to move an appropriate amendment, and I hope that the matter will be determined not on the basis of Government versus Opposition but on the basis of honorable members voting according to their conscience and exercising some judgment as to whether this unfair arrangement should continue to obtain in our Public Service.

Mr Bowden - How long has it obtained?

Mr WARD -I understand that it has existed for some time, but I do not think that that is a valid argument in favour of its retention. The question is whether it is right or wrong, and whether it should be continued. No body of employees in any other undertaking would permit the continuance of such an outrageous provision. The Government is exploiting the traditional attitude of public servants in refusing to involve themselves in disputes involving actual stoppages of work, in order to redress grievances. They should not be penalized because of their past attitude. The Government should amend the act.

I want to refer also to the proposal to penalize public servants who report late for duty. I understand that at present they are not penalized if the officer in charge regards their explanation as satisfactory. The Public Service Board has various means of dealing with the chronic absentee, or daily latecomer. It can take disciplinary action and can actually dis miss an offender, but thousands of very worthy public servants will be adversely affected by the provision that the Government wants to put in the act, though they may not be responsible for their late arrival at work. A suburban train in one of the capital cities may be derailed, with the result that large numbers of public servants reach their place of employment late. At present, the officer-in-charge would regard that as a satisfactory explanation and they would not be penalized; but under the new provision every public servant who is late will find that his salary or wage is reduced accordingly.

It is not as if production - if one may apply the term to the Public Service - is affected by late attendance. Most public servants have a certain task to perform, and if they are late they must work harder to catch up. Therefore, the Government loses nothing as a result of an occasional late arrival. Now, because some one has had a brain-wave, every one in the Public Service is to be penalized. That is not the way to get a contented and efficient service. No trade unionist, or member of a workers' organization, would object to a penalty being imposed for an undoubted offence. No one would suggest that an employee should be permitted to come late regularly, but surely the matter should be treated reasonably, and the circumstances surrounding the late arrival taken into consideration.

I suggest that the Government should re-examine this proposal. It will not derive a great deal of benefit - or revenue - from it, and it will certainly cause a great deal of dissatisfaction and discontent in the Public Service. I think that, in this case, the Government has certainly been unwise, and I hope that the two matters in respect of which I have supported the arguments advanced by my esteemed colleague, the honorable member for Banks, will be corrected.

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