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Wednesday, 15 May 1957

Mr LESLIE (Moore) .- The bill before us seeks to adjust quite a number of matters which are important to officers of the Public Service. The provisions of this bill are relatively unimportant having regard to ramifications of the Public Service and of the great number of provisions in the principal act that need to be reconsidered. It is quite true, however, that the bill will remove an injustice. At present, officers who lose time are obliged to suffer the severe penalty of discharge or are charged with a serious offence whereas, under this bill, the Public Service Board may introduce a regulation providing the lesser penalty of a deduction from their pay for the time that they lose.

The bill also seeks to facilitate the employment of temporary staff. The honorable member for Banks (Mr. Costa) has said that this is a desirable amendment. I believe it is desirable, too, but I believe that the position in relation to the employment of temporary staff needs to be completely cleared up in the legislation so that it may be clearly understood. Originally, the provision for the employment of temporary staff was intended not to provide temporary employment for persons, but to permit the Public Service Commissioner, and later the Public Service Board, to fill a position which was of a temporary nature. That is vastly different from providing mere temporary employment. There has been a considerable amount of misunderstanding about the matter. Too many positions, staffed by temporary officers, continue to be permanent temporary positions. Too frequently, they are occupied by employees who have never been appointed to the Public Service and who, therefore, remain temporary employees. This bill could easily have rectified that position.

Provision to enable ex-service personnel to obtain appointment to the Public Service and to be transferred from temporary positions to permanent appointments has been extended in this bill by providing that the Public Service Board may accept examination qualifications which have hitherto not been acceptable to it. These are qualifications gained at examinations which the board itself may prescribe, rendering it unnecessary for the person concerned to pass an examination set by the States. That is a very desirable amendment which has been sought for a long time.

The honorable member for Banks mentioned a number of amendments which are required in the principal act. They may be very desirable, but officers of the Public Service, from the junior clerk up to very senior officers, can point out anomalies which exist under the present Public Service Act and which require to be adjusted. The act definitely needs a complete overhaul. It is to be hoped that that will be done soon. If we continue to make piecemeal amendments of this tremendously important act we will have a hotch-potch public service, which will be incapable of fulfilling its responsibilities as we expect it to do and as it is capable of doing.

During this sitting of the Parliament, we have witnessed the unusual event of a report from the Public Service Board being presented to this House accompanied by a statement by a Minister. Unfortunately, the statement was in the nature of an apology on behalf of the officers of the Public

Service. I do not think that an apology is necessary. I will not say that the Public Service is as efficient as it should be, nor will I say that the Public Service is inefficient. But I do say that the Public Service, as it is at present constituted and as it operates at present, is not satisfactory.

Mr Curtin - Why has not the honorable member told the Government that before?

Mr LESLIE - I might reply to the interjector in the usual way - by saying that I am not referring to the Public Service as it has existed only in the time of this Parliament. I want to keep party politics out of this. Every honorable member has an individual responsibility to his electors in this matter and to the taxpayers of this country. I ask honorable members to treat this bill in that spirit. I am not charging the Public Service with inefficiency, but I say that there is something wrong. I could not put my finger on it, but the Minister, in his apology or statement, said that he did not find that the criticisms which had been made from time to time, were established in fact. I do not know what experience the Minister has had or how long has been his association with the Public Service or how closely he has gone into its workings, but I wish to quote the views of some one who can claim to be an authority by virtue of the fact that he has had 46 years in the Public Service. He started as a junior copy-clerk in what was known as the Commonwealth Public Defence Department and recently completed his service as the senior officer of the Department of Defence Production. I refer to Mr. H. P. Breen. In the Melbourne "Herald" of 8th May, 1957, Mr. Breen is reported as saying -

An independent committee should be set up to review the Public Service every ten years.

He suggested an " outside competent body " to do the job - preferably a committee of three. I shall not read the whole of the report but will give the pertinent points. Mr. Breen said -

Even if it is perfect to meet present conditions, the Public Service set up should be subject to constant review because it is a rapidly changing world.

Mr. Breensaid further ;

The Public Service was founded here 50-odd years ago. Basically, the Public Service Act and the provisions for organization, control and administration are still the same. Australia is not the same country it was 50 years ago, and the demands of its changing structure on the Government and thus on the Public Service and public servants are not the same.

The report continued -

Mr. Breensaid this was not an opinion he had reserved for delivery on retirement. He had expressed it many times and knew it was not popular. " Unfortunately, the need for commissions of inquiry into the Public Service, as expressed in newspaper campaigns in the past, has usually followed a tirade aimed at Public Service ' inefficiency ' ", said Mr. Breen. " There is a natural defensive reaction to this. i do not think the Public Service has anything to hide or to fear from any inquiry. A thorough review would be to the benefit of Australia, to the Public Service, and to the public servants.

Later, the report stated - " A patchwork organization had arisen from political juggling", he said.

I am very pleased to find such an authority confirming remarks which I have made in this place on previous occasions concerning the Public Service. Like Mr. Breen, I am not charging the Public Service with inefficiency but I say that, regardless of capacity or capability, no employee is able to produce the best results unless he is permitted to work with the best tools under the best system and the best conditions. I am not satisfied, and I am perfectly sure that the public of this country is not satisfied, that those who are engaged in the Public Service work under the best system or the best conditions that enable them to provide the best service of which they are capable. That is why I say again that I believe an overhaul of the whole Public Service is vitally necessary.

Mr R W HOLT (WANNON, VICTORIA) - How long does the honorable member think that would take?

Mr LESLIE - It would not take very long. Obviously, the honorable member is quite content to see the taxation burden which he assisted the Labour government of this country to impose, steadily increase in order to maintain a public service which, because of the system under which it operates, cannot provide maximum efficiency. The Public Service requires examination, and that should begin right at the top. I have said on previous occasions that the Public Service Board and its methods of operation should be examined and the principles discovered on which the whole of the Public Service works. It is from the top that efficiency or inefficiency grows or is reduced. It may be that an inquiry such as Mr. Breen suggests should be made by an impartial outside body or by one on which both sides of this House are represented. If such an inquiry be instituted, it may find evidence that the system under which the Public Service is working is satisfactory and offers little room for major improvement. If that were so it should satisfy this Parliament and the Government. It would satisfy, also, the people of this country who are critical - undeservedly critical - of the Public Service. That criticism is due, in part, to the methods by which the Public Service operates, and also to the limitations placed upon it.

One matter which should be examined is the remarkable growth of our Public Service. Although I have not the figures with me just now, I have had figures comparing the number of public servants and the nature of their duties with the number of persons in other occupations. The growth of the Public Service has been phenomenal. One feature that might be examined is the system prevailing in the Service under which a position, once it is created, seems to beget other positions.

Mr Daly - There is no doubt about that.

Mr LESLIE - Yes; I have referred to this previously. I used to think that in this country no animal propagated its species more rapidly than did the rabbit; but the method by which positions are created and staff increased in the Public Service, provides strong competition with the rate of increase among rabbits.

Mr Thompson - It beats the rabbits.

Mr LESLIE - That is so. It seems that if a chair and table are placed in a department it is not long before a multitude of chairs and tables collect around them. I am not blaming the Public Service for that; I blame the system under which it operates. It seems that whatever department or branch is set up there must be a director or a head and he must have so many sub-heads and they must have their under-heads and so it goes down the scale to the office boy and even he seems to have some one to lick the stamps for him. That is surely a subject into which an inquiry should be made. Unquestionably, many positions in the Public Service are created as the result of a temporary need. Extra work is imposed on a department and temporary positions are created to cope with it. The Public Service bristles with instances of this kind. Unfortunately, these positions remain a permanent part of the Public Service.

Mr R W HOLT (WANNON, VICTORIA) - Whose fault is that?

Mr LESLIE - I will associate myself with the honorable member and say that it is partly his fault and mine. We have not met our responsibilities by taking sufficient interest in an organization which was created by our predecessors in government and whose responsibilities we accepted when we were elected to the Parliament. I acknowledge that it is partly my responsibility and I want to meet it. Many departmental activities are of a temporary nature. Very frequently they become permanent, and that for two reasons. Either nobody takes an interest in what is happening in connexion with them and makes no attempt to reassess the position, or nobody bothers to establish them in a permanent capacity if the necessity arises. There is no investigation in order to re-assess their needs, and the tragedy of it all is that very often we find Government departments engaging in activities which the taxpayers and even honorable members of this House claim to be extravagant and wasteful of public funds. Business interests in particular are culprits in this direction. And the moment an alteration is attempted to rectify what they suggest is an unsatisfactory state of affairs, if that alteration interferes in any way with the perks they are getting from the establishment of that department either in their town or in close proximity to their own business interests, they resist it.

Mr R W HOLT (WANNON, VICTORIA) - Is the honorable member suggesting bribery?

Mr LESLIE - I am not suggesting bribery in any way at all; I am suggesting to the honorable member for Darebin (Mr. R. W. Holt) that if he had in his electorate a government office which was redundant, it would be his responsibility, as one concerned with the finances of his country, to advocate that something be done to save that needless expenditure. But I venture the opinion that if he found that these employees - they may number several hundred - were beneficial to his business, he would not be very active in suggesting their removal. Often we find that business interests, which complain that public servants in a certain establishment are an unnecessary extravagance, run to their member and howl immediately any suggestion is made that the Government should remedy the extravagance. They are not concerned with the Public Service; they are concerned only with the fact that they receive some benefit from the proximity of these public servants to their own interests.

There is a terrific amount of hypocrisy associated with these things; and that hypocrisy could be eliminated if we had a complete investigation of the Public Service. Two things are necessary, and I plead with the Government, which has done worth-while things, to do them. One is to make a complete overhaul of the Public Service Act with a view to amending it and bringing it right up to date in accordance with the requirements of the Public Service and to permit our officers to give of their best, as I believe they want to do. The other is to conduct an inquiry into the whole of the operations of the Public Service. The amendment to the act would be consequent upon the inquiry, and that inquiry should start right at the head, at that part of the service which so far has been immune from any kind of criticism, We cannot actually get clown to anything in the way of criticism of that section, because the operations of the heads of the service are known only to themselves. In any case, I doubt whether anybody in the Public Service would be prepared to come forward and say that his boss was not doing what he should be doing.

I support the bill. I believe there are things in it which are necessary; but, in view of the points I have made, I believe there are things far more necessary than those contained in it.

Debate (on motion by Mr. Ward) adjourned.

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