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Wednesday, 30 November 1960

Mr FAILES (Lawson) .- Mr. Deputy Speaker,the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies), in his second-reading speech, said that the development of a public service of the highest quality and integrity is clearly a first essential of good government. Nobody has said this evening that the Commonwealth Public Service is anything but of the highest quality and integrity. This bill aims at maintaining and improving the quality of the service as far as possible. However, this measure makes no provision for the transfer within the service of temporary employees to permanent positions or for the upgrading of permanent employees. The main object of the bill seems to be to provide for recruitment to the service. In a service so large as is that of the Commonwealth, naturally, some rigid standards are laid down, but I hoped to see in this bill provision for greater flexibility than appears to have been provided with respect to the accepting of temporary employees into the service in permanent capacities. I have found, as I have no doubt a great number of other honorable members who represent country electorates have found, that people occupying temporary positions in the Public Service have been greatly disturbed because, with the enlargement of the service, the question of their status as temporary employees has become rather critical.

I had a case that I could mention here as an illustration of the sort of thing that happens. An ex-serviceman had a nonofficial post office for many years and gave excellent service. He became ill as a result of war injuries and from then on his wife carried on the post office. The local residents were delighted with the service that she gave to them. There were never any complaints; on the contrary, I was told that she did everything that could be desired of the occupant of such a position. She carried on for many years. She was not even a temporary public servant, because this was a non-official post office. When her husband died, she had no standing whatever. She was not the post-mistress; her husband had been the postmaster. She had to pack up and leave immediately the post office was established on an official basis and a permanent public servant took over.

That may be an isolated case, but I mention it because there must be in this large service hundreds, if not thousands, of officers who are adding to the prestige of the service although they are not permanently employed. These people can contribute much, particularly in country areas, to the efficiency of many of the departments.

I pass now to another aspect, and that is the physically handicapped person employed on a temporary basis. In his second-reading speech, the Prime Minister said -

.   . the Government and the Public Service Board are mindful of their responsibilities in the employment of the physically handicapped and a great deal is being done . . . there are difficult problems of definition as well as the need to maintain an overall standard of medical fitness in a career service.

It may well be in a career service that the highest standards, both medically and educationally, should be observed, but with these people who are not necessarily engaged in a career service in the full meaning of the term but who are usefully filling a temporary position, there should be some relaxation and some flexibility in the qualifications required. It may well be said that a person who is able to pass an examination is qualified for permanent employment, but this does not necessarily mean that because they cannot pass a strict examination they should not qualify. The Prime Minister acknowledges this point to some extent when he says that seniority should not be the sole or even the principal basis for promotion. In other words, no one criterion should be applied either for entry to or promotion in the service. I believe that it is quite wrong to have a rigid health or educational examination, which must be passed, and the provisions should be altered.

Most members' secretaries are temporary employees in the Public Service. I do not know the full details, but I understand that should they wish to become permanent employees they must pass an examination, although they may be thoroughly proficient and quite satisfactory in their jobs as secretaries. They may have some difficulty, so many years after leaving school, in passing an examination, and the examination, I understand, in some instances would be conducted by their senior officers and1 not by an outside body.

I pass to the question of the physically handicapped, and I will cite two cases which I believe sum up the position as I have found it to be and. I have no doubt, as other honorable members have found it to be. I do not intend to mention names or places. I had an application from a girl who for many years had been employed as a telephonist in a country town. She was aged 42 years and had been employed, on and off, for sixteen years. She had never been appointed to the permanent staff, but was regarded merely as a temporary employee. She joined the service in 1946 - that is, immediately after the war when no doubt the authorities were very glad to get people to take these positions. I understand! that she was a capable officer and highly regarded by the residents of the town in which she lived. Indeed, she was so highly regarded that the shire council in the area made representations to me following extensive public interest and resentment at the way she had been treated.

When she was dismissed, the reason given was that retrenchment was necessary and there was some doubt as to her fitness in a medical sense. I went into the matter and in 1960 the Postmaster-General informed me that she was actually permanently appointed in 1958. However, at that time she was said to be unable to meet the physical fitness standards required and her appointment was subsequently annulled on medical grounds as from the close of business on 15th October. 1958. However, she was considered fit to remain in temporary employment. This is the type of situation that we oppose. This girl was not sick to the point of being unable to carry out her duty, but she could not pass some specified medical examination. She was considered fit to remain in temporary employment, but because she could not pass a medical examination, she was not fit for permanent employment. Yet she had every qualification that one could wish to find in a telephonist. Those of us who are served by a manual telephone exchange know the difference that is made to our every-day lives by a telephonist who does the job well, who has the right manner, is pleasant and civil, and who knows how to do the job.

This girl commenced duty in a temporary capacity in 1946. She continued in broken periods until 1947 and was employed again from December, 1950, continuously until September, 1951. At that time she was retrenched because of general staff reductions, but was re-employed on 21st December, 1951. Her services were retained without a further break until her last retrenchment on 7th December, 1959. It appears that this girl was used by a Commonwealth department as it suited it. There was never any question about her work or her ability to carry out her duties. The only question was whether she could pass a medical examination laid down by the Public Service Board. It became necessary to dispense with her services because the part-time temporary position she was occupying was eliminated owing to a decrease in the volume of telephone traffic at the exchange. I was told' that her possibilities of future employment were not bright. It was "-aid that it would be possible to re-employ her at another centre, but her personal responsibilities at her home town prevented her from accepting employment in any other town.

It is understandable that a woman of 42 years would find it difficult to uproot herself and take temporary employment in -some other town knowing that, overnight, she could be asked to relinquish her position. Following a request from the local shire council that in the event of another telephonist being required at that exchange she be given employment in that position, the Postmaster-General replied that it was proposed to offer her temporary employment for periods of relieving duty as opportunity permitted. He also stated that it was intended, should a vacancy in the exchange in her home town occur, to give her preference of employment until the position bad been filled by a permanent employee.

I have no complaint against the PostmasterGeneral's Department because I know very well from experience that it has no say in these matters. I have no complaint against the Public Service Board because apparently it must carry out the requirements of the act and regulations. But I do think it silly that there should be room for anomalies such as these and that departments should be prevented from exercising common sense in these matters.

That is not an isolated case. I mention also the case of a girl who commenced employment as a telephonist in 19S6. She sat for an examination in 19S7 and, in 1958, she was appointed on probation. In February of that year, she was examined by the local Commonwealth Medical Officer and then the director requested that she be examined by an eye specialist. A few months later, she was advised that her probationary appointment had been cancelled as the medical report indicated that she could not comply with the physical fitness requirements for permanent appointment to the Public Service. She then reverted to what is called an exempt telephonist, whatever that may be, and she was later advised that her services would be terminated on the appointment of a number of girls who had qualified at a more recent examination. Here again she was told that the department would use her, while it suited it, despite the fact that her alleged physical disability did not detract from her efficiency.

The cancellation of her appointment was considered by her and her family to be unjust, as both the Commonwealth Medical Officer and a highly qualified eye specialist assured her verbally that she had passed her examination and would be fit for permanent appointment. Her private medical consultant had also issued a certificate to the effect that there was nothing to prevent her being appointed permanently. The matter was taken up with the PostmasterGeneral who replied that as the case had been taken to the Public Service Board, which was the final authority for the employment of persons in all Commonwealth departments, and as that board had considered an appeal which she had made against its earlier decision that she could not meet the medical standard required, the annulment of her appointment must stand. The department wrote to her in these terms -

Your application ... for consideration of further appointment was referred to the Public Service Board from whom advice has now been received that following careful review of your case, in the light of all available medical reports, including visual evidence, it regrets that it is unable to alter its previous decision cancelling your probationary appointment on medical grounds.

The matter was referred to the Public Service Board by me. I had ascertained that, following further medical examinations, the reports showed that her visual acuity, as it is called, was not of sufficiently high . standard to permit of her appointment as a telephonist, and I was informed that she could qualify as a clerical assistant or typist. I submit that it is unreasonable that a person who has proved that she is capable of carrying out her duties efficiently should be debarred from permanent appointment because of some mandatory medical requirement which she cannot meet. I am disturbed about this because I believe that when people have exceptional ability, as these two people have, it is ridiculous that they should be debarred from permanent appointment purely because of some mandatory requirement that they are unable to meet.

During the course of his second-reading speech, the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) said -

The Public Service Board has established a separate committee, including medical authorities, to examine this question-

That is, the whole question of physically handicapped persons - and the conclusions of this group will be considered by the Government as soon as they are available.

That prompted me to rise to-night to plead the case for people in country areas in particular. As honorable members know, the people in country areas come directly under the notice of members of Parliament. We know the services many of them give to the department in which they are employed and we know that, but for this arbitrary medical qualification, many of them could enjoy several years' faithful service in positions which they are thoroughly capable of filling. I do hope that the board will examine this matter with a view to exercising some flexibility to meet the cases of those temporary employees to whom the department is not prepared to give permanent appointment because of some arbitrary medical requirement.

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