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Thursday, 17 September 1987
Page: 210


Mr LANGMORE(11.17) —I am delighted to follow the words of the honourable member for Higgins (Mr Shipton) because it gives me the chance to comment on the proposals for a parliamentary committee system. I am glad that he has been reading the Press and has noticed that the Government has taken action already to establish a new committee system. When the honourable member first began his speech I thought that he had not been reading the papers at all and had not noticed that these changes were well and truly under way. The Government has already announced that a new committee system is to be introduced into the House of Representatives and that changes to be made in the Senate will streamline its committee system. It is proposed not to abolish the Senate Estimates committees but to combine them with the Senate standing committee system. This will be a much more effective way of handling the Estimates because it will mean that the senators who are building up expertise in certain areas will be the ones who study the estimates for those areas.

A parallel committee system is being proposed for the House of Representatives and the Senate which will ensure that there is good co-operation between the House of Representatives and the Senate. It is expected that these changes will be introduced into both chambers within a week or so of having been negotiated with the parties. It is quite clear that these committees will strengthen Parliament, a matter to which I will come back in a minute.

The Ministers of State Amendment Bill (No. 2) and the Administrative Arrangements Bill have four central features and it is on those features that I will concentrate my comments. The four features are ministerial restructuring and consequential departmental restructuring; the devolution of responsibility for personnel practice from the Public Service Board to departments; the effects of those changes on staff numbers; and some changes in the way employment policies are implemented.

The first of those important aspects concerns ministerial restructuring. As the honourable member for Capricornia (Mr Wright) said earlier in his speech, that restructuring was very carefully planned-it was not pulled out of a hat a day or two after the election. A lot of work was done by Mr David Block and the group associated with him to prepare very carefully for that restructuring. Certainly that restructuring was introduced decisively. No doubt it had to be introduced quickly in order to ensure that the changes proposed did not become bogged down in interminable debate. The Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) explained the rationale for those changes in his speech to the House on Tuesday. It is quite clear that honourable members on both sides of the House are supportive of the main elements of those proposals.

Even the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Howard) in his response to the Prime Minister said that he supported the idea of senior and junior Ministers. The idea has been around for a long time. It is the practice in the House of Commons and some other parliaments. There are very good reasons why it is an appropriate system to introduce here. For example, it enables senior Ministers to keep an overview and to concentrate their attention on policy matters rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae of administering their departments which tends to happen if they do not have support from junior Ministers. The junior Ministers will be able to relieve senior Ministers of some of the vast volume of paper that they have to handle. They will also be able to share in the demanding process of explaining to the public what is going on by being able to take a share of public engagements. It is a very valuable system and one which I think will improve the quality of government. I think it will be very interesting to see how the system evolves now that it is in place.

Also of course, this system ensures that all departments are represented in Cabinet-a very substantial advantage. It was a real problem for some smaller departments-the departments that were regarded as junior departments by previous Ministries-as they did not have access to Cabinet and were not represented directly. Under the new system every part of the Public Service and all areas of Public Service responsibility will be represented by a Minister in Cabinet which will ensure that their concerns are taken seriously.

The change also ensures, of course, that Cabinet is of a manageable size. It simply is not possible for the total number of Ministers of 30 or so to meet effectively and to have effective discussion. This change will ensure that every ministerial responsibility will be represented in Cabinet but all those ministerial responsibilities will be covered by a group of manageable size. This represents an improvement, although some people may argue that even 18 Cabinet Ministers are too many. Obviously, it would be easier if the number were smaller but it would not be possible to have Cabinet representation of all parts of government if there were only, say, seven members of Cabinet.

The administrative changes also have increased the total number of Ministers and for some strange reason the Opposition seems to have found this controversial. It seems to me absolutely desirable to increase the number of Ministers because that is one way of ensuring that the vast volume of work involved is spread across a larger number of people and that the complexity of policy is handled by a larger number of people. It ensures better scrutiny of every aspect of the Public Service and public authority activity. Surely that is what the Australian popu-lation wants. As the Prime Minister said, it really will enhance ministerial control over the Public Service. I think that is the central reason why the change is important. It also increases the accountability of the Public Service. The honourable member for Higgins said earlier that in some way these changes undermine the Westminster system. On the contrary, it seems to me that they enhance the Westminster system of government. They ensure that the Executive and the Parliament will be more directly in control of what happens in the public sector.

Some people have raised the question of whether a system of junior Ministers is legally appropriate. Fortunately, an opinion on this was given only yesterday by a Federal Court judge. Mr Justice Beaumont handed down a judgment in the Federal Court of Australia yesterday upholding the appointment of more than one Minister to administer a department of state. He said that there is nothing in either the language of section 64 of the Constitution or the idea of responsible government which precludes the appointment of more than one Minister to admi-nister a department. So the way the Government has chosen to have senior and junior Ministers also seems to be legally appropriate.

It is quite clear that combining departments into a group of 18 will enable economies of scale. The honourable member for Higgins questioned where those economies of scale would come from but it is not difficult for anyone to imagine that if we have 18 departments rather than 28 there will be economies of scale as they share administrative and personnel functions, libraries, travel organisation and a whole host of administrative tasks that have to be done in every department. If those tasks are being done by 18 groups of people rather than 28, certainly there will be economies of scale. That is why the Prime Minister was able to announce an expected reduction in the number of public servants of 3,000 in order--


Mr McGauran —He then hired another 3,000.


Mr LANGMORE —Of course, to handle additional government initiatives. I will come back to that point in a minute. The new structure of departments and Ministers contains many logical links. I do not want to go through them in any detail, but a very important one is the linking of the areas of foreign affairs and trade, as the honourable member for Capricornia has already mentioned. It will strengthen the recognition of the economic dimensions of foreign policy; it will ensure that our foreign affairs and trade officials are co-operating effectively in the way they try to promote Australia's interest overseas. That is an entirely desirable amalgamation, and the need for such a change has been crying out for a long time. In fact it was one of the recommendations of the Coombs Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, which reported in 1976. It is very good to see that the Government has accepted that recommendation.

Of course there has been considerable turbulence within the Public Service during the restructuring phase. As the member for Fraser and the representative of many public servants, I am well aware of that. It is absolutely inevitable. It is to be regretted in some ways because there are personal costs. During the stage of the transfer of those departments, as they combine, there will inevitably be some insecurities and uncertainties and, even in the very short term some inefficiencies. But is seems to me that the long term benefits of these changes are so substantial that they far outweigh that initial turbulence. I think most people in the Public Service accept that, and certainly most of the people I have spoken to do. It is obviously too early to assess the impact of these changes as they were introduced only two months ago, but it seems to me highly likely that the new structure, provided it remains in place in the long term, will have substantial benefits for the whole of the Australian community.

The second part of these changes involves the devolution of responsibility for personnel practices from the old Public Service Board to departments. That proposal was made by the Coombs Royal Commission. That Royal Commission was the most important inquiry into the Australian Public Service ever made. It handed down a superb report which was immediately neglected by the Fraser Government, to its everlasting shame. The implementation of the recommendations of that report would have led to improvements in the effectiveness of the Public Service at that time. We have had to wait another 10 years for the recommendations of that report to be taken seriously. David Block, the head of the Efficiency Scrutiny Unit of Proposed Successor Arrangements of the Public Service Board, set up by the Prime Minister, has paid high praise to the Coombs Royal Commission and said that many of the Unit's recommendations were based on its work. It is very good to see that that fine, careful and thorough work completed over a decade ago is now bearing fruit.

Clearly there will be substantial benefits to the quality of personnel administration as a result of this devolution of personnel policy to departments. It is not difficult at all for people to understand that giving departments responsibility for recruitment, promotions and a whole host of other aspects of personnel policy will enable them to ensure that they are handling their personnel in ways that increases the effectiveness of service delivery. That will be the goal. It will simplify personnel administration, and I think it is one of the most important and valuable aspects of the administrative re-organisation. I do not think it in any way undermines the support for impartiality and equity and fairness in the way personnel policy is administered. A few people have expressed concern that it might. The Merit Protection and Review Agency is being maintained. Departments will have structures carefully built in to ensure that there is no special treatment or preference given to particular people on absolutely subjective bases. So the benefits are great indeed. As well, of course, the special government policies for equal employment opportunity are to be maintained. I will come back to that in a minute.

The central aspects of the Efficiency Scrutiny Unit's proposals which are being implemented, to summarise them quickly, are: firstly, they devolve responsibility for operational personnel matters to the maximum extent to departments; secondly, they transfer responsibility for arbitration, pay and conditions to the Department of Industrial Relations; thirdly, they maintain equal employment, industrial democracy and occupational health and safety programs; and, fourthly, they devolve responsibility for management improvement programs to departments. So there are many very good initiatives.

The third element of these changes concerns consequential reductions in staff numbers. The Prime Minister said in his initial announcement that it was estimated there would be staff savings totalling about 3,000 over three years. That demonstrates a clear commitment to improving efficiency, which everyone in the community clearly wants. The Government has guaranteed that every member of the Public Service whose job is affected will be transferred to another appropriate position. That process is now well under way. For example, the Public Service Board, which is one of the organisations most directly affected by these changes, has now nearly completed that process for non-Senior Executive Service people. Most staff members were transferred to other departments, but of the nearly 200 non-Senior Executive Service staff all but just over 20 have now been placed in other departments. That means that only about 10 per cent of people remain to be placed, which, given that it is only about two months since these changes were made, is a very substantial achievement.

Of course these changes are entirely different from the wholesale destructive policies which the Opposition was proposing in the election campaign. It was proposing massive cuts in the Public Service. Opposition members could not seem to agree on exactly how many positions would have been lost, but it was somewhere between 18,000 and 54,000. Even if it were only 18,000, that would have had an enormously destructive impact on the quality and the range of services that the Government could have provided. It was a quite unprecedented and vicious attack on the effectiveness of the whole Public Service. It seemed to be motivated by a quite conscious hostility to the Commonwealth Public Service. It is one of the major outcomes of the election that the Opposition was not given the opportunity to make those destructive changes. In my electorate, I am glad to say, the vote for Labor went up quite substantially.


Mr Price —You are a very good member.


Mr LANGMORE —No doubt that was part of the explanation but I am sure also that part of the explanation was that people were protesting in the most effective way available to them against the wholesale destructiveness the Opposition was proposing.


Mr Price —They have not got a heart.


Mr LANGMORE —And Opposition members do not really care about the effectiveness and quality of public sector administration. Inevitably, all governments want to take new initiatives. Despite the severe constraints the Government has imposed upon itself in this Budget a small number of new initiatives will lead to some increase in recruitment of new staff, so the overall impact of a fall in staff due to the restructuring and the increase in staff due to new initiatives will be a very small fall in total staff numbers. All of these new initiatives are entirely desirable and I am sure supported by the great majority of the community. For example, one of the largest areas of recruitment will be in the Department of Social Security, where people will have to be taken on to administer the new family package and to ensure that social security fraud is avoided. Similarly, in the Australian Taxation Office several hundred people will be recruited to clamp down more effectively on tax fraud. There cannot be a single member of the community, except those who are involved in tax fraud, who would not applaud--


Mr Price —And in the Opposition.


Mr LANGMORE —And in the Opposition, exactly, who would not applaud that change. These are very important initiatives. That is why there has been some increase in recruitment announced and why the net effect of tax cuts and increases will be a very small fall. I conclude by emphasising that these changes do not mean any undermining of the equal employment opportunity provisions. There was some uncertainty about that initially but it has now become absolutely clear that the Government is committed to maintaining equal employment opportunity. The Prime Minister has endorsed the maintenance of a monitoring capability for equal employment opportunities within the Public Service Commission. There is to be an identified equal employment opportunity unit and the Commissioner of the Commission has already made announcements to departments to ensure implementation of that policy.


Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mrs Darling) -Order! The honourable member's time has elapsed.