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Tuesday, 18 May 1982
Page: 2052

Senator PETER BAUME (Minister for Education)(5.59) —I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to incorporate the second reading speech in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows-

The purpose of this legislation is to give effect to the Government's decisions on two significant recommendations made by the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, the recommendations of the Senate Select Committee on Parliaments Appropriations and Staffing and, related to the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration regarding the promotions and transfer procedures in the Public Service, amendments concerning the requirement to give reports to officers who are aggrieved by decisions made in relation to promotions, transfers and temporary performance of higher duties. The Bill also includes certain other amendments to the Public Service Act 1922 and other legislation, to which I refer later in my speech.

In 1976 the Royal Commission made a number of recommendations to improve the promotion and transfer processes within the Public Service. The recommendations were examined extensively by the Public Service Board, following consultations with the Joint Council, a statutory consultative body chaired by the Public Service Board, and including representatives of departments and peak union councils. This Bill gives effect to the Government's decisions on those recommendations.

The proposed new promotion arrangements will revise procedures which were introduced in 1946. The Government believes that it is time for the introduction of new promotion procedures which are designed to meet the contempary needs of the Service, but will continue to uphold, and indeed strengthen, the tradition of a Public Service based on merit for appointment and promotion. The Bill establishes relative efficiency as the sole criterion for promotion in the Australian Public Service by repealing all references to seniority. Honourable senators will appreciate that, besides providing an equitable basis for the advancement of officers, this change is an important manifestation of the primary purpose of the promotion process, namely, to advance the efficient operation of the service. It will remove the last vestige of credibility from the mistaken view that advancement of officers under the Public Service Act is determined by length of service. The Bill introduces revised arrangements which will enhance the efficiency of the Public Service. In this connection I draw the attention of honourable senators to the provisions relating to the advertising of vacancies and the appointment by the Governor-General of chairmen and promotions appeal committees for fixed terms.

The promotion process is an important factor in the efficiency and economy of the Public Service. Procedures for the promotion of officers therefore must be devised to make the most effective practicable contribution to the efficient functioning of the Service. The Bill seeks to foster that objective. The proposed section 50B defines the sole criterion for promotion as the relative efficiency of officers available for promotion. That section requires regard to be paid to the capacity, work performance, experience, qualifications and personal qualities of the officer. In some cases it is desirable that greater weight be given to one or another of these factors and sub-section 50B (3) authorises the Board to so direct.

Sub-section 33 (2) is directed to timeliness in the filling of vacant positions . This provision allows the procedures to be initiated as soon as a vacancy is forseen and for the completion of all formal steps-that is advertising, selection and appeal processes-to be taken in anticipation of the vacancy arising from, say, the age retirement of an officer. The amendment provisions, of course, bring that staffing action into effect only when the vacancy actually arises. Section 50L provides the permanent head with more flexibility in allocating his resources within his department. The section authorises the permanent head to rotate officers between positions. It is important that the authority of the permanent head should be clear in order that he can best utilise the skills and abilities of officers available within the department to meet the changing needs and shifts of emphasis in the activities of the department.

The promotion appeals system is an integral part of the promotion process. It is inevitable that such a system is a source of delay in filling positions by promotion and it has been much criticised for that reason. Nonetheless, the Government believes that, in the interests of strengthening the efficiency of the Public Service an appeal system is necessary. The Government believes the present system, as it has operated in the past, with promotions appeal committees comprising an independent chairman, a departmental nominee and a staff association nominee is appropriate. It may not be generally realised that some 70,000 appeals were lodged in 1979 and approximately 35,000 were lodged in 1980, and the promotions appeal committee arrangements have on the whole dealt with that volume expeditiously. This has been possible through established procedures not being overburdened by formality and by the committees avoiding procedures which place appellants in the unwanted role of adversaries.

Recent court decisions appear to indicate that, as the Public Service Act is presently worded, the promotions appeal system should be conducted within an adversary framework and require a greater degree of legal formality than has in practice applied, or is necessary or desirable, to see that an appellant's case is fairly and fully heard and determined. The Government's view is that the objective of the appeals system-giving to public servants the opportunity to state their case for promotion in competition with others, whilst facilitating the promotion of the most efficient officers in the interests of overall Public Service efficiency-will be best served by amending the Public Service Act to establish beyond doubt that promotions appeal committees can deal with the appeals coming before them on a basis which gives to appellants a full and fair opportunity to put their own cases for promotion and to answer any matter adverse to their interests before the committee without an undue emphasis on legal formalities or the creation of an adversary framework. Section 50D of the Bill seeks to achieve this. It will permit promotions appeal committees to develop procedures to ensure fairness in determining appeals while paying regard to desirable personnel practice, and to the practicalities and costs of handling the very large volume of appeals made annually.

The Bill also provides for officers who are aggrieved by decisions made in relation to promotions, transfers and temporary performance of higher duties to be given reports about those decisions. These amendments are contained in the proposed sections 53L to 53N and the transitional provisions in the proposed sections 79 to 81. These provisions reflect the Government's recognition of the recent developments in administrative law; however, they are quite distinct from the proposed amendments to the promotions appeal arrangements in proposed section 50D. The provisions of that section deal with the procedures which are to apply to the hearing of an appeal by a promotions appeal committee. The provisions to be introduced by sections 53L to 53N, deal with the requirement to give an explanation, on request, of decisions by promotions appeal committees. Each provision is the complement of the other but they apply to different aspects of the decision making process.

The Government has a clearly stated policy that persons affected by decisions made under statute should have the right to seek a statement of reasons. The proposed sections 53L to 53N introduce provisions to give effect to this policy in terms which are specifically tailored to the needs and requirements of the Public Service promotions process. They permit a person aggrieved by a promotion decision, being decisions to transfer, promote or direct an oficer to perform temporarily the duties of an office and the associated decisions of appeal committees, to request a statement which explains the basis for that decision. This statement will enable the officer to understand why the decision was made and will provide a proper basis for him to consider whether that decision should be further challenged. The provision will require that the statement in relation to a decision to promote another officer must contain a copy of the relevant duty statement, the criteria that were used in selecting the successful person, the procedures which followed and an assessment of the officer seeking the statement against the criteria which were used. These specific requirements will be in substitution for the more general requirements of the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act.

The proposed provisions are intended to strike a balance between conflicting elements which arise in the promotion process. There is a need to consider the privacy of those who were applicants for promotion. It is an important element of personnel management that individual staff members should have information on themselves protected from unwarranted disclosure. On the other hand, there is the right of an officer to know and understand decisions which have been made about him or her. The proposed amendments provide, however, for the continuation of the application of the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act in all other respects and, in addition, provide that statements under these provisions will be handled in the same manner as statements under section 13 of that Act so that, firstly, reports can be the basis of legal action under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act, secondly, reports can be reviewed by a Federal Court as to their adequacy, and, thirdly, an officer refused a report on the basis that he or she is not entitled to it can seek a review by a Federal Court. Time limits on the making of requests and the supplying of reports are similar to those in the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act as are other technical provisions relating to the exercise of decisions by delegates. In the light of the special provisions that will be made in the Public Service Act, the relevant decisions defined in the proposed section 53L will be exempted from the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act.

Clauses 79 to 81 are transitional provisions which will apply similar requirements to those in the proposed section 53L to decisions made under the Principal Act before the amendments made by this Bill are proclaimed to come into operation. There have been consultations on the proposals for reporting on reasons for decisions with representatives of the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Council of Professional Associations. The amended provisions now to be introduced include some of the proposals made by these representatives although the Government was unable to accept all the proposals made.

Another important change made by the Bill is to remove the divisional structure of the Public Service, as was recommended by the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration. Since 1901 positions and officers have been grouped into four divisions. Significantly, the present structure requires different levels of educational qualification and skills for admission to the Third Division and Fourth Division. The original design envisaged a small number of separate salary structures: the First Division for permanent heads and like officers; the Second Division for senior executives; the Third Division for clerical and professional positions; and the Fourth Divisions for the remaining officers.

Some of the occupational groups which have been introduced in the structure of the Service in recent years do not sit well within the divisional framework and it has been necessary to develop complicated dual divisional arrangements. Further, whereas all Third Division officers were once paid in accordance with a uniform scale of salaries, there are now more than 60 separate pay groupings, many of them based on special training or qualifications. Consequently, the divisional structure has become increasingly anachronistic. Clause 15 repeals those sections of the Act providing for the divisional structure. The proposed arrangements will enable the design of occupational groupings to be tailored more readily to the operational requirements of the Public Service. They will help to achieve better utilisation of the manpower resources of the Service. Staff in the Public Service will continue to be employed within separate occupational groups, each with its own salary structure and appropriate qualification requirements, but the label of Fourth, Third or Second Division will no longer apply. Movement within or between occupational groups will, as now, depend on efficiency and, where relevant, qualifications. Consequent upon the removal of the divisional structure the provisions of the Act relating to recruitment have been amended. The new provision retains the central role of the Public Service Board to ensure that the Commonwealth continues to be served by public servants who are selected according to merit in open competition and not by processes based on patronage or nepotism.

The other amendments to the Public Service Act are more limited in their effect . The first relates to the amendment to that part of the Public Service Act covering the staffing of the parliamentary departments. These amendments reflect the Government's decisions on the recommendations of the Senate Select Committee on Parliament's Appropriations and Staffing. Briefly, the changes will enhance the autonomy of the parliamentary departments by empowering the Presiding Officers to create or abolish offices and to promote officers. The present provisions of the Public Service Act require these matters to be submitted to the Governor-General in Council for approval.

Clause 44 of the Bill inserts a new section 64, which updates the debt recovery scheme which enables creditors to obtain payments from debtors employed by the Australian Public Service by means of attachment of their salaries. The revised scheme introduces an administration fee payable by the creditor to offset the costs incurred by the Commonwealth in arranging collection of the debt. The amendments will bring arrangements for the recovery of debts from public servants more closely in line with normal practices in the community. Clauses 53 and 58 of the Bill include amendments which will provide that the agreement of the State Premier must be obtained where it is proposed to invoke the mobility provisions of Part IV of the Public Service Act in relation to State employment. Part IV of the Act specifies the rights of staff of the Service who transfer to other public employment.

Amendments are also made to the Superannuation Act 1976 and the Long Service Leave (Commonwealth Employees) Act 1976. In the normal course, severance payments upon retrenchment are more favourable than those made upon resignation. The effect of these amendments will, upon certification of the Board, debar from entitlement to retrenchment benefits which would otherwise accrue, an employee of the Commonwealth covered by these Acts who is retrenched after declining an offer of suitable alternative Commonwealth employment. The Government does no consider that in this situation the person should be entitled to retrenchment benefits when it is in fact his or her own decison to sever his or her employment relationship with the Commonwealth when suitable employment within the Public Service is available.

The third group of amendments insert a new section 39 into the Act which will enable dual appointments of permanent heads. By virtue of this provision a person who is already a permanent head can be appointed to hold simultaneously another office of permanent head. A person holding two offices of permanent head will be paid only salary and allowances appropriate to the original office. Clause 82 is a transitional provision which will enable dual appointment to occur prior to the revised arrangements for the appointment of permanent heads being proclaimed to come into operation. The Government considers that such flexibility is desirable.

The remaining provisions in the Act are of three types. The first deals with changes to the technical arrangements for appointment of acting permanent heads and other changes of a similar kind which experience indicates will lead to improvements in the administration of the Service. The second, including the changes made to the Commonwealth Employees (Redeployment and Retirement) Act, is consequential on the changes made to the promotion process and the abolition of divisions within the Service. The rest are formal amendments to adjust references in other legislation. The Government believes that the changes introduced in this Bill have significant benefits for the efficiency of the Service. I commend the Bill to the Senate.

Debate (on motion by Senator Sibraa) adjourned.