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Thursday, 16 December 1993
Page: 4893

Senator FAULKNER (Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister for Defence Science and Personnel) (8.56 p.m.) —I table the explanatory memorandum and move:

  That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

  Leave granted.

  The speech read as follows

  This bill proposes amendments to a number of Acts administered within the portfolio of the Prime Minister and to other legislation dealing with matters relevant to the Prime Minister's portfolio. Details of the various amendments are set out in the explanatory memorandum which accompanies the Bill. I will deal only with the more important aspects.

The bill contains amendments to the Freedom of Information Act 1982 and the Archives Act 1983 relating to access to documents known as Cabinet notebooks. The Archives Act will be amended to provide a clear and sensible archival mechanism that, for the first time, will allow public access to notebooks recording the deliberations of Cabinet after a period of fifty years. At the same time, Cabinet notebooks will be protected from access under the Freedom of Information Act during that period. While these Acts do not fall within the portfolio responsibilities of the Prime Minister, the amendments are included in this portfolio bill because of the Prime Minister's responsibility for the Cabinet process.

Mr President, honourable Senators may be aware that, on 16 December 1992, amendments to the Archives Act, the Freedom of Information Act and the Evidence Act were introduced into the House of Representatives in a bill titled the Cabinet Notebooks (Access and Protection) Bill 1992. That bill lapsed on the calling of the last federal election in March. An explanation of the Cabinet notetaking system was included in the second-reading speech accompanying that bill.

In April 1993 the High Court handed down its decision in relation to the appeal by the Commonwealth against a decision of the Full Court of the Federal Court in the case of the Northern Land Council v Commonwealth in which the Council sought access to a number of Cabinet notebooks from the 1970s. While not finding that there is an absolute immunity from production of Cabinet notebooks in court proceedings, the High Court found that there were "extremely strong" considerations of public policy weighing against their production. Only exceptional circumstances, such as non-disclosure impeding defendants in the conduct of their defence or allegations of serious misconduct on the part of Cabinet Ministers, should justify disclosure in such proceedings.

On the basis of this decision, the Government has decided that it is unnecessary at the present time to include provisions regulating the use of Cabinet notebooks in court proceedings in the Evidence Act or the proposed Evidence Bill.

Mr President, this bill also implements the Government's December 1992 response to the Report of the Review of the Office of the Ombudsman by the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration. In line with the recommendations of the Standing Committee, the major amendments to the Act will:

  give the Ombudsman jurisdiction to investigate administrative actions of federal court registries and Commonwealth parliamentary departments.

  give the Ombudsman a discretion to decline to investigate or to cease investigating commercial activities of Commonwealth agencies; and

  allow the Ombudsman to transfer complaints to the Australian Broadcasting Authority, the Merit Protection and Review Agency or an industry ombudsman, where appropriate.

In addition to the amendments to implement the Government's response to the Senate Standing Committee's report, a number of other minor amendments to the Ombudsman Act will be made.

Mr President, the bill also includes amendments to the Public Service Act 1922 and the Superannuation Act 1976 to enable effect to be given to the Government's decision to allow secretaries of departments and a limited number of equivalent-level statutory office-holders to relinquish their continuing tenure in the public service, and the value which attaches to that tenure, in return for a reasonable loading on their salaries being set by the Remuneration Tribunal. (The Government has recommended to the Tribunal that the loading should be set at 20 per cent.)

The changes we are making are a natural evolution of the changes made 10 years ago when the Parliament removed the right to tenure in particular departmental head positions and the policy of rotations on a five year basis was introduced. Enabling secretaries of departments to choose whether to retain their tenure in the public service or to relinquish it in return for a salary loading is a logical progression which has taken place in many other public services both here and overseas. Even with the loading, which will be set by the independent Remuneration Tribunal, the remuneration of Commonwealth heads of departments, with their national level responsibilities, will not match that of their counterparts in Victoria and New South Wales.

In sharpening the focus on the policy of rotation by making greater use of fixed-term appointments, the Government will continue to retain the traditional virtues of the public service with the emphasis there has always been on having heads of departments with great personal integrity, political impartiality and preparedness to offer the frank and fearless advice we expect of them.

The bill includes other amendments of a minor nature to the Public Service Act 1922 to ensure that the Act adequately reflects the requirements of contemporary public sector administration. For example, amendments are included relating to the discipline process, excess officers, Joint Selection Committees and the mobility provisions of the Act.

The discipline process as it relates to unattached officers will be brought more into line with the process that applies in relation to other officers. The amendments reflect the recommendations of the Report of the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration in December 1992 on its inquiry into the management of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The amendments relating to excess officers will ensure that the appeal mechanism available to excess officers in relation to transfers is only available to those excess officers who have applied for transfer to a position.

Other amendments will allow for the use of a Joint Selection Committee order of merit in filling identical and subsequent vacancies.

The bill also makes a number of minor or technical amendments to a number of other Acts. Details of these are set out in the explanatory memorandum.

I commend this bill to the Senate and present the explanatory memorandum to the Bill.

  Debate (on motion by Senator O'Chee) adjourned.

  Pursuant to the order of the Senate of 18 August 1993, the resumption of the debate was made an order of the day for the first day of sitting in 1994.