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Thursday, 20 October 1983
Page: 2050

Mr WILLIS (Minister for Employment and Industrial Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Public Service Industrial Matters)(6. 10) —I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

The purpose of this Bill is to restore the pre-1981 jurisdiction of the Public Service Arbitrator and the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and other relevant arbitral bodies to make determinations and awards in relation to the redeployment or termination of employment of Commonwealth staff to whom the Commonwealth Employees (Redeployment and Retirement) Act applies.

Upon the election of the Fraser Government in 1975 the issues of redeployment and retrenchment of surplus staff increased in prominence. Previously existing guidelines for application to redundancy situations in Commonwealth employment generally were formalised by the making of Determination 509 of 1977 by the Public Service Arbitrator. That Determination applies to the greater part of Commonwealth employment and provides for advice to be provided to staff organisations where a redundancy situation is likely to occur for appropriate notice periods to be given of impending redundancy and of transfer or termination of employment. The Determination also provides for income maintenance, depending on age and length of service of the employee involved. Further to these provisions, the former Government saw a need to extend the redeployment and retirement provisions of the Public Service Act and other Commonwealth legislation. Consequently, the Commonwealth Employees (Redeployment and Retirement) Bill was introduced into Parliament in 1979. It was proclaimed to come into effect in February 1981.

The CE (RR) Act provides a framework for the redeployment and retirement of Commonwealth employees on the grounds of excess numbers, physical or mental incapacity, inefficiency or loss of essential qualifications. Apart from the compulsory retirement provisions, the Act also provides for the voluntary retirement of staff from age 55 and imposes a maximum retirement age of 65. The Act applies to the Australian Public Service and is administered by the Public Service Board. Statutory authorities not staffed under the Public Service Act can come under the CE (RR) provisions on request.

Staff organisations strongly opposed provisions of the legislation, particularly those which they saw as giving the Government unprecedented rights to sack its employees. Following extensive industrial disputation, during which they were exhorted by the former Prime Minister and other Ministers to take their case to arbitration, the staff organisations lodged an application with the Public Service Arbitrator. This application sought a determination providing for, among other things, procedures for consultation with staff organisations and minimum time to be observed before staff could be declared as eligible for redeployment.

In December 1979, a Full Bench of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission decided that a determination should be made which preserved the main features of Determination 509 of 1977. This decision had the effect of first, defining the nature of consultations with staff organisations before declarations were made under the Act; secondly, delaying by three months the declaration of staff for redeployment; thirdly, removing the scope for varying the times between the issue of notice and acting to transfer to a lower level or to terminate employment; and fourthly, giving preference in retention to staff organisations. A determination to reflect this decision was subsequently made by the Arbitrator -Determination 503 of 1980.

The then Government considered that this Determination altered the intention of the Parliament in passing the CE (RR) Act, notwithstanding that section 24 of the Act quite expressly provided for the arbitration tribunals to make determinations inconsistent with the Act. The Determination was disallowed in Parliament on 11 March 1981 and on 14 April-even though the unions had been urged in the first place to take their grievances to arbitration-amendments were made to exclude redeployment and termination of employment matters from the jurisdiction of the Public Service Arbitrator and the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. It is those amendments that we now propose to reverse.

The restoration of the pre-1981 jurisdiction would be consistent with our objectives of improved industrial relations in the Commonwealth sector. The matters which would be restored to the jurisdiction of the tribunals are entirely appropriate for determination by them.

With the repeal, disputes over these issues will be capable of being fully dealt with by an independent industrial tribunal. The opportunity will, of course, be available for the Board and other relevant bodies to argue that the tribunal should refrain from exercising its jurisdiction in appropriate cases.

Restoration of arbitral jurisdiction will not, however, complete the Government 's consideration of possible changes to the CE (RR) Act. As well as providing for redeployment and retirement action in the case of excess numbers and for physical or mental incapacity, the Act also provides for regulations to be made prescribing other reasons for redeployment and retirement. Following the consultations required by the Act a regulation was made in November 1982 prescribing inefficiency and loss of an essential qualification as reasons for redeployment and retirement.

It is the Government's view that the retention of an effective, but fair, system for dealing with staff who are surplus, inefficient or incapacitated or who have lost essential qualifications is critical to the effective operation of the Public Service. However, the provisions contained in this regulation are extensive and go considerably further than previous such provisions. Staff organisations have been especially critical of this regulation.

Consequently, a review will be held into those areas of the Act which deal with management initiated early retirement. This review will be conducted by a working group comprising representatives of the Public Service Board, the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Council of Professional Associations.

At the conclusion of the review, which I envisage being early 1984, I will receive a report from the working party concerning possible amendments to the Act.

Pending this review, the Public Service Board has, at the Government's request, advised that it will not take action to implement the provisions of the regulation. I must stress, however, the Government's commitment to an effective, but fair, system for dealing with staff who are surplus, inefficient or incapacitated or who have lost an essential qualification. It is the Government' s intention that the review should be conducted in this light and should be directed at the best means of establishing such a system. I commend the Bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Ruddock) adjourned.