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Thursday, 10 November 1983
Page: 2573

Mr RUDDOCK(12.07) —I wish to speak to clause 7 because there are some important implications that need to be understood. They arise out of some of the observations I made yesterday in my speech on the Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill. Certainly, the proposal for the establishment of the new Australian Electoral Commission is an advance and I do not in any way criticise the direction that is being taken or the move that was recommended by the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform. Obviously in this area, which is a very sensitive area for parliamentarians, it is important that we have a bipartisan body able to adjudicate in matters affecting the Commonwealth Electoral Act and able to deal with matters given into its hands, particularly the redistribution of electorates and the like. For that reason, we have to look very closely at the composition of the body and ask ourselves whether the best that can be done has been done.

I have examined these provisions and I doubt whether the best that could be done has been done. I make it very clear that the Australian Electoral Commission and the appointments to it will not be free of critical review by the Opposition. While I regard the provisions in clause 7 as an improvement, I do not regard them as the most satisfactory that could be achieved. We know that there are times when the present Opposition has been in government and that, as we are often reminded, the present Government has been in opposition more often that it has been in government. But under this Bill, as has been the case previously, the government of the day will be able to appoint people to deal with matters under the legislation. Notwithstanding the criticism that might have been offered from time to time by supporters of the former Government about the composition of electoral commissions and redistribution commissions, the fact is that the Australian Electoral Commission will not be free from criticism .

It needs to be understood that the Chairman is to be appointed by the Governor- General. That means that he will be recommended by the Executive Council to the Governor-General, which means that it will be a Cabinet appointment. The Chairman will hold office on a part time basis. While the person shall be a judge of the Federal Court of Australia of at least three years standing, he shall be chosen from a panel of three names submitted by the Chief Judge of that Court. So Cabinet will have a very important role to fulfil in the appointment of the Chairman. The third member of the Commission shall be a permanent head, as defined in the Public Service Act, or an officer of equivalent status. Yesterday I made some observations about that.

This matter needs to be understood in the context of the people who are eligible for appointment as permanent heads, or officers of equivalent status, and the Government's plans in relation to the Public Service as stated. The Government intends to put into the hands of Cabinet, by amendments to the Public Service Amendment (First Division Officers) Act, the appointment of all First Division officers. It may well be better that we all know and that it is out in the open in a sense that they are clearly political appointments and will be made as political appointments. It may be better to understand that than to have the situation we had when the present Government, in opposition, was always suggesting that the Public Service Board, in the role that it fulfilled, may have been jawboned by the government of the day.

The fact is that the Public Service Board will be effectively jawboned in the way in which it makes recommendations for appointments at permanent head level. We know that. Dr Wilenski has been appointed Chairman of the Public Service Board. That appointment has been confirmed and he is in place. That appointment is not free of criticism. I have criticised it and the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Peacock) has criticised it. That gentleman has a view of the Public Service. That gentleman will be establishing all the committees designed to recommend appointments at the First Division level under existing legislation. He has already said that he regards the Public Service as biased. He sees it as biased against the Australian Labor Party. At times some people on this side, particularly when there were criticisms of aspects of the Public Service under the previous Government, may have been critical of public servants as well. But the fact is that Dr Wilenski says that he sees the Public Service at senior levels as biased and that it is his job to introduce certain changes at that level.

It needs to be understood too that while these provisions are an improvement, and a worthwhile improvement, they cannot go uncriticised. I am critical of the fact that there is still a distinct possibility for the Government, by the appointments that it makes at this level, to have a significant influence on the way in which the Australian Electoral Commission operates. I am sure that the Opposition spokesman on this will be keeping this matter under very close scrutiny and watching very closely, as I will, the nature of the appointments made at this level. I simply observe that there are other difficult areas in which the Government has recently seen fit to consult with the Opposition on appointments that are made. A mechanism for consultation has been written into legislation in relation to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that a similar provision has not been proposed in this Bill but I would like to think that in important appointments at this level some consultation will take place to avoid the possibility of rancour arising when appointments are made.

I make it clear that I make these criticisms against the background of the appointment that has been made to the chairmanship of the Public Service Board. It was a very shabby appointment in the way in which it was made and a very shabby appointment in the way in which the former Chairman of the Public Service Board was removed.

The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN (Mrs Child) —Order! I suggest to the honourable member for Dundas that that is irrelevant to the clauses under discussion.

Mr RUDDOCK —Madam Deputy Chairman, I do not wish to canvass your ruling, except to say that under clause 7 (5) the third member of the Commission shall be a permanent head, as defined in the Public Service Act, or an officer of equivalent status. What I believe is perfectly relevant is the way in which people might be appointed to this Commission and the factors that need to be taken into account in such appointments. In my view, the Government has clearly been shown to be wanting in one of the most important appointments at that level . Certainly, the chairmanship of the Public Service Board has a status equivalent to that of permanent head. In fact it is the doyen position-the most important position-of the Public Service. A clear and blatant political appointment has been made. That needs to be understood.

The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN (Mrs Child) —Order! I suggest that the honourable member discuss the clauses of the Bill rather than permanent heads.

Mr RUDDOCK —I make the point in relation to the way in which the Australian Electoral Commission has been established that permanent heads, as defined in the Public Service Act, or officers of equivalent status are to be appointed to the Commission. It needs to be understood-I make this point once again only for emphasis-that important officers of statutory bodies of this sort are capable of being appointed on a political basis. The most important position, the chairmanship of the Public Service Board, was appointed on that basis. It is a factor that needs to be drawn to the attention of honourable members. I will continue to draw that matter to the attention of honourable members because I think it is very important.