House debates

Monday, 24 June 2013

Grievance Debate

Australian Public Service

9:27 pm

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to point out the lack of vision on the part of the coalition, particularly in relation to its rhetoric regarding our public service, our civil society and the demonisation of regulation—a civil society and a regulation which have served Australia very well and keep us safe from things that we would no longer accept: toys that come apart in a child's mouth, lead paint that poisons us, deaths in our workplaces, restaurants that give us food poisoning. Keeping us safe from these many things makes life good in Australia and puts us at No. 1 in the wellbeing index and at No. 2 in the liveability index.

In particular, I am concerned about the extent of the cuts. Back in 1996, the coalition promised that they would cut about 2,500 public servants, and that grew to 30,000 in a very short period of time. They have promised now between 12,000 and 20,000 cuts, so you can imagine how large the cut will be, given their history. In particular, it shows a lack of vision not just because of the loss of services and the insecurity and loss felt by people themselves—and I have many, many public servants in Parramatta—but because, in the region in which we live, civil society is going to be an enormous growth area in the next decade or two in the countries to our north. We are incredibly well placed to ride that wave through our small businesses and the skills that we have. For that, I say it is folly not to fully appreciate the value that we have in our public service.

We have been a lucky country. A friend of mine, Donald Horne, wrote a book called The Lucky Country. We have had what we needed when we needed and we were in the right place at the right time. We had food to export. We had commodities when the world needed them. We have been riding a wave on the back of commodities through the construction booms in China and we will ride that wave through the construction boom in India.

We have skills when the world needs them as the countries to our north that are growing so fast move beyond the construction booms and they start to require the professional services of architects and engineers and lawyers. We have those services. We have large export industries into China in services. We have architects working. We have lawyers working on the back of legal firms in India. We are able to provide those services. When those countries wanted education we were able to provide it and provide it in the early stages. As they move now in vocational education, we are moving there as well.

We have what we need and we are in the right place. We are not always good at exploiting it to the extent that we should. We sometimes undervalue who we are and what we have. I would say to the coalition that they are well and truly doing that when it comes to our Public Service. We are on the edge of the fastest growing region in Australia and when I go into my community I sit in a function and I look out and I see the world in the room. There is not a capital city that we do not know. There is not a language we do not speak. There is not a culture we do not know. There is not a place in the world that we do not know intimately through our population. There is not a connection we cannot make because of the strength of our people.

We are unbelievably well placed to benefit from the growth in our region to the north and following that through Africa and the Middle East, also massive economies that are growing at incredibly rapid rates, dwarfed somewhat by China and India and Indonesia but in the next 10 to 15 years we will see that as well. We have in us, in our population now, everything we need to do well in those emerging economies.

But we need to understand that following the construction boom and the building of things, following the education of their populations, they will reach the same conclusions that we come to. Following that comes compassion. There come disability services, safety nets, aged care, preschools, early childhood education and wheelchairs and Cochlear implants. Standards will also come—safety, transparency, anti-corruption. All the things that countries have gone through before, the countries to the north and in Asia and Africa will follow.

We are the leader in our region in those areas. We lead absolutely in all those areas. To assume that the middle class in China and India—and they are much bigger than we are as a population—will not want those things and standards would be folly. To not understand the capacity of this country to benefit from that change in civil society and the growth of civil society also is folly. It shows a lack of vision. Perhaps it shows a rear vision rather than vision but it certainly needs to be addressed. This should be a time when we are encouraging our businesses of many kinds to develop their joint ventures in those regions to develop the relationships as these new economies emerge. We are absolutely well placed to benefit from them.

Quite a few years ago now, shortly after I was elected, I was having a dinner with some of my colleagues and Wayne Swan. We talked then about food, how Australia gave up on food too early, that we watched our manufacturers close down. We are now watching farmers plough their crops into the soil and, while the opposition talks about a new food bowl, we are having difficulties selling the stuff that we have. Growing it is not the problem. It is developing a market for it.

I remember saying, and I have been saying it for a number of years, that we walk away sometimes from things too early just before they are about to boom. That is an absolute example that mirrors the decision that the coalition would make when it comes to the Public Service. We walked away from food. There is no doubt that in the next decade we will see the middle classes of emerging economies looking for standards in their food, clean food. They will not want baby formula that could possibly be toxic. They will want to know what is in their foods and we are only now starting to realise with the National Food Plan how much we have given away and how much work we have to do to put ourselves back in what should be our game. We are the leaders. We are ahead in the Asian economy and that is one example of something we gave away far too early.

We have not fully exploited our vocational education skills. When you see balconies collapse in some of the emerging economies, when you see factories collapse, when you see the quality of buildings in some of these economies, you realise that in most of those economies vocational training does not exist yet and they are just beginning to want it. We should have seen that coming 10 years ago. We should have been there, not only with our universities but also with our TAFEs. Our TAFE system is arguably one of the best vocational training systems in the world. We saw the last coalition government cut the guts out of it, and one suspects they will do it again. Our TAFE system is a phenomenal thing and it is exportable. It is exportable, it is tradeable and it is a way for us to create a whole stack of new businesses that can go out there and lift the quality of trade training throughout our region. Again, a way of thinking that we really must embrace if we are going to fully exploit the extraordinary growth that we are seeing to the north.

It is said that China is where the US was in 1910. It is probably 1915 now because it is moving so fast although, since someone told me that about six months ago, it might be 1920 by now. But China have 100 years of growth to catch up on at the US pace, but they will do that in 20 years. However, they will never be able to train the number of public servants, the number of disability experts that they will need for that rapid growth, just as they could not provide the coal and they cannot provide all of the construction facilities either. They will need skills like those we have and, again, we are crazy not to recognise just how good our civil society is here, how good we are at regulation. How good we are at making it work. Yes, sometimes there is too much red tape around it, but essentially we are very good at it. Our public servants are incredibly good. Our public service is essentially fearless and frank in its advice. Incredibly skilled people work in those sections right throughout this country, and we are crazy if we do not recognise the opportunity to exploit that skill in rapidly growing economies that will want the quality of the public service that we have. I encourage the entire parliament to look at our public servants, not as a competitive disadvantage, as the coalition does, but as an advantage for this country and a way to make us more competitive into the future.


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