Thursday, 22 June 2023
Public Service Amendment Bill 2023; Second Reading
I rise to speak in favour of the bill that's before us, the Public Service Amendment Bill 2023. It gives me a chance to say on the public record something that I've said privately for many, many years and publicly in my own electorate: how important and valuable our Public Service is. It's so critical that all governments, regardless of the colour of the day, have a strong, well resourced, fiercely independent Public Service that is there to provide support and frank and fearless advice to the government of the day. I say this not just because I have two siblings that work for the Australian Public Service but also because it is critical to good government. We need to ensure that the people who are responsible for delivering government's decisions, parliament's decisions, are able to do so and have the resources to do so.
This should be, for many, a bit of a no-brainer—the purpose, the title, is 'public service'—but for far too long people in this place and people outside this place have been critical of our Public Service. Too many job losses have occurred. Core public services have been whittled away, particularly in the regions. Departments have been gutted, replaced with very expensive contracts that have provided advice that we now know not to be of best value. What we see in this bill is delivering on Labor's commitment at the election to restore and strengthen the APS's core purpose and value.
This bill adds a new APS value, the value of stewardship, which all APS employees must uphold. Stewardship will be defined as:
The APS builds its capability and institutional knowledge, and supports the public interest now and into the future, by understanding the long-term impacts of what it does.
This bill requires the Secretaries Board to oversee the development of a single, unified APS purpose statement, reviewed once every five years. It will help clarify and strengthen the provisions of the act and make clear that ministers cannot direct agency heads on individual APS staffing decisions. This is critical, particularly with the way in which we saw the APS politicised over the term of the last government. It aims to build the capacity and expertise of the APS. We need to rebuild our APS ability. It breaks my heart that so many taxpayer dollars have gone towards third-party organisations, consultancy firms, to give us advice when it should be our own employees, our own Public Service providing that advice.
I know how critical the APS is in my own electorate. It's not just the day-to-day services for people seeking Centrelink support. We used to have a tax office in Bendigo that was well resourced, able to provide local businesses, local organisations and local individuals with support. The tax office is one area that has lost thousands of staff over the last decade. It simply has put the service in a very precarious position. They are doing well with the resources that they have, but they need more. That is so that they can do what we all expect them to do: make sure that we have a frank tax system, a tax system that is fair and making sure that everybody, regardless of who they are, business or individual, is paying their fair share of tax.
We also need to make sure that we have a strong, robust public service when it comes to areas of immigration, making sure that people are getting the advice that they need in a timely manner. People in my electorate have already said to me they have seen improvements just with the changes that this government has made by being able to process claims quicker and making sure people are getting the advice that they need.
But what they all accept, quite tragically, is that our Department of Immigration is rebuilding. After years of being gutted, after years of political interference, they are now rebuilding. We need a strong, resourced, fearless, independent Department of Immigration that can give us in this place, government or nongovernment, the advice that we need around immigration matters. Immigration matters, like tax matters, strike at the very heart of our community. It's one of those areas people get the most anxious about. 'Is my loved one in the right place in the queue?' 'Is the rejection of their visa for valid reasons?' 'Am I paying the right amount of tax?' 'Have I been treated fairly by the tax office?' These are laws that effect so many people, so ensuring that our Public Service is independent, is transparent and has the resources to make those decisions is critical.
This bill amends the Public Service Act and is a key element of our APS reform agenda. It needs to be ambitious. It needs to be enduring reform that makes the APS goal and vision clear. It comes from the independent review into the Australian Public Service, which concluded that the APS lacks a unified purpose, is too internally focused and has lost capacity in important areas. By helping to redefine the purpose of our Public Service, we will also attract the brightest back. Once upon a time before Yes Minister, people chose the Public Service as a career of choice. If you wanted to be a public-policy maker, you didn't necessarily put your hand up to be a politician; you put your hand up to be a public servant, and it was a career choice. You knew that you'd be responsible for designing public programming and policy. Yes, there were government and ministerial decisions, and you enacted those; but, equally, you advised government on the very best pathway forward.
I think back to what happened during the pandemic. Imagine if we'd had a stronger public service. Imagine if they'd had the strength, the capability and the expertise. Imagine if they were the very best in our country giving advice to government. Our experience of the pandemic might have been quite different. The chop-change approach that we had—JobKeeper, no JobKeeper—and the way in which the JobKeeper program was rolled out was a good idea poorly implemented. Could it have been different if we had had our very best? Far too many people in the Public Service start there but leave, choosing careers and alternative pathways in the private sector, because—we don't know. We could ask them. But that is part of why we need to refocus the purpose of our Public Service. Let's attract the best back into the Public Service so that we have the thinking capability and the purpose capability but also, too, the frank independence and purpose of the Public Service to do what we need it to do.
When I'm out there talking to people in my electorate, they do believe in a strong, well-funded Public Service. They don't subscribe to the fat bureaucrats model. They don't subscribe to the fearmongering of those opposite. They do see it as critical to having a really strong, supportive Public Service. In the areas that I've touched on, such as immigration, Centrelink and the tax office, it's fair to say that we have a challenge with our payments. They're clunky. They're complicated. People struggle to navigate their way through. Services Australia staff do their best, but who's doing that big thinking: is this the right way to be going; is there a better way to organise our payment structure; do we have the best people in the country working at that? That is why this bill is so important. We need to make sure that we are refocusing and rebuilding our capability so we're not going to third parties to provide us that critical information.
The COVID pandemic, natural disasters, geopolitical disruptions and increasing economic volatility have highlighted the importance of a well-funded, intelligent, well-resourced APS that will act with integrity, be agile and have common purpose. That is what is so important about this bill and why it is before us today, and that is why you find so many people on our side of the House speaking about it. We get and believe in the importance of a strong Public Service, which is starkly different to those opposite. I can remember one of the measures that they had. They called public servants who went on mat leave 'double-dippers'. They tried to take away their maternity leave and paternity leave entitlements. They're the kinds of views that our Public Service was up against. Is it any wonder that people left? There were the efficiency dividends. There was the way in which they cut jobs, made people redundant and didn't replace people. This made it very hard for people working inside the organisation.
Look at the role that DFAT, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, plays and the importance of trade. Those public servants who come and speak to us at the committees all play a crucial and important role. We task them with doing a lot of the heavy duty and the legwork when it comes to negotiating free trade. Just this week the member for Spence and I were at a treaties committee meeting where we were talking, committee-in-confidence, about the EU free trade agreement—where it was at and the government position and how it was going. Those were skilled public servants who have the knowledge and capability that is critical to us being able to do our jobs, and critical to the government being able to do its job of getting the best outcome in those negotiations. If we want to have a strong, well-resourced Public Service, it starts from the foundations. It starts with making sure that we have a unified purpose, that it's not internally focused, that they're not looking over their shoulders and that they're proud of the jobs that they do.
I do want to acknowledge the unions in this space and the people who've fought the good fight for a long time. The CPSU and other unions have always, in rounds of bargaining, continued to put this on the agenda. The fact that the workers themselves have put this issue of having a unified purpose across the APS on the agenda—not in those words but in similar language—demonstrates how those workers want to see themselves come together.
Critical to good government is having a well-funded, well-resourced Public Service that can be proud of the job that it does and ensure that its views are taken seriously, having the skill at every level and having a well-resourced, well-supported grad problem all the way up to secretaries, making sure that every group in between is properly resourced and properly supported. We need a strong Public Service if we're going to be a good government and a good parliament. I commend the bill to the House and strongly encourage all of us to think about the great work that the Public Service does now and will do into the future.
I rise to speak in favour of the Public Service Amendment Bill 2023. As servants to the public ourselves, as elected representatives in this place—as the member for Wills rightly pointed out during his contribution to this debate—we should all be taking an active interest in ensuring the Australian Public Service is working to the best of its ability, an ability those who have worked in or around the public sector in the past know that it is perfectly capable of returning to. I recognise there are many of the other side of the chamber that harbour a great respect for our Public Service. I'm sure I can take their word for it. I bet some of their friends are even public servants! Despite this, many of those opposite were there at the time to see a government they were a part of undermine, degrade and diminish the role of the Australian Public Service in the machinery of government, from policy formulation all the way to core service delivery to the public at large. Service delivery such as employment services, call centre and other customer service roles were outsourced to a number of non-profit and for-profit entities, to labour hire companies, just so those opposite could chomp on cigars before delivering a budget and pat themselves on the back for reining in the size of the Public Service, whilst at the same time making the jobs of the APS employees who remained and interacted with non-APS contractors and labour-hire employees just that bit more difficult.
But, in the same way we saw with the books that those opposite handed the Albanese Labor government when it took office last year, to the Liberal and National parties, small government is merely a figment of the imagination—a catchphrase, a mere illusion, a mirage. On the other hand, from the top down, the previous government outsourced the jobs of six ministers to a single prime minister. I can't for the life of me think of any way this led to better service delivery, improved work output or any degree of increased customer satisfaction. It certainly led to a diminished public perception of government. But good on them for trialing this approach from the top down in their government. The amount of money spent to have a non-APS workforce working with and adjacent to the machinery of government equates almost to the former government having a black budget—a guerrilla workforce.
You might say that it was ideology that drove them to this strategy, or maybe one of the big four told them to. I'm sure if one of them thought so, the other three would definitely concur, as they have certainly reaped the rewards of this policy objective of the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments. Why would recommending such a course of action be so attractive for the big four? Well, as the old saying goes, you always back a horse named self-interest. On that note, the Albanese Labor government looks to back in our workforce, a battered but proud and skilled workforce in the APS that backs Australia's national interest.
We can point to so many examples, highlighted by royal commissioners, auditors-general and our parliamentary committee system, of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments being fearful of frank advice. To add another cliche into the arguments, we have an oldie but a goldie, one we all know—Einstein's parable of quantum insanity. Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, unless you've tailored the terms of reference to a report you've commissioned from consultants to provide cover—whoops; sorry, I meant to say advice—to government. Often, these commissions are geared by the terms of reference for the mission of finding a justification for a position of the government, so the government can hold up a glossy report by an independent firm at a press conference to cover their own tails.
To throw yet another cliche into the mix, sometimes the tail wags the dog. The 'decide, announce, defend' approach isn't an especially sound approach when the process becomes too opaque to unpack how the decision was arrived at. There was always some method to the madness of high-school maths teachers that only gave full marks if you showed your working out and everything in between. I'm sure through this method of government we're provided with frank and fearless advice, in the same way that a mercenary shows candour towards their paymaster. Whilst this is not to say that there aren't many bright and talented individuals amongst the ranks of the big four, it simply adds a further point of lamentation to see them not part of the APS, instead finding the private sector a more attractive option.
Over the best part of a decade, Australia has become overly reliant on outsourcing its formulation of policy. By all means bring in the specialists to help refine policy, but over that period Australia did not just substitute the APS for consultants to create and deliver government policy; they benched the APS. 'Substitute' is a mild word; really, it is closer to 'replaced'. It doesn't take us commissioning one of the big four to hand down a report to tell us what effect this has on the APS. It definitely perverts the policy formulation process. Once we see the sausage getting made, the favour ends up changing dramatically.
Australia needs a more active APS, one that is involved in bringing policy from a proposal to its delivery—from farm to table, as the saying goes. A profit motive behind crafting policy does not somehow make it superior; it makes many armchair observers start to wonder whose interests are at the forefront. We should be, as a matter of course, using the methodology of old in how we make decisions and create policy in this country. Our methodology should be more akin to the clothing brand FUBU—policy that is 'for us, by us'. Having a strong and empowered Public Service aiding and advising government to refined outcomes rather than predefined outcomes further mitigates some of the more egregious failures in policy formulation. Doing the hard work in enacting reforms in the APS—reforms that not just aid our public sector workforce to operate efficiently but provide them with the tools they need to operate effectively—will make another robodebt sized disaster that much harder.
We have done our jobs properly by supporting this legislation. After reviewing the testimony that has been put to the royal commission into robodebt, it should not be any wonder why members are jumping up to speak on this bill. I must admit I have been following the debate intently on this legislation during the past couple of days. I could point to a number of extremely salient points made by a number of my colleagues on this side of the chamber. Contributions from the members for Wills, Bean, Lalor, Holt and Newcastle and the beginning of the contribution from the member for Kingsford-Smith, the Assistant Minister for Veterans' Affairs, immediately come to mind. I may touch on a few points made by a number of them in due course.
Instead, I almost feel compelled to first take note of the contribution made by the member for Riverina on this bill. I can't quite remember what I was doing at the time, but I stopped whatever it was and turned the volume up to listen to the member for Riverina being on-brand and on-message, given the National's role in the previous government, which saw nine years of undermining and diminishing the role of the APS in the machinery of government. The member for Riverina then took umbrage with the legion of Labor members speaking on this bill, overtly implying a cheapness to these contributions. Well, the member for Riverina, as the sole National to speak to this bill, certainly helps to capture one's attention. He certainly never fails to 'make a contribution'. After almost a year in this place, I am beginning to realise this is entirely on-brand for the member for Riverina. The other Nationals were certainly conspicuous by their absence on this bill, but, despite this, here was the member for Riverina, charging out to make a contribution in this place on the Australian Public Service, charging out against a legion of Labor members who have spoken, with many others patiently waiting their turn. He was charging out like the last samurai. The member for Riverina's speech went as far as discussing the contemporary history of notable parliamentary filibusters. I can only describe filibustering by talking about filibustering as a bit too meta for my sensibilities, but the member for Riverina can still entertain, stepping into the arena like Maximus in Gladiator, as he often does. Are we not entertained? I can only speak for myself, as I would be reluctant to speak about the opinions of all present and those of us tuning in the other night to the proceedings of the chamber. I do, though, find it somewhat amusing, rather than entertaining, to see the member for Riverina as the sole National to speak on this bill.
Frankly, I would have thought the Nationals would have a thing or two to say about the role of the Australian Public Service, particularly after nine long years in government. Over the past nine years, the Australian Public Service dutifully prepared recommendations to numerous rounds of grants that were completely ignored by those opposite in favour of choices made by a number of colourful Liberal Party and National Party identities with even more colourful spreadsheets. They made moves to force public servants outside of what they referred to as the Canberra bubble, likely only relenting with their big thought bubble at the thought of their local pubs beginning to turn a little too gentrified for their taste. The horror! Oh, the horror!
However, much like the extraordinarily understated words of the member for Riverina in his contribution to this debate, I digress, albeit ever so slightly. As such, I feel I should move toward discussing some of the details of this bill, as it is, despite what the member for Riverina's scepticism would have you believe, vitally important in ensuring that the Australian Public Service has a clearly defined purpose within the machinery of government, not just now but in the longer term.
Many of the measures in at this bill, which makes a raft of amendments to the Public Service Act 1999, were included as a result of recommendations made as part of the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service, a review initiated by Malcolm Turnbull when he was Prime Minister. Remember him? I'm fairly certain that the member for Riverina was his deputy. Some of the others seemed to be really ambitious for him. On the upside, the irony wouldn't have been lost on the Turnbull government if they had commissioned one of the big four to handle this review of the Australian Public Service. They might have missed out on a bit of work due to this, but the Turnbull government was keeping them pretty busy, despite this job falling just outside of their reach. The review itself, having occurred prior to the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, still had many things to say which have been adopted in measures that have already been implemented prior to the introduction of the bill, and, of course, through measures in the Public Service Amendment Bill. This bill was introduced after the review, in a different environment to the one we found ourselves in after the review was handed down and delivered to the former government.
The Albanese Labor government came into office with a substantially broader agenda to reform the Australian Public Service. This bill will be a component of this agenda rather than the beginning and end of this government's input in reforming the APS, an employer of in excess of 155,000 throughout the country, not just in this Canberra bubble—a term those opposite used to denigrate those who operated within it, while being curiously avoidant of pointing out that they are long-term tenants within the same bubble. I think many on the other side of the chamber used to sit glued in front of their television sets, binge-watching Yes Minister and waiting suspensefully for the politicians to win against the public servants. Years later, their approach to the Public Service is one where life imitates art. But at least the Jim Hacker cosplay enthusiasts no longer occupy the Treasury bench in this place.
The Albanese Labor government's APS reform agenda is held aloft by four key pillars. They are relatively straightforward but vital to implant into the DNA of the Australian Public Service in order to ensure that the Australian Public Service embodies integrity in everything it does, puts people in business at the centre of the policy and service delivery and is a model employer that has the tools and capability to do its job well. This is the framework underpinning this bill and reforms that have been undertaken prior to now and is the tone of the reforms the Albanese government aims to foster in the APS moving forward.
This is about restoring the public's faith and trust in the Australian Public Service. It's also about restoring the faith and trust that the Australian Public Service has in itself. It is no secret the Albanese government started its time on a mission to restore confidence in government and its many institutions that keep the wheels of government turning. This is especially true given that the Albanese Labor government's first months within the 47th Parliament were spent passing the legislation necessary to finally establish the National Anti-Corruption Commission. Having a good public service begets good government. We should all want this, no matter who is in government at the time.
I commend the bill to the House and hope that I can count on the support of all members, even the member for Riverina, as we work together to strengthen the integrity of our public institutions and the confidence that the public have in their ability to serve them diligently, faithfully and effectively.
In closing, I would like to give a very big shout-out to those that work in the Public Service in my electorate, especially those at the Gawler, Elizabeth and Salisbury Services Australia facilities that we have, who go about very diligently, every single day, helping people in my community get access to the services that they need to ensure they have a dignified life. Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart.
I'm glad to speak in support of the changes in the Public Service Amendment Bill that strengthen the incredible and vital public good that is the Australian Public Service. If you set out to write a list of the key components that make Australia a place and a community that is functional and fair, that is capable and considerate, and that rises to new and often difficult challenges like climate change, natural disasters and a global pandemic, the Australian Public Service would be right at the very top of that shortlist. It's an extension of our system of democratic government and it's the enabling force that implements the decisions we make as a community.
As my colleague has just said, the Australian Public Service operates across a broad range of areas of Australian life—almost every area of Australian life that you can think of—from person-to-person on the ground level right up to the level at which policies are formulated and advice is given that allows those of us in this place to make decisions, implement policies and programs, and direct funding in the interests of Australia's broad wellbeing. This bill implements recommendations from the 2019 independent review of the APS—the so-called Thodey review that was implemented by Prime Minister Turnbull. It does things like ensuring there are five-year capability reviews, delivering greater transparency and, very importantly, reinforcing the apolitical independence of the Australian Public Service—one of its great qualities and one of the most significant foundational principles of a democratic system like ours.
The fact that it's this Labor government—the Albanese Labor government—implementing those recommendations is a good thing, but it does also fit a pattern that in some ways is a disappointing reflection on what has gone on in the past. These were recommendations made in 2019, and we're 4½ years on from that. I remember being in the last parliament under the previous government where at times in the course of a sitting week nothing much was going on and the government was scratching around for something to bring into this place for us to consider. You would have thought the changes recommended in 2019 might have come forward in the course of the last parliament at some point, but no, it falls to us to do a very important repair job with respect to the Australian Public Service because it has been run down, it has been pushed under, it has been chopped up into bits and it has been subject to unfair criticism. It has had its independence put at risk by all of the things that the former coalition government did. We've come along and we're starting to turn the ship around.
As I said, this follows a pattern. Under the previous government, we had the aged care royal commission, and most of the recommendations of that were not implemented by the former government—we're getting on and doing that. We had the Graham Samuel's review of the EPBC, the Environmental Preservation and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which said clearly to the former coalition government, 'You need to do something to improve environmental protection at a time when the Australian environment has been hammered, is under significant threat and is on a trajectory to decline.' Graham Samuel said, 'Here's a fairly simple recipe for effective reform,' and that was ignored, we had the Constitutional convention process in the form of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which the previous government initiated and then promptly ignored. It was disappointing and a failure of what the Australian community is entitled to expect in the form of competent government. The coalition in many cases initiated a review process and then, off the back of that, had the recipe and the ingredients for positive and much-needed reform, and just never got around to it—they did nothing.
What's sadder still is that if all they had done was nothing, it wouldn't have been as bad as what actually occurred. When it comes to the Australian Public Service, while not undertaking the reforms that we're implementing, and while not supporting, championing, resourcing or enabling the Australian Public Service, the former government actually did their best—or their worst depending on how you want to describe it—to undermine the vital role of the APS plays by cutting: cutting funding, cutting staff numbers, putting in place pay freezes, and undermining the incredible work of the Community and Public Sector Union, which has always stood up for public sector workers and, more importantly, has always stood up for what the Australian Public Service delivers to the Australian community. They have effectively fought a war of resistance for nine or 10 years while their members, and all workers in the APS, were treated to cut after cut after cut and squeeze after squeeze after squeeze.
The ABC and the SBS had resources cut. The social safety net was put under pressure in almost all aspects. It was not subject to death by a thousand cuts, but we were on that path and sort of halfway to death; it was probably 491 cuts or something like that. There was 40 per cent cut out of the department of the environment alone, and what did we see as a result of that? As I said before, we've seen ourselves end up in what is effectively an extinction crisis. The former government's approach to environmental decline and biodiversity was the Threatened Species Strategy. That wasn't properly resourced; it was another colourful pamphlet whose objectives weren't met.
One part of that took the 20 most at-risk mammal species, and the idea was to see improved trajectories in the populations of those species within a five-year period. It was a pretty sensible way of going about it, you would have thought. What actually happened? Well, there was an improvement in the trajectory of only eight species—not even the 20 target species but only eight of those 20 species. And, in the case of four of the improved trajectories, we didn't actually see an increase in the populations of those particular species. With the Gilbert's potoroo, the most endangered animal in Australia, whose home range is in the electorate of the member for O'Connor, you didn't see an improved population; you just saw slower decline. I remember at one point the government saying, 'We haven't managed to improve trajectories for 20 species, but we have for eight.' The truth was that, with respect to four of those eight, the population was still declining, just not quite as quickly as it had done before. That was the kind of thing that happened—which, you could expect, would happen—when you cut 40 per cent of the funding to the department of the environment.
Not only do you get those kinds of terrible environmental and biodiversity outcomes; you also get slower decision-making, less reliable decision-making and, effectively, faulty decision-making. When the ANAO looked at decisions made under the EPBC, I think they found that in the case of 79 per cent of those decisions there were conditions that had not been observed. The government had failed to grasp the fact that there was, effectively, an 80 per cent, or a four out of five, rate of failure with respect to the conditions that were attached to those decisions and which were the basis on which those approvals were given.
On immigration: I don't think any of us would struggle to understand how important it is that Australia's immigration system works well, has integrity, works smoothly, is accessible and works in a timely way. We would all have constituents and—probably, in some cases—family members who have been through that process. In recent times we have seen issues that have arisen when it comes to immigration processing that effectively amount to a crisis. One only has to think of what happened with the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The fact is, the immigration department had been knocked back so badly that you had enormous backlogs, enormous delays and a lack of capacity which meant that family members of Australian citizens from Afghanistan who were waiting to be able to come to Australia were prevented from doing so and now, effectively, find themselves locked in a country that has returned to Taliban rule, with all the things that implies.
When you talk about undermining the Australian Public Service, it's not just the fact that an aged pensioner might have to wait for an hour on the telephone. That's intolerable. That shouldn't occur for an older Australian. But, when you think, there are people whose family members were waiting month after month, year after year, just to have their migration application process give them the chance to join their kids, parents, brothers or sisters here in Australia. They instead found that, because of that failure, lack of capacity and under-resourcing, the door slammed shut, and they are now stuck in circumstances that are literally grave circumstances that put their lives at risk.
Customs and biosecurity is another of those critical areas that underpins our broad social, economic and environmental wellbeing. If you don't resource the Australian Public Service properly and you see failures in those areas, the consequences can be devastating. Once an invasive species comes in, the impact on agriculture particularly and on other areas of our environment and our own wellbeing can be severely affected.
The development assistance budget was one of the parts of the Public Service that was hit hardest. Almost as soon as the former government were elected, they decided that they would smash Australia's development assistance program, that they would dissolve AusAID altogether and that they would hammer the capacity that Australia has wielded so generously and thoughtfully and effectively, particularly in our region, to reduce poverty and to reduce death—particularly when it comes to infant mortality and for women and children as a focus group. That not only prevented us from saving lives or from supporting the development of a stable, prosperous and sustainable economy in our region; it put our security at risk.
There is no better way to advance Australia's security, stability and prosperity than through well-targeted development assistance. When you go along and take out not only the resources but also the capability—the human capital, all those years of dedication, expertise, practical knowledge, networks, friendships and people-to-people bonds between Australians and people in countries in the Pacific and in South-East Asia—you take away our capacity to be a significant, influential middle power acting for good. I mean 'for good' in the broadest sense, in accordance with our values and principles, in supporting the wellbeing of our brothers and sisters all over the world and in reducing conflict, malnourishment, famine, disease and all the terrible things that, fortunately, we don't experience to any significant degree in this country—but also in advancing our own interests. If you are someone who doesn't find those other things compelling—reducing infant mortality; lifting people out of grinding, aching poverty; freeing women from disease and domestic violence—you should at least find it compelling to think that, when we assert our development assistance program, diplomacy and trade and all the parts of our external affairs armature, when we extend and assert those parts of our Public Service capability well, we build our own security and we support our own ability to exist in a sustainably prosperous place with an environment that is looked after and in circumstances where conflict is minimalised.
The Labor Party will always support the Australian Public Service. We are under no illusion about its core significance to our way of life, to our system of democratic governance and as an extension of our principles. The Australian Public Service has suffered over the last decade, like many parts of Australian life. Australian public servants have weathered that storm. There have been a lot of people put under enormous pressure. They've been underpaid, they've had their job security risked, they've seen jobs outsourced and they've seen ridiculous contracts go to PwC and lots of other big companies at the cost of tens of millions of dollars. The quality of service that Australians expect has been smashed, money has found its way into the pockets of private companies and our Public Service has been left to struggle on. We are going to change that. This is the beginning. There is more work to be done.
I commend the member for Fremantle for his fine remarks and thoughtful contribution, as is characteristic of the member in this place.
I'm pleased have the opportunity to speak on the Public Service Amendment Bill 2023. This bill amends the Public Service Act 1999. Its purpose is to ensure that the Australian Public Service is well-placed to serve the Australian government, the parliament and the Australian public well into the future.
I want to be clear from the outset that Australia has been exceptionally well served by its public servants ever since Federation and is still being well served by them today. Ministers of every political persuasion have known that they could rely on the Public Service to give them accurate information, advice and wise counsel in war and in peace, in depression years and in boom years. Ministers have also known that once this parliament passes legislation or once cabinet makes a decision, the Public Service will work conscientiously to put the will of the parliament. I have experienced, being the chair of a number of parliamentary committees, the diligence, the expertise, the thoroughness and the collegiate nature of the Public Service. I've been privileged to work alongside, to support and to collaborate with them on important policy matters that effect our country, and I firmly believe in the Public Service both here in Canberra and around the country.
Our Public Service has always attracted some of Australia's most talented professionals. Sir Robert Garran, Australia's first Commonwealth public servant, was head of the Attorney-General's Department for 32 years and the leading authority on the Australian Constitution. Sir Frederick Shedden, head of the defence department during World War II, was John Curtin's most trusted advisor. Curtin called Shedden 'my right hand'. Dr HC 'Nugget' Coombs worked for both Labor and Liberal governments on great post-war projects such as the Snowy Mountains scheme and was an early advocate for our First Nations people. Sir Roland Wilson was secretary of the Treasury for the whole of the Menzies era and the principal architect of our post-war prosperity. Richard Woolcott, who died earlier this year, was head of the foreign affairs department during Australia's transition from an outpost of the British Empire to an integral part of the Asia-Pacific region. Sir Geoffrey Yeend and Max Moore-Wilton were immensely influential heads of the Prime Minister's department. The integrity of the Public Service was protected by the Public Service Board, headed by powerful figures, such as Sir Frederick Wheeler, Alan Cooley and Peter Wilenski. I could name many more. What distinguished them was their outstanding ability, their strong sense of public duty, their commitment to public neutrality and their avoidance of publicity. Most Australians only ever heard their names when they retired and received their knighthoods.
But the House will notice that all of the public servants that I named were men. That was the way things worked for many, many years. But, in 1985, Helen Williams broke the glass ceiling when she was appointed the Secretary of the Department of Education and Youth Affairs, and today women occupy a range of senior positions across the Public Service. I might mention Frances Adamson, who was the head of the foreign affairs and trade portfolio and is now the Governor of South Australia. And both her successes at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have been outstanding and formidable Australian women.
All that being said, it has to be noted that the high standards of the Australian Public Service have been under increasing threat in relation years, and this legislation is a response to those threats. There is a popular perception, fed by the tabloid media, that the Public Service is a bloated bureaucracy. But, in real terms, both the size and the budget of the Public Service has shrunk over the past 30 years due entirely to cuts made by coalition governments under the guise of efficiency reviews.
In 1993 there were 165,000 Commonwealth public servants. At the end of 2020 there were 148,000. Given that Australia's population has increased by 8.4 million in that time, this is a very sharp reduction in real terms. Some of this has been due to the declining need for clerical workers, but much of it has been due to a deliberate attack on the capacity of the Public Service to develop and provide independent advice to ministers. Those opposite have preferred to outsource this work to a growing swarm of consultants and political-friendly think tanks, creating at times an echo chamber in which ministers are not only told what they want to hear; they are also not warned of the possible dangers of any course of action that they have decided upon. This has had predictably disastrous consequences. Can we doubt that the robodebt scandal was due at least in part to the refusal of ministers such as former minister Tudge and former minister Robert, not to mention the member for Cook, to seek or listen to professional advice from an independent and fearless Public Service.
In May 2018, in one of his last acts as Prime Minister before he was forced out by the current Leader of the Opposition and the honourable member for Cook, Malcolm Turnbull commissioned an independent review of the Public Service. The review's final report was delivered in December 2019 by David Thodey AO, chair of the independent panel. The review made a number of important recommendations designed to strengthen the integrity and independence of the Public Service against the threat of politicisation and ministerial interference, the growing power of unaccountable ministerial advisers and the cuts to budgets and staff levels that threatened to undermine the stability of the Public Service to do its job, not to mention the politicisation of the position of the most senior person in the Public Service, which was given to no doubt a qualified person but someone who had also occupied the role of chief of staff of the then former Prime Minister.
Sadly, by 2019, the honourable member for Cook was Prime Minister, and he rapidly made it clear that there would be no such reforms while he was in charge. As we now know, the honourable member for Cook was determined to centralise all power of government in his own hands, sidelining not only the Public Service but even at times his own cabinet colleagues. That was why he became the first Prime Minister to be censured by this House for abusing the powers of his office. I can do no better than to quote one of Australia's most experience and respected political journalists, Michelle Grattan, writing in The Conversation in December 2019:
The wide-ranging Thodey panel's Independent Review of the Australian Public Service has made 40 recommendations; the government says it agrees fully or "in part" with a majority.
But while only a minority were rejected outright or "noted", these, plus the rejected sections of those accepted "in part", have sent a very clear message: the government has no intention of countenancing reforms that would—
circumcise its power.
No. I didn't say that. Anyway, you can check the Hansard.
Honourable members interjecting—
There are some incorrect interjections being made, Mr Acting Deputy Speaker Goodenough. Andrew Podger, who was Public Service Commissioner under the Howard government, was quoted in 2019 as saying that under the Morrison government:
Controlling the public service to minimise political risk is too often given more weight than taking advantage of the intellectual capacity and administrative experience the APS has to offer …
By 2019 senior public servants had learned that if they wanted their careers to advance, they needed to tell ministers what they wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear.
This, then, was the situation that the Albanese government inherited when we came into government last year. As Michelle Grattan wrote:
… we need the parliament to intervene, if not in the immediate light of the Thodey Report and the government's response, then before or shortly after the next election.
And that is what this government has undertaken to do. The Minister for the Public Service, Senator Katy Gallagher, was given a strong brief to fix the mess which the previous government had left behind. As a senator for the ACT, she represents a large body of public servants, and as a former chief minister she understands the relationship between the executive and the Public Service better than just about anybody in either this place or the other.
By introducing this bill, the government is taking the necessary steps to rebuild the integrity, the professionalism and the central role in government of the Australian Public Service. The bill is about restoring the public's trust and faith in government and its institutions, and it's also about restoring the Public Service's faith in itself. The bill will strengthen the Public Service's core purpose and values, build its capacity—