Senate debates

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Matters of Public Interest

Australian Public Service

12:59 pm

Photo of Brett MasonBrett Mason (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Universities and Research) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on a matter of public interest. It is of public interest because it concerns Australian public servants and, in particular, absenteeism in the Commonwealth Public Service. Absenteeism in the Commonwealth Public Service has been steadily increasing over the last decade or so. By way of contrast, in recent years in Australia's private sector unscheduled absences have been falling, with employees having to work longer and harder to keep up with the demands of the tougher economic climate. The fact that employees of the Commonwealth Public Service are taking more and more sick leave and other types of leave is not strictly a partisan issue. I first raised this matter in parliament in 2004 during the previous coalition government. Indeed, it is not strictly a political issue, although some will say this is an attempt to score cheap political points by attacking public servants and their so-called 'sickies'. They are wrong. Not only that; they are trivialising an issue that affects the value every taxpayer gets for their tax dollar.

The facts are very simple. The rates of unscheduled absence in the Public Service have been increasing steadily over the last nine years. In 2001-02 the median unscheduled absence rate was 8.9 days per year per employee, of which sick leave accounted for seven days and other types of leave for the remaining 1.9 days. In 2010-11, the rate of unscheduled absence climbed to 11.1 days per year per employee, of which sick leave accounted for 8.4 days. This means that in nine years, unscheduled absences in the public service increased by 25 per cent or 2.2 days per year per employee. The median figure hides a great divergence across government departments and agencies, with the levels of workplace absence varying widely from 3.9 days per employee to 23½ days per year per employee. It is a huge difference—23.5 days median absence is a lot. That is almost five working weeks which, combined with four weeks of annual leave, means that some employees are not working for almost 9 weeks, or two months a year. This is not the experience of those working in the private sector. While reliable data is hard to come by, Direct Health Solutions in their 2011 absence management survey reported that while absence levels across Australia fell for the first time in three years, public sector employees took 22.5 per cent more time off than those in the private sector.

Why has the rate of public service absenteeism been so high and why is it still rising? Over the years, as I have questioned the Australian Public Service Commissioner and other Australian Public Service officials at Senate estimates, I have received a range of different suggestions. One time I was told that there had been a particularly bad flu season that year. This might have explained a temporary spike in numbers, but not a consistent trend across the course of nearly a decade.

Another time I was told that public servants are on average older than private sector workers; therefore, they get sick more often. The Public Service indeed has a different age profile than the labour force as a whole; that is true. The Public Service is more middle-aged than the private sector; but the private sector has larger cohorts proportionately at the younger and the older ends of the spectrum. In any case, the Public Service Commission does not collect data on absences across the various age groups, so this is merely guesswork and a hypothesis unsupported by any data. Do 40- to 50-year-olds take more leave than 20- to 25-year-olds? I am not so sure, and in any case there is no data.

On yet another occasion I was told:

…the dominant reason those numbers have been rising is the use of carer's leave.

This, too, turned out to be a furphy. The data clearly shows that the increase in carer's leave accounted for only 0.3 days' increase in absences between 2006-07 and 2010-11 out of a total of 1.7 days increase in overall unscheduled absences over the same period. Carer's leave accounts, therefore, for just over one-sixth of the explanation for the increase in unscheduled absences.

We still do not know why public servants take more sick and other leave than private sector employees. We also do not know how much this problem is costing the taxpayer. We do not even know that, because, as I was told:

The Commission does not collect data on the cost of unscheduled absence.

I even had difficulty in assessing the performance of public sector agencies and the public sector as a whole because of the opacity of the information provided in the commission's annual report and, more importantly, the State of the service reports. I will be watching to ensure that there is sufficient clarity in future information provided in annual reports and the State of the service reports so that parliament and the public can hold agencies and the commission accountable for their performance.

But do we know if anyone is doing something about this problem—that is, a 25 per cent increase in unscheduled absences in less than 10 years? The Australian Public Service Commission is an umbrella agency whose vision is:

To lead and shape a unified, high-performing Australian public service.

When in February this year I asked the commissioner, Mr Stephen Sedgwick AO, whether he has a responsibility to act to reduce absenteeism, he answered:

…I do not actually manage a hundred agencies across the Australian Public Service; I manage my own.

…   …   …

But we are quite keen—and we have—to share good practice and that is what we tend to do. In these circumstances we encourage good practice and we promulgate good practice.

Or, as the commissioner put it to me in the budget estimates in May this year:

We can exhort and we can test but ultimately it is the manager who has to do that—

that is, to deal with the problem of absenteeism. So, how much absorbing and testing has the commission been doing? In 2006, two years after I first raised the issue of absenteeism with the commission, it put out a document called Fostering an Attendance Culture: a guide for APS agencies. It was a good document but, as I discovered recently, it has not been updated or re-issued since 2006. I also discovered that absenteeism had not been placed even once on the agenda of the Management Advisory Committee or its successor, the Secretaries Board, for the past five years. The board consists of the commissioner and secretaries of all departments and is charged with the stewardship of the Australian Public Service.

I have been told, though, that absenteeism has been taken up at internal human resources management forums. Well, the data speaks for itself. For whatever encouraging and promulgating good practice has occurred, whatever exhorting and testing, it clearly has not worked. The problem persists and it continues to get worse.

In the end, though, what it comes down to can be summarised, perhaps, in one word—that is, leadership. The Australian Public Service Commissioner's annual report was tabled today in this Senate. On the front cover, in colour, it shows what the aims of the Australian Public Service Commissioner are and right on the left-hand corner is 'Effective Leadership'. I noted it when I picked up the annual report—effective leadership—so this is about leadership. Moreover, it is true that the commissioner does not have a statutory responsibility or, indeed, statutory powers to oversee all government departments and agencies and to intervene, for example, to deal with the rising rates of absenteeism. I accept that. But as noted in the annual report tabled today: the commission will assume greater responsibilities for issues such as absenteeism under proposed amendments to the Public Service Act.

In any case, the commission is the top Public Service body. It is the only body that has the reach and the perspective to inspire and guide collective action. If not the commission, then, who else? If the commissioner does not do it, who else then will do it? Who else is in a better position to understand the factors that have caused a 25 per cent increase in absenteeism and lead a whole-of-government approach to reduce the current high levels to something more comparable to the wider workforce?

I was glad to hear at estimates the other day that absenteeism will finally be placed on the agenda of the Secretaries Board's meeting in November. It has taken five years but this is a start. I do hope that the commission will use its moral authority and the power of persuasion to lead the Public Service in seriously addressing this issue. In these tough times, when more is being asked of all Australian workers, we should expect the public sector to also pull its weight and those with leadership positions in the Public Service to take substantial action when this does not occur. I make no apologies for that.

I recognise the hard work of the Australian Public Service and I thank it on behalf of, perhaps, all senators for the contributions in diligently performing their duties, in particular, of course, during Senate estimates, which I suspect—it might be fun for some of us—might be rather harrowing for some of the public servants. Australian taxpayers deserve a public service that is functioning as effectively and productively as it can, is managed competently and is administered to ensure best value for money. It is a shame that the Australian Public Service Commission has made so many excuses but made such little effort to combat public service absenteeism. Let us all hope that next year brings some improvement.