Public Service Amendment Bill 2023

SECOND READING DEBATE - HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

It is my honour and pleasure to follow the member for Fraser and his thoughtful contribution on this bill, which will directly affect the Australian Public Service. As a former member of the Public Service, his knowledge of the intricacies of the service that it does was worth listening to in this place this evening. I want to say a couple of things up-front about the Australian Public Service. Where the APS is public facing is where trust in governments is built or is undone. I think of the number of people in my community who want to talk to me about bringing back the Commonwealth Employment Service. When I listen to them talk about this, I always hear a time where they really trusted the Public Service. They trusted them, they were prepared to put their lives in their hands, they looked to them for support and for guidance. We hear it all the time in our electorates: 'Bring back the CES'. There's a real sense in the Australian public that the Public Service is what we need more of, not less of.

I think about that often, that in Australia there is a long-term sentiment around the Public Service. As I say to the staff in my electorate office, where the public comes into contact with the Public Service, and they are often the public-facing public servants, they are often seeing Australians on their worst days. If you think about Services Australia, someone's walking through the door coming from a traumatic place—a loss of employment, a loss of life, coming to report a death, coming to change an application process because a dependent has left home. There is a myriad of reasons why the public are interacting with the Public Service, and I think about the quality of our Public Service and how good we need that Public Service to be because they could be dealing with Australians having the toughest day of their lives.

I think about the feedback I've had in the past nine years about those interactions, and it doesn't fill me with inspiration. It doesn't fill me with inspiration because, in my community, there is a reflection in a loss of faith in the Public Service. Australians have felt put upon; they have felt they have not been dealt with fairly. And this is not a surprise if we think about the robodebt scandal over the last few years, if we think about the number of people we've seen in our offices across the last nine years who felt that they didn't get a fair hearing at Services Australia. Those two things are a clear contrast, but also give us some real insight.

As a government, we were always set to look at the APS and to look at that loss of faith in the Australian Public Service by our constituents, by the members of our communities. We were bound to address it—aside from the Thodey report, which compels us to address it. In reflecting on the member for Fraser's contribution, I am also reminded harshly of the member for Riverina's contribution earlier this evening. Let me say, through you, Mr Acting Deputy Speaker Goodenough, budgets reflect priorities; speaking lists reflect commitment. Putting it bluntly, it is true that the opposition has left the field on this bill. We have government member after government member engaging in this place with legislation that we feel strongly about. And we feel strongly about it because it goes to the core of our democracy. A loss of faith in public institutions is a threat to our democracy. Chaos does not bring us prosperity, and a lack of faith in the public does not build our country. It tears it down.

My community cares about the Australian Public Service because they rely on the Australian Public Service. When I think about those words, 'the Public Service', which is how I've always referenced it, I also think about that other commonly used word, 'bureaucracy'. The word 'bureaucracy' is often used in a derogatory way. When I think about the conversations I have in my electorate, when people are unhappy with the Public Service, they call it the 'bureaucracy'. They're 'having trouble dealing with the bureaucracy' or they're 'finding it difficult and confronting and dealing with the bureaucracy is impacting on their mental health'.

This bill goes some way to making a pivot in this space, turning this ship around. It does so thoughtfully. It does so as part of this government's reform agenda. It does so in response to the Thodey review from 2019, which concluded that the APS lacked a unified purpose. It said it was 'too internally focused and had lost capability in important areas'. And I'm thinking about the member for Fraser's contribution and that blue-sky thinking that we ask the APS to do. We ask them to do public-facing work with people on their worst days. We ask them to do the blue-sky thinking that's going to take this country forward. And we ask them to do the difficult work of looking at policy ideas, tracking them out, trying to predict the shortcomings, trying to predict and fix things before they're actually attempted to be implemented. It is an absolutely critical service to this parliament, an absolutely critical service for all of us as members of here representing our communities.

The bill delivers on several important recommendations of the Thodey review. It takes a look at the existing APS values to be impartial, to be committed to service, to be accountable, to be respectful and to be ethical. To model these values and embody integrity, the APS needs to be honest, truly independent and empowered to provide the frank and fearless advice that we've been hearing about all day and to defend legality and due process.

To engage in this legislation is to cast our minds back and to think about what we've seen across the last decade. I can't help but go back to the robodebt scandal and how different many lives in my community would have been if the APS had felt empowered to provide frank and fearless advice, if they had felt empowered to defend legality and due process. That's how the public feel about that process. They feel that they weren't given due process by the Australian Public Service. Not to put too fine a point on it, the APS needs to be delivering services with empathy and in a spirit of partnership with the Australian public and with this parliament.

Reform of an organisation the size of the Australian Public Service is going to take time and is also going to take sustained effort. Our agenda in this space and reflected in this legislation has four priorities—that the APS embodies integrity in everything it does, that it puts people and business at the centre of policy and services, that it's a model employer and that it has the capability to do its various jobs well. The heart of this bill supports these priorities. What's driving us in the introduction of this bill is restoring the public's trust and faith in government and its institutions. There is no more important thing that we are putting before this House.

The reforms in this bill will strengthen the APS's core purpose and values, build capability and expertise, and support good governance, accountability and transparency. To strengthen the APS's core values and purpose, it's going to develop a purpose statement. It's going to introduce stewardship as a new value, but, more importantly, it's going to establish a purpose statement. This is something that I have done in the schools that I worked in before coming to parliament—pulling a community together and asking those questions: What is our core purpose? Why are we here? How do we wrap ourselves around this core purpose? How do we get that core purpose? For us, in education, of course, that core purpose is to support every student to reach their potential. The APS will go through this process, and it is an affirming process. I've done this with more than one body of staff in schools. It's an affirming process to think about the core purpose, to make a fresh statement that everybody in the organisation agrees to about what that purpose is, and then to have that as the lens through which you see the work that you do every day. As one of the regional directors in state education would remind us every day, if our core purpose is to improve student outcomes, what have you done today to improve student outcomes? I wish the Public Service well on their venture into creating a shared sense of purpose, with tens of thousands of APS employees reinforcing a one Australian Public Service approach—one that has at its core a partnership with parliament and a partnership with the public.

One of the other things this bill introduces is limitations on ministerial directions to agency heads. This speaks to allowing the Public Service to be impartial, to being apolitical and to having a merit based approach to employment matters, devoid of political interest. It will strengthen the relevant provision in the Public Service Act to make it clear that ministers cannot direct agency heads on individual APS staffing decisions, something that appears in this chamber to be a small thing but which is a huge thing because it goes to that notion of true independence. It will reaffirm the apolitical role of the Australian Public Service and provide confidence to agency heads to act with integrity in the exercise of their duties and powers.

The bill will also go to building capability, expertise and thought leadership. Talented and committed people are the foundation of the Public Service, and to be future fit they need to continually build the capability of staff into a skilled and competent workforce to rebuild it as a robust and trusted institution. The bill will ensure that the Australian Public Service maintains a culture of continuous improvement, something that anyone who has worked in a forward-thinking organisation in the last 20 years has some understanding of. The Member for Fraser and the Thodey report say that, if the Public Service isn't broken, as is asserted, we would still be asking for it to adopt a culture of continuous improvement, because why wouldn't we aspire to continuous improvement?

The bill will also go to building capability, expertise and thought leadership. Talented and committed people are the foundation of the Public Service, and to be future fit they need to continually build the capability of staff into a skilled and competent workforce to rebuild it as a robust and trusted institution. The bill will ensure that the Australian Public Service maintains a culture of continuous improvement, something that anyone who has worked in a forward-thinking organisation in the last 20 years has some understanding of. The Member for Fraser and the Thodey report say that, if the Public Service isn't broken, as is asserted, we would still be asking for it to adopt a culture of continuous improvement, because why wouldn't we aspire to continuous improvement?

I want to finish with some thoughts of my own: that I'm not surprised about the speaking list. If the member for Riverina is listening, he might find me later to have a conversation about it. I'm not surprised that there's a speaking list of that length on this side, because this side is committed. If we add reduction of staff in the APS, the development of a lack of agency in the Public Service and a lack of trust to the list of the mess that we were left and that we have turned our mind to and tonight taken action on—work left undone by those opposite—it is not a surprise that many on this side are lining up to speak on this important piece of legislation.

 

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