BILLS - Public Service Amendment Bill 2023 - Second Reading

31 July 2023

I'd like to thank the minister for her work on this important issue. I'm grateful to speak on the Public Service Amendment Bill 2023, as it will not only provide transformational and enduring changes to the Australian Public Service but also strengthen the core purpose and values of the APS at a time when it's so sorely needed.

I have been very impressed by the quality of the public servants that I've dealt with in my time in parliament. I've also been very impressed with the public servants that have worked in areas like Centrelink, the taxation department and health care across state and federal public services in my time not only as a politician but also working as a doctor in the public health system. Indeed, when working in our public hospital system, I saw my role as being part of the Public Service.

But I was shocked with the previous government's approach to people requiring government support. I was so shocked that I felt that they no longer understood the word 'service'. In my role of running my own medical practice, on numerous occasions I had to deal with the taxation department and other government servants. I was asked to provide records of employment, payments from hospitals, Medicare payments et cetera and receipts for expenditure, and sometimes I found it very difficult to provide those documents in a timely way to the taxation department, Medicare et cetera. I'm pretty organised, and I had my practice pretty well organised after almost 40 years, and I sometimes found it difficult.

In 2018, I met a family with a couple of boys they looked after who had intellectual disability. The father himself had an intellectual disability. He had received a robodebt letter and was finding it difficult to provide to Centrelink documents that went back many years, such as unemployment payments et cetera, for his own small business. He ran a home maintenance and lawnmowing service and was trying his best to provide for his family, even though he himself had struggled with education. I went to the minister responsible, and the response I got was shocking—absolutely shocking!

To me, it seemed that the previous government no longer understood the words 'service' and 'public'. Whilst they were willing to pay millions of dollars to consultative services for reports that were often completely meaningless, they were prepared to punish people in the most difficult circumstances in our society. I'd like to thank Linda Burney, the previous shadow minister for government services, for the help she gave me in that time in making us aware of the robodebt process. I am still shocked by the response of the previous government, and I still cannot understand why they pushed forward over a number of years in this process. Despite any advice about how bad the Centrelink retrieval of debt process was, they still refused to act, and they should hang their heads in shame about it.

Robodebt has shaken not only my trust but the trust of our society in the Australian Public Service. I know that the frontline workers do their best, in sometimes very difficult circumstances, to deal with the public who are very stressed, but there was a complete failure of leadership in the higher echelons of the Public Service and a complete failure of political courage and political understanding of the importance of providing support to the most disadvantaged in our society. As Justice Murphy put it, robodebt and the management of it by both politicians and public servants was a 'shameful chapter' and a 'massive failure of public administration' and government.

In 2021, I spoke in this place about how my electorate of Macarthur had lost people to suicide because of the stress that robodebt had placed upon them. I saw it firsthand. People in my electorate felt and lived firsthand how the former coalition government and those senior public servants who backed in this terrible scheme did not care for them, their families or their attempts to deal with such a pathetic witch-hunt, known as robodebt.

Even the language the prime minister was using—of 'lifters and leaners'—was shameful, and I hope we never see it again. It's import to note that the current Prime Minister and the current Minister for Government Services, and all of my Labor colleagues and I all called robodebt out for what it was: a witch hunt against the most vulnerable in our society. We rightfully called for a royal commission, and it was a really important thing that the Prime Minister led us to do. The current Leader of the Opposition also had an opinion on this, but rather than joining us in protecting individuals, Peter Dutton called the royal commission into this ridiculous scheme 'nothing more than a witch hunt'. That was his view, which shows us everything we need to know about where he stood on this in the past.

During all of this, the APS had certain individuals unwilling to acknowledge where their duty must lie—with the Australian people. That's why this legislation is important. It benefits not only current and future members of the Australian Public Service but also all Australians, as trust and accountability must be restored into our Australian Public Service. The independent review of the Australian Public Service led by David Thodey concluded that the APS lacked a unified purpose, was too internally focused and had lost capability in important areas. I would suggest that the capability they lost was the ability to understand what the word 'service' means. It's very concerning to hear this, but I do have faith in the people of the APS to turn things around and demonstrate to the Australian people that they can be trusted, that they can be trusted to deal with complex issues in a compassionate way, and that all people in Australia have a right to feel valued by their government.

This bill is not a bill to damage or criticise the Public Service but rather to strengthen it. It's an opportunity to reshape and reform and strengthen the APS to provide the Australian people with the public service that they deserve. This is especially true during challenging times, and we are in challenging times. We know that economies around the world have been faltering, and it is very important to understand that often those on the lowest incomes are the most stressed. They are the ones that deal most with government support agencies like Centrelink. They are the ones that we have to support and we have to strengthen our responses to the stresses that they are undergoing. This is what the previous government did not do. In fact, they turned the question around. They damaged most the people who were most vulnerable. They didn't support the most vulnerable. Rather, they supported their mates in big business, and that is a very sad thing. In tough and challenging times we need to stand with the most vulnerable, and that includes people that deal with Centrelink, the NDIS, the taxation department, the health department et cetera.

They've worked tirelessly over the last few years, particularly the years of the pandemic, bushfires and floods et cetera. We rely on them to do the right thing and, thankfully, virtually all of the frontline workers did do the right thing. Where we were let down was in the level of scrutiny by the higher levels of the Public Service, the lack of appropriate advice to government and the failure of the government to understand the importance of supporting the most vulnerable.

It's through moments of crisis, like COVID and the bushfires, where we truly see the best of our public servants. With some of the work they did in the north-coast floods, in New South Wales, and the local floods in the Hawkesbury-Nepean area, the public servants were the strength of our society. They were absolutely fantastic in the tireless support they provided to people undergoing some real-life tragedies.

Our government's APS reform agenda has four priorities as part of our broader plan to restore the public's trust and faith in government and its institutions. It is to embody integrity in everything it does and will require the secretaries board to oversee the development of a single unifying APS purpose statement and review it every five years. All agency heads will be required to uphold and promote the new APS purpose statement, in addition to the APS values and employment principles. Further, it will clarify and strengthen the provisions of the act, making it clear that ministers cannot direct agency heads on individual APS staffing decisions. This will reaffirm that the APS's apolitical nature and is integral in upholding faith in the Public Service.

Development of the APS purpose statement must be informed by consultation with the APS and the general public, very importantly. We need to listen to the people that we serve. The second priority is for the APS to put people and business at the centre of policy and services. Thirdly, the APS needs to be a model employer and, lastly, the APS should have capability to perform its job well. We need to fund it properly. We need to stop outsourcing to profit-hungry consultancy groups who do not provide independent reports to government.

It should be noted that the APS has and continues to provide quality and dedicated service to the Australian public, but this bill is about strengthening its ability to provide these services. It will require the publication of APS employment results and an action plan that responds to difficulties with employment. It will foster a culture of transparency and accountability for improvement within agencies. It also adds an APS value of stewardship. APS values articulate the culture and operating ethos of the APS. They reflect the expectations of the relationship between public servants and the government and the people that we all serve.

Informed by consultation, the bill outlines the stewardship value as meaning the APS bills capability and institutional knowledge, and that will be very important, in the 21st century, across a whole range of issues. Stewardship involves learning from the past and looking to the future. This is a government that is committed to supporting the very best values of the Australian Public Service and I fully support the bill. We will consult. We will make our APS more diverse, more accountable and more transparent, and this is very important. This bill provides greater support and clarification for the APS itself, and it is important that the sector helps shape, govern and run our nation in an appropriate manner. I commend the bill to the House.