I am pleased to rise to speak on the Public Service Amendment Bill 2023, and join with so many of my colleagues on this side of the chamber, who have spent considerable time talking about the value of the Public Service and talking about how we understand the very direct role the Public Service plays in all our communities, at Centrelink, at the NDIS, in helping people sort their tax problems, those day-to-day touch points that people across the breadth of this country rely on, as well as the very important work that the Public Service does in policy development and implementation that helps the work that we do in this parliament actually go out into our country.

What I have also heard from listening to my colleagues here and what I have observed during my time in this place is just how unusual it is actually to have these speeches being made in this place because certainly for the previous decade under those opposite the Public Service was not valued. It was not seen as a vital part of our nation’s infrastructure, as the part that makes sure that the work we do in here gets translated and taken out and has a positive impact on people’s lives. What those opposite did, in fact, was run down the Public Service, made it a very difficult place to work. It made it very difficult for people who are dedicated to making this country a better place to actually do their work.

I actually have the privilege of having tried to do that work myself. I am in fact a former public servant at both a Commonwealth and state level, so I have had the privilege of working with some very dedicated people who do every day seek to make this a better country for all of us. I have also seen the challenges and the very real stresses that those people work under. Indeed, I worked at the NDIA when the former government imposed a staffing cap, a very real staffing cap, on that agency. That posed a massive impost on the NDIA, the agency tasked with supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our community, supporting people with disability to lead the lives they should. They put a staffing cap on it, and of course that led to immense strain on the people in the NDIA, who were trying to do work that should have been spread amongst so many others, who were trying to do work that should mean people with disability, their families and their carers are all able to lead the best life possible. It was very hard for people to do that work with that unreasonable and unjustified staffing cap in place. I am very pleased our government has recognised that that was unreasonable, that that was not in fact leading to better outcomes, and we have removed that staffing cap.

More broadly, I also, during my time in the Public Service, observed that when governments don’t trust the Public Service, when governments don’t turn to the Public Service for advice, when governments have a trend of going outside the Public Service for advice—and we’ve seen recently how often that seemed to have been happening; the big four consulting firms and other consulting firms were the places the previous government was turning to for advice—the Public Service feels devalued. That impacts on morale and capability, and impacts on young people when they are thinking, ‘When I graduate, do I want to go work for KPMG or for the Public Service?’ We want the best and brightest to say, ‘I want to go and work for the Public Service because I can see a long-term future there, where I help to build our country.’ Unfortunately, under the previous government, we too often saw young people looking at the reality of where work was going and thinking, ‘I want to go and work at KPMG or one of these businesses that seems to be doing this work that should sit with the Public Service.’ For all these reasons, I think it is very important that we are in this place noting the value of the Public Service and also talking about this bill, which is our government’s commitment to the Public Service and our government’s commitment to rebuild the Public Service, to make sure that we are putting together a public service that is fit for purpose and that allows those very capable, very dedicated people who are part of the Public Service to do their work knowing they have a government that backs them in and knowing they have the structures around them that will allow them to do the vital work they do.

This bill and our broader APS reform agenda are about restoring the public’s trust and faith in the Public Service, in government and in its institutions. The bill will strengthen the APS’s core purpose and values, build the capability and the expertise of the APS, and support good governance, accountability and transparency—all things we definitely lacked in the last decade coming out of this place but which I think the Australian people will be very pleased to see coming back. They are values that are important for the Public Service both now and into the future, and they make a real difference. They actually have an impact on how Australians experience government services and how their lives are conducted.

This bill adds a new APS value, of stewardship. It requires an APS purpose statement. It makes it clear that ministers cannot direct agency heads on employment matters. It encourages decision-making at the lowest appropriate level. It makes regular capability reviews a requirement. It requires annual APS Employee Census results to be published, along with an action plan responding to the results. And it establishes at least one long-term insight briefing each year.

These measures that are in the bill were not dreamed up out of the blue; they are in fact a result of recommendations from the 2019 Independent Review of the Australian Public Service, otherwise known as the Thodey review. They’ve also drawn on the observations and work of people both at a Commonwealth and at a state level, as well as best practice from public services overseas—so we’ve drawn on the evidence to put together the measures in this bill.

If we think about what David Thodey said about his review and the intent of that review, I very much agree with what he said:

It comes back to what is the role, purpose and values of that organisation. That gave us a bigger view of what change was required to enable this incredibly diverse and complex organisation to respond to a future we aren’t sure of. You definitely still need structure and frameworks about how the organisation works. But at the end of the day you need to create an organisation that is able to adapt and change and respond. If you can get that right, then you can face any challenge going forward.

If you think about the operating environment for our country, for our government, for our community, that is absolutely where we are at the moment, and we do need a Public Service that is built on all of that—that is able to face challenges, adapt and respond to get the best that we need for our country.

These proposed changes, of course, have also been informed by engagement within and beyond the APS—APS employees, the CPSU, agency heads, experts and interested parties, including members of the public. As I said, there are a number of measures in the bill, and I will go to some of those now. The bill includes the APS value of stewardship. There are currently five existing APS values: committed to service; ethical; respectful; accountable; and impartial. The amendment proposed in this bill adds the following supporting statement to clarify the meaning of the new APS value of stewardship:

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 moves us beyond this short-term political-cycle thinking that we’ve had for the last decade, this immediate-advantage thinking, to thinking about what is in the long-term best interests of this country. Enshrining stewardship as an APS value ensures that employees are able to see how their individual behaviours contribute to that overall stewardship of the Public Service—how the work they do day to day plays into that long-term benefit for our country. It supports everyone having some joint ownership of the role the organisation plays.

The APS purpose statement will have to be reviewed at least once every five years to ensure it remains contemporary and responsive to the changing views and expectations of government and the community. Again, this is something that will help to unify the service but also present a common vision so that people doing their jobs, day to day, know what they are working towards and how they are working together to achieve that in the best interests of our country.

The bill also includes a provision for decision-making to be undertaken at the lowest appropriate classification. Going back to my own experience in the Public Service and from discussions I’ve had with a number of senior and past public servants, it does seem that, over time, a tendency has crept into public services where it’s thought that decisions and important work can only be done at the most senior levels, and for everyone else it’s a bit unclear: they’re doing good work, but they couldn’t possibly make a decision. Certainly, when I talk to people who were involved in the Public Service prior to the past decade, they say that they really benefited from often having subject-matter experts at lower levels being able to make responsible decisions, with, of course, appropriate oversight and all those things. But we devalue workers—we devalue people within the Public Service—when we make an assumption that only those at the highest level can make decisions. This change seeks to ensure that decision-making is not raised to a higher level than necessary. It improves decision-making processes and hopefully reduces duplication of work, which I think many staff would appreciate as well.

The bill includes capability reviews to make sure that we have regular, independent and transparent capability reviews as a five-yearly requirement. It also requires resulting reports and action plans to be published on an agency website, allowing for that transparency, so that we know the Public Service is conducting this work and is also being acquitted and so that the government knows that we are continuing to build this long-term capability in the APS. Capability reviews and the resulting action plans are an opportunity to focus on strengths and development areas and, again, to help prepare the Public Service to look ahead and think about what sort of operating environment they need to be in. This aligns with a number of other countries that we share values of public service with. Countries like the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada all have reviews of their public sector capability.

The Thodey review also called for the APS to strike a better balance between short-term responsiveness and investing in the deep expertise required to grapple with long-term strategic policy challenges. It called for genuine consultation with the public on issues affecting Australia and its society. Under this proposed amendment, the Secretaries Board must cause at least one long-term insights report to be prepared each financial year, again with that report to be published. Analysis in the report will be impartial, apolitical and based in evidence, building that ability to look to the long term and to reassure Australians that their public service is preparing for that long term and has the capability to continue to work in all of our best interests into that long term.

The amendment will also ensure transparency around the APS employee census, which is an annual survey to collect information about the attitudes and opinions of APS employees, by ensuring that agencies have to publish their aggregate results from that survey. The people who work in the Public Service are some of the best placed people to know what future improvements and changes need to be made, so it is important that the Public Service gathers that information. It’s also that agencies look at it and work out their plans to act on it, and that they are public and transparent about that, so that the Australian people and governments know what’s happening there and know that any issues identified are being addressed.

I’ll go back to where I started. The very fact that this bill is before this place, the very fact that we are debating this bill, shows that this government values the Public Service. We know that our community relies on that Centrelink worker who helps them get a disaster relief payment. We know that our community relies on that support coordinator who helps them with their NDIS plan. We know that our community gets the best results when the people in the public service can give our government frank and fearless advice that helps us deal with the very real challenges this country faces. This bill is before the House because we also know that, for a decade, our Public Service has not been valued in that way. Our Public Service has been undermined. People within the Public Service have not been respected as they should.

This bill goes a long way to restoring the Public Service to the position it should hold. It shows all those members of the Public Service in our country that, as a government, we value them and we value the work they do. We are investing in that work. We are investing in the capability of a modern, fit-for-purpose Public Service. I commend this bill to the House.

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