Appropriations - The Public Service - 11/09/2019

11 September 2019



Labor supports Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2019-2020 and the associated bills, as we do not block supply. But I, like many of the Canberrans I represent, am deeply concerned about the future that the Morrison government outlines for Australia in these documents. We are concerned about the way that these bills solidify opportunities for some and forego creating opportunities for all.

We are concerned about the government's lack of a plan to address the critical issues facing Australia that need urgent attention. Where is the government's plan to address the inadequacy of Newstart allowance for recipients trying to pay the bills and find work on less than $40 a day? Where is the plan to address the $1.6 billion underspend in the NDIS because participants are not actually able to access the supports they need? Where is the plan for our economy in response to the increasing body of evidence that indicates it is stagnating? That stagnation is most evident in the pay packets of working Australians, and the government has no plan to address this.

This Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government is now in its third term. It should have a well-established plan to address the serious issues facing our nation. But, instead, in the Prime Minister's own words, this week's objective was to test Labor—to test Labor on the latest rehash of the Liberal's disgraceful policy to drug-test social security recipients, in spite of all the advice of doctors and other experts that this is a harmful and ineffective policy.

Something that the Morrison government has announced a plan for, though, is the Australian Public Service. That plan is to cut an extra $1.5 billion from it over the next four years. That's what I want to focus on in my speech today. The Australian Public Service is vital to a well-functioning democracy and to delivering services for people all around Australia. We all rely on the APS to deliver services, to keep us safe and to ensure that taxpayers' funds are used as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Public servants are the people struggling to deliver important services at Centrelink and the National Disability Insurance Agency, in spite of being majorly understaffed. They are the people who ensure infant formula is safe, who stop drugs at our borders and who provide early warnings for natural disasters. They are also the people who provide governments with frank and fearless advice, to help them develop the best policies for our nation, and they provide the expertise to ensure that these policies are implemented effectively. Public servants live all around Australia, from Bunbury to Townsville.

Actually, nearly two-thirds of our public servants live outside Canberra. But of course the Public Service has a particularly important place here in my electorate. Housing the Public Service is one of the key reasons our city was established as the capital, and we are proud of the role that our Public Service and our city play in serving the Australian people. In fact, in my electorate 25 per cent of employed people work for the Commonwealth.

In Canberra we are well used to being a punching bag for Liberal governments: job cuts, broken promises and the slashing of resources across the Australian Public Service have been trademarks of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government. In Melbourne, two days prior to the election, the Treasurer and the finance minister revealed what many of my constituents had feared, that a further $1.5 billion would be cut from the Public Service over the next four years. That's $1.5 billion from a Public Service already cut to the bone. The Treasurer and the finance minister waited for the election advertising blackout to begin before going hard on the Public Service, safe in the knowledge that this last-minute announcement would be less likely to hurt Senator Zed Seselja, the Liberal Senator for Canberra, who has consistently neglected the jobs, incomes and services that his constituents rely on.

Unable to do any TV or radio media during the election media blackout, I and my parliamentary colleagues here in Canberra—Senator Katy Gallagher; the member for Bean, David Smith; and the member for Fenner, Andrew Leigh—went hard on social media to tell Canberrans what the Liberals were proposing to do. These cuts will force agencies to scale back important programs like services for veterans, health funding, funding for schools and federal policing, with agencies required to find savings to their budgets of two per cent each year for the next two years, 1.5 per cent in 2021-22 and one per cent in 2023. It builds on this government's appalling record on the Public Service, including 15,000 jobs cut across the service. More than 2,700 jobs have been cut from the Department of Human Services alone, diminishing its ability to deliver services effectively. There have been six years of industrial disputes with their own workforce. There has been a blow-out in spending on external contractors and consultancies. Contracts for temporary personnel services have increased more than fivefold to $1.2 billion. Spending on consultancy contracts has nearly doubled. Nearly $1 billion in taxpayer funds have been awarded to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and Paladin in questionable processes. And, in an extreme insult to Canberrans, there was the relocation of public agencies to government-held electorates, at significant cost to the taxpayer, and the loss of professional expertise and scientific knowledge.

The Liberal government should respect the unique role and value of the APS to all Australians. Instead of hollowing it out, the Morrison government should invest in the capability of the APS and its people and ensure that it is focused on delivering for the Australian community. The Morrison government's additional efficiency dividend will affect jobs in Canberra and families who rely on these jobs. The Prime Minister regularly talks about Canberra as a bubble, as if no-one lives here or as if the people of Canberra somehow aren't real and aren't living in real families and real communities. These are real jobs; these are real people. They are people who work extremely hard and take great pride in what they do—as they should, because they are serving our nation, ensuring vital services are delivered and that the safety of our community is upheld.

The Prime Minister knows this, but it suits his purposes to dismiss our community as a savings option. He knows the hours that the people in his and other departments work and the quality of advice they provide to him, whether he takes it on board or not. He and his ministers know the professionalism with which public servants throw themselves into the requests they receive from their ministers to provide rigorous advice in a timely manner. The impact that every member in this place should be concerned about is that hundreds of millions of dollars every year for the next four years will be stripped out of delivering services for Australians—services for the constituents of every member and senator in this parliament. The government's efficiency dividend will affect all Australians.

If the efficiency dividends weren't bad enough, since the election, the government and the Prime Minister have continued their attacks on the Public Service and the work that they do. In his address to the Public Service last month, the Prime Minister pointed the finger at the APS for being too focused on high-flying corporate lobbyists in the Qantas Chairman's Lounge or the Ottoman. This is a disgraceful misrepresentation—and, as I said, the Prime Minister knows it. Anyone who has worked in the Public Service, as I have, also knows that you're not having lunches or hanging out in airport lounges, let alone in the Qantas Chairman's Lounge. It is not how public servants operate, and, furthermore, they don't have the time or the money for that sort of thing. I remember well the time that my division at the Treasury decided we didn't have the budget to send a single staff member to a one-day conference at Melbourne university that was central to our work. This criticism is appallingly misplaced from a government that prefers to listen to consulting firms and lobbyists over their own workforce. It is hypocritical in the extreme when we see ministers coming under fire from the National Audit Office over the process for which nearly $1 billion was handed to Paladin and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

In his press conference in July, the Prime Minister made some statements about the future of the Public Service that concern me and many of my constituents. The Prime Minister stated:

… the purpose of being here today is to say that when it comes to the public service, that is the engine room through which a government implements its agenda.

He clarified:

… let me explain to you what I mean by implementation. It is the job of the public service to advise you of the challenges that may present to a Government in implementing its agenda. That is the advisory role of the public service.

Indeed, implementation is a key role of the Public Service, and a task that public servants bring vital expertise and dedication to. But the advisory role of the APS is certainly broader than that. The frank and fearless advice and broader expertise of the Public Service is central to well-informed policy and well-functioning democracy. The Australian Public Service is a source of evidence based advice. It is a source of research and a source of sound, world-leading policy thinking.

Despite persistent undermining of their integrity by this government, the Public Service continues to deliver frank and fearless advice to the Prime Minister and his cabinet—the Public Service that serves government diligently and apolitically, no matter what challenges and cuts are thrown their way. Why do they do it? Because, in my experience, public servants are deeply committed to getting the best outcomes for Australia. Public servants want to deliver vital support to the most vulnerable in our community, like social security and disability supports, in a timely and effective manner. They want to keep Australians safe. They want to see the best outcomes for our environment, our schools, our hospitals and health system. They want to see taxpayers' money used in the most efficient and effective ways. As the member for Canberra, I will continue to defend the work they do and give them the respect they deserve.

In addition to the insults felt by my constituents at these comments, they also express fear that there are signals of what is to come—signals that the government wants the Public Service to be even smaller; signals that major changes, like the creation of Services Australia, will be driven by consultants, charging up to $16,000 per day, rather than trusted APS employees working in the public interest; and signals that the government wants to deplete the services it provides. These actions will no doubt impact on the most vulnerable Australians. This is very, very bad news not just for Canberra but for all Australians.

We deserve better than the Treasurer's efficiency dividends and the Prime Minister's vision for a smaller Public Service. Of course, these cuts flow straight through to Canberra's business community. Creating jobs and growing the economy in a place like Canberra is tough when the Morrison government is doing everything it can to prevent these things.

The Barr Labor government in the ACT is doing all it can to fill the gaps with visionary projects like light rail, revitalising our public housing stock and pursuing 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2020. But it can't do it all by itself. So what would I say to the government on this? Stop talking about the Labor Party and get on with governing. And, finally, I say to the public servants who live throughout the ACT: along with my ACT Labor colleagues, I will be your advocate in this place for as long as I am here and for the work that you do.