It is no secret that the policy of the Liberal Party when in government is to reduce the number of public servants. This is a line that is consistent with other states at the moment. But, when I have the opportunity to speak with public servants in Canberra, through relationships I made before coming to this place and still have contact with, there is an element of frustration from these people at the growing amount of compliance and burdens that surround their day-to-day activities. I have no doubt that public servants work extremely hard and that they go home physically exhausted from trying to maintain and upkeep the compliance provisions that are thrust upon them. I also get the opportunity to witness the frustration that surrounds the Customs staff—our front-line staff—as resources are taken from them. I returned recently from the Somali coastline on HMAS Anzac, where I spent time with Australian Defence Force personnel who are eminently frustrated with Labor's cutbacks in defence to the tune of roughly $2 billion and the impact those will have on their lives.
When we in the coalition talk about reducing public servants, we are not talking about reductions at the frontline: it is the back-end office—back-end staff—that we will be focusing our energies on. How can the government, when it comes to public service amendments or reform, ask Australian businesses and mums and dads to tighten their belts with continually increasing new taxes—I think there have been 30—when we have seen the public service grow by roughly 22,000 personnel?
When I talk to businesses in my electorate of Wright and ask them for feedback on how their day is made easier by the number of public servants that are there, I am often met with a very similar result, or a comment of: 'My day has not got easier; in fact, it has got harder. I am burdened with compliance.' The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry – Westpac survey for the 17th consecutive quarter has indicated that the single biggest inhibitor of business growth is government taxes and compliance.
On 8 May 2010, the then Prime Minister announced that the government had accepted all the recommendations made in the earlier March release report, Ahead of the game: blueprint for the reform of Australian government administration. This report outlined a comprehensive reform agenda to position the Australian Public Service to better serve the Australian government and the Australian community. It is an agenda that requires modernisation of the Public Service Act, bringing it into line with contemporary needs. The amendment of the bill will strengthen the management and the leadership of the Public Service and help to embed new practices and behaviours into its culture.
When we talk about new practices and new behaviours, the Public Service is quite an oddity. As a businessman, which I was before coming here, when you go through a line item you do not start with a bucket of money whereby you have the mindset, 'If we do not appropriate this line item, we will lose it.' Business does not do that. That money drops to the bottom of your balance sheet and it becomes net profit. So when we look for areas of waste or areas in which we can be more efficient or diligent there are a number of commercial practices that can be used. I understand that in the cold, hard light of reality administrators should not or cannot on occasion treat their position as commercial, but it is interesting to do an analysis on the difference in mindsets. This bill recognises that the delivery of high-quality services and policy advice requires effective and committed leadership, supported by a Public Service that is efficient, driven by its desire to serve the community and contemporary in its outlook.
Presently, the Prime Minister has the role to appoint departmental secretaries to another role if their department has been abolished or their position is terminated. Both of those situations seem rare. Of concern, however, is that this bill will give the Prime Minister greater powers to extend the employment of departmental secretaries, allowing the Prime Minister to create new positions for secretaries who have resigned or whose contracts have ended. The Prime Minister recently did this with Mr Ken Henry when he resigned from his position as Secretary of Treasury in April 2011, then to be appointed as a 'special adviser' under section 67 of the Constitution. Should this legislation be passed, the Prime Minister will have the power to create similar roles for any secretary who resigns or whose contract has expired. This is a measure that would add to the number of public servants and, as such, is in conflict with our policy, which I mentioned earlier, to reduce Public Service numbers.
Overall, the coalition does not oppose this bill. However, the coalition proposes to amend the legislation by removing changes to section 60 of the Public Service Act that will allow the Prime Minister to extend the terms of departmental secretaries who have resigned or whose contracts have ended. At present the Prime Minister has only the power to appoint departmental secretaries to another role if their department has been abolished or if she has terminated their position—both being rare occurrences. The changes to section 60 will allow the Prime Minister, at will, to appoint departmental secretaries to new roles should they resign or when their terms of service expire and/or are not renewed. This has the potential to be the beginning of a practice similar to the New South Wales unattached list, which applies to chiefs and SES levels.
Before coming to this place—I am only a new member—I had no idea there was such a thing as an unattached list. I have learned, and will share with the Australian people, that an unattached list is quite a common occurrence in government where, when the tasks or duties of high-ranking officials on normally superior wage bands are complete, rather than their taking a back seat, as in the commercial world, or looking for another job, these guys are kept on an 'unattached list'. I cannot point to anywhere in the commercial world, the corporate world or mum-and-dad businesses where that practice exists. It bewilders me.
Whilst this legislation is at the moment limited to secretaries, it sets a precedent and is contrary to our policy to reduce rather than increase the public payroll. In New South Wales Premier O'Farrell is moving to end the unattached list, with a reported initial saving of $16 million a year by removing 250 persons from the list. If we have state governments moving to reduce these lists and the current legislation moving to introduce the list, I can only stand here and say that I am proud to be a part of the Liberal Party camp. If the Prime Minister has the authority to extend the employment of departmental secretaries indefinitely, there is potential for even greater politicisation of these roles to occur.
In Queensland we are making reductions to the public service; we are trying to reunite the state with economic credibility and accountability. Whilst the loss of our credit rating in Queensland is not completely attributable to the public service, ultimately our credit rating is diminished by the fact that we are spending more than we are earning. We are spending more than we are earning, so, as a result, tough decisions have to be made.
I feel for the public servants who will ultimately lose their jobs in New South Wales, in Queensland and, in the future, here in Canberra. However, I remind the Australian Labor Party when making these appointments in the future that history has a tendency of repeating itself. We are a government that ultimately pays back enormous debts and we are a government that ultimately tries to reduce overheads. Bear that in mind when in government and trying to make prudent fiscal decisions.
For all the good things that this bill might bring to the Australian Public Service, it is Labor's way to surround themselves with those who may toe the political line. Convenient appointments of ex-department secretaries into other roles under the discretion of the Prime Minister is not something that needs to be endorsed by legislation. As of 13 March 2012 the former head of Treasury will make $615,000 a year, rising to $653,000 and then, by 2014, to $805,000 a year. Not a bad gig if you can get it! On 13 February 2012, Ms Renee Leon from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet told Senate estimates that Dr Henry was working 2½ days a week. Assuming it is still the case that Dr Henry is engaged in the Prime Minister's office for 2½ days a week, he could be picking up around $402,000 a year by 2014—not a bad salary for someone who is part time. I suspect that Dr Henry is not actually claiming that as he is now a director or involved with the National Australia Bank in some capacity.
I first learnt about Dr Henry's involvement with the Australian Labor Party when I had the opportunity to read The Australian Moment, a book recently put out by George Megalogenis. Up until that point I had no idea that Dr Henry had actually spent some time in the offices of previous prime ministers, including Bob Hawke. He also did some work with Paul Keating on the floating of the Australian dollar. I cannot take anything away from the guy's capacity, but it does bring into question the capacity of politicians' salaries, which are on the public record, when we start looking at salary bands of around $805,000. Ours tend to fall into insignificance, yet we take the political heat of defending those in the electorates.
The coalition will seek to amend the legislation by proposing the removal of section 60 of this bill. The public sector should at least be seen to be non-political or impartial. These amendments seek to protect those public servants who go about conducting their duties without any bias. We support merit selection. We support a transparent application process. I think with the political tack that Dr Henry has shown in the past in serving prime ministers of this nation one can only assume that he has left himself exposed in accepting a position with, by all accounts, a limited, non-transparent application process for the position that he currently holds in the Prime Minister's office. Those comments are on the public record. I believe that the position was not advertised. There were no selection criteria to apply. It was just a very cosy, friendly little thing: 'You're with us now.' As a result, the government has led with a glass jaw on this. I would not support further practices along those lines being continued.