Here we go again—sports rorts, car porks, the Community Health and Hospitals Program, robodebt, and now revelations in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald about the careless, to say the least, administration of offshore processing. Most notably, despite institutional concerns about the risks of corruption and the fact that the AFP warned the Department of Home Affairs in 2018 about an Australian businessman being under investigation for bribery, one month later it awarded his company a $9.3 million contract to provide accommodation for asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru. The businessman was subsequently charged and convicted of bribery. These latest revelations make it even more urgent that the government heed earlier calls from the crossbench and the member for North Sydney for a royal commission into offshore processing—at the very least, an independent inquiry into the operation of a regime that has cost the Australian taxpayer billions of dollars, much of it going to contracts in apparently dubious circumstances. And then there’s robodebt.
The report of the royal commission into robodebt is a remarkable document, not least for the opening remarks from the commissioner, Catherine Holmes. In her preface—and it’s worth quoting at some length—she notes: It is remarkable how little interest there seems to have been in ensuring the Scheme’s legality, how rushed its implementation was, how little thought was given to how it would affect welfare recipients and the lengths to which public servants were prepared to go to oblige ministers on a quest for savings. Truly dismaying was the revelation of dishonesty and collusion to prevent the scheme’s lack of legal foundation coming to light. Equally disheartening was the ineffectiveness of what one might consider institutional checks and balances—the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s Office, the Office of Legal Services Coordination, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal—in presenting any hindrance to the Scheme’s continuance Perhaps senior public servants had been taking their lead from the member for Cook, who sent a clear message about what he expected from the Public Service and how he viewed accountability when he addressed them in August 2019: Only those who put their name on a ballot can really understand the significance of that accountability.
As much as you might appreciate the Westminster system, until you put your name on a ballot—that changes everything. That sounds a long way from the Westminster system’s longstanding convention that a credible democracy demands frank and fearless advice from its public service. The Goldstein community made it clear when I was elected that they regarded integrity as central to the quality and credibility of Australian democracy and government. The way they voted was in no small measure a reflection 48 HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES Monday, 31 July 2023 CHAMBER of their concerns that they were losing faith in the integrity of our political leadership and, by extension, our Public Service. This government frequently claims to be seeking to reclaim the centrality of a frank and fearless Public Service to its decision-making. But there remains a gap between what it says and what it does. Take the Housing Australia Future Fund, for example. In my speech during the second reading debate I raised concerns about its governance—about the government’s claims of independence for its council. As I said, strong oversight and clear guidelines for any grants paid are critical for the integrity of the fund and public confidence in it. We don’t want this to be at risk of another colour-coded-spreadsheet exercise.
This legislation seeks to install stewardship as a value for the Australian Public Service. Former Public Service Commissioner Andrew Podger, among other former senior public servants, questions the wisdom of applying this to the entire Public Service. He argues that stewardship should be a required value for departmental secretaries, the secretaries board and the SES. However, he adds that it is not a value that every APS employee is in a position to uphold but that failure to do so would be a breach of the code of conduct. One central question for me is: what are the government’s plans for strengthening the merit based processes as recommended by the Thodey review for the appointment of departmental secretaries and to constrain the ability of the Prime Minister of the day to terminate appointments? Since the mid-1990s we’ve seen several steps taken by executive government that have made it less likely that the Public Service will provide the frank and fearless advice that voters clearly want: first, the decision in the Keating years to put departmental secretaries on five-year contracts, further reducing their security; second, the Howard government’s subsequent decision to sack six departmental heads when it came to power; and, third, the Abbott government’s decision to cap Public Service numbers.
That final decision led not to a cut in spending but to a diversion of taxpayers’ money to external consultants—around $10 billion at least in the case of the big four. There is also the question of consultants being employed on long-term contracts to sit alongside public servants and essentially do the same tasks. I saw the consequences of similar management practices during my close to three decades at the ABC. These days no less than 40 per cent of those working at the national broadcaster are employed on short-term contracts. This has had a significant impact on staff morale and, I would argue, on the ABC’s performance and public confidence in the organisation. It seems to me that these are similar, if not identical, to the challenges facing the broader Public Service. If this government is to meet its stated ambition of restoring the public’s trust and faith in government and its institutions, surely merit in appointments should be the number one priority. I worry that this bill is a form of virtue signalling. As Mr Podger and others intimate, it provides little substance and more significant reforms will simply slip off the government’s agenda.
It would help if the government were to provide assurances that that’s not the case and, if not, how it plans to advance the more significant recommendations of the Thodey review and with what timetable. With that in mind, I move the following second reading amendment as circulated in name: That all words after “time” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words: “as the government responds to the recommendations of the Robodebt Royal Commission, the results of the Secretaries Board Integrity Taskforce review are made public and the recommendations of the Thodey Review on appointments and termination of Secretaries are acted upon”. This would, in effect, delay this bill until those undertakings are resolved and test the government’s bona fides that the Minister for the Public Service meant what she said when she declared that the government would clean up the gutting of the Public Service and the outsourcing of billions of dollars of work to consultants and contractors. Intentions are one thing; actions are another. Taxpayers who voted for integrity at the last election deserve to have confidence that this government will act rather than just talk.