In 2019 the most substantive review of the Australian Public Service (APS) in the past 40 years was handed to the government, reaffirming the essential role the public service plays in all of our lives. The Thodey Review as it has become known found that whilst the APS wasn’t ‘broken’ it was an institution under enormous strain.
Unfortunately, after thousands of hours of work led by six distinguished Australians and widespread consultation with stakeholders, the report - its recommendations and its vision were largely moth-balled by a Prime Minister whose long-term commitment to the APS doesn’t exist beyond servicing his immediate political needs.
Two years on from the release of the Review, and after almost a decade of Coalition Governments, the cracks identified by Thodey have only grown deeper across the APS.
The Morrison Government’s complete disinterest in the APS as an enduring institution central to Australia’s democratic wellbeing and the role it plays in directly supporting the lives of millions of Australians is, perhaps, best captured by its attitude towards its own APS employees.
Leadership, capacity and capability have been so seriously eroded now that even core functions like basic policy development are now routinely outsourced to the private sector to the extent that some agencies no longer retain policy capacity at all.
Expensive outsourcing costing billions of dollars, arbitrary staffing caps, wages caps and pegging policies, as well as inflexible bargaining rules with “no enhancement” policies have denied APS workers the right to seek improvements for improved performance and outcomes.
From Prime Ministers Abbott to Morrison, APS employees have had their wages, conditions and job security attacked by a government that doesn't value or respect their work; and just like workers in the private sector, public sector workers have endured eight years of stagnant wages, with wages going backwards now as costs of living increase.
The combined effect of these failed policies has had a devastating impact on the APS and whilst it will take time to rebuild internal capability across the service, in the lead up to the next election Labor is making a clear commitment to do so.
Labor understands the critical need for our APS to be able to serve our community, deliver better services and help shape the future of our nation. With all the challenges facing our country from defence to skills, to aged care, protecting Medicare, a responsive and high-functioning public service matters for all of us.
The job of rebuilding the brain drain must start by valuing, respecting and investing in the APS’s biggest asset - its people.
The APS should be a place which attracts the best and brightest minds from around the country and then retains them with exciting opportunities and clear career paths.
The APS should also be investing in job security – not wasting money on excessive and expensive temporary labour-hire contracts. Labor will focus on reducing the job insecurity which has become rampant across key agencies and conduct an audit of employment arrangements across the APS to ensure temporary forms of work are being used appropriately.
Labor will abolish the arbitrary staffing cap which has eroded internal capability, reduced job security and wasted public money with exorbitantly expensive labour-hire arrangements.
The APS should be a model employer that sets the standard from which the private sector follows. Genuine bargaining should involve both employees and their representatives.
Labor would engage in good faith bargaining where productivity improvements and better service outcomes allow for improvements to flow to employees.
If Labor is fortunate enough to be given the honour of forming government after the election, we will work quickly to rebuild a stronger public service which is able to deliver better outcomes for the community, use precious public resources more effectively and contribute to building a fairer and more inclusive Australia.
The last two years have thrust the APS into the public’s line of sight in a way that we have not seen for many decades and the demands on the public service are only going to increase both in output and complexity as we grapple with the public policy challenges currently before us and the ones that lie ahead. It is critical that the APS has the capability and people to respond to these challenges as it has proudly done for the past 120 years.
Senator Katy Gallagher
Shadow Minister for the Public Service
Senator for the Australian Capital Territory
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times