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State Service Amendment (Validation) Bill 2019

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Tags: Legislation, Public Service

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Speaker, the Greens will, of course, support the bill. We note that it validates past payments made to current and former State Service employees for leave accrued above an employee's maximum entitlement to recreation leave.

It validates past recreation leave taken by current and former employees where the amount of recreation leave taken was greater than the employee's maximum entitlement to recreation leave. It rescinds an entity known as regulation 21, leaving recreation leave to be dealt with by existing provisions in awards and agreements or the Industrial Relations Act 1984. Just out of interest, perhaps the Premier has some information on regulation 21 - how it came about and how it came to be in such conflict with awards and entitlements, arrangements or agreements.

Now that I have had a look at the amendment Ms O'Byrne showed me, we are comfortable with that and recognise that it actually makes the bill have the effect that it is intended to have.

I want to raise the issue of the State Service review while we are talking about the State Service Amendment (Validation) Bill of 2019. This might be an opportunity for the Premier to put some more detailed information on the record about the State Service review, which is a very significant body of work that is taking place at the moment.

The Greens have already had a briefing with Dr Ian Watt, AO, former Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, I believe under John Howard. I note that as Prime Minister, John Howard began a process of politicising and cowing the Commonwealth public service. It came from that neo-liberal philosophy of small government. What small government means in a neo-liberal vein is less money going into public services, into the wages that pay doctors, nurses, teachers and the like.

While we have met with Dr Watt and had a very engaging and open conversation, we do not want to see any review of the State Service lead to an erosion of those principles of independence, of duty, of working in the public interest, of being there for the people and not their political masters in the short period of time, relatively speaking, between elections.

We strongly encourage the Premier to make sure that the Tasmanian State Service Review strengthens the State Service and does not diminish it. The pandemic has taught us that when times are really hard, we need a strong, well-resourced and politically well supported State Service.

The Tasmania Health Service and Tasmania Police have put their energies and resources into responding to the pandemic and keeping us safe during the past six months. We need to have a strong State Service around the country and in Tasmania. I acknowledge that demand in the health system continues to increase, and outstrips the supply of health services repeatedly; and the cost of delivering public health services is on the increase. However, the health system was already under-resourced before the onset of the pandemic.

The federal Budget is winding back the health specific purpose payments to Tasmania, and this will impact the Tasmania Health Service and its capacity to respond to the needs of Tasmanians, not only during a pandemic but also once we are through this truly awful time.

I understand that in approximately one month, the independent reviewer, Dr Watt, will hand the Premier a preliminary report on the State Service Review and, as a result, there will be another round of consultations through December to February. The Greens certainly hope to hear from Dr Watt and the review team. Then, in around March next year, a final report will go to the Premier, and we will see what ensues.

I encourage the Premier to reflect on the past six months, when that strong State Service has supported you and your ministers, and every person in Tasmania.

I note the reference group for the review will provide advice to the reviewer and possibly to the Premier, and will seek the public's thoughts - although it is challenging to obtain an accurate understanding of what people are thinking unless you engage really deeply and consistently in the community.

I also noted in the review materials, that one of the areas that the reference group will advise on is industry best practice. I wonder what that means in the context of the State Service sector because the State Service is not an industry - it is a sector, which employs many thousands of Tasmanians. We do not want the State Service to become more like private industry. That is the last thing that most Tasmanians would want.

We want to see those neo-liberal notions of small government not form part of this review as they deprive people of the public services they need. If the purpose of the review is truly to determine whether Tasmania's State Service is fit for purpose, the Premier and the Cabinet need to be open to ways to strengthen the State Service, improve resourcing, and ensure its independence to the greatest extent possible.

I am not naïve about this. I understand the importance of a department working to give effect to government policy and therefore working to a minister or to a premier, and doing everything they can to ensure the work they do meets the expectations of their minister as well as delivering public benefit. We do not want to create a State Service where people are fearful of giving a a minister frank and fearless advice, where there is a culture of, for example, not putting things in writing so they cannot be captured by right to information, or where there are limited opportunities for career advancement through the State Service.

We want to see a State Service where talent is acknowledged and rewarded, and I believe that generally is the case. We also want to ensure Tasmania's unions have a voice in this process. I know there is some measure of engagement with the unions, but we are uncertain how genuine that engagement is. The original brief for the review indicates union representation on the reference group and I am not certain if that has occurred. Perhaps the Premier could answer that question - whether there is union representation on the reference group for the review and whether that reference group is complete.

Ms O'Byrne - I understand the reference group was formed after the terms of reference were provided, and that is actually where the process comes unstuck.

Ms O'CONNOR - Ms O'Byrne, by interjection, says that union representatives in Tasmania were not consulted on the terms of reference for the review - which go to whether or not it is fit for purpose - and then the reference group was formed after the terms of reference had been developed.

We need to ask ourselves - what is the purpose of government, because the state sector is the foundation of a decent government. The Greens will always argue government is there for people and its primary purpose must be to serve the people. While governments of different persuasions will have different interpretations of what that looks like, first and foremost that is what government is there for and we have seen this during the pandemic. We have seen good governments do the right thing - decent governments step up and provide those services and supports where they are needed.

We have also seen lousy governments, such as the Trump administration, abandon people so we now have 215 000 people in the United States who have died as a result of a criminally negligent response to a deadly virus. That is a country with a particular kind of person as their president who has forgotten what government is about.

First and foremost, government is about the people who elected the government. It is also a compact between the executive, the parliament and the people, and there has to be trust that when the times are really hard, the government will be there for you. Whatever differences I have with this Premier supporting a dishonest minister, over the past six months this Government has been there for Tasmanians, and people know that this Government has their back in keeping them safe from the virus.

Much of that is due to the quality of the people in our State Service. Certainly, for the time I was in government, one of the great revelations and privileges of being a minister was the quality of the people with whom you worked in the State Service.

Perhaps the Premier could give us an update on the status of the State Service review, and also - without pre-empting the recommendations or the findings of Dr Watt - advise the House about your vision for the State Service, or those principles you consider must be retained in our State Service in any review process and in any changes that are made to its basic structures. A State Service which is fit for purpose works in the public interest every time and is well-resourced to do so. It is flexible and nimble, and it is supported by - and supportive of - the government of the day. Its overriding principle must be to work for the people because before we called it the State Service, we always called it the public service.