Public Service Amendment Bill 2023

31 July 2023

Ms BYRNES (Cunningham) (16:40): I rise to contribute to the Public Service Amendment Bill 2023 debate, a bill that will amend the Public Service Act 1999 and form part of the Albanese Labor government's broader Australian Public Service reform agenda. I note that many members before me have explained to the House the detail of this bill and what it means. But I want to take a moment to discuss what the Australian Public Service, the APS, really is and what it means to our communities, including mine in the Illawarra.

Over the past decade, we have seen an intentional and deliberate character assassination of the Australian Public Service. This attack has undermined the good work that our APS undertakes every day. On any given day millions of Australians interact with the APS, such as: a small-business owner contacting to find a business adviser; a university student engaging with the National Archives; new parents trying to sort out their parental leave; a high school student applying for their very first tax file number; a pensioner inquiring about their pension to Services Australia; jobseekers and pensioners reporting income, from their casual work, through Services Australia; a patient accessing Medicare payments for medical assistance through Medicare; a local manufacturer being supported by AusIndustry and Austrade to find new markets for their products.

Interaction with the APS occurs at all points in our lives, from the cradle to the grave, and is as diverse as the people who interact with it. Both businesses and the community want a system that works, that they can have confidence in, regardless of who sits on the Treasury benches. Every Australian wants to be treated with dignity, respect and fairness, especially in dealing with their government and APS.

I have worked closely with the APS for over 30 years in my Illawarra community. In that time together we have had to work closely to deliver outcomes in some really complex cases, cases where you are trying to find solutions that marry up the square peg and the round hole. Supporting me in doing that are the many great public servants I have worked with, people who are the best and brightest at public administration. They are people who care about their fellow Australians. Ultimately, that is why we arrive at work every day. They are people who have the corporate memory to respectfully tell you why something may or may not work or what consequential problem a course of action might result in.

I want to give a special shout-out to one outstanding member of the Public Service who has since retired: Byron Jones from my electorate. Byron was our Parliamentary Liaison Officer with Centrelink, many years ago, during my employment with my predecessor and friend Sharon Bird. He has since retired. There was no problem too complex for Byron to sink his teeth into, and we presented him with a lot of problems—pensions, study assistance, family tax benefits and income support—so many problems that were complex and distressing for our most vulnerable constituents. Byron would contact different sections of the department, all over the country, to hunt down a solution for them. He kept us up to date with the options he was looking at and possible solutions to our constituents' problems. We knew with absolute confidence that if Byron said it couldn't be fixed he had tried everything.

During the time we had Byron as our Parliamentary Liaison Officer we sent very few representations to the minister—solely due to his great work. Byron cared deeply about people and he cared about the Public Service. He epitomised what a public servant should aspire to.

During the last decade the coalition diminished the role of the Public Service, relying excessively on contractors and consultants and outsourcing policy. Any member needs to just open a newspaper or turn on the TV news, over recent weeks, to see what the consequence of this policy approach has been. This action has hollowed out the Australian Public Service, and once sand has been drained out of the bottle it is a very long and slow process to get it back in. Despite that challenge, it is what we must do and it is what this bill seeks to do. The bill strengthens the APS's core purpose values, especially with the establishment of the new APS value of stewardship. Stewardship will be defined as:
The APS builds its capability and institutional knowledge, and supports the public interest now and into the future, by understanding the long-term impacts of what it does.

The Albanese government is committed to rebuilding the APS into a trusted, apolitical and highly valued national institution. In any discussion of APS reform, special consideration needs to be made for the administration of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The management and culture of the scheme that was allowed to develop under the previous Liberal government cannot continue. As members of parliament we see on a daily basis what is occurring at the coalface of this scheme, which is so vital to the fabric of society. The numbers speak for themselves: between June 2022 and April 2023 there were 21,826 cases referred to the minister's office by parliamentarians from across the chamber who needed the minister's help to help solve complex problems that were not being resolved by the relevant agencies. These include: 8,416 cases relating to Services Australia; 12,375 cases relating the NDIS; 1,035 cases relating to the NDIS quality and safeguards commission. As I am sure most members in this place would agree, when constituents contact us with matters regarding the NDIS and Services Australia, they are never the quick and easy-fix problems. They are complex and often long-running, where someone has been shunted off into the too-hard basket, and they involve the most vulnerable people in our communities.

Over the past 12 months I have been directly dealing with two of those cases that were put into the too-hard basket. One case sees the family of a former NDIS recipient who passed away having to shower at the homes of families and friends or—even worse—forced to bathe with a bucket and garden hose following a bureaucratic dispute with the NDIS over a bathroom modification for the NDIS recipient which was halted when the recipient passed away. The family has been in limbo ever since. The other case is of an NDIS recipient with high-level disability support needs who has been stripped of appropriate medical care for his seizures for no reason. The medical advice from his doctors and from his support provider has been at worst ignored or at best overlooked, despite many enquiries and representations. His parents are in their 80s. They are terrified about what will happen to their son should anything happen to them. Luckily, we are very fortunate that he is in good care with a great provider.

Both of these cases are complex, and I thank the Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Minister Shorten, and his amazing team for their hours and hours of work and support in trying to achieve a positive outcome. These distressed and vulnerable families should not have to fight so hard. They should not have to seek ministerial intervention to get basic care and support. We need to make sure that the staff in our Public Service actually care about our most vulnerable people, and ensure that they get the care and support that they need. I note that the minister and the government are getting the NDIS back on track by improving outcomes for participants and reforming the agency which delivers the scheme, ensuring every dollar goes to NDIS participants.

Over the past few years I have been very concerned about the culture that the previous Liberal government allowed to develop within the NDIS and its managing agencies. My concerns grew last month when I read a series of articles published in the Saturday Paper by Rick Morton on 3 and 10 June. The articles, titled 'NDIS regulator in chaos' and 'Keeping up appearances', tell the story of screaming matches between senior staff and legal officers in front of other employees, and a wheelchair user being left in an emergency stairwell during a genuine emergency evacuation. Of more concern, Mr Morton goes on to report that the first order of business for the new Commissioner of the National Disability Insurance Scheme Quality and Safeguards Commission was the commissioning of a new executive office in Paramatta—not at the organisation's head office in Penrith. This was followed up by engaging consultants to the tune of $1.7 million to design a strategic future for the authority. It worries me greatly that these decisions are being made while there is such a significant case load demand and the need to be thorough given the complexities of this demand.

In the most recent federal budget, the Albanese Labor government invested over $140 million into the NDIS Commission to get the commission back on track. The government expects the commission to ensure that every single dollar of this precious investment is spent on protecting NDIS participants. I am an advocate for the NDIS. It is a scheme that works well and is in fact life-changing for hundreds and thousands of Australians who have a disability. However, at this time the scheme is facing challenges that threaten the quality of the services offered to NDIS participants in the long term. I know the government is determined to take responsibility for effective reform, fraud, often poor-quality planning, and an agency that is now finding its way under new leadership, including the new CEO, Rebecca Falkingham, and new chair, Kurt Fearnley. However, as part of the Australian Public Service reform agenda, the NDIS and its agencies will need a special path of reform.

I acknowledge the second reading amendment makes reference to the robodebt royal commission report. When talking about reform of the Australian Public Service, we cannot ignore the failure that was the robodebt income compliance program. Justice Murphy, the judge who presided over the class action that preceded the royal commission, described this game as a 'shameful chapter' and a 'massive failure in public administration'. The royal commission's 46 days of public hearings and testimony of more than 100 witnesses was both heartbreaking and infuriating. I am in no doubt that every new APS and university policy and public administration graduate in the future will be extensively educated in what robodebt was; the details of how this cruel and illegal scheme was allowed to target 435,000 Australians who rely on the social safety net but were instead targeted by their own government; and the role all of us need to play, including the APS, in building a fair and egalitarian society, ensuring that the mistakes of robodebt are never made again.

The challenges that face the government and the APS are vast and complex, and they will not be fixed overnight, but giving up is not an option. Too many people are relying on us. I know within the NDIS and the broader APS we have many dedicated people who are ready to embrace the challenges that we are facing and drive the change we need to build the institutional knowledge, the apolitical character, the accountability and the transparency that the Australian Public Service was known for the world over.