Chifley Research Centre

Minister for Finance, Minister for Women, Minister for the Public Service

Good afternoon and thank you everyone for coming out on a beautiful Canberra Sunday afternoon.

I’d like to begin by paying respect to the ancient Ngunnawal people, upon whose land we gather this afternoon and I thank them for their custodianship and care for this beautiful country. And I extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. And in that spirit of reconciliation and respect I look forward to working together to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart, including a constitutionally enshrined Voice to our National Parliament.

Can I also acknowledge David Epstein, Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre, thank you for the invitation to speak today. I’ve got a posse of Senate colleagues at the back: Anne Urquhart, Linda White and Senator Fatima Payman. We’re a small but mighty team but they’re here, so thank you very much for coming today and, of course, to my fellow panellists.

Today, I’ve been invited to speak briefly on building capacity to govern and restoring public sector capability. I am seven months into my role as Minister for the Public Service and I’ve have learnt over that time the huge task that our government has to grapple with, in rebuilding and repositioning the APS. But we are up for this important work. It’s a huge job because a decade of Coalition Governments saw a sustained assault on the Public Service. An assault that saw thousands of permanent jobs and capability lost.

But it wasn’t only jobs and skills that we lost. The independence and integrity of the public service as an enduring institution was attacked and weakened. Some called Prime Minister Morrison’s prime-ministership as the “command-and-control, minister-knows-best model of public administration”.

Ministers who passed the buck, politicised processes, blamed departments for their own mistakes and removed those who stood up and disagreed and created a culture of fear within the APS that meant frank and fearless advice was not sought or provided when it was needed most.

Perhaps the most obvious and harmful example of this approach is Robodebt – a massive failure of public administration with catastrophic consequences. A scheme that we are learning shocking new details about every day through the Royal Commission hearings – with three Ministers and one Prime Minister – required to take the stand to explain their role about what they knew and what they did.

Watching the public service on the stand with official after official that didn’t want to deliver “bad” news to Ministers, that was focused on “delivering” for government rather than being the architects of legal and careful policy responses.

Robodebt might stand out in a league of its own as the combination of everything that was rotten with the previous government and its dealings with the APS but the devaluing and debasing of the APS was also about the politisation of public appointments: The pork barrelling, the sports rorts, the car park rorts – despite repeated ANAO reports – the failures of integrity of Ministers without consequence the Morrison multiple Ministries saga – how could that have happened in a traditional and professional government? It simply wouldn’t have.

So the cost of the failure of successive Coalition Governments to deal with the serious policy challenges of our times, something the APS should lead on, and to not allow the public service to do their job as the apolitical, strategic policy arm with deep knowledge and expertise, will be felt for years to come.

As Minister for Finance I see the cost of these failures every day as I wade through the work needed in health, in Medicare, in aged care, in energy and climate, in First Nations’ services, in housing, in arts, in the environment, in overseas assistance and in the area of data and digital. And these are just a few areas which spring to mind, which exist either in a state of crisis like aged care and energy or systems heaving under pressure, in desperate need of new policy responses and reform.

Never again can we allow the Liberals to try to get away with their rubbish of being superior budget managers – because it is total and utter rubbish.

In reality, this mob in government were budget vandals; they ignored the big challenges – knowing they wouldn’t go away but happy to leave them to another government to deal with despite the cost of delay. They loaded the budget up with billions in political pay-offs to their junior partner. They left billions in harsh and unfair zombie measures to dress up their budget bottom line, knowing the measures would never get through the senate, they riddled the budget with terminating programs – billions in on-going spending never accounted for, like the adult dental program for example. Does that sound like a terminating program?

This negligent approach not only comes at a huge cost to the budget but importantly a huge cost to the people who rely on services from government. And whilst it wasn’t only budget decisions that eroded the capability of the APS to do the job Australians need them to do, although slashing the public service did feature prominently over the past 10 years, it was also the lack of commitment or belief in the important ongoing role that the APS plays that goes beyond individual governments and parliamentary terms.

Remember when Mr Morrison addressed the hardworking men and women of the APS in 2019 saying that they do not set policy and they must serve “quiet Australians” and look beyond the noisy “Canberra bubble”. This statement turned out to be ironic, because we now know that it was not the APS operating within a Canberra bubble, but the government itself.

But it was a clear message from the top, as was installing a political appointment to the head of PMC. This stuff matters. It’s about the culture this approach fosters.

Under the Coalition’s watch, the private sector took hold of jobs that should have been done in-house and they did so billing by the hour. Critical functions were outsourced to the private sector with some areas of government losing all policy capability during this time.

And yet despite all this, the public service continued on, trying to provide essential services to the Australian people through natural disasters, pandemics and the rest. This is an enormous credit to the APS employees who delivered these despite the challenging circumstances.

Some of you will know the work we have underway to undo some of the damage that has been done, to strengthen and rebuild capability, independence and integrity into the APS but this is going to take some time. Ten years of neglect isn’t going to be undone overnight.

The work of renewal began as soon as we were elected last year with the PM’s announcement of the APS reform agenda and he gave me responsibility for this work.

I’ll quickly take you through a few of the key elements of this broad reform agenda. There are four priority areas to APS reform:

There will be legislative reform to entrench critical changes in the APS. We will create a purpose statement to help build a strong understanding of the APS’s role. This is important because the APS is more than a broad institution, it needs to have a strong identity.

It will also, importantly, mean that if a future government wishes to unwind these laws it will require a deliberate decision of government to do so and the support of Parliament to proceed: No more whittling and eroding away quietly over multiple terms in office.

We are also reviewing the role of the Australian Public Service Commission and the Australian Public Service Commissioner through the first organisational capability review. We will have capability reviews be enshrined in legislation. We will add stewardship as a new APS Value and extend APS Values to all PGPA Act agencies – I can tell you what that means during questions if you like. Conducting an audit of employment is underway to inform our commitment to reducing the APS’ reliance and spend on the external workforce. We will deliver long-term insights briefings and Publish a Survey of Trust in Australian Public Services and also APS Census data and the action plans to run alongside them. We’re going to

We’re going to boost First Nations employment, implement SES behaviour and outcomes-based performance management and Support the APS net zero by 2030 commitment.

The audit of employment is important so that we know exactly what our workforce looks like and we will also pilot an in-house consulting model and importantly with my colleague Dr Andrew Leigh and the Treasurer, embed a culture of evaluation across the APS.

I’ll touch briefly on another hat, which is the gender equality work that I’m doing. But this is also aligned with the APS reform agenda. And we are bringing a gender equality lens to everything we do across government, whether it be through the Budget process or through whole of government policy making. This is really important work on its own and probably warrants a speech by itself, but I’ll have more to say on that in the lead up to International Women’s Day.

up to International Women’s Day in March.

In terms of public sector appointments, you may have seen in the press today we’ve announced a review of the public sector board appointment process. This is really in the culture of ‘jobs for mates’. We want to change the appointments – really important appointments across the APS often well paid as well – that require ensure that people actually get appointed for what they know, not who they know, which is a bit of a change from the last 10 years.

We are very fortunate that Ms Lynelle Briggs, who you may know from Canberra circles and public service circles but also formally – I think her last big job was as a royal Commissioner on the Aged Care Royal Commission. She brings a whole stack of expertise, obviously, to this job. And we look forward to working with her and seeing what her recommendations are.

Now I’ll just briefly finish because I was only meant to talk for 10 minutes but I’m a Senator and we get paid by how long we talk. I’ve probably exceeded that. But I just wanted to mention data and digital because this falls under my hat as well. And obviously, this is a huge part of the public sector service of the future, getting the data and digital response right is going to be key to us getting the public service in shape to be a modern public service delivering for Australians, working with states and territories and the private sector, as we’re in the middle or on the cusp of a huge transformation.

We’re not quite there yet. And there’s a lot of work to do. But that also forms a really important part of the work that I’m going to do.

I might leave it there. I should finish by saying there is a lot of talent in the public service. We want to attract more talent. There is a lot of capability. It hasn’t been well led and I think that was a deliberate decision of the former government.

We want to strengthen it.

We want to support the APS to fulfill its role.

And importantly, we want to ensure that it’s an enduring institution, which is central to the success of our democracy.

So thank you very much.

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