In praise of public sector workers

I spoke in parliament yesterday about the important role played by public sector workers - particularly teachers and public servants.
House of Representatives, 12 September 2011

I rise to speak in praise of public sector workers in the ACT and throughout Australia. It was my pleasure recently to attend a roundtable event hosted by Slater and Gordon Canberra and the Centre for Policy Development, to discuss a new report by the CPD authored by James Whelan, and commissioned by Miriam Lyons, CPD’s executive director. The report, titled The state of the Australian Public Service: an alternative report, is an insightful analysis of the role that the Australian Public Service plays today. It notes that the Australian Public Service's employment - currently 163,778 people as at the end of 30 December 2010 - lies somewhere between the number of people employed in Coles and the number of people employed in Woolworths.

The report discusses, in a real broad sweep of history way, how the Australian Public Service has developed and some of the major challenges currently facing it. Its findings would make interesting reading, I imagine, for the member for North Sydney, who has repeatedly claimed that the increase in public servant numbers since Labor came to office has been 20,000. The member for North Sydney continues to sprout this figure despite having been repeatedly corrected by the Special Minister of State for the Public Service and Integrity. As the minister has pointed out, the change in Australian Public Service numbers since this government came to office has been 8,355, rather than 20,000. But it is not these inaccuracies that most worry my constituents; it is the repeated promise from the member for North Sydney to slash 12,000 public service jobs out of Canberra. This lies in contrast to the views of those from the Centre for Policy Development.

The Centre for Policy Development Research has delved into a range of important issues for the Public Service. For example, it tabulates the Australian Public Service retrenchments since 1995. When one looks at that graph, a clear spike stands out. That is in the years 1997, 1998 and 1999. Australian Public Service retrenchments in no other year exceed 4,000 but in those three years the annual retrenchments were 10,070, 10,238 and 9,061 respectively. It is very clear what happens to numbers in the Australian Public Service when a coalition government comes to office. They are slashed.

The report also focuses on the role that the Big Society reforms are having in the United Kingdom. The report notes:

'The Coalition's desire to reduce the size and cost of the Australian Public Service taps into 'small government' movements that have been prevalent here and in other western countries since at least the 1970s. The values, vision and policies of these movements are currently expressed by the Tea Party in the United States and 'Big Society' in the United Kingdom.'

You can see a clear contrast of values in the report. For example, the member for Fadden has told parliament:

'I want the government to be small, I want the public service reduced.'

The member for Wannon has said:

'… the government needs to put a freeze on Public Service recruitment.'

But not all of those opposite take this simplistic view to the Public Service. The member for Wentworth says:

'Squeezing public servants probably appeals to some people. I think the critical thing is to ensure that Government delivers its services efficiently at every level but you've just have to be smart about it.'

The member for Kennedy says:

'They have done a good job and their Public Service has done a good job.'

Those are words that I commend to this House.

It is important that we continue to recognise the great work occurring in the Public Service. Nicholas Gruen's Government 2.0 report suggests some ways in which innovation could be rewarded, including the novel notion of a policy idol competition. When I was in the United States I was privileged to be a judge for the ‘Innovations in American Government’ awards that are run annually to recognise innovation within local, state and federal government. There are also major challenges in this sector. One of the challenges noted by James Whelan's report is increasing the share of Indigenous workers and the share of workers with a disability in an Australian Public Service where recruitment now typically starts at the APS 3 level or above.

We need to recognise that public servants are critical to the quality of service delivery. One of the reasons that Australia avoided the global financial crisis was the rapid fiscal stimulus put in place thanks to the work of the Treasury, the Australian Taxation Office and Centrelink. On this 10th anniversary of September 11, it is worth remembering that on that fateful day it was the government workers who were running up the stairs. And when the Queensland floods hit earlier this year, the Minister for Human Services noted the tragic death of Centrelink worker Gillian Harman who spent a month volunteering in flood hit Queensland in Dalby. As the minister said, Ms Harman returned home on Sunday night. She went straight back to work in her Centrelink office in Guyra in northern New South Wales on Monday and tragically was killed on Monday going home from the office. It is this sort of dedication to work of the Public Service that we on this side of the House recognise.

Public sector workers more broadly benefit from the representation of their unions. I pay tribute to the CPSU, the AEU, the ASU, the ANEF, United Voice, the UFU and the Police Federation among others for the work they do every day in representing public sector workers.

Finally, I would like to turn to another type of public sector workers and pay tribute to the many teachers in the electorate of Fraser who day in, day out do work that is enormously valuable; which inspires the next generation of Canberrans to learn and to understand the world around them.

I also want to pay tribute to the Teach for Australia program. I had the pleasure recently of having dinner in Canberra with, and speaking in Melbourne to, Teach for Australia associates, as they are known—the new teachers who teach in the classroom. I would like to thank Melodie Potts-Rosevear for giving me that opportunity. Teach for Australia is an extraordinarily selective program. In 2009, over 750 applications were received for only 50 places. Of those selected for the program, the average UAI/ENTER score was 97. This selective program means that Teach for Australia associates are placed into classrooms after an intensive pre-placement education and then teach for two years in disadvantaged schools while they continue to complete their education through a two-year postgraduate diploma of teaching at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. This program has built on the success of similar programs in the United States and the United Kingdom and works to get as many talented people as we can into the classroom. Not all teachers will be Teach for Australia associates, but it is another flexible pathway into teaching.

I acknowledge in particular to the Teach for Australia teachers who have been working hard in the ACT this year: Lia van den Bosch at Hawker College, Imogen Byrne at Belconnen High, Corey McCann and Igraine Ridley-Smith at Calwell High, and Felicity Oliver at Erindale College. In the ACT, we are grateful to them for joining the teaching workforce and for working alongside the many great teachers who enrich the lives of young Canberrans every day. I know that this is not always an easy job. I know that walking into the classroom when you are tired, when the kids are not always behaving at their best, can be a challenge, but it is essential work for the future of our nation and I pay tribute to the many teachers who do it every day.

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8/1 Torrens Street, Braddon ACT 2612 | 02 6247 4396 | Andrew.Leigh.MP@aph.gov.au