I have found it a real privilege, in the two years I have been doing it, engaging with members of the Australian Public Service, encountering them in their workplaces and through the work of my office and gaining a real appreciation of the varied work they do and what it means. These are important roles, supporting members of the community—and I am most concerned with the work they do in supporting members of the communities that make up the Scullin electorate—and in building community, more generally, in sustaining our society.It is important that those of us who hold public office recognise this and value it.
This is, surely, an important consideration when we are thinking about the bargaining processes that have been underway, for quite some time, in the Australian Public Service where we have seen a stalemate seemingly unaffected by the change in Prime Minister and responsible minister. It is surely an important consideration in the community but this government, it seems, sees things differently.
Senator Cash, the new employment minister in the other place, the other day responded to questions from Senator Gallagher. In doing so, she spoke derisively of the gap between what she called the real world and the experiences of APS employees. These remarks were both deeply offensive and completely wrong. Minister, and this is important: public servants work and live in the real world. In their working lives they deal professionally with real problems and their consequences in human services, the ATO and the Australian Border Force.
The minister went on to speak of a place she referred to as 'voter land', another alleged point of distinction from the experiences of members of the Australian Public Service. Of course, public servants are voters. So are their spouses, children and parents. This is a disconnect between the minister's hard ideology and people out there doing their best to earn a living and support their families. To the Tories, it appears, or the conservative government that we have in Australia, there are good earners and bad earners to go with the leaners and the lifters. I thought the new government had done away with this language. Always, this government is dividing Australians.
While it is all well and good for the minister to speak blithely of productivity offsets—or rather her governments incapacity to engage constructively and cooperatively with its employees, if we are to be honest about it—let's place this in its context. That is not just the nature of the work in question but also, as Nadine Flood of the CPSU, has said:
We’re up for talking with Minister Cash about productivity in the real world, because no other Australian company would cut 17,700 jobs, expect the workers left to pick up much of the work, go through massive restructuring and then tell them that doesn’t count …
The couch the attitude to the bargaining process as 'wage moderation', in the words of the minister, is much like the 'wages explosion' her predecessor imagined. Both these rhetorical devices are equally heedless of the human—or one might say 'real world'—impacts of their decisions.
Let's think about the context and let's think about the challenging work, which is often enforcing unpopular decisions—whether it is in relation to individuals or wider public policy—and which is sometimes done at personal risk. I think of those staff engaged in work through their employment by the Australian Border Force. These are human beings who have very real concerns, having regard to the parlous state of the economy and the labour market moment, and who are living under real pressures.
These pressures are unfortunately compounded by an attack on their morale as well as their wages and conditions. These attacks are comprised by two forms: the direct attack, in the form of cuts and in the form of this regressive approach to bargaining, and attacks on the very ethos of public service. This is an attack not just on the individuals presently engaged but on the public realm. This is a deeply ideological approach that is at odds with commitments given before the election—once again. It carries broader consequences for our society if it is not turned around.
In this regard, I remember meeting a group of graduates who have recently joined the APS. I want to assure them that they have made a good choice. They are some of our best and brightest graduates. I want to give them confidence in their future prospects. On this side of the House, we do so. We do want to see, of course, a vibrant and exciting private sector. But we also want to support our world-class public service. Both sectors are part of the real world.
I take this opportunity, in this place, to acknowledge the importance and the quality of the work of the Australian Public Service and to express and place on the record my support for all who do it, often—unfortunately—in the absence of the appreciation and the respect they deserve. This appreciation and this respect could start with a fair bargaining policy.