Standing up for Canberra

Australian Civilian Corps Amendment Bill 2013

I have to be frank: I was listening to the member for Brisbane's contribution with my mouth open. I have the greatest respect for her but, in listening to her speech, I thought the deep suspicion of multilateralism and the deep political interpretation of what is happening here was absolutely outrageous. Those opposite say that this machinery-of-government change is designed to better align our diplomatic, assistance and trade functions by bringing them all under one roof, under DFAT, by abolishing an agency and integrating it into DFAT.

We actually found out the truth as to why this abolition is happening; it is driven purely by political vindictiveness. As I said, I have the greatest respect for the member for Brisbane, but that is what has been highlighted in comments made by both the member for Kooyong and the member for Brisbane.

Just for the record, our UN Security Council bid has been seen as being so successful, particularly by countries in the region, that they are actually seeking our advice on how they can go about bidding in the future. They see it as so stunning that they are seeking our advice. And here we see complete disdain and political vindictiveness for what was a stunning achievement and for which DFAT should be applauded. It highlights the disdain for the Public Service, public servants, my constituents and Canberra.

The Australian Civilian Corps Amendment Bill 2013 relates to a specific function of AusAID— not the rant that we heard before—the Australian Civilian Corps. The Australian Civilian Corps is a group of experienced civilian specialists who provide stabilisation and recovery assistance to fragile states and countries experiencing or emerging from conflict or natural disaster.

The corps was established by the previous government and it is a legacy of which Labor is incredibly proud. Of course, we want to ensure it operates under an appropriate legal framework and so we support this amending legislation. However, while not denying the bill a second reading it is important that the House notes the context in which it has come about.

On 18 September, the very day he was sworn in, the Prime Minister announced that he would recommend to the Governor-General that the Australian Agency for International Development, AusAID, be abolished and its functions integrated into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, or DFAT. This announcement came as a total shock to AusAID, DFAT and Canberrans; to the international development sector in Australia; and to our partner organisations overseas. In his rather brief second reading speech, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer said:

This machinery of government change means that certain legislation will need to be updated to substitute references to AusAID and specific positions in AusAID with references to DFAT and positions in DFAT.

'Machinery of government' is a misleading phrase. In fact, it might have you believe that there is no human involvement whatsoever. In fact, the opposite is true. Machinery-of-government changes are entirely about people. They are about people's lives, people's jobs, people's livelihoods and people's security. They change the shape of the Public Service, which is often the primary interface between a government and its people.

In my first speech in this place I repeated this saying, often credited to George Orwell: 'We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.' It is a tribute to those public servants called soldiers. But we also sleep soundly in our beds because invisible heroes ensure our national interests are protected abroad. Others protect our borders. Some make sure our cities and towns are safe. Others make sure our food is clean and keep our lights on. Some help the sick, the aged, the disadvantaged and the disabled. Others ensure our children's toys are safe and our story is kept alive.

The public servants affected by this machinery-of-government change represent Australia internationally. They develop and implement Australia's foreign, trade and development policies, they negotiate international agreements, they support Australians traveling overseas and they provide assistance to those who need it most—the impoverished, victims of warfare and dispute, residents of disaster stricken regions.

When an athlete represents Australia overseas in their chosen sport, we often say it is their ultimate achievement; the pinnacle of their career; their greatest honour. I believe we should say the same of our public servants. The employees of AusAID and DFAT deserve our utmost respect, and I do not believe that appropriate respect has been shown to them by the Abbott government to date—and we just saw it from the member for Brisbane. Many AusAID and DFAT employees are my constituents and, since the Prime Minister's 18 September announcement, they have been in contact with me regularly to express their concerns about how this process has been handled. The issues they have raised with me have been many and varied; however, a key theme among them is the lack of transparency in the process of abolishing AusAID and integrating its functions into DFAT. AusAID and DFAT employees would like to know: what, if any, external professional change-management advice is being provided to support this process; why there are no women on the steering committee appointed to oversee this process; how many jobs are going to be lost in this process, when and from what areas; if a position or function is deemed to be duplicated, what will be the process for determining which staff member will maintain that position or responsibility for that function; will any AusAID or DFAT staff be moved to a different location and, if so, to where and when?

I wrote to the Minister for Foreign Affairs on 8 November asking for answers to these questions but am yet to receive a response. Perhaps the government consider these details to be only a minor aspect of their machinery-of-government changes and that is why they are not providing answers. They may be 'minor details' for the government, but for the staff affected by these changes these details are fundamental to their job security.

Many constituents who have contacted me have expressed their disappointment at the 24 October allstaff meeting held at DFAT. Staff had hoped this meeting would provide answers to their questions and staff with a level of clarity; however, this did not occur. The sentiment of those who contacted me after this meeting was that it had left them with more questions than answers. Their most urgent question, of course, is about job security: how many jobs are going to be lost in the integration, when and from what areas?

It is clear that there is a duplication of some functions across AusAID and DFAT—for example, corporate services, human resources and IT. What is not clear is how this duplication will be managed. AusAID staff have expressed to me their fears that, when there is a duplicated function or responsibility, the role will automatically be given to the DFAT staff member and the AusAID staff member's position will be redundant. At this stage, these fears are based on anecdote and speculation alone, but, given the government has not provided any advice to the contrary and has not released any information about how duplications will be managed, there is little wonder AusAID employees are jumping to their own conclusions.

We heard recently in Senate estimates that the department is currently putting in place an interim staffing structure and that the final staffing structure will be in place by the middle of next year. Are we to believe, therefore, that staff will not learn if their jobs are secure until the middle of next year? If this is the case, it certainly is not good enough. How are staff supposed to function with such a cloud hanging over their heads and their jobs? How are they supposed to make any kind of serious financial decision under such uncertainty, like buying or renovating a house, planning a holiday or enrolling kids in school? What will the ramification of this uncertainty be for the economy of Canberra, where most of the AusAID and DFAT staff are based? What will be the impact on local engaged staff, like the ones I work with in India?

While discussing job losses, it is important that we do not consider the abolition of AusAID in isolation. The announcement of the abolition of AusAID followed closely the announcements that the Abbott government would increase the Public Service efficiency dividend by 0.25 per cent and cut 12,000 Public Service jobs in addition to the efficiency dividend, and that the new Abbott government would cut Australia's overseas aid budget by an enormous $4.5 billion.

There can be absolutely no doubt that there will be job losses in this department resulting from this series of Abbott government announcements, yet the staff of the department have not been told as much—they have just been kept in the dark. They deserve to know how many jobs will be lost, in what areas and by what means. We know that the attrition rate in both AusAID and DFAT has historically been below the Public Service average. In fact, in the last financial year it was less than 4.6 per cent, so there is no question that these losses can be met by natural attrition alone.

We also know that voluntary redundancies have already been offered, although we do not know how many and in what areas. We do not know if there will be forced redundancies and, if so, how many and in what areas, although at the recent Senate estimates the department was unable to rule out forced redundancies. We also do not know what this government is doing to ensure that we do not lose the vital specialist experience in the delivery of foreign aid that currently exists within AusAID. I am sure that the 132 non-ongoing staff at DFAT and the 81 non-ongoing staff at AusAID also want to know what will happen to their positions—but we do not know that yet either. Frankly, 76 days after the abolition of AusAID was announced, there is still far too much that we do not know. I am asking the government to come clean and provide AusAID and DFAT employees with the certainty they deserve.

One aspect of the integration that I have been particularly disappointed and concerned about was the decision to cancel the 2014 AusAID graduate program. Anyone who has been involved in APS graduate programs or who has known anyone who has applied for these programs knows that they are incredibly competitive. The process is designed to ensure that the successful candidates are the best possible candidates to become future leaders of our Public Service, our foreign service and our foreign aid service. This year, 35 of these future leaders were delighted when they beat thousands of other applicants to secure a position in the AusAID graduate program. They turned down other job offers. They moved from interstate and, in some cases, from overseas—and their partners came with them—to set themselves up in Canberra to begin their career with AusAID. However, last month each of the 35 received a letter letting them know there was no longer a position for them: 'Thanks, but no thanks. Thanks for participating in a six-month recruitment process, thanks for giving up other job opportunities and relocating to Canberra, but you don't have a job after all.' This is a lost opportunity, I think, to engage 35 of our best and brightest Australians in public policy in Australia, to have these 35 bright young Australians working for our national interest. I cannot image how disappointed they must be—although I do have a pretty good understanding—and I am certain that this decision reflects incredibly poorly on this government.

It is difficult to interpret the current situation as anything other than a significant tipping point in Australia's foreign aid program. Not only have we seen a $4.5 billion cut to our aid budget—the biggest we have ever seen—but the agency that has been responsible for successfully delivering Australia's aid program for nearly 30 years has been abolished. This government now faces the enormous challenge of maintaining the high standard of our aid program; preserving the expertise that we have within our aid program in the form of experienced, dedicated staff; and successfully integrating two diverse entities while implementing massive job cuts. The Abbott government has created an enormous challenge for itself, and I cannot help but think this is not exactly the best start to government.

I have the utmost respect for the staff at both AusAID and DFAT. I have had the great privilege of working at both places. Prior to my election to parliament some of the highlights of my career included representing Australia in India, when I was working for DFAT, and working on Australia's post-conflict development program in East Timor when I was working at AusAID.

I know that the public servants who work at AusAID and DFAT are intelligent, hardworking and dedicated. In fact, they are some of the hardest-working and smartest people I have ever met. They are not people who are easily fazed; they do not make mountains out of mole hills. They have contacted me with their concerns because their concerns are legitimate.

For departmental employees the implications of the abolition of AusAID are immense. I strongly urge the government to provide these employees with some certainty as a matter of urgency; I urge the government to be more transparent in its machinery-of-government changes; and, most importantly, I urge the government to remember that machinery-of-government changes affect hardworking, dedicated people who have chosen to spend their lives working for a better Australia and a better world. These are people who deserve our respect.

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