It gives me great pleasure to speak tonight about this important bill, the Public Service Amendment Bill 2012, which is designed to improve the way the Australian Public Service responds to the challenges of the future. This bill and the proposed amendments to it are very significant in terms of modernising the Australian Public Service. As the member for Canberra, I proudly represent thousands and thousands of public servants. I am always enormously pleased when the Labor government delivers improvements to the public service; in this case, measures that ensure the public service has the capability to better manage information. I am a fierce advocate for our public service and for the people who work extremely hard to implement government policy and keep our country ticking.
The technical amendments contained in this legislation ensure that both the Public Service Commissioner and the Australian Public Service Commission are able to deliver on wide-ranging reforms that will benefit public service workplaces. Specifically, this legislation will empower secretaries and others in leadership groups to provide a much greater range of independence and accountability in the delivery of policies. The amendments proposed to this bill will clarify the roles and responsibilities of secretaries. These measures will spell out the services and the performance that is expected of secretaries and will, additionally, strengthen secretaries' accountability to ministers.
There are specific amendments to the employment arrangements for secretaries in this bill. Very importantly, these amendments revise the APS values. They also introduce a set of employment principles that will assist in unifying the APS around an ethical, high-performance culture. The amendments will also modernise the functions of the Public Service Commissioner and recognise the commissioner's role as the central authority for APS workforce development and reform.
This legislation continues the Gillard government's agenda of improving and enhancing the Australian Public Service. The Gillard Labor government have ensured that we have a strong public service. We will continue to build a strong public service. I will continue to advocate for a strong and stable public service. We will always make sure the public service is able to tackle current challenges while keeping growth under tight control.
As every member here knows, I am a passionate and strong advocate for Canberra, for the Australian Public Service and also for the ADF. The reason the public service needs to be defended is the threats and attacks to its integrity and performance by those opposite. The opposition have made an art form out of attacking the Australian Public Service and the integrity of the people who work there. Neither the Australian public nor the Australian Public Service can afford what those opposite could potentially subject the public sector to, particularly in terms of their boom-bust mentality. The budget surplus that the government is committed to will create a buffer against any further global economic turmoil and, however difficult this budget will be, it will not lead to the feast and famine experience that I witnessed firsthand in the 1990s when the Howard government randomly slashed almost 30,000 jobs across the public service and across the nation, and then had to expand public service numbers because of the damage done by those cuts.
The coalition thinks that Canberra-bashing and demeaning the public service is a good thing. I am constantly in committees where I hear of numbers floating around—for example, there is a commitment from those opposite to cut 12,000 jobs, but then it gradually increases. I hear that DMO is going to be added to the list, then I hear that another government agency is going to be added to the list, and then another —it just keeps going up and up. We are probably up to about 20,000 on the public record but, from conversations I have had with those opposite, I think it is back up to about 30,000, which is what we experienced in 1996 nationally. What that meant for Canberra was that we lost between 15,000 and 20,000 public service jobs. That is about two or three suburbs in my electorate. What that meant for Canberra was that house prices plummeted, people left town, and the only real growth industry was removalists. It also meant that we had a few seasons of negative growth when the rest of Australia was growing.
As well as the huge knock-on effect here, with house prices plummeting and the local shops closing down, it also had a significant knock-on effect in the region. One only need speak to my colleague, the member for Eden-Monaro, to understand that. What we saw was a ripple effect right throughout the capital region— because Canberra is a regional hub. It depends on the service, but in some instances we provide up to 50 per cent of services to the region. I think in cancer treatment, we provide up to 50 per cent of treatment for the region; in health, it is between 30 and 50 per cent; in education, between 30 and 50 per cent. We provide a range of services to the region and we also employ a lot of people in the region. When you are looking at the loss of 15,000 to 20,000 jobs, as we experienced in 1996—and I was one of those jobs—then the impact is significant not only for Canberra but also for the region. At the coast we saw that about two-thirds of the houses were on the market—because of the huge regional knock-on effect: on jobs, on house values and on economic growth.
When I go out and do my mobile offices and my community forums, one of the things that my constituents are really concerned about is an Abbott led government, because they know about coalition governments from past, bitter experience. In 1996 farewells were held en masse—every Friday you would go to farewell for 10 or 12 people who had lost their jobs. My constituents know and understand what a coalition government can mean for Canberra because they had firsthand experience of it in 1996. That is when we were plunged into an era in which there were a number of quarters of negative growth, and it took us about five years to get out of it. But we have huge infrastructure programs here now. There are BER programs, there are roads being built and there are cranes on the horizon, whereas I cannot remember having seeing a crane on the horizon in Canberra in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It is wonderful to see so much growth and investment in this city thanks to Labor. There is investment in roads—in the Monaro Highway and in the Majura Parkway—and there is investment in a number of government buildings and in BER programs. There is significant investment in Canberra because Labor is committed to Canberra.
This legislation builds on the capacity of the public service to modernise and meet future challenges. It does not look at the public service as just an expense to which an axe needs to be taken. We rely on a strong and vibrant public sector, and we value it. I remind those listening this evening of the jobs that the men and women of the Australian Public Service do. They perform enormously important functions and do so very quietly. They are the silent heroes; that is what I think I called them in my first speech to the parliament. They are the invisible heroes—they go about their business quietly and serve the nation. They try to make a difference and improve lives quietly at the local level, at the national level and at the international level. Public servants provide our health and aged-care services, deliver to the sick and frail, manage our food production from the farm to the table, educate our children, build our universities and our higher education sector, and ensure that our workplaces are safe and fair—and the list goes on and on.
I have highlighted the huge contrast between those opposite and Labor on the public service. We will always support the incredible dedication and hard work of Australian public servants by improving the way they operate, and this bill goes a long way towards doing so. We have introduced legislation today which will improve and enhance the operations of the Australian Public Service. We are committed to the public service and public servants. We alone recognise and support the thousands of public servants who serve their country every day in so many invisible and quiet ways. This bill will improve the operations of the public service and provide it with better capacity to manage future challenges. I commend the bill to the House.