I thank the IPA-A for organising this event. I have to be careful with the various Institutes I engage with. If I omitted the second A, I may make Senator Wong more unhappy.
Today is an opportunity to offer a slight retrospective of my career, talk about the lessons I have learnt and make some sage observations about an APS fit for the future.
The retrospective could be long because I was born in the first half of the last century.
I am retiring at a fascinating time. The APS is being reviewed and reformed. Change, which has always been a companion in my work, is currently presenting many challenges and opportunities.
It is interesting how life experiences affect your career. My mother was the eldest of four children. Her father worked on the railways in country Victoria. She loved school and learning. But in the early 1930s depression there was no capacity to go to boarding school or even travel to Geelong daily for secondary schooling. So when primary school finished that was it. This left her with a keen desire to ensure her two sons received a good education; an ambition she achieved.
When I was appointed APS Commissioner the coverage was curious. Some commentary described me as an outsider and others as a long-term public servant. Typically, the CPSU and their fellow travellers resorted to personal attacks.
The divergence in the commentary is unsurprising. I came to the job along an unusual path. Both observations have an element of truth.
My first job upon leaving University in 1971 was as a financial analyst with the Commercial Bank of Australia. The labour market was strong and graduates could be selective. After three years I left and joined the APS after sitting and passing an entrance exam. I soon landed in the Public Service Board’s Arbitration Division in Melbourne. The PSB in those days had about 800 employees across the country.
The early days were not easy. I was not recruited as a participant on the PSB’s administrative graduate scheme. So, although a graduate, I was viewed as something of an inferior species. Then I gained promotion from Graduate Clerk to a Clerk Class 2/3 only to have the promotion appealed against. Fortunately, I won the appeal.
My career became immersed in workplace relations. It is an immensely interesting area. Those involved are personally invested, highly motivated and assertive. It is consistently the policy area with the sharpest contest between the Coalition and the ALP. It has spawned many political leaders.
Although my career has predominately been in this field, I have at various stages embraced unexpected opportunities. After the 1980 election I accepted an appointment as Private Secretary to Andrew Peacock. It was an intriguing period as Bob Hawke had joined the parliament and was the shadow Minister.
Andrew Peacock initiated moves to deregister the Builders Labourers Federation. Hawke completed the exercise.
I worked much of my Commonwealth career in the department responsible for workplace relations identified under various titles like – Labour and National Service, Labour and Immigration, Labour, Industrial Relations, Employment and Workplace Relations, Fair Work something or other and landing today as Jobs and Small Business. An odd name; I despise the tinkering with departmental names.
In 1992, I was one of the early external appointments to the Victorian Public Service after Jeff Kennett formed government. In my view, the Kennett Government was the best organised and most reformist government I worked for. I then landed my first Chief Executive role as head of the Western Australian Labour Relations Department 22 years ago in 1996.
The last 22 years have seen me occupy a number of senior workplace relations positions.
In 2005 I was fortunate to be appointed the inaugural Australian Building and Construction Commissioner. I was counselled by some people not to take the role. The construction industry was ruthless and corrupt. The Commission and its head would attract criticism and worse.
The characterisation of the industry turned out to be true. But importantly we achieved change. We markedly reduced the incidence of unlawful conduct, including unlawful industrial action. Contractors observed that the requirement to deal daily with onsite disputes waned.
I believe we achieved this because we had a surgical Act with strong powers and high penalties. The staff were very competent and resilient. The contractors, their staff and ultimately the industry’s clients were strong supporters of the role.
It would be a seriously retrograde step to abolish the ABCC. Without the ABCC many of the industry participants would once again prove they are singular in their disregard for the law and the use of brutal and unfair practices.
In 2010 when my term at the ABCC finished I thought my time as a public servant was over. However, this was not the case. Those unexpected opportunities kept coming.
First, a move to the IPA and an insight into the exercise of influence as more of an outsider than as a senior public servant. Then an appointment in 2012 as Red Tape Commissioner in Victoria. A job I thoroughly enjoyed. It gave me an insight into the gap between citizens and business and their regulators. An insight I often found disturbing because of the ignorance and contempt shown by too many regulators towards those they regulated.
Finally, in 2014 I landed the APS Commissioner position. I think this is my last full time role.
The highlights from a career of this length are many. The ones that remain with you tend to have a personal dimension. I will briefly touch on some of these.
In 2005 upon taking up the ABCC job I embraced someone’s excellent idea to meet with sub-contractors. We had two or three evening meetings at a St Kilda hotel with 20 or so subbies a time. I learnt of the shocking exposures and treatment they encountered at the hands of the unions and head contractors. Some had experienced such violence and threats that they could not contain their emotions. I decided then that the ABCC would do all it could to protect the industry’s sub-contractors from thuggish exploitation.
In 2013 -14 as Red Tape Commissioner I challenged, with some others, oppressive regulations bought in after the Black Saturday bushfires. People’s finances and lives were being destroyed by the draconian application of building approvals. I recall one of the worst cases of a young couple being told they could not build on a block of land they had purchased at Cockatoo. But every other block in the street had a house on it. One block even had a reception centre. The most overgrown land in the vicinity was a creek, which was the responsibility of the Council. The release of a report I composed was influential in relaxing the austere regulatory approach.
In the APSC role a highlight has been sponsoring with Tom Calma an SES Indigenous Group. The members of this group are, to a person, outstanding Australians who have come together to use their skills and resilience to build Indigenous representation in the APS, including the SES. It has been a privilege to work with them.
Now I would like to conclude with some observations about my principal takeouts and thoughts on the future.
Trust. A regular observation today is a poor and declining trust in government. This impacts on the reputation and trust of the Australian Public Service.
Australia had a reputation for a healthy scepticism about authority. Perhaps it reflected the convict influence over our beginnings. I was born and raised in the city where 164 years ago entrepreneurial miners and their employees took a stand against an unfair tax and the its aggressive methods of collection. Their stand at the Eureka Stockade influenced the governance of Australia.
Today this scepticism is not as evident. We are deluged at every turn by do-gooders telling us what we should eat and drink, how we should exercise, how we should think, how we should spend our money, what type of dwelling we should live in. It seems every day is a world day for either genuine or mindless causes for good. Virtual signalling is rampant in some quarters.
This concerns me. I think there is a danger the diversity of views and opinions that go to good policy advice could be stifled by pervasive group think dictated by what is politically correct. The Canberra setting can be particularly vulnerable to this.
I encourage you as leaders to be vigilant about this and show the courage to express views and pursue ideas that may challenge the dogma of accepted group think. Just as importantly, support others that have the courage to stand up and question the prevailing orthodoxy.
I referred at the commencement of this speech about the challenges and opportunities of change. We are in that moment. The APS Review is a potential conduit to inform us how the APS should adapt to its future circumstances. So, if I was on the Review Team what would I concentrate on?
So much is written about digital transformation and data. Both get a mention in almost every meeting and conference I attend these days. I will not add to it today. Except to say we have done some ground breaking work with the DTA to establish new learning design standards in this field.
Future of Work. Another popular topic with excessive hype and ridiculous predictions. Work is dynamic and is constantly evolving. Jobs will disappear, others will be modified and new jobs will emerge. A challenge for the nation is to have a workplace relations system that is not too inflexible and can accommodate the change in a timely manner. I believe the system today is too regulated and inflexible. This is a risk that will only be amplified if the ACTU agenda of more and deep regulation gains traction. In that case employment prospects would be damaged.
Hierarchies. Management hierarchies and the authority that ensues from the associated structure of work will be disrupted. A more creative allocation of work amongst people and tasks will be required to produce optimum results. The way rewards for effort are offered will change. Traditional approaches to work design and job classifications will not suffice to satisfy many future workers.
Talent Competition. To attract, nurture and retain talent is a key role of both human resource specialists and business leaders. The APS will continue to compete for talent and going forward the competition will not lessen. Ideally, I would aim for a future where a career interchange between the APS, the private sector and state governments became more common. This is not easy and we need to approach it in a determined fashion focussing more on the opportunities and less on the hindrances to mobility. I think the interchange of younger professionals will offer opportunities for good outcomes.
Structure of APS. Mega, big and small portfolio structures come and go as fashion and thinking dictate. This will continue in the future. Whatever the preferred approach, some fundamental requirements apply and sadly are not always achieved. I refer to the essential need for clarity of purpose, authorising and accountability. We have an enormous capacity to complicate things, sometimes it seems to a power of 10. We are not obliged to always prove a master of complex concepts.
Clarity of expression, purpose, role and responsibility is often missing from how we go about our business. This leads to unnecessary confusion amongst staff, clients and stakeholders. So if I was on the Review team I would road test every proposal for clarity amongst users.
In concluding, I would like thank some people. First, the staff of the APSC. A group of about 180 employees who are committed, professional and wonderful to work with. For a relatively small agency we achieve a lot. Second, my executive, a fantastic group of talented people who embrace challenge. A group who are experts, see the big picture and understand the operational dimension of issues. Third, Stephanie Foster and lately Jenet Connell. My most senior and key advisers who embrace responsibility and leadership. Both, along with Kerryn Vine-Camp, regularly give me frank and sound advice. Finally, my Executive Officer Clare Kelly, a person with a great work ethic and the utmost integrity.
I have had a fulfilling career. I have stayed true to my values. I have copped criticism. Some recently that still has not been brought to conclusion following a process that I have found most unsatisfactory.
Life, jobs and a career are all finite. My wife and family have been a tremendous support. They have instilled in me a keen sense of standing up for your values and having a go. This is what has guided me throughout my career. I am proud of the APS and my roles in making it be a national asset. Now I look forward to the next chapter in my life.