In an exclusive interview with Region, Leader of the House Tony Burke describes the role of the public sector in delivering on the Federal Government’s agenda.
The Federal Government’s ambitious agenda will see public servants with plenty to do during this term of parliament, but they won’t be “worked to the bone”.
Leader of the House Tony Burke has promised the new Labor government will work respectfully with the Australian Public Service while also ensuring significant legislative changes are pursued.
Much will be asked of the APS, but work will be methodical rather than rushed, Mr Burke told Region.
“We have a lot we want to do to make Australia better. We’re going to work hard every day to deliver it and the public service will be absolutely critical in helping us achieve what we want to achieve,” he said.
“So yes, there’s going to be plenty for public servants to do. The last government had a threadbare agenda. We have a big agenda. After a decade of policy drift, there is a lot to fix.
“But that’s not to say we’re going to work the public service to the bone. We’re very aware that the APS has been under sustained attack for a decade through cuts and outsourcing and its capacity is not what it used to be.
My Public Sector
“So we’ll all be working hard but we’ll be doing it methodically. We’ll always aim to get things right rather than rush.”
Following his swearing-in as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister for the Arts, Mr Burke immediately visited his department to talk with staff.
He also visited departmental staff in regional locations. The Minister said these meet-and-greets were valuable.
“The public service is so important in delivering for Australian people and I wanted to make sure public servants understand how crucial they are,” he said.
“Respect is a massive part of the way I work and I really wanted to reinforce that to the public service. I also explained my commitment to being a model employer – actually supporting public servants to allow them to do the best work they can.”
He doesn’t want public servants to hold back with frank and fearless advice and says that’s the only way to reach good policy outcomes.
In fact, he insists that he welcomes being questioned.
“When it comes to receiving policy advice, this might sound a bit weird, but I actually love hearing advice,” he said.
“I don’t want the public service to filter things for me because they’re afraid to deliver bad news. I want to have an open and honest relationship with the public service, even if that means voicing concerns about the direction we’re headed in.
“That’s the best way to get good policy outcomes. To actually look at the information, discuss it, debate it and then make policy. That’s the approach I’ve always taken and will continue to take with the public service.
“Do I have high standards for the APS? Absolutely. But so do the Australian people. And that’s who we’re here to serve. We’ve already been getting to work doing that and I’ve been so proud of the way the public service has handled itself.”
Being a model employer will translate into more permanent and secure public sector jobs and less labour hire and outsourcing, which also means fewer back-to-back contracts.
“Of course, it will take some time to reverse what’s happened over the last decade, but the work on this has already begun,” he said.
Has the public service always been respected by the governments it serves?
“In a word, no. You don’t need me to tell you that the previous government had a pretty low opinion of the public service and wasn’t afraid to broadcast that. We saw it manifest in the politicisation of key roles and the outsourcing and privatisation of APS jobs,” he said.
“We’re seeking to change that. You won’t see me as Minister bagging the public service. The work the public service does is essential. We don’t have a functional democracy without the public service.
“We want to allow employees to focus on what they do best – delivering for the Australian people. And regardless of which way someone might have voted, I hope that as we work together on implementing our agenda, they can get around that and see the country becoming stronger.
“Did I have concerns about the politicisation of some specific appointments within the public service under the last government? Absolutely. But that’s not a symptom of the public service. That’s a symptom of the previous government.”
Mr Burke said the public service has always been generally professional. Governments and public servants have the same goal, and the betterment of the country has to remain central to everything they do.
“We have different roles but they lead to the same destination,” he said.
“Everything our government has said about the public service would have been unremarkable until recently. The fact that any of this is considered newsworthy shows how low things sank in recent years.
“I want to work with the public service in an open and honest way while making sure there’s mutual respect there.
“One of the first things I did after I was sworn in was to make it clear that my office and I would treat public servants with respect – and if any of us ever fell short of that, I want to hear about it.”