Morrison signals push for public servants to return to CBDs

By Shannon Jenkins

Tuesday September 29, 2020


Scott Morrison will push for public servants across Australia to return to their offices, in a bid to revive damaged city economies.

The Australian Public Service Commission this week issued a circular on public servants returning to their pre-pandemic workplaces. At a press conference on Tuesday, the prime minister voiced support for APS employees returning to their offices “where the health advice enables it”.

He said it was important for public servants to support “CBD economies” through activities such as “buying their lunch at the local cafe”.

“And it’s a matter that I’ll continue to pursue … with the state premiers and chief ministers who I know will also, I’m sure, be wanting to be seeing their own CBD’s revitalised,” Morrison said.

“And when I say CBD, I’m not just talking about the Sydney CBD in NSW. I’m talking about Parramatta, I’m talking about Liverpool, I’m talking about Sutherland, I’m talking about all of these places, and Hurstville, and the many other similar suburban CBD’s that are around the country, Box Hill and the like.”

The APSC urged federal department and agency heads to allow their staff to work from home in March, and APS leaders began finalising plans to transition staff back to their offices in late May.

Read more: Public servants feel safer to report misconduct while working from home, according to head of whistleblowing service

Morrison noted that over the past several months, people have learnt how to work in “a COVIDSafe way” and would be able to bring that knowledge to their office locations.

“And I think the Commonwealth Public Service taking the lead in that regard is a good thing and we’ll seek the encouragement of other state public services,” he said, noting that NSW treasurer Dominic Perrottet made similar comments earlier this month.

“In relation to business, I would encourage them to do the same thing. For example, if your head office is in Melbourne, that doesn’t mean that your office in Perth should be operating on the same COVIDSafe plan to the one in Melbourne. And I know that’s a point that the Western Australian Premier has made on a number of occasions.

“We also have large multinational companies that are running their COVIDSafe arrangements based on what’s happening in Paris or New York or in London. And those rules are probably very appropriate in all of those places, but they don’t make much sense in Adelaide.”

Some public service leaders and the Community and Public Sector Union have expressed hope for flexible working options to continue to be utilised by government agencies in the future.

Earlier this year Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles noted the state public service’s Remote Working Transition Working Group had been looking at flexible work solutions such as using suburban and regional office hubs so that staff don’t always have to travel to Melbourne’s CBD in order to work.

The Queensland government has also been considering allowing up to 1500 public servants to work from bases in Ipswich, Logan, Robina or Maroochydore to reduce crowds in offices and on public transport.

Read more: ‘The greatest opportunity’: DPC head Chris Eccles on Victoria’s data-driven COVID response and challenging conventions

CPSU assistant national secretary Michael Tull on Wednesday said the union would continue to work with all federal departments and agencies on their return-to-work plans.

“It is essential that return to work is done safely and sensibly, and in full consultation with employees, unions and health and safety representatives. This is the best way to ensure that Australia avoids a dangerous third wave of infections,” he said.

“Just because the case numbers are down, that does not mean that people should not adhere to physical distancing requirements. Plans need to take into account the difficulties that public transport and lifts in large public service buildings present to social distancing. The commonwealth has an obligation to set an example for all employers about best practice for returning to work. It is critical that this is done properly to avoid a third wave of infections.”

The union would also ensure that new working from home arrangements are made available for APS employees going forward, as “working from home more than works”.

“In fact, a recent study from UNSW Canberra and CQUniversity found that during the pandemic working from home has [allowed] public sector workers to have more autonomy over their work, be more productive, and was backed by the majority of managers,” Tull said.

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