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Estimates grill: questions for Lloyd, tributes for McPhee

Politics was briefly put aside at Additional Estimates as senators paid tribute to Auditor-General Ian McPhee at his presumed last appearance before a parliamentary committee before he retires next month.

Other statutory office holders were not so fortunate, with questions raised over the propriety of the appointment of new public service commissioner John Lloyd and the Attorney General voicing he had lost confidence in Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs.

Ian McPhee
Ian McPhee

McPhee indicated he will retire when his 10-year non-renewable appointment ends on March 10, capping a 40-year career in the federal public service.

Employment Minister Eric Abetz, representing the government at the hearing, didn’t have a brief on the status of the search to appoint the next auditor-general, although an acting officer may be appointed in the interim. “Look, the difficulty is I think McPhee is irreplaceable,” Abetz mused. He praised McPhee’s distinguished career of public service and thanked him for his “service to the Australian people and for the institutions of our society”.

Senators from all sides echoed the appreciation and best wishes for McPhee’s retirement. McPhee was appreciative:

“You’ll be not surprised to know as auditor-general I’m not walking to the winners circle before the day comes around before we get there. The office is going really well and I’m so proud of the office for its contribution.”

On Australia Day this year McPhee was awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for distinguished service to public administration, particularly in the areas of accountability and policy development, to the enhancement of public sector performance, and to professional auditing and assurance standards. This follows an earlier Public Service Medal in 2002 for outstanding public service to public sector accounting and auditing, and the development of industry accounting standards.

McPhee’s career began as a cadet at the Australian Audit Office before moving on to roles in the Department of Finance, the Australian Bureau of Statistics and returning to the Australian National Audit Office as deputy auditor-general in the late 1990s. His final role before heading the ANAO was as deputy secretary in the former Department of Finance and Administration, where he led its financial management group.

Trouble in the commissions

Abetz also defended the appointment process of new Australian Public Service Commission boss John Lloyd, telling senators yesterday that while the position was not advertised, Lloyd was qualified for the role. He reached out to Lloyd to see if the long-time industrial relations commentator was interested in making himself available to serve in this capacity:

“You’d call it cold calling … in two decades one gets to see different people in different fields and spheres and you get an appreciation for people’s capacity in certain areas. I saw first hand Mr Lloyd at Senate Estimates when I was minister representing the minister for workplace relations. I was highly impressed by him, I saw the work he was doing in Victoria and the reputation he is exceptionally good, and I thought he may make a good person for this position.”

Lloyd was also questioned on the neutrality of his past submissions made while holding a public sector appointment, particularly one he made in 2009 to the discussion paper on the Reform of Australian Government Administration. Retiring senator Kate Lundy sought to learn if he still held these views, which Lloyd took on notice:

The best long-term employment outcomes are generally achieved when an employer has considerable discretion over the remuneration and conditions of its employees.

Any move to introduce rigidities into APS employment would inevitably result in mediocre outcomes. Rigidities that are sometimes proposed include:

a. monolithic classification structures;

b. centrally mandated caps on pay increases;

c. limits on agency level agreement negotiation agendas;

d. common terms and expiry dates for agreements; and

e. mandating relationships with unions and their delegates.

Disparity in the remuneration and conditions employers offer their employees is an inherent feature of a competitive labour market. Disparity in the APS labour market should not be a cause for concern.

Lloyd agreed he valued the input, consultation and co-operation of members of the Australian public service, had ceased being a member of the Liberal Party to take up an earlier commission appointment, and retained his association with the HR Nicholls Society.

In another Estimates hearing today, Attorney-General George Brandis told senators that he had lost confidence in AHRC president Triggs over the timing and content of the commission’s report into children in detention. There were conflicting accounts of an offer allegedly made to Triggs that she would be offered another position utilising her law expertise if she stepped aside from the commission.

More at The Mandarin: Immigration’s new chiefs: Pezzullo grilled at Senate hearing

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.