Calls for federation reform and the importance of policy wonks were among the subjects broached in the maiden speeches of the 45th parliament.
New Labor Member for Bruce Julian Hill has issued a call for politicians to stop maligning the public service, arguing there’s a “direct correlation between the quality of services and the quality of life enjoyed by citizens”.
It’s maiden speech season in federal parliament and Hill, who was until a few months ago a bureaucrat for the Victorian government, used his first appearance in the House of Representatives to express his pride in his former career.
“I intensely dislike the way in which the term ‘public servant’ is often deployed in political discourse as a pejorative,” stated the 2012 Fellow of the Institute of Public Administration Australia (Victoria).
Hill left his job as an executive director in the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources — where he worked on issues including international education, investment and trade — in March to run for parliament.
Over 14 years he also worked in regional development, business engagement, Aboriginal affairs, metropolitan planning and infrastructure.
Australians are feeling the impact of diminished service quality thanks to cuts under successive governments, he argues. Efficiency dividends in particular came in for criticism.
“Great societies have great public services — which require excellent public servants, who deserve our respect.
“Australia has been well served, but the impact of ongoing budget ‘efficiency dividends’ on the public service is now a grave concern.
“I believe both sides of politics — and I’ve served governments of both sides — are guilty of overusing this budgetary technique. It’s not just a question now of hiding cuts, which may be perfectly justifiable, but also one of accountability.
“Through ‘efficiency dividends’, Cabinets outsource decisions about cuts to the public service — not always with ministerial input and usually hidden from public scrutiny.”
He paid tribute to the work of the Community and Public Sector Union “for their fight to protect services” and highlighted the “insidious damage” cuts have done to the ability of the public service “to provide long-term, strategic policy advice to governments — and remember the lessons of decades past.”
And although consultants have arisen to fill the gaps, “we cannot contract out society’s memory and I believe overreliance is putting at risk our tradition of great and innovative public services for the next generation,” he said.
Call for federation reform
Another freshman parliamentarian, Member for Berowra Julian Leeser, urged the parliament to “address the inefficiencies” in the federal-state financial relationship in a speech that also recalled painful memories of his father’s suicide when Leeser was a child.
The states and the Commonwealth “should have more clearly delineated responsibilities and the finances to deliver them”, argued the lawyer.
“Instead, today we have a system of buck passing, duplication and inefficiency: a lopsided federation that the framers would not recognise.
“Canberra should not have a monopoly on finance and policy.
“It has become fashionable to think that whenever the states fail, Canberra will do a better job.
“Pink bats, school halls and The Mersey Hospital demonstrate that service delivery is not always Canberra’s forte.
“Canberra collects too much tax, while every year the states come begging because they don’t raise enough money to finance their own services.
“Addressing this dissonance in our federation should deliver less red tape, less duplication, better roads, better schools and better hospitals designed and run to meet local needs.”
Noting that “previous economic reforms had a greater chance of success when there was a cross-party consensus”, Leeser stated that he intended “to look for reform partners in all parties in this parliament to establish a group to build consensus for reform of fiscal federalism”.
Land rights, extremism and the Iraq war
The parliament heard speeches from new MPs with a whole range of life experiences.
Northern Territory Senator Malarndirri McCarthy delivered a powerful speech ruminating on her identity as a Yanyuwa woman, the difficulties facing Indigenous people in their fights for land rights and the experience of losing her cousin, who struggled with the cultural expectations on her as a lesbian.
Two Egyptian-Australian parliamentarians also made their first appearances. Counter-radicalisation expert and Member for Cowan Professor Anne Aly spoke about the challenges of countering violent extremism, while new Member for Wills Peter Khalil recalled being sent to Iraq while a public servant at the Department of Defence, even though he believed the war to be a “strategic and humanitarian disaster”.
“I made a choice to serve my country,” he said.