Last week’s Jobs and Skills Summit was, of course, an early test for the government. It also had direct and immediate implications for the work of the Australian Public Service.
A critical test of a government’s bona fides is always their approach to jobs and skills in their own workforce. When making decisions about the public sector workforce, governments both set a model for the rest of the economy and also directly influence critical issues such as job security and wage growth.
It was encouraging, then, that the participants in the summit brought a collegiate and consultative approach and a willingness to find common ground.
After years of cuts to services and to the public sector workforce, it has been a welcome change of tone to hear from both the prime minister and the finance minister about the importance of the APS and the need to approach APS staff in a much more collaborative and consultative way.
The problems facing the workforce in Australia were well known before the summit – and many reflect the direct experience of APS staff. We know that the Fair Work Act bargaining provisions don’t work effectively or fairly for employees. Many APS workers have suffered years of wage freezes, and real wages going backwards, under the previous government’s bargaining policy.
Insecure work is a problem across the APS, as it is across the country. Thousands of people doing critical work in Centrelink, the National Disability Insurance Agency and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs have themselves been working shift-to-shift as labour-hire workers with no certainty or security.
And rebuilding public service capacity is a major challenge, following years of cuts, limits on secure work in the APS (the ASL cap) and outsourcing. When the new government took office in May, there was a backlog of 962,000 visa applications – a breakdown in the process arising directly from the lack of investment in skilled, secure jobs in the APS.
Thanks to the excellent public servants for everything you did behind the scenes to make the Jobs and Skills Summit a success. pic.twitter.com/7HVPWaOwmM
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) September 2, 2022
The 36 outcomes agreed at the summit represent important advances on key issues facing the nation. The agreed reforms in industrial relations, skills, training, and equal opportunities in work will all have an impact on the APS.
On top of that, there is a range of immediate commitments which will impact the APS. This includes the establishment of Jobs and Skills Australia, gender equity measures in the APS, 500 additional APS employees to address visa backlogs and 1,000 digital traineeships in the APS.
But the summit also seems to signal a new approach of how the government wants to engage with stakeholders, which in turn will have implications for how APS agencies and employees go about their work – a welcome sign of a more collaborative and consultative approach to come in APS workplaces.
— Melissa Donnelly (@DonnellyMel) September 2, 2022
After years of cuts and disrespect, the Albanese government has a long to-do list to rebuild the capacity and capability of the APS, including moving to service-wide bargaining, creating meaningful career pathways across the APS and restoring confidence and pride across the service.
There are, however, reasons for optimism.
In his closing remarks at the summit, the prime minister thanked the public service for its work and committed his government to rebuilding public service capacity. Again, reminding us that being a public servant is an honourable profession.
There’s much work to be done to rebuild the APS, but these two days have given us a good starting point.