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The Role of the Service Reborn

Karen Batt

None of this happens by chance.

As Australia emerged from one of its worst bushfire seasons with the loss of multiple lives and significant damage to property, flora and fauna, a new challenge was emerging off our shores in the form of the Coronavirus. Initially, the Government response was focused on bushfire recovery and rebuilding communities but a watch was in place on the emerging threat spreading through China, other parts of Asia, and Europe.

By late January it was clear there were issues confronting governments and communities overseas, but it wasn’t until February that this challenge became a reality in Australia. So real that the Federal Government convened an unprecedented National Cabinet to deal with the crisis.

The new National Cabinet, not seen since the Second World War, which initially met twice weekly, has evolved into an unprecedented model of governing.

The Australian Government invited the State and Territory leaders to join the Cabinet. The National Cabinet was swift in making decisions that impacted on our movement, our working lives, including our entertainment, schooling, and travel - all in the name of public health. For the first time since the Spanish Flu of 1919 our state, territory, and international borders were effectively closed.

On the 16th of March, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and the Chief Health Officer advised that a State of Emergency had been declared under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 in Victoria.

This declaration, amongst other measures, provided the CHO with far-reaching powers to act to eliminate or reduce a serious risk to public health by detaining people, restricting movement, preventing entry to premises or providing any other direction reasonable to protect public health. Similar declarations were made in every jurisdiction across Australia.

These powers brought into sharp focus the role the public service workforce and other public sector workers have in managing crisis such as the current pandemic.

Business as usual was quickly superseded.

The need to refocus energies on matters related to the directives of the CHO and importantly getting the community to accept the change to their lives became the priority.

Departments ramped up tracing processes so community infections could be tracked to the source. Policies around self-isolation were developed and implemented. Operational procedures have had to be redesigned so courts, prisons, youth justice and child protection operations could continue but with new protections for maintaining social distancing. Legislation needed to be drafted by Parliamentary Council to facilitate these social distancing requirements. Residential and commercial leasing support was provided. Supply needed to be maintained without a budget being handed down. Regulatory frameworks applicable across a range of Government activities were managed.

All these changes are in place for an initial 6 months and whilst legislated for, they require a complete reconfiguration of the operation of government services underpinned by legislation.

Public sector workers are at the forefront of tackling the state of emergency priorities and making it work outside the immediate health response. Those priorities include the procurement of emergency housing for the homeless, PPE for workers in close contact with others, emergency funding to keep people in homes, and recalibrating the way we deliver education by requiring the procurement of over 40,000 devices for kids now learning from home.

None of this happens by chance.

The impact on services will be felt for years as we look at the underpinning funding model for many government-funded institutions to ensure they are financially secure into the future. In the wake of COVID, governments could properly recognise the contribution of their public services by removing arbitrary staffing caps to better target recovery assistance and help citizens struggling in a post pandemic economy. There also need to be improved pathways into public sector work for people from disadvantaged, rural, and regional areas. By training up their workforces, all tiers of government could reduce their dependency on consultants and contractors and give Australians from all backgrounds a real opportunity to contribute to society.

Politicians have the ultimate say on the policy settings but it is the unsung men and women of the public service and wider sector that are making the changes to our lives work so we are free of this invidious disease into the future.

It’s time to acknowledge their contribution and the important role they all play in our society.

Karen Batt is the Federal Secretary of the CPSU State Government Division Twitter


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