National

COMMENT

Hidden public service heroes should be household names

The Lucky Country is lucky to be served by these inspiring people.

When Bob Stirling started working as a public servant, he probably never imagined that his skills as a dog breeder would come in handy. But thanks to him, beagles became the friendly face of Australia's quarantine regime.

Beagles were once the "friendly face" of Australia's quarantine regime.
Beagles were once the "friendly face" of Australia's quarantine regime. Photo: Andrew Taylor

They ultimately helped him design and manage the detector dog program that put beagles as the friendly face of Australia's quarantine regime. As Stirling once observed, "even people who are afraid of dogs are not afraid of beagles. Beagles are cute, they have a brilliant sense of smell and they are single-minded to the point of stubbornness."

These days, beagles have been replaced by labradors but, thanks to Stirling's creative approach to solving a problem, Australia turned security screening into a positive public outreach effort that continues to set our airports apart today.

Women's rights and anti-domestic violence campaigner Elizabeth Broderick.
Women's rights and anti-domestic violence campaigner Elizabeth Broderick. Photo: Rohan Thomson

When you start looking, stories like Stirling's pop up from all over the Australian Public Service.

Department of Social Services secretary Finn Pratt, who helped create the national disability insurance scheme, began his public service career as an jobs officer in the Commonwealth Employment Service. He worked hard to help ensure the NDIS vision became reality. But he's also quick to credit the work of the hundreds of women and men who have worked on the policy over the past five years.

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Finn also sits on the board of Jawun, an organisation that emphasises the need for collaboration and leadership of Indigenous Australians in service delivery. His department is working to meet a 4 per cent Indigenous recruitment target.

Elizabeth Broderick fought for gender equality during her eight-year tenure as sex discrimination commissioner, including advocating for domestic violence reform and working with the Australian Defence Force on cultural change. She also helped guide the introduction of the paid parental leave by the Gillard government in 2011.

These aren't the kind of stories we're used to hearing about public servants. But they are stories that should be told as the APS gears up to weather what will no doubt be another year of attacks and criticism from a government that just doesn't understand how important public servants are to Australia.

Every month, the APS processes millions of payments, including to low-income families, age pensioners and veterans. No country in the world has a better targeted social safety net than ours.

Many countries envy our Medicare system, which has helped us have some of the longest lifespans in the world, while spending a smaller share of our national income on health than the OECD average. For that, we have to thank public servants Lawrie Willett and Bernard McKay, successive heads of the Health Department who, in 1983-84, faced the task of helping the Hawke government re-establish universal healthcare after the Fraser government scrapped it.

In exceptional circumstances, we depend on public servants. Public servants help coordinate disaster recovery. When the global financial crisis hit, people working at the Treasury, the Australian Taxation Office and Centrelink implemented the fiscal stimulus that helped Australia avoid recession.

All this, with a public service that is actually smaller per capita than in the past. In 1968, there was one federal public servant for every 57 people in Australia. In 2015, there was one public servant for every 156 people.

This is the real face of the public service. Canberrans know it, yet too often others forget it or deliberately present another image to justify a blind, blinkered, small-government ideology.

The public service hasn't had much to celebrate over the past few years. Between the Liberals' sacking of 17,700 staff, the gruelling and ongoing wrangle over pay deals, and the tightening of restrictions on what public servants can say, do and even wear under this government, it's been pretty grim inside our Commonwealth agencies.

Celebrating the achievements of our public servants and acknowledging the important work they do is one small way we can stand with them through the year ahead.

Many Australians may have heard of the great public servants who built our nation, such as Sir Robert Garran, H. C. "Nugget" Coombs and Charles Bean. But we need to make sure everyone knows the stories of people like Bob Stirling, Finn Pratt and Elizabeth Broderick. All Australians should know more about the work of our public servants and their dedication to us, the public.

Andrew Leigh is the shadow assistant treasurer and federal Member for Fraser. andrewleigh.com

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