National

Public servants face fast-track to the sack

More than 8000 Immigration Department public servants are to be stripped of some of their rights to unfair dismissal appeals as part of the formation of the Australian Border Force.

The Australian Border Force bill, currently before Parliament, contains provisions for the boss of the new department to summarily fire public servants for "serious misconduct", with no recourse to the industrial umpire.

Immigration Department head Michael Pezzullo has laid down the law on dress standards and haircuts.
Immigration Department head Michael Pezzullo has laid down the law on dress standards and haircuts. Photo: Rohan Thomson

The main workplace union is crying foul, saying the new rules unfairly strip workers of legal rights but the department says a sacking for serious misconduct could still be appealed in the courts.

Similar provisions have been in force in Customs for nearly three years and were brought in to help the agency rid itself of corrupt officers manning the nation's borders.

But now the rules are to be extended to Immigration's 8000 mostly deskbound public servants, who must also face mandatory drug, alcohol and psychological testing under the new regime and some will have to prove their physical fitness too.

There will be tough background tests for criminal or radical associations and Secretary Michael Pezzullo has laid down the law on dress standards and haircuts.

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Immigration and Customs will merge on July 1 to form the new Australian Border Force.

Immigration Department officials who are disciplined by their bosses currently have a number of avenues of appeal, including to the public service's Merit Protection Commissioner or recourse to Fair Work Australia if they believe they have been unfairly dismissed.

But the new bill increases powers of Mr Pezzullo to "issue a serious misconduct declaration" after code of conduct investigation which would leave the employee with no unfair dismissal recourse in the Fair Work Commission.

There is a requirement to report to the Minister the outcome of the investigation once the declaration has been issued.

Unions say the only procedural fairness requirement in the bill would be to provide the staff member with a copy of the declaration within 24 hours of the decision being made.

But a departmental spokesman said on Monday any investigation into alleged misconduct is required under the Public Service Act to be procedurally fair and the declaration of serious misconduct would be reviewable under the Administrative Decisions Act.

In a message to Customs and Immigration workers sent out late last week, Mr Pezzullo reminded his staff of the risks posed by corruption and said a strong "integrity framework" was needed to protect against internal wrongdoing.

"Regrettably, there have been well documented instances of corruption in both the department and the service, including involvement in drug importation, unauthorised access and dealing in information, and the 'selling' of visas," the departmental secretary wrote.

"The Integrity Framework and related policies contain obligations and responsibilities that are new to many staff: it is understood that it will take time for the policies to settle into place."

But CPSU deputy secretary Rupert Evans said the department was going over the top with the new rules.

"This is another example of the government taking a sledgehammer to the rights of hard-working diligent public servants," the union official said.

 "We oppose the extension of these laws for Immigration staff, just as we did for Customs officers. 

"The government has failed to make the case for their extension to all Immigration staff."

Mr Evans described the dismissal provisions as "draconian".

"It looks like another government attack on hard-working and dedicated public servants. Every worker deserves basic rights and protections and these draconian laws will rob staff of their access to natural justice," he said.

"We are particularly concerned that there is no independent umpire to ensure fairness.

"Getting the agency to report about the outcome of investigations to the Minister is nothing but window dressing.

"The lack of proper checks and balances on decision-makers can lead to sloppy decisions and, in the worst cases, an abuse of power."

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