Public Service and Other Legislation (Civil Liability) Amendment Bill

Hon. GW ELMES (Noosa—LNP) (Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Multicultural Affairs and Minister Assisting the Premier) (4.43 pm), in reply: First of all, I thank all members for their contributions to the debate this afternoon. As the Premier noted in his earlier remarks, the Public Service and Other Legislation (Civil Liability) Amendment Bill 2013 seeks to encourage greater independence in decision making and innovation by public servants. By providing public servants with immunity from civil liability, the bill reduces employee concerns about being personally sued and the accompanying financial risk, ultimately supporting improved service delivery.

The bill builds on important work that occurred in the Public Service in 2013—the setting of whole-of-service culture and values. These values were developed in consultation with approximately 20,000 employees and underpin the goal of making Queensland’s Public Service the best in the nation. The extensive staff consultation process produced five values to guide and drive Queensland’s public sector into the future: putting our customers first; turning great ideas into action; unleashing the potential that exists amongst our 220,000-strong workforce; taking calculated and courageous decisions rather than doing things the same way we always have; and empowering our people by developing and supporting them to perform at their best. If we ensure those values are manifested, we will provide better workplaces, more engaged employees, increased productivity, better services to the people of Queensland, and reduced cost of services to taxpayers.

Our culture and values renewal is an investment in our people and central to the broader renewal framework, to achieving the government’s goal of becoming the most responsive and respected Public Service in the nation. The new values will support public servants in their workplaces as they strive to deliver smarter, simpler and better outcomes for Queenslanders. This government’s goal is to reform and renew the Queensland Public Service to make it the best Public Service in Australia.

The people of Queensland are entitled to a Public Service that provides the services they need, and the Public Service has a responsibility to deliver those services as efficiently and in the most professional manner possible. The provisions of this bill support our public servants to be better in the job they do. Currently there are a significant number of indemnity provisions that apply to different groups of public servants. There are also seven different guidelines that prescribe processes to be followed before indemnity is granted, and affected employees could be waiting weeks to find out if they are being supported.

By bringing in these amendments we are providing government employees with certainty. We are empowering them to think outside the box and look for innovative solutions that will deliver the best outcomes to the Queensland community. We have taken on board the committee’s recommendation to have a centralised data collection process. This will allow the government to monitor the number and types of matters where immunity is provided and provide valuable information for a future review.

I will now address some of the comments made by members during the debate. I say at the outset that I am pleased the opposition is supporting this bill. I expect that both sides of this House share a common goal for Queensland to have an efficient and professional Public Service, and to provide our hardworking public servants with the support they need to do their job properly. The member for Mulgrave mentioned the height of the bar set by the bill for deciding whether the state should seek to recover costs from an employee. The threshold for recovery is set intentionally high because we want to support our staff to act in the best interests in any given situation and know they will be supported in the decisions they make. The high level of support is warranted to support a change from a risk-averse culture to one where employees are empowered to make sensible decisions and put ideas into action. No-one who is doing their duty, particularly in the high-pressure situations that emergency and hospital staff face every day, should be worrying about being sued.

The only other jurisdiction to have a broad public sector legislative immunity scheme in place is South Australia. The significant difference between this bill and the South Australian legislation is that this bill proposes a higher threshold for recovery action to be instigated. South Australian legislation provides that recovery can be taken under the lesser standard that an employee has only breached the standard of good faith. It does not require that the actions under review are shown to be even negligent, let alone grossly negligent. Accidental injury and property damage can happen, and none of us want to see police officers, for example, having to second-guess their legal liability as they try to stop a crime, or paramedics worrying about being sued at an accident scene.

Recovery against an employee would only be pursued where there has been a lack of good faith and gross negligence. It is the responsibility of the chief executive of an agency to decide whether recovery proceedings should be initiated. Should an employee accept a CEO decision that recovery is appropriate, agreement could be reached in respect of the quantum of the recovery. If the employee rejects the agency assessment that recovery is appropriate, then recovery would occur through civil court action taken against the employee. That would allow an independent umpire—a court—to determine if recovery is justified and what amount is just and equitable in the circumstances.

The test for recovery is a high threshold but it will not result in public servants running rampant. The clear and high expectations on government employees continue—for example, as set out in the code of conduct. This addresses another question the member for Mulgrave had. The provisions of this bill do not conflict with any of the existing conduct and disciplinary principles set out in the Public Service Act. It is important to also note that there are other avenues available to address poor performance or conduct, including discipline and potential termination of employment. The member for Mulgrave also raised the issue of what effect settlement by the state might have on the professional standing of any employee involved. A decision to settle a claim is not a decision about the liability of an individual. Any settlement made by the state would be on the normal commercial basis that liability is not admitted, either on behalf of the state or the individual involved.

The member for Mulgrave also raised the question of whether employees of government owned corporations are covered. They are not. The current indemnity guidelines do not apply to GOCs. GOCs operate in a more commercial environment and have their own processes for managing risk, including insurance to cover liability. This bill does not disrupt that environment and allows GOCs to continue to make decisions relating to how they manage risk and liability relating to actions of employees.

I know that in my electorate of Noosa and across Queensland there are many thousands of government employees doing their best—from the teachers developing and educating our children, to the doctors, nurses and other health workers keeping Queenslanders healthy, to the myriad public servants who keep the business of government running, to the police and emergency service workers who sometimes have to make split second decisions to keep Queenslanders safe. The bill protects these workers and says that, if you back your judgement, we will back you. I commend the bill to the House.