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Secretary's year in review

In 2019–20, the department continued to support the priorities of the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations, the Hon Christian Porter MP. We are focused on delivering policies and programs that maintain and improve Australia’s law and justice framework, and facilitating jobs growth by promoting fair, productive, flexible and safe workplaces.

The COVID‑19 pandemic

Our workload was significantly impacted by the COVID‑19 pandemic, and we adjusted our priorities accordingly to support the government’s comprehensive response.

Through the Australian Government Solicitor Group, we provided legal advice on a range of complex and novel legal issues arising from the pandemic. We also acted as a central point of contact to ensure that legal risks in pandemic response measures were appropriately identified and managed across the Australian Government.

We provided advice on many industrial relations issues linked to the pandemic. Notably, we supported the development and implementation of the temporary JobKeeper amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009. These amendments were critical to support the historic JobKeeper program that provides support to employers and employees significantly affected by the pandemic.

We supported the development of the National COVID‑19 safe workplace principles agreed by the National Cabinet, which established Safe Work Australia as a central hub for workplace health and safety guidance on the pandemic. As Safe Work Australia’s Commonwealth member, we supported the development of practical guidance to assist businesses on how to manage the risks of the pandemic in the workplace.

In partnership with the Australian Federal Police, we were proactive in mitigating the risk of fraud associated with the government’s response measures. We developed tailored guidance on fraud risks in the pandemic context and supported agencies to embed counter‑fraud mechanisms in the implementation process.

We supported the Department of Health and the Digital Transformation Agency to develop the COVIDSafe app to help manage the spread of COVID-19. In consultation with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, we developed legislation that afforded users of the app the highest possible privacy protections. This process demonstrated the benefits of building privacy into the design process, particularly for enhancing public trust and confidence.

The pandemic has increased legal need around matters such as domestic violence, employment, rent and debt-related issues, so we secured and administered $63.3 million in additional funding for the legal assistance sector. Of this, $49.8 million was allocated to frontline legal services, with 40 per cent to be used for matters involving domestic violence. The remaining $13.5 million was allocated for IT costs to support the sector to deliver services virtually.

We developed amendments to the Bankruptcy Act 1966 to reduce the threat of people facing financial distress being forced into bankruptcy during the pandemic. These amendments temporarily quadrupled the level of debt required before a creditor can make someone bankrupt and increased from 21 days to six months the time available to debtors to consider their options.

The 2019–20 summer bushfires

We were involved in the government’s response to the extreme bushfire season of 2019–20, which caused devastating loss of life and immense property, wildlife and environmental destruction.

We secured $8.75 million over two years in additional funding for legal assistance programs to support individuals, small businesses and primary producers affected by the crisis. The provision of legal assistance and representation is instrumental in the recovery of affected communities and protecting at-risk individuals.

We prepared an emergency declaration for the Attorney‑General under the Privacy Act 1988, which created a streamlined framework for sharing personal information in an emergency response scenario and set aside non-national security related secrecy provisions. This enabled efficient information sharing and was critical to reduce the barriers between bushfire-affected communities and much needed support.

When the government established the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, the department enabled it to very quickly get up and running and has supported it to continue its operations virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Royal Commission continues to gather evidence about coordination, preparedness, response to and recovery from disaster events.

2019–20 achievements

In addition to supporting the government’s response to the pandemic and the bushfire crisis, we have delivered a range of priorities and existing streams of work.

We led the government’s response to the Religious Freedoms Review, preparing two sets of exposure draft legislation for public consultation during 2019–2020. We received and reviewed approximately 13,000 submissions as part of those consultations to support the Attorney-General’s further consideration of the matter.

We reached a successful conclusion to our funding of legal claims brought by the Queensland Nickel special purpose liquidators. This resulted in Fair Entitlement Guarantee funding being fully repaid, along with payment of all outstanding employee entitlements. This included superannuation and payment in full for the majority of Queensland Nickel creditors.

On 16 June 2020, the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Crimes Against Children and Community Protection Measures) Act 2020 passed both Houses of Parliament. We led the development of this legislation, which includes new mandatory minimum sentences for the most serious offences and for repeat offenders. The Act also introduced measures to address recommendations made by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to increase protections for children and vulnerable witnesses in Commonwealth criminal proceedings.

On 19 June 2020, the Prime Minister signed an historic new five‑year National Legal Assistance Partnership with state and territory governments that provided more than $2 billion in funding for frontline legal assistance services for disadvantaged people. The new partnership agreement includes funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and specialist domestic violence units in addition to legal aid commissions and community legal centres. This was the culmination of years of work for the department, including extensive consultation and negotiation with states and territories and the justice sector.

Our international legal expertise was instrumental in supporting Australia in litigation in the World Trade Organization (WTO) regarding the government’s tobacco plain packaging policy. On 9 June 2020, the WTO panel reaffirmed that Australia’s plain packaging measure is legitimate and consistent with WTO rules. We were closely involved in successfully defending the plain packaging measure against challenges brought in the High Court and through investor-state dispute settlement, as well as in the WTO. This was a successful outcome for Australia and concludes nearly nine years of litigation regarding this measure.

We also continued to work closely with international partners to support the government’s efforts to achieve justice for the victims of the downing of MH17, including 38 Australians.

Organisational reflections

Like all workplaces, the department’s operating environment transformed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, we transitioned nearly all staff to remote work arrangements in line with government advice. It is a testament to our Enabling Services Group that this transition was smooth and well‑supported. Staff reported high levels of satisfaction with the department’s arrangements in response to the pandemic.

Naturally, the shift to remote working has sparked greater discussion around long-term flexible work arrangements. It is clear that staff have embraced workplace flexibility while maintaining high levels of productivity and have found innovative ways to connect and deliver in a remote environment. I expect these conversations to continue as the department’s approach to flexible work adjusts from the pandemic experience.

We contributed to the Australian Public Service response to the pandemic through staff redeployments. These redeployments were critical to ensure agencies were equipped to meet the surge in demand for government services during the pandemic. More than 170 staff volunteered for redeployment opportunities, providing much needed assistance to agencies such as Services Australia, the Department of Health and the Treasury as well as our own critical functions. This was an impressive contribution for a department of our size, particularly during a period of increased workload.

As demonstrated by our results in the APS census, we continue to enjoy a strong culture and high levels of staff engagement. We have seen our employee and diversity networks thrive, with significant staff participation in events and projects. This strong culture and engagement was a critical asset to the department as we worked through the disruption and challenges associated with the pandemic.

A further significant organisational change was the addition of industrial relations functions to the Attorney‑General’s portfolio. As the transition has progressed, I have seen innovations and productive relationships develop between industrial relations functions and existing policy areas, such as international law, courts and tribunals and human rights. I expect these connections to continue deepening as colleagues draw on each other’s expertise and experience.

We continue to build expertise and strengthen our connections with portfolio agencies through secondments, including opportunities at the Fair Work Commission and Federal Circuit Court. Several graduates from our 2019 cohort completed graduate rotations in portfolio agencies, such as the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman, Independent National Security Legislation Monitor and Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity.

Outlook for the year ahead

The government has highlighted the importance of restoring and creating jobs to support the economic recovery from the COVID‑19 pandemic. On 26 May 2020, the Prime Minister announced a new consultative process, headed by the Attorney-General, to progress industrial relations reform on known and existing issues. The process will bring government, employers and unions together to identify solutions on these complex industrial relations challenges.

We are responsible for supporting this body of work and have established a dedicated secretariat with experts from across government. We will also provide subject-matter expertise and policy advice on the industrial relations issues considered by the working groups. This work, and any outcomes, will be a critical point of focus for the department in the year ahead.

We will also continue to progress other priorities, including:

  • establishing the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention
  • reviewing class actions and litigation funding regulatory arrangements
  • progressing reforms to improve the fairness and efficiency of the family law system, including reforms to merge the Family Court of Australia and Federal Circuit Court
  • conducting a review of the Privacy Act 1988 to ensure privacy settings empower consumers, protect their data and best serve the Australian economy
  • supporting our Pacific partners to strengthen their legal systems, including through the Pacific Island Law Officers’ Network
  • supporting the National Indigenous Australians Agency to develop options to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution
  • working with stakeholders to respond to emerging native title issues, including native title compensation following the High Court of Australia’s landmark judgment in Griffiths v State of Northern Territory (Timber Creek)
  • establishing the Commonwealth Integrity Commission to enhance integrity across the public sector and consolidate and streamline existing integrity frameworks
  • leading the government’s response to the Comprehensive Review of the Legal Framework Governing the National Intelligence Community
  • supporting the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability and the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements
  • continuing to lead the government’s response to the Religious Freedom Review, including progressing the Religious Discrimination Bill
  • engaging with portfolio agencies on government initiatives and whole-of-public service priorities.

This important work would not be possible without the expertise, skill and dedication of the department’s greatest asset – its people. Our staff work tirelessly to apply their expertise, provide advice and deliver outcomes that directly improve the lives of people in Australia.

Chris Moraitis PSM