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Secretary's year in review

In 2020–21, the department led a diverse range of work to support the priorities of the Attorney‑General and Minister for Industrial Relations, and the Assistant Minister to the Attorney‑General and Assistant Minister for Industrial Relations. Our efforts have been focused on delivering policies and programs that uphold and improve Australia’s law and justice frameworks and facilitating jobs growth by promoting workplaces that are fair, productive, flexible and safe.

This report highlights the breadth of the department’s work throughout 2020–21 and the positive outcomes we have delivered to improve people’s lives. At a time when expectations of the Australian Public Service have been high, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, our staff have remained committed to achieving government priorities and serving our community. The achievements outlined in this report are a credit to their resilience, professionalism and drive.

At the outset, I would like to acknowledge my predecessor, Chris Moraitis PSM, who concluded his time as Secretary of the department on 3 January 2021. Chris led the department for over 6 years and shaped it into the vibrant and dynamic workplace that it is today. I also thank Iain Anderson, who served as acting Secretary for the balance of the financial year during a very busy and productive period. Under their leadership, the department is positioned well to deliver a significant set of priorities in the year ahead.

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic

As the pandemic has evolved, the department has continued to support important components of the Australian Government’s response.

Through Australian Government Solicitor (AGS), we advised the government on a broad range of legal issues central to the pandemic response. AGS lawyers provided practical advice on complex matters relating to public health measures, economic support and the vaccination rollout. This greatly assisted the government to navigate a variety of challenging circumstances.

The department also worked closely with portfolio agencies such as Safe Work Australia and the Fair Work Ombudsman and consulted with employer and employee groups to address the pandemic’s implications for workplaces. We have worked to ensure that work health and safety guidance on the COVID-19 vaccination is up to date and addresses key areas of concern.

Our work this year builds upon the work we did in the early stages of the pandemic to facilitate critical support to the legal system, courts and the legal assistance sector, to implement amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 to support the JobKeeper program and in the development of the COVIDSafe app.

Our key achievements

In 2020–21, we progressed major reforms and new initiatives across a range of government priorities.

Court reform and family law disputes

We supported the government to enact legislation to structurally reform the federal law courts. The new Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia will commence on 1 September 2021 and brings together the 2 separate federal courts hearing family law matters. It will provide a single point of entry to the federal courts for families with family law disputes. These reforms will help families resolve disputes by improving the efficiency of the family law system, reducing the backlog of matters before the family law courts and driving faster, safer, more consistent and less costly dispute resolution. This reform was the culmination of many years of work for the department.

Protecting victims of family violence

We developed draft legislation to provide stronger protections for victims of family violence in the family law system. The Family Law Amendment (Federal Family Violence Orders) Bill 2021 was introduced into Parliament on 24 March 2021. The bill will establish new, criminally enforceable federal family violence orders and provide stronger protections to victims of family violence who are involved in family law disputes. We also supported the government’s detailed response to the Australian Law Reform Commission’s review of the family law system. We have started to engage with stakeholders to progress additional reforms to better focus the family law system on the needs of the parties.

Addressing the status of casuals and casual employment

In March 2021, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021 passed both Houses of Parliament. We led the development of this legislation, which makes significant changes to the rules surrounding casual employment, resolving uncertainty about the status of casuals that had resulted from recent court cases. The legislation also introduces a new statutory right for casual workers to seek conversion to permanent employment. In addition to legislative reform, we have been progressing other measures to make the industrial relations system more user‑friendly and to help businesses comply with their obligations. This includes developing a roadmap of potential solutions to make it simpler for employers to understand modern awards and pay their staff correctly. We also helped to establish an Employer Advisory Service, through which the Fair Work Ombudsman provides free and tailored written advice to small business employers about their workplace obligations.

Addressing sexual harassment in Australian workplaces

On 8 April 2021, the government released its response to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work: National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces report. We coordinated the development of the response, entitled A Roadmap for Respect: Preventing and Addressing Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces, which sets out the government’s long‑term commitment to building a culture of respectful relationships in Australian workplaces. We have started to implement key recommendations, including establishing the Respect@Work Council and developing a legislative package to simplify and strengthen the legal frameworks for preventing and responding to sexual harassment.

Supporting royal commissions

We continue to support the establishment, operations and decommissioning of a number of royal commissions. The past year saw the conclusion of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements and the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. We continue to support the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, the reporting deadline for which has been extended to September 2023.

In April 2021, the Prime Minister announced that the government would recommend to the Governor‑General the establishment of a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide. We played a central role in engaging with stakeholders to develop the Terms of Reference and preparing for its establishment.

Ongoing priorities

We continued to assist the government to advance a range of other policy priorities. In November 2020, the government released exposure draft legislation to establish the Commonwealth Integrity Commission. We have continued to provide advice to government on a draft legislative package to implement the government’s response to the Religious Freedom Review. We have also been leading the government’s review of the Privacy Act 1988 to inform the future direction of privacy law reform in Australia. We supported the implementation of the Review of model Work Health and Safety laws. We also implemented measures to contribute to achieving the justice and land and water targets under the National Agreement on Closing the Gap.

Managing case work

Throughout the year, we successfully managed a large volume of casework on matters spanning international crime cooperation, federal offenders, international family law, private international law and complaints under the United Nations human rights conventions. We also administered the Fair Entitlements Guarantee, a legislative scheme of last resort that provides financial assistance to cover unpaid entitlements to eligible employees in the event of employer insolvency or bankruptcy.

Our work style, people and culture

Collaboration has been central to many of our achievements. Much of the work outlined in this report was the product of impressive combined efforts involving a wide variety of teams from across the department. We have harnessed our legal skills, policy and program experience and subject-matter expertise to deliver important government legal, justice and industrial relations priorities.

The results of our 2021 stakeholder survey (see Appendix 2: Methodologies) illustrate our effectiveness in engaging across the Australian Public Service, the states and territories, non-government organisations and stakeholder groups. I am committed to ensuring we build on this strong track record of collaboration.

2020–21 began with almost all of our staff working remotely and our staff across the country have been affected by periodic lockdowns and pandemic restrictions. Throughout this, their adaptability and resilience has enabled the department to do its work effectively, albeit a bit differently. Drawing on insights from the past year, we have worked with staff to develop a new, long-term policy for flexible work arrangements that will commence in 2021–22.

Our investment in the department’s workplace culture and communication with staff across the country positioned us well to respond to the evolving circumstances of the pandemic. The experience of the past year has underscored the importance of creating and maintaining an environment where staff feel connected and included, valued for their diverse contributions and engaged in the department’s mission. Our positive results in the APS Census in 2020 and 2021 reflect this commitment.

Looking ahead

A major focus for the year ahead will be implementing the broad range of measures funded under the 2021–22 Budget. This funding is an opportunity for the department to significantly enhance legal and workplace services for Australian communities. Among other things, the 2021–22 Budget includes measures to improve services that assist vulnerable women and children to engage with the legal system, support reform of the family law system and increase funding for legal assistance under the National Legal Assistance Partnership. We will also continue to progress other priorities, including working with the states and territories to develop a joint program of work that strengthens the criminal justice responses to sexual assault, sexual harassment and coercive control.

As this report demonstrates, we are well-positioned to progress our substantial program of work and deliver important outcomes for the Australian people.

Katherine Jones PSM