Legal Briefing No. 54

Number 54

(8 March 2000)

The Public Service Act 1999: An Overview

The Public Service Act 1999 (the
new Act), together with the Public Employment
(Consequential and Transitional) Amendment Act 1999 (the
PECTA Act) came into operation on 5 December 1999. The
new Act replaced the Public Service Act 1922 (the
old Act). The Merit Protection (Australian Government
Employees) Act 1984 has also been repealed.

The new Act is constructed along very different
lines from the old Act. It is based on a set of explicitly
articulated principles – the APS Values. The new Act
is drafted in plain language. The terminology used in the
new Act is often different from that in the old. A range
of powers once held centrally has been formally devolved
to Agency Heads.

The detail of the old Act does not appear
in the new Act. Some of it has disappeared altogether,
because of significant policy changes. For example, the
remarkable legal labyrinth that was Part IV of the old
Act has no analogue in the new Act. But some important
matters of detail are contained in subordinate instruments
under the new Act.

Subordinate Instruments

The new Act allows for the making of an array of subordinate
instruments including:

  • Public Service Commissioner's Directions on APS
    Values (s.11(1)), procedural requirements in relation
    to breaches of the code of conduct (s.15(4)), and SES
    matters (s.33)
  • Agency Head procedures for breaches of the Code of
    Conduct (s.15(3))
  • Prime Minister's Directions to Agency Heads (s.21(1))
  • Public Service Minister's Classification Rules
  • Agency Head Determinations on pay and conditions (s.24(1))
  • Public Service Minister's Determinations on pay
    and conditions (s.24(3))
  • Public Service Regulations (s.79).

Elements of a number of these subordinate instruments
are dealt with in this Briefing.

Key Features of the New Act and its Instruments


Briefly, the objects of the new Act are:

  • to establish an apolitical, efficient and effective
    public service
  • to provide a legal framework for Australian Public
    Service (APS) employment
  • to establish the powers and functions of key players
    such as Agency Heads, the Public Service Commissioner
    (the PS Commissioner) and the Merit Protection Commissioner,
    and the rights and responsibilities of APS employees.

Structure of the APS

The new Act uses different language to describe people
who work in the APS and the structural elements of the
APS. This helps to emphasise the changes the new Act makes.

The APS under the new Act comprises Agency Heads and APS
employees. Agency Heads are secretaries of Departments,
heads of Executive Agencies and heads of Statutory Agencies.

Departments and Statutory Agencies under the new Act correspond
to the two types of 'department' defined in section
7 of the old Act. But the new Act also includes provisions
relating to Executive Agencies. Executive Agencies can
be established under the new Act by the Governor-General.
The Agency Minister of an Executive Agency may appoint
a person to be the Head of the Agency, and may terminate
their appointment at any time after receiving a report
from the Secretary of the Agency Minister's Department.

It appears that for constitutional purposes, and probably
for all purposes other than the purposes of the new Act,
Executive Agencies must be regarded as forming part of
the Agency Minister's Department. However, heads of
Executive Agencies are accountable to ministers in the
same way as secretaries.

APS employees

APS employees can be divided into two categories: ongoing
APS employees and non-ongoing APS employees.

Ongoing employees approximate to officers under the old
Act (often referred to as permanent officers or permanents),
while non-ongoing APS employees are those who are employed
for a specified term or task or on an irregular or intermittent
basis (known as employees, temporary employees or temporaries
under the old Act).

The APS Values

The APS Values, set out in subsection 10(1) are perhaps
the centrepiece of the new Act. There are fifteen values.
In summary terms, they provide that the APS:

  • is apolitical in the performance of its functions
  • makes employment decisions based on merit
  • is free from discrimination and utilises the diversity
    of the community
  • has the highest ethical standards
  • is accountable for its actions
  • provides frank, honest, timely and comprehensive advice
    to the government
  • delivers services fairly and effectively to the public
  • has leadership of the highest quality
  • establishes co-operative workplace relations
  • provides a safe and rewarding workplace
  • focuses on achieving results
  • promotes equity in employment
  • provides employment which is open to the whole community
  • is a career-based service
  • has a fair system of review.

The new Act requires Agency Heads to uphold and promote
the APS Values (s.12) and requires APS employees to uphold
the APS Values (s.13(11)).

Interestingly, the APS Values are not carved in legislative
stone. While the Act requires the PS Commissioner to issue
directions about each of the values to ensure that the
APS incorporates and upholds them, the Act also provides
that those directions may determine the scope or application
of the values (see s.11(1)). The Act makes it quite clear
that the PS Commissioner's Directions may restrict
the effect of the values.

It is also interesting that the Act makes special provision
for the merit value (see s.10(2)). An employment decision
relating to engagement or promotion will be based on merit
if an assessment is made of the relative suitability of
the candidates, using a competitive selection process,
if the assessment meets certain other criteria and if the
assessment is the primary consideration in making the decision.
This elaboration in subsection 10(2) of the value in relation
to decisions relating to engagement or promotion does not
appear to apply to other employment decisions. However,
other employment decisions would be subject to the Commissioner's
Directions on the merit value.

The Code of Conduct

The Act sets out a Code of Conduct for APS employees,
Heads of Agencies and certain statutory office holders
(see sections 13 and 14). The content of the Code of Conduct
is substantially the same as that which applied under the
old Public Service Regulations from March 1998.

The new Act requires Agency Heads to establish procedures
for deciding whether an APS employee has breached the Code
of Conduct (s.15(3)). Those procedures must comply with
requirements set out in the PS Commissioner's Directions
and they must have due regard to procedural fairness. These
arrangements – allowing for different procedures to
apply in different agencies – replace the detailed
disciplinary arrangements which had been set out in the
old Act. The new Act sets out the sanctions that may be
applied to an APS employee found to have breached the Code
of Conduct, ranging from a reprimand to termination of

Employment Provisions

The regulatory heart of the new Act is contained in Part
4, which comprises sections 20 to 39 of the Act. The Act
gives to Agency Heads, on behalf of the Commonwealth, all
of the rights, duties and powers of an employer in respect
of APS employees in their agency (s.20). This provision
can be seen from one perspective as continuing a trend
of mainstreaming APS employment with employment arrangements
that apply generally in the community. It is worth noting
that under section 8, the new Act is made expressly subject
to the Workplace Relations Act 1996.

The new Act allows an Agency Head, on behalf of the Commonwealth,
to engage persons as APS employees (s.22). (The appointment
of officers to departments had been carried out by secretaries
under delegation from the PS Commissioner under the old
Act.) The engagement of APS employees may be made subject
to conditions, including conditions dealing with probation,
citizenship, qualifications, and security and health clearances.
The new Act provides that the 'usual basis' for
engagement is as an ongoing employee.

The PS Commissioner's Directions include a number
of provisions which are relevant to engagement (see ch.4),
including in relation to the issue of the advertising of
employment opportunities for the engagement of ongoing
employees (cl.4.2). Essentially, these Directions provide
that, subject to considerations of cost and operational
efficiency, the opportunity to apply for the relevant employment,
or similar employment, must be open to all eligible members
of the community, and as a minimum must have been notified
as open to all APS employees.

The Public Service Regulations provide quite detailed
prescription as to the period of engagement of non-ongoing,
non-SES employees (reg.3.5). The Regulations impose maximum
periods of engagement of employees engaged for a specified
period or for the performance of a specified task, ranging
from 6 months to three years depending on the reason for
the engagement. SES employees who are engaged for a specified
term may be engaged for a total period of up to five years


Section 23 of the new Act allows the Public Service Minister
to make Classification Rules. Rules have been made which
in essence provide that an Agency Head must allocate an
approved classification to each APS employee in their agency
(r.5(1)). That classification must be based on the duties
that are to be performed by the employee in the Agency
(apart from duties temporarily assigned to the employee)
(r.5(2)). In turn, the Agency Head must allocate an approved
classification to each group of duties to be performed
in their Agency (r.7(1)), and that allocation must be based
on the work value requirements of the group of duties (r.7(2)).
A classification is an approved classification if it is
included in an award under the Workplace Relations Act
or is a classification set out in either of the schedules
to the Classification Rules (r.4).

Section 23 also restricts the capacity of Agency Heads
to reduce an employee's classification. An APS employee
may only have their classification reduced without consent
on the grounds that are listed in subsection 23(4) of the
new Act.

Terms and Conditions of Employment

In the most significant devolution of powers under the
new Act, Agency Heads are given the power to determine
the remuneration and other terms and conditions of employment
of employees in their agency (s.24). This power corresponds
broadly with the power which had been held by the PS Commissioner
under section 82D of the old Act. Importantly, a determination
under section 24 cannot reduce the benefit to an employee
of any term or condition applying to the employee under
an award, certified agreement or Australian workplace agreement.

Section 24 also gives the Public Service Minister power,
in exceptional circumstances, to make determinations on
pay and conditions which would override Agency Head determinations.

Movements of Employees

Section 25 of the new Act allows an Agency Head to determine
the duties of an APS employee in their Agency and to determine
where the duties are to be performed. Section 26 of the
new Act provides that voluntary movements of APS employees
between agencies may only occur if there is an agreement
between the employee and the head of the receiving Agency.
These sections provide the basis for the staffing transactions
conventionally known as promotions, transfers, and temporary
transfers. One consequence of section 26 is that where
an employee moves to another Agency, and the move is intended
to be short-term, the employee will need the agreement
of the Head of the former Agency in order to return.

The PS Commissioner's Directions and the Public Service
Regulations make quite detailed provision in relation to
promotions. A promotion is defined in the Directions, for
an ongoing employee, as the assignment to the employee
of duties at a higher classification than the employee's
current classification. But a movement within a broadband,
or a movement associated with a training classification,
or a temporary assignment, is not a promotion (see cl.4.6).

The requirements for notifying opportunities for promotion
are essentially the same as those that apply in relation
to notifying opportunities for engagement as an ongoing
employee (see cl.4.6).

The Regulations allow an ongoing APS employee who applied
for promotion to a classification in Group 1 to Group 6
(but who was not promoted) to have the promotion decision
reviewed by a three person Promotion Review Committee (PRC)
on the ground of merit (regs 5.7 and 5.8). The PRC is required
to assess the relative merits of the person promoted and
each applicant for review of the decision on the basis
of the criteria set out in subsection 10(2) of the new
Act, and to decide, primarily on the basis of that assessment,
whether the promotion should stand or whether one of the
applicants for review should be promoted instead (reg.5.18).
The regulations do not specify the other considerations
that may be taken into account by the PRC in reaching its
decision. The decision of the PRC is binding (reg.5.20).

Termination of Employment

Section 29 provides for termination of employment of APS
employees (though additional provisions apply to SES employees).
Ongoing APS employees may only be terminated on one of
the grounds specified in subsection 29(3). Those grounds
are: being excess to requirements, loss of an essential
qualification, unsatisfactory performance of duties, physical
or mental incapacity, failure to complete an entry-level
training course, breach of the Code of Conduct, or a ground
prescribed in the regulations. The unfair dismissal provisions
of the Workplace Relations Act apply to termination of
employment of APS employees.

Section 30 allows an APS employee who has reached the
minimum retiring age – usually 55 years – to
retire. Unlike the old Act, the new Act does not have any
provision for mandatory retirement at age 65.

Review of APS Decisions

The new Act includes a very broad provision which entitles
an APS employee to review of any APS action that relates
to their employment, apart from action to terminate their
employment (s.33(1)) and apart from any action excepted
by the regulations (s.33(2)). A range of decisions has
been excepted and these are set out in regulation 5.23
and Schedule 1 to the Regulations. The scope of reviewable
decisions is somewhat different from that of the old Act.
The review process requires an initial review to be conducted
by the agency in which the person who did the action was
at the time of the action. The process may also provide
for a second level of review by the Merit Protection Commissioner.
As outlined above, there is a special review process for
certain promotion decisions.

The Senior Executive Service

A set of provisions deals specifically with the SES. The
function of the SES is to provide a group of employees
who provide high level professional expertise, policy advice
and management, who promote co-operation with other agencies
and who promote the APS Values and compliance with the
Code of Conduct (s.35).

The new Act includes a special mechanism (similar to section
76R in the old Act, but now devolved) which enables an
Agency Head to offer an SES employee a monetary incentive
to retire, and enables the SES employee to accept such
an offer and retire as if they had been compulsorily retired
(s.37), subject to compliance with the Commissioner's
Directions. The employment of ongoing SES employees is
somewhat more protected than that of ongoing APS employees
generally, because an Agency Head may not terminate the
employment of an SES employee unless the PS Commissioner
has certified that relevant procedural requirements have
been met and that the termination is in the public interest

The Commissioners

Parts 5 and 6 of the new Act provide for the appointment,
and set out the functions, of the Public Service Commissioner
and the Merit Protection Commissioner.


A Secretary of a Department is, under the Agency Minister,
responsible for managing the Department and must advise
the Agency Minister in matters relating to the Department
(s.57). The Secretary is also obliged to assist the Agency
Minister to fulfil their accountability obligations to
the Parliament (s.58).

The appointment of a Secretary may be terminated at any
time by the Prime Minister, after the Prime Minister has
received a report about the proposed termination from the
Secretary of the Prime Minister's Department (s.59).
Generally speaking the termination of secretaries will
not be subject to the unfair dismissal provisions of the
Workplace Relations Act, because secretaries will usually
be caught by the exclusion provisions that operate under
the Workplace Relations Regulations (see reg.30B of those

Other Provisions

Section 72 of the new Act enables the PS Commissioner,
among other things, to move APS employees from one Agency
to another, or to move them outside the APS and into the
employment of a specified Commonwealth authority, or to
move them into the APS from other Commonwealth employment.

Section 77 allows an Agency Head to create positions in
the agency, and to nominate an APS employee to occupy a

Section 78 provides for the making of delegations by the
Prime Minister, the Public Service Minister, an Agency
Minister, the PS Commissioner, the Merit Protection Commissioner
and an Agency Head. Agency Heads are not permitted to delegate
powers or functions under the Act to an outsider without
the consent of the PS Commissioner. The section allows
for subdelegation of powers delegated by either of the
Commissioners or by an Agency Head.

Transitional Arrangements

The PECTA Act leaves much of the transitional machinery
to be set out in regulations made under that Act. There
are two areas worthy of particular note. The first is in
relation to misconduct. The PECTA Act provides that an
Agency Head may impose the sanctions under section 15 of
the new Act on an APS employee in respect of conduct that
occurred before the commencement of the new Act, provided
the employee had not been charged under the old Act. Before
imposing such a penalty the Agency Head must be satisfied
that the conduct in question was misconduct under the old
Act and would also have constituted a breach of the Code
(had the conduct occurred after the commencement of the
new Act).

The second area is more complex and relates to the difficult
subject of officers' mobility. A large group of people
has coverage under the mobility provisions of Part IV of
the old Act – people who are or were officers of the
APS who had taken up certain non-APS employment. The PECTA
Act provides that 'first tier' persons are deemed
to be on leave without pay from the APS during the transitional
period of 3 years, and will be taken to have resigned from
the APS at the end of that period unless they indicate
that they will be resuming duties in the APS or are granted
leave without pay after the end of the transitional period. 'Second
tier' persons are entitled to return to employment
in the APS during the transitional period of three years
if their employment is to be terminated, or, in certain
cases, if their career has been adversely affected by a
reduction in the functions of their employer.

This Briefing was prepared by Richard Harding (currently
outposted to the Department of Employment, Workplace Relations
and Small Business) and Margaret Byrne, both Senior General
Counsel. For further information please contact Margaret
on tel (02) 6253 7098 or e-mail or
any of the following lawyers:


Joan Bonsey

(02) 6246 1233

Tom Howe

(02) 6246 1256


Jim Heard

(02) 9581 7477


Craig Rawson

(03) 9242 1257



(07) 3360 5702


Sarah Court

(08) 8205 4231



(08) 9268 1102


Peter Bowen

(03) 6220 5474


Rick Andruszko

(08) 8943 1400

ISSN 1448-4803 (Print)
ISSN 2204-6283 (Online)

The material in this briefing is provided
for general information only and should not be relied
upon for the purpose of a particular matter. Please contact
AGS before any action or decision is taken on the basis
of any of the material in this briefing.

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