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Even the pre-poll puffs take a cut

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The Canberra Times

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Federal election years were once high points for the ACT economy. The last budget before the people went to the polls was traditionally crammed with ''good news'', just as the first budget after the election was miserly. Governments seeking to remain in office would announce, in the months before the ballot, a range of new initiatives, expansions of existing programs or the softening of earlier tough decisions (made possible, they would inevitably say, by their prudent stewardship of the economy over the course of the parliamentary term).

Canberrans prospered more than most, because someone - i.e. public servants - needed to administer all of those newly announced measures. The Bureau of Statistics' regular assays of the nation's labour markets show noticeable spikes in the ACT's public-sector job-vacancy count in the quarters preceding federal elections.

This year, however, is unlikely to follow this historical trend. Sure, the Gillard government has, at last, unshackled itself from its earlier, dim decision to ''guarantee'' a budget surplus in 2012-13. And, despite its heavy crackdown on public spending last year, it is certain to unveil a few initiatives this year as the election draws nears, which will create some jobs for this city's bruised bureaucracy.

Yet modern electioneering is changing, as the 2007 and 2010 votes showed. Prime ministers and opposition leaders tend to vie with promises to save rather than spend. Treasurer Wayne Swan and Finance Minister Penny Wong have made it clear public servants ''need to make a contribution'' to the government's ascent from deficit. Their economising thus far has been less severe than the austerity drives under way in the public sectors of Queensland, NSW and Victoria. Nonetheless, the federal bureaucracy has suffered over the past 12 months, and the rest of the ACT economy has suffered with it.

The bureau's latest employment data shows the extent of Canberra's slide. The number of public-sector job vacancies in the November 2012 quarter dropped to about 800, the lowest count in almost 15 years. It is usually between two and three times that amount. There is unlikely to be much respite this year, with government agencies still squeezed tightly by Labor's decision to increase the so-called ''efficiency dividend'', an annual cut to agencies' administrative budgets. Nor would Prime Minister Julia Gillard dare risk accusations of waste by relenting on these cuts so close to an election campaign.

Unfortunately, we can't expect relief when the poll results are declared, either. Tony Abbott's opposition regularly boasts it will make even greater cuts if it wins office. Even a Labor victory will leave the government facing the same financial circumstances - global and domestic - that led to the present fiscal constriction. Australia's economy remains well placed by international standards, but Canberrans are very unlikely to remember 2013 as a golden year.

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