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Does the Coalition plan to cut 20,000 public service jobs?

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Slashing the public service

Tony Abbott plans to cut the federal public service, but how accurate is ACT Labor Senator Kate Lundy's claim that 20,000 jobs will go?

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The claim

Tony Abbott has promised to cut the public service in a way that mightn't hurt. He says he will "trim the Commonwealth public sector payroll by 12,000" through natural attrition.

Kate Lundy's claim that the Liberals will cut 20,000 public service jobs is false.

Kate Lundy's claim that the Liberals will cut 20,000 public service jobs is false.

Australian Capital Territory Labor Senator Kate Lundy thinks there's more. On Friday she tweeted: "Libs have confirmed they will cut 20,000 jobs."

The 20,000 figure is bigger than the one Abbott himself used at Sunday's campaign launch. It is bigger than the one Labor itself is using in its advertising, and it is bigger than the one Abbott has had the Parliamentary Budget Office cost.

In the same tweet Lundy said: "Cutting 8400 jobs from the APS will rip $650 million from the #Canberra economy."

But let's examine her first claim, one widely believed, that the Liberals have confirmed they plan to cut 20,000 public service jobs.

Supporting evidence

Often "sighted", rarely actually seen, the Coalition's commitment to cut 20,000 jobs from the public service is the Loch Ness Monster of the campaign.

Lundy herself claimed to have seen it in a press release issued with fellow ACT politicians Andrew Leigh and Gai Brodtmann last year. It pointed to an ABC 7.30 interview. The video of the interview shows Joe Hockey telling Chris Uhlmann "We will cut the public service". Uhlmann interjects: "By 20,000?" Hockey continues (without answering) "We will cut the public service".

This became confirmation that: "Hockey told the 7.30 program that the Liberal policy is to cut the federal public service in Canberra by 20,000."

Hockey kicked the idea along this year when he told 2UE: "We have previously said that we can't afford to have around 20,000 extra public servants in Canberra compared with the last year of the Coalition government". Abbott said the same thing at a business breakfast in Perth.

Queensland Liberal MP Steven Ciobo may have come the closest of all, telling Sky News in April: "We are going to allow through attrition there to be a reduction of 20,000 public servants in Canberra."

The 20,000 figure isn't Coalition policy. Unless the words of a backbencher matter more than those of the leader and shadow treasurer, its only commitment is to lose 12,000 through natural attrition.

But Ciobo, Lundy and colleagues could be forgiven for thinking the figure was 20,000. Abbott and Hockey have repeatedly linked the two numbers.

Here's what Abbott said at the Brisbane launch:

"We will trim the Commonwealth public sector payroll by 12,000 through natural attrition because we don't need 20,000 more public servants now than in 2007."

And they have hinted at more. Abbott told the Bolt Report in March he would trim the public service by "at least" 12,000. Hockey told Adelaide radio 12,000 was "a starting point".

Does it stack up?

Lundy's spokeswoman says the "lived experience" of Canberra residents is that when the Coalition says it will cut by a certain amount, it cuts by more. That's happened when John Howard was elected in 1996.

"There is always a reference to the 20,000 figure," Emma Smith told PolitiFact. "Why would they be referencing it if they weren't considering it."

But it isn't a commitment.

Lundy is on stronger ground when she says "cutting 8400 jobs from the Australian public service will rip $650 million from the Canberra economy". The 8400 total is the Community and Public Sector Union's estimate of the Canberra region's share of 12,000 lost jobs. The $650 million figure is simply the number of jobs lost multiplied by the average Canberra public service salary of $76,821.

The ACT economy was worth $31.5 billion in 2011-12. Removing $650 million would remove 2 per cent. That might be enough to push the ACT into recession as it is said happened after Howard was elected in 1996 (although the annual figures show merely a halving of growth, not recession).

Finding

No one knows by how much a Coalition government would eventually cut the public service. But we do know the nature of its commitments.

A PolitiFact rating of "false" applies where a statement is not accurate.

PolitiFact finds Lundy's claim the Liberals have "confirmed they will cut 20,000 jobs" false.

Details at www.politifact.com.au

Fairfax is partnering with the Pulitzer-prize winning service PolitiFact during the election campaign. Its Australian arm politifact.com.au uses the same rigorous methodology as its US parent to rate the accuracy of claims by elected officials and other influential people in the Australian political debate.

Twitter: @1petermartin @PolitiFactOz

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