One of the Coalition’s central claims about waste in the federal public service - that a department spent more than $180,000 studying ergonomic chairs - is wrong.
The opposition did not check the accusations with the Department of Human Services before putting the claim on hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of campaign material and in the middle of Tony Abbott’s keynote speech to his campaign launch.
DHS told Fairfax that $51,000 had been spent on workplace ergonomic assessments among its 36,000 workers and that nobody from the opposition had checked with the department before going public.
The allegation has formed a central part of the Coalition’s attack on “Labor waste” and has featured in advertisements on TV and other media.
At the Liberal campaign launch in Brisbane on Sunday, Mr Abbott used the claim against as an example of Labor’s “small waste,” in one of the most important speeches of his election bid.
“We'll end Labor's small waste - like the $180,000 that the Department of Human Services spent studying ergonomic chairs,” Mr Abbott told the party faithful.
The assertion first surfaced on August 6 in a press release from opposition parliamentary secretary Jamie Briggs that claimed the “Department of Human Resources” – which does not exist - had “spent over $185,000 on Ergonomic Assessments on the chairs of its staff”.
In his release, Mr Briggs alleged that public servants were “sitting pretty while families do it tough” and said he based his $185,000 on contracts published on the AusTender website.
But a departmental spokesperson rubbished the claim on Tuesday.
“The Department of Human Services did not spend over $180,000 on special studies on chairs,” the spokesperson said.
“The $185,896 on the AusTender website is the maximum value of contract amounts for ergonomic assessments for individual staff members for 2012-13 – it does not represent the actual amount spent.
“The department’s actual spend on ergonomic assessments for these contracts in 2012-2013 was $51,000.”
DHS is the government’s largest department employing more than 35,000 staff across the nation in frontline agencies like Centrelink, Medicare and the Child Support Agency.
The department has been recognised by federal workplace safety authority Comcare for its efforts to improve health and safety, and to bring down the bill for taxpayers for workers’ compensation claims by its employees.
“These assessments are completed occasionally when the department is trying to prevent injury or return injured staff to work, and are just one of the department’s strategies to reduce risk of injury,” the DHS spokesperson said.
Neither Mr Briggs’ office nor Coalition campaign headquarters responded on Tuesday to questions about why the claims were not checked before being included in the opposition’s campaign material.