Federal Politics


Orwellian Labor fails to reshape service

In a celebrated story, George Bernard Shaw asked a woman at a party: ''Would you sleep with me for a million pounds?'' She hesitated but said ''yes''. ''Would you do it for 10 shillings?'' Shaw said. ''Certainly not,'' said the woman, ''what do you take me for?'' ''We've established that already,'' Shaw said. ''We're just trying to fix your price now.''

Likewise, Australian voters have already established what both major political parties are: entities intent on addressing the cost of government by cutting the size of the Australian Public Service - the Coalition because it says it will, the Labor Party by dint of its actions.

That's not to say there is a consensus on public service job cuts. Earlier this month, the Prime Minister assured readers of The Canberra Times that she would not ''slash and burn'' the public service, despite several thousand jobs having already disappeared from it as a result of decisions in the last two budgets.

But there's cutting and there's cutting. The Australian Public Service is a precious national asset, a vital tool for any government intent on driving change in Australian society. In a bureaucracy of about 250,000 members, however, there arise many opportunities to reconsider the way in which it works and to reconsider the scope of what it does.

The government appeared to acknowledge this in the midyear economic statement it delivered at the end of October. But a close examination of that document demonstrates how fundamentally the government has failed to implement a strategic repositioning of the public service.

The statement purports to announce $16.4 billion in savings, designed to ''ensure the budget is sustainable into the future''. This statement has Orwellian overtones, as even a cursory reading leaves one with the impression that precisely the opposite is true.


The midyear economic statement simply cuts government programs, some so deeply that it's obvious some government in the future will need to reverse these decisions.

The once-celebrated computers in schools program has been turned off, $1 billion is cut from health and $3.9 billion is cut from education.

Finance Minister Penny Wong saves nearly $100 million from ''paused grants programs''. Paused? This euphemistically describes cutting $160 million this year from community groups, charities and sporting organisations, with only $60 million of that restored over the three out years (''pausing'' the full restoration of these grants to 2016-17, presumably under the next Coalition government).

Such decisions characterise this midyear economic statement. It is replete with panicky, niggardly cuts, often to programs the Labor government introduced. There is nothing ''sustainable'' about cutting grants across the board to community activities.

Labor's failure to make truly sustainable cuts in government spending comes at an awkward juncture in Australian history. The midyear economic statement cuts are designed to save Wayne Swan's Cheshire Cat budget surplus but a much heavier fiscal lift lies ahead. Bipartisan national ambitions - especially the national disability scheme and new education spending - will require many billions to secure but few Australians have an appetite for new taxes to achieve this.

It is inevitable that this conundrum will need to be solved, at least in part, by reshaping the way the Australian Public Service works. The Gillard government had a stab at this recently when it tried to rationalise the duplication of environmental approvals between the Commonwealth and the states but now seems to be backtracking on this reform. As the midyear economic statement demonstrated, Labor has a poor record of saving money by spending less on its apparatus of government.

The Coalition has announced that it will establish a commission of audit to assess from first principles the very nature of what a national government should be doing.

Some have cast this as a pretext for public service job cuts but a much more fundamental purpose has to be served if Australia is to find the means to realise some of the dreams of its citizens.

Gary Humphries is Liberal senator for the ACT and shadow parliamentary secretary for defence materiel.

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