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Wong to cut $550m but vows to leave jobs untouched

Date

Peter Martin, Markus Mannheim

Priorities ... Senator Penny Wong.

Priorities ... Senator Penny Wong. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

EXPERTS have expressed deep scepticism about the pledge by the Finance Minister, Penny Wong, yesterday to take an extra half a billion dollars from the public service without touching jobs.

Unveiling an instruction to agencies to find savings of $550 million over four years, Senator Wong said it had to be done through non-staffing efficiencies.

The required savings include $30 million a year in air travel, $60 million in the use of consultants, $6 million by publishing documents online instead of in print, and $2 million by moving job advertisements online.

''Labor targets efficiencies, the Coalition slashes jobs,'' she said outside a public administration conference in Canberra.

But an earlier 4 per cent ''efficiency dividend'' announced by Senator Wong in November already required the public service to cut things such as travel, advertising, printing and consultants before touching staff.

''The departmental budget is just one big budget, it's not as though there are separate paper clips or travel or whatever,'' Stephen Bartos, a former Finance Department deputy secretary, said. ''Public servants have already been cutting departmental expenses before cutting staff as required. They've already done it, they have met the new requirement. That means the extra cuts they now have to make to meet the new target could well involve jobs.''

''Unless the government is going to turn its back on the last 30 years of public sector devolution and have ministers now micromanage how departmental budgets operate, she cannot guarantee this move won't cost jobs,'' Mr Bartos said, who is now an executive director of Acil Tasman.

The former public service commissioner Andrew Podger, now with the Australian National University, said there was ''no way'' there could be another cut in departmental budgets without impacting public servants.

''It is wrong to imply you can cut public service spending without cutting the services provided,'' Professor Podger said.

''The levels of cuts they are trying to make cannot be just efficiencies; they will have to re-prioritise services to the public.

''There is nothing wrong with re-prioritising services so long as ministers stand up and take responsibility for it.

''That's what we pay them for. Instead they are making the public service make the decisions about which services to cut and which to wind back.''

Senator Wong said the government had made its priorities clear. ''This is a government which has increased its expenditure on education - almost doubled school funding - and I think that shows Labor priorities,'' she said.

The defence department will not have to make the new cuts.

''We recognise defence has been asked - as have, frankly, all departments - to contribute to the fiscal objective,'' Senator Wong said.

''They are not being asked, like other agencies, to find the additional targeted efficiencies.''

The government will unveil extra cuts to get the budget back to surplus in the mid-year budget review which is due in November.

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