Top public servants cost us very little compared with what they could earn elsewhere. Photo: Jessica Shapiro
A friend of mine in Melbourne just left a job she'd had for three years and loved dearly. I'll describe a little of what she did. She managed eight people, trained many more, wrote several successful tender submissions that funded her team, gave evidence at a parliamentary hearing, oversaw her organisation's accounts and was responsible for most of her workplace's administration.
I could go on, but you get the drift: she was pretty busy.
Ask yourself why you haven't applied for their jobs. In truth, you're probably not up to it.
The punchline? Her salary, as of this month, was $65,000 a year. In other words, what an average APS4 officer earns in the public service.
I don't need to point out to Canberrans that the average APS4 neither performs tasks nor holds responsibilities anywhere near as complex as my friend's. Indeed, nor would the typical public servant in this city, who these days is an EL1 on about $102,000.
You may have guessed my friend worked in the community sector. She'd stay there, too, but, as she told me last week: ''I just can't afford it, I need to save for a [home] deposit.''
The point of this tale is neither to highlight the poor pay of those in the non-profit sector nor to have a dig at the comparatively high pay of bureaucrats. It's just a reminder that workplaces, and wages, aren't always strictly ''fair''. Indeed, some of my media colleagues earn far less even than my Melburnian friend. And it's not as though their jobs are simple: they're required to make more decisions in a week than some public servants do in a year, and they certainly face a much higher level of direct public scrutiny.
The employment marketplace, however, isn't only about dollars. Many of us choose lower-paid jobs because we like the work. Others eschew a higher salary because they don't want the responsibility, or long hours, that come with it. Nonetheless, if an employer really wants someone, they can lure them with money in most cases. It's usually a question of price.
And so to the Remuneration Tribunal's decision this week to increase the pay of various public office holders. The increases were actually far greater than the media reported. For example, the Australian Federal Police commissioner's salary package will jump from $477,740 to $650,000 by July 2014, the director-general of ASIO's will rise from $461,650 to $600,000, and so on.
These raises were one-offs, not annual increases. They followed a detailed study of government agency heads' responsibilities, skills, their exposure to risks and the opportunity costs they pay to do their jobs. Yet even after the latest increases, public-sector chief executives remain remarkably poorly paid compared with business executives. Is it ''fair'' that the head of the federal Treasury has a pay package worth $653,000, when the average chief executive of a top-100 company took home $4.7 million last year? After all, the top government jobs are at least as demanding.
Nonetheless, the tribunal's decision was met with predictable fury. The public servants' union said the pay rises were too high given the government was tightening its belt and shedding jobs. Others said the increases explained why the budget was in deficit. (Let's put an immediate end to that imbecilic argument: senior executives' pay makes up only 3.9 per cent of the federal government's total wages bill, which itself is just a small fraction of total budget spending.)
Do the heads of government agencies need salaries of the order they receive? Of course not. Would they stay in their jobs if they were paid only a little more than their staff? A few would, but most would probably follow the money and leave.
What's missing from this debate is a little perspective. Our senior officials do not cost us a packet; they're relatively cheap. If you're angered by their pay, perhaps you should ask yourself why you haven't applied for their jobs. In truth, you're probably not up to it. And if you're a public servant in Canberra, perhaps you should remind yourself occasionally of the many workers who earn less than you, and be content. Are you really worth more than them all?