Flippant remarks: Defence Minister David Johnston regrets saying public servants were "fat and happy". Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Defence Minister David Johnston says he regrets his "fat and happy" comment, which caused consternation in the public service.
But he has stopped short of an apology and prompted further criticism by saying "people are so sensitive about these things".
Earlier this week when talking about staff cutbacks, the minister said the government had about 20,500 public servants running about 56,000 uniforms, adding "now I still think that's a little bit fat and happy".
On ABC Radio's PM program on Thursday evening, Senator Johnston said it was a flippant remark.
"What I meant was, and that's a flippant term that I regret, because I should have said it's unsustainable, and that's the point," he told reporter James Glenday.
"We must get more out of the department in terms of productivity and in terms of numbers, more efficient numbers.
"We're being extremely cautious about, you know, how we trim our sails, but trim our sails we must."
When asked whether he would apologise, he said: "Oh look, I'm not talking about public servants being fat or happy. I'm talking about the ratio, the ratio from a taxpayer's perspective is too generous. The ratio is unsustainable. It's the ratio I'm talking about, not the people involved.
"I mean, honestly, people are so sensitive about these things. Let's have them analyse exactly what's happened in the defence portfolio. We've had to promise no further cuts, and that's what we've delivered in this budget because defence has been absolutely plundered.
"Thankfully, the Prime Minister has sided with me and said, we cannot allow this to continue and we have had no further cuts to defence, and I'm very grateful for that and I think the men and women inside Defence should be very grateful for that."
Defence Department staff have begun negotiations for their agreement, which is soon to expire, and coincides with job cuts outlined in the budget.
The budget outlines almost 2300 job cuts to Defence over the forward estimates but the minister says only 1200 of these are the Coalition's.
"This is in contrast to the previous government, who slashed the Defence budget to the tune of $16 billion, which effectively hollowed out the portfolio resulting in 2800 public service reductions since 2011," Senator Johnston said.
"In one year alone (2012/13) Labor slashed 10.5 per cent from the Defence budget, the largest single cut since the Korean conflict in the 1950s."
David Smith, ACT Director of Professionals Australia, the union that represents engineers and technical specialists across Defence, said his organisation was disappointed there was no apology.
"Particularly given that he has now acknowledged that his comments were flippant," Mr Smith said.
“Thousands of public servants are facing uncertainty and unemployment, and he can’t be man enough to say he got it wrong? It is not good enough.
“In the same interview, he accused people of being ‘sensitive’. This shows a complete lack of empathy for the thousands of public servants – engineers, intelligence officers and technicians – facing the axe at his hand.
“It is hard to see how the minister will deliver better value and greater productivity, when he is set to sack 2500 public servants. Cutting staff will only increase waste – which the taxpayer will pay for, and risk – which will jeopardise the safety of our troops."