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Lashing of public service spending has a long history

A savage mauling of the Australian public service by the Abbott government's Commission of Audit would be in keeping with a 140-year-old of Australian political tradition, the Parliamentary Library has found.

And, the library in Canberra says, budget inquiries are a tried and trusted political weapon for Australian governments, but the reviews can carry a sting in the tail for their designers.

The librarians examined 23 such inquiries by states, territories and the Commonwealth going back to 1873 and found commissioners of audit were accusing government bureaucrats of slackness 30 years before Australia even had a federal public service.

The language used in the reviews is remarkably similar down through the years. The words of WA's Select Committee into Departmental Expenditure in 1873 have a familiar ring to those struggling to cope with the hiring clampdown now in force in the federal bureaucracy.

''No money should be voted for paying an increased staff, in any department, until it can be shown that the officers then employed have been doing their utmost to execute the work of their department, by attending during extra hours when required,'' the 19th-century committee wrote.

''Heads of departments should be held responsible for the due attendance and application to business of their officers.''

Fifty years later, the Federal Economies Commission of 1919-21 was lashing inefficiencies in the federal bureaucracy, with the ''extravagant'' new Australia House in London coming in for particular criticism. ''There are too many rooms, each of which has a rental value, occupied by the staff, too many occupied by one person, and too many de luxe,'' lamented the commission.

Other themes emerged from the research; conservative governments are more likely to hold reviews and hold them just after winning office, while Labor uses them more sparingly, often after several years in charge.

Membership of reviews has been dominated by business people who nearly always discover dire fiscal circumstances, often followed by warnings of ''living beyond our means'', according to the library's report.

There were words of warning too, based on experience, for governments that bit off more than they could chew in the audit process. ''It would appear risky for governments to establish wide-ranging budget reviews if they do not, in fact, have the resolve to adopt at least some of the recommendations,'' the researchers wrote. It ''can lead to a sense of policy paralysis or a lack of direction on behalf of the government''.

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