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Potential 'double whammy' of cuts to public service: expert

Date

Hamish Boland-Rudder

The public service has been warned not to be complacent in the lengthy lead-up to the election.

The public service has been warned not to be complacent in the lengthy lead-up to the election. Photo: Tanya Lake

The public service could be facing a “double whammy” of cuts, after the Opposition Leader and the Prime Minister both hinted at slashing spending during separate National Press Club addresses.

Liberal leader Tony Abbott on Thursday refused to make any guarantees about retaining public service jobs if he's elected as Prime Minister in September.

Mr Abbott said he has enormous respect for Australia's public servants and there will be no employment "blood bath".

Mr Abbott said he understands the government “can’t do anything on the ground” without the public service, but he can’t make guarantees about jobs.

“There certainly won’t be anything resembling the night of the long knives or a blood bath in Australian Public Service,” he said.

His comments follow Julia Gillard’s dual announcement of budget cuts and an election date during her National Press Club address on Wednesday.

'Double whammy' of cuts

Former consultant and senior public servant Terry Fewtrell said the public sector could be looking at two different types of spending cuts, with any cuts made in the next budget by the Labor government likely to be specific and policy directed.

He said possible cuts by Tony Abbott would probably seek “dramatic, root-and-branch” cuts to the public service.

“The things that will be done in the budget, and this is really taking Gillard at her word, they will be things that will drive manifest Labor values so I think they’re different types of things to what the Liberals want to do,” Mr Fewtrell said.

“Abbott is Howard all over again, and you’ve only got to look at what he already said – he’ll have an efficiency auditor a commission of audit like Howard had and, depending on the terms of reference that are given, you can imagine it will be very similar to what was the case back in ’96. The cuts that will come from that, in all likelihood, will be extreme and draconian.

“And they will be driven by the ideology of the Liberal party. What Gillard is foreshadowing are cuts to entitlements and programs that are driven by Labor values so, in a sense, the public service might get a double whammy.”

But Mr Fewtrell said having an election date made little difference to tough times for the public service, which had already been foreshadowed.

Public servants warned against complacency

Former senior public servant Stephen Bartos told ABC radio that almost eight months’ notice of an election did not necessarily mean almost eight months of job security for the Australian Public Service.

Mr Bartos said public servants could try to use the interim period to shore up their position within their department and make a good impression, but it was likely both the Opposition and even the government already had specific plans about making cuts.

“The public service shouldn’t feel at all complacent about this timetable that it’s going to shield them from cuts in the meantime – the government’s pretty clearly signalled that it wants some.”

APS able to 'plan ahead' with election notice

Mr Bartos said the longer-than-usual notice for the election was a positive for most public servants, as it allowed better planning and decision making with a definite deadline, and a clearer idea of possible political motives.

“You also know that if you’re asked to do something that might seem a little bit on the edge of what’s proper, for example, do some analysis of the effectiveness of policy in terms of its impact on different electorates … you know that if you’re asked to do that in August, it’s probably going to be for the election and you might want to say no,” Mr Bartos said.

“But if you’re asked to do it before the budget there might be a different reason for it, so you’ve got a better basis for decision making.”

He warned the public service the next few months could also present its own challenges, and said workers would need to be vigilant and advise carefully on what could be “dumb” policy moves made in desperation.

“We’ve seen in other jurisdictions with fixed terms that if a government feels it’s going to lose the election and it’s getting close to the end of its fixed term it can make some really flaky decisions,” he said.

“It is tricky to advise ministers that a particular course of action they’re proposing is absolutely dumb, its only merit is that it might get a headline for one morning but otherwise it’s terrible policy.

“The public service hasn’t been in that situation before, but I’m sure it’ll work its way through those things and, you never know, it may well be by that time of the year after budget’s behind us, things will be pretty much stable, and that’s what the public service will be hoping for.”

Mr Fewtrell said the deadline shouldn’t change the work that public servants do in the lead-up to the election, apart from ensuring any work was “as tidy as possible” both for the service and for any incoming government.

“The proper course of action for a public servant is to do the tasks and the jobs they’ve been given to do by their political masters at the time,” he said.

“Everybody has got a clear picture of what the timetable is, and therefore they can do whatever planning and thinking they need to do in a proper, considered way.

Mr Fewtrell said during an election the public service provided stability, regardless of the political situation.

“It’s wonderful we have a public sector that manages those transitions. This is one of the times when the nation ought to appreciate the value that the public service provides, because it is the continuity of the nation’s management, and that is an extremely valuable contribution that the public service makes whenever there is a change of government.”

The Community and Public Sector Union on Wednesday vowed to ramp up its campaign to protect public service jobs in the lead up to the September 14 election date.

CPSU national secretary Nadine Flood said any cuts to the APS would "seriously damage the capacity of the public service to deliver the support that millions of Australians depend on".

with Tegan Osborne

33 comments so far

  • Based on Mr Bartos' comments, it sounds like we need to elect senior PS members too.

    How extraordinary, saying no to ones boss with such finality. A terminal decision?

    Commenter
    Evanism
    Date and time
    January 31, 2013, 10:30AM
    • While the PS' role is to serve the Government of the day, and through that, the people; its role is to also provide independent advice on policy proposals and decisions. Remaning apolitical in that role can be difficult; Bartos' statement - when seen in that light - makes perfect sense.

      If PS officirs are asked to perform a task and it is clearly for the purposes of increasing the Government's chances in the election, then they should, by rights, refuse to carry out that task.

      This is why having an independent body to cost election promises and policies makes perfect sense; prevents Treasury from getting dragged into accusations of political favouratism and prevents potential distrust that a new incoming Government may have of it.

      That said, it doesn't help one particular party's cause that it continually rubbuishes the PS...

      Commenter
      That Guy
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 11:04AM
    • If I have my way these servants wont be safe, I am proposing to my party the Katter Australian Party, that most public servant roles be investigated for waste and inactions, and able to supply case evidences I have accumulated. Especially consumer protection policing bodies, tribunals and ombudsmen fobbing off many valid complaints in consultant style hype, therefore protecting wrong-doers. I am also proposing our party CONSIDERS a big revamp of the trade practices Act to protect consumers in modern day trading methods and protect businesses from monopolies. When a consumer is validly wronged, they are entitled for the law to be applied rather than be ignored, by not rectifying wrongs just feeds the wrongs to spread to more consumers. We fund these bodies to protect consumers but most seem to protect the wrongdoers totally contrary to their core role, and their case resolve list in consumers favor is so tiny that one can see they may as well not exist or can't possibly be doing their job properly. Also am calling for renewal or drastic change of the ACCC, These bodies seem to choose their own pet subjects to pursue, rarely do we see them pursue on behalf of average consumers or single cases. Nobody who fobs off consumers should have a secure job, however, I feel their upper management have been directed to tell investigators to fob-off as many cases as they can, maybe even get performance bonuses for such, who knows. Hence the need for investigation. I will play a role in this with great passion if my party adopts these matters.

      Commenter
      BRIAN
      Location
      Glenroy
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 12:40PM
    • As an ex-senior public servant at the Department of Finance and Administration in the late 1990s/2000s Mr Bartos certainly can attest to how to reduce staffing in the public service in Canberra. One would hope that the need for a second Treasury such as Finance has long gone by and we can get back to a budget surplus in Wyatt Roy MP's lifetime.

      However, the credibility of consultants seem to be angling for a razor gang job before or after the election and no matter what sides wins has to be questionable.

      Commenter
      Russ McD
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 10:45PM
  • I live with 1 senior PS, who just shows up..no real designation or tasks to perform as his management' has not yet found him a placement in the national financial org he works for. How would the CPSU like to respond to that ? I guess they see it as a 'win' for workers rights...right ? Whilst the rest of us have to justify every productive minute in private enterprise. Or how about the ABC with their 'hands-off' exclusion to scrutiny or performance, labelled as 'bullying' by the same CPSU. How about the ABC maintenence staff who sit around all day doing nothing all day because they dont want to attend training for the equipment modernisation ? I can name 5 of them right now. How about the numerous 'field-trips' the Fed PS's go on to accompany the Minister as 'support' staff, claiming TA, TOIL. FLEX and get paid loadings and FF points for air miles.
    The sooner the PS is a subcontracted workforce the better. Yar sure, some are harworking and diligent, but 18 of the 20 I know, do almost nothing ALL DAY. Well done CPSU..YOU are ther reason we are almost in recession.
    Its a rort and has to stop. see FB - NoMorePsBs.

    Commenter
    The Watcher
    Location
    www
    Date and time
    January 31, 2013, 10:58AM
    • I would suggest the watcher choose some more motivated friends as his seems rather lazy and not representational of the Federal PS. He mentions the person is a senior PS who has no work due to Management not allocating it, if he was senior he would be management and responsible for allocating, driving and delivering his own work. The watcher also mentions PS getting FF points for traveling, that was banned years ago, and even when they were acquired were not allowed to be used for personal gain. Ministers travel with few PS staff, and when they do it is usually senior PS who do not get TOIL or Flex. The Watcher believes he is an expert because he lives lives with a public servant, but has shown a distinct lack of understanding and made numerous incorrect
      assumptions based on some under performing lazy friends.

      Commenter
      undefined
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 11:44AM
    • Could not agree with you more, I work in Education in IT. In a large team we have 5 that just sit around and will not do anything. Get paid heaps and it’s a joke. If these where working in private area they would not last 3 weeks. Some who get into public service jobs just take it for a ride.

      Commenter
      Aggree
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 11:48AM
    • @The Watcher: we seem to know the same people.

      Commenter
      mfas
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 12:09PM
    • If they have nothing better to do, they should find and prosecute the bank criminal who stole from my account. Those "national financial institutions" should be the first ones lined up against the wall, because they are all both useless and expensive.

      Commenter
      enno
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 2:54PM
    • I have been a public servant on or off for about 14 years across multiple divisions. The comments above simply do not accurately reflect the reality of work in the public service. I work really hard as do pretty much everyone else I work with. I regularly give away hours as the amount of work I have to do is pretty intense and doing overtime is pretty common. I worked less hours when I was in the private sector.

      Cutting the public service hurts everyone.

      Commenter
      Medea
      Date and time
      January 31, 2013, 6:29PM

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