Office worker, in tray, out tray, desk

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