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Public service may not be cut so deeply

Office workers.

Office workers. Photo: Erin Jonasson

Should we pity public servants in the wake of the election? I'd hold off on sympathy for now; it's too early to say what's about to happen to Canberra.

I'm inclined instead to pity a few of Tony Abbott's soon-to-be ministers. Because, if all goes to the apparent plan, at least a few of them will be forced to give up the power they just spent six years fighting for.

A little dissembling would be far easier than the alternative: asking a cabinet of ambitious ministers to downsize their own jobs. 

Let me explain. The Coalition says it will rely on attrition to cut 12,000 Australian Public Service jobs between now and September 2015.

It won't because it can't. It might have been possible in a ''business as usual'' environment but that won't describe the skint bureaucracy over the coming two years.

You see, from July next year, the Coalition will also impose Labor's 2.25 per cent ''efficiency dividend'' on the public service, as well as its extra 0.25 per cent dividend, as well as all the other cumulative savings Labor committed to in previous budgets (such as hundreds of millions of dollars of cuts to travel, printing, advertising and so on).

These cuts alone will force agencies to shed thousands of staff. But the Coalition has made it clear it won't ''double count''; these job losses must be in addition to the 12,000 from the hiring freeze.

Then, on top of this, the Abbott government will remove funding for other parts of the public service, such as for staff who work on climate change, the mining tax and so on.

And, finally, to ensure its target is impossible to achieve, the Coalition says it won't get rid of ''frontline'' staff (whoever they are) and it will boost military spending, which will see the Defence Department expand rather than shrink.

What will public servants do during an economy drive? They won't quit their jobs; fearful for their future, they'll stay put.

Public Service Commission data from the Howard government's first term shows this clearly.

After John Howard begun his cull in 1996, the bureaucracy's resignation rate dropped about 11 per cent and the retirement rate collapsed more than 60 per cent. And that was without a hiring freeze. Managers even seemed more reluctant to sack public servants: dismissals were down more than 80 per cent.

It makes sense: why leave a job when, if you hold on, you know you'll at least get a payout?

So Abbott can't rely on a recruitment freeze to achieve his austerity goals, because the public service's attrition rate is about to plummet, especially in this city.

Instead, he'll have two choices. He could retrench staff, a costly option that would see the promised savings evaporate.

Or he could back some of his and his frontbenchers' anti-federal rhetoric by handing over powers to the states and territories.

But is that likely? Seventeen years ago, Howard did what Abbott is about to do: he established a commission of audit to scrutinise government spending.

The prime focus of that commission, led by Professor Bob Officer, was on whether the Commonwealth did too much. ''Are particular activities best handled by government? If so, by which level of government?'' it asked.

It went on to advise the federal government  to transfer many of its health, education and family-services functions to the states, saying there was:

  • ''an increasingly blurred allocation of roles and responsibilities between levels of government'';
  • ''duplication and overlap of administration'';
  • ''higher costs because of lengthy consultations/negotiations and reporting between levels of government'';
  • ''avenues for cost-shifting between levels of government''.

If that sounds familiar, it's because Abbott and his finance spokesman, Andrew Robb, have been channelling the same message from opposition. As Abbott put it last year, his commission of audit will examine ''whether the federal Health Department really needs all 6000 of its current staff when the Commonwealth doesn't actually run a single hospital or nursing home, dispense a single prescription or provide a single medical service; whether the federal Education Department really needs all 5000 of its current staff when the Commonwealth doesn't run a single school'', and so on.

In the coming months, Abbott's commission will no doubt echo Officer's findings from the 1990s; it will advise the federal government to withdraw from a range of activities.

The question will be whether Abbott and his cabinet have the stomach for it.

Howard didn't. Sure, he retrenched tens of thousands of staff, but he couldn't bring himself to also let go of the power. Instead, the Howard government became the most centrist in living memory – and, within a handful of years, had re-employed all the staff it paid to leave and some more besides.

Abbott will face the same challenge: having won office, is he really prepared to say ''let's leave governing to the states''? That's hardly the approach he took when he was health minister. Nor are his new ministers for health, education, environment, agriculture et al likely to willingly become ''ministers for yielding power''. Yet that's the only way Abbott will achieve significant structural savings in the federal bureaucracy.

Perhaps, just quietly, in a few years' time, voters will have forgotten the government's pledge to shed 12,000 staff. Or perhaps it can measure the job ''losses'' in an easier way: for example, by claiming all the jobs gone since a year ago, when the bureaucracy first began to shrink.

A little dissembling would be far easier than the alternative: asking a cabinet of ambitious ministers to downsize their own jobs.

74 comments so far

  • Refugees from the Canberra public service will flee to western Sydney. Will they fit in? Can the infrastructure there cope? Will they be taking the jobs of established western Sydneysiders? I'm worried and concerned about this.

    Commenter
    Mic
    Location
    S. Korea
    Date and time
    September 09, 2013, 8:37AM
    • Is there any room for them there Mic? What with all the boat people clogging the M4....

      Commenter
      That Guy
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      September 09, 2013, 10:52AM
    • Let us reduce the number of senators and MPs by 100. That will save 50 million dollars per year at the least. And ban lawyers and accountants from becoming MPs and senators

      Commenter
      Mike
      Date and time
      September 09, 2013, 1:32PM
    • Mic do not worry about public servants from Canberra 'flooding in' as 'refugees' to western Sydney. Overall, most Canberra people are well educated, open minded, not bigoted and not bogans. Canberra people, like me, would think of western Sydney as the last place on earth to move, i.e. uncultured, backward & full of bogans. So Mic relax.

      Commenter
      Shane F
      Date and time
      September 09, 2013, 1:52PM
    • Shane ... you may have noticed my location is South Korea. Not western Sydney. My comment was a sarcastic quip not a serious statement.

      I was based in Canberra for a number of years before I came here. However, your comments about the people of western Sydney just go to show why such people won't cry too much about smug Canberra APS types having to deal with cuts to their industry.

      Commenter
      Mic
      Location
      S. Korea
      Date and time
      September 09, 2013, 2:53PM
    • Mic, the people of Western Sydney wouldn't cry over Canberra either now or in the past; so what's your point? Most of the people who live there are bogan types with 1/2 a brain; that's why they voted Liberal. As for public servants, you might like to know that I worked for the Department of Health in Canberra; and yes, for the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). Yes, the PBS, a government agency that ensures that all Australians get to have safe, effective and cheap medicines to stay alive and healthy. But, let's not get the likes of Murdoch and Abbott get in the way of branding all public servants a waste and useless. Enjoy South Korea, at least there you have a job.

      Commenter
      Shane F
      Date and time
      September 09, 2013, 5:13PM
    • That's a great idea Mike. Let's ban lawyers, people who know about law from making laws. And let's ban accountants, people who know about budgets from helping frame a budget. While we are at, let's ban teachers from teaching and doctors from medicine.

      Commenter
      w ch
      Date and time
      September 09, 2013, 6:31PM
    • tele 12 you just blew yourself away you cant find current figures because the commonwealth public servants who should supply the figures are away on some sort of bulldust leave, maybe a light fitting fell on them?

      Commenter
      brinken
      Date and time
      September 09, 2013, 8:35PM
  • What a load of nonsense, have a look at Queensland, 14,000 gone with much screaming but not one front line service in trouble, and compared to commonwealth public servants they were real hard workers. Number all the public servants and get rid of all the odd numbers and you wont even notice the difference.

    Commenter
    brinken
    Date and time
    September 09, 2013, 8:40AM
    • until you need your dole cheque.

      Commenter
      WotTha?????
      Date and time
      September 09, 2013, 8:58AM

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