National

Tony Abbott says steep cuts to public service unlikely, as recruitment firm forecasts brighter future

Prime Minister Tony Abbott says the federal bureaucracy is unlikely to face further, steep budget cuts in May.

Tony Abbott at Parliament House on Wednesday.
Tony Abbott at Parliament House on Wednesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

His comment follows last week's announcement that his government had already shed most of the public service jobs it said it would remove – more than two years before it had planned.

Mr Abbott told a press conference on Wednesday the coming budget would be "much less exciting" than last year's, which contained a series of radical policy changes and spending cuts.

On the public service, he said: "I don't think anyone should expect major changes, because there have been some significant downsizings already.

"You might remember that the former government went into the election accusing us of planning to take an axe to the public service and, when we got into office, we discovered that Labor had an unannounced 14,500 redundancies.

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"Most of them have gone ahead, there's been a few others in other areas, and we will continue to run an efficient and effective public service with no more and no less people than we need to do a good job."

But he did not rule out extra cuts on top of those already announced over the past 18 months.

Meanwhile, a national recruitment firm says the government job market is improving, albeit mostly for workers who are willing to accept temporary contracts.

Adecco's Employment and Talent Report 2015 predicts the public sector workforce – Commonwealth, state and local – will expand by 5.5 per cent over the next three years.

"Permanent recruitment at the federal level still remains tight as the government's preference is to use contractors and temps," the report says. "The government prefers the flexibility that temps offer."

An Adecco spokeswoman said Commonwealth agencies were reluctant or unable to take on full-time permanent staff, due to restraints on recruitment, but were willing to hire contractors. "Given the general budget status, this trend is likely to continue for a few more years at least."

She said that while the ACT's total workforce shrank slightly last year, its unemployment rate was still relatively low, at below 5 per cent, and had fallen over the past six months.

The federal bureaucracy shrank by almost 11,000 staff in 2014 alone – the deepest yearly cut since John Howard's first term as prime minister.

However, Employment Minister Eric Abetz offered some hope to job-seekers last week, saying he would review the strict hiring restrictions he put in place after the Coalition won office in 2013.

He said the government was nearing its target of removing 16,500 full-time-equivalent jobs from the Australian Public Service, well ahead of the scheduled date of June 2017.

The bureaucracy lost about 15,500 staff between mid-2012, when its size peaked, and the end of last year. 

The Coalition blames most of the job losses on the previous Labor government, saying its economy drives had left the bureaucracy with the need to shed 14,500 staff.

However, shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh said Labor had not "hidden" any job cuts.

"There was no 'secret plan'. During Labor's time in office, public service jobs increased in line with population," Dr Leigh said.

"The Liberals need to stop blaming everyone else for their cuts and broken promises."