Cheap abuse of our public service
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott seems to spend an awful lot of time in the small businesses of the Canberra region. It may even appear to some that he's posed for more photos in the butcheries, warehouses and workshops of Fyshwick and Queanbeyan than in those of his own electorate on Sydney's north shore. It's one of the dubious benefits of being located a convenient distance from Parliament.
Yet while Mr Abbott is happy to front the cameras on the premises of these businesses - making the usual glib complaints about tax burdens and red tape - he regularly does their owners untold damage. Every time he or shadow treasurer Joe Hockey dismisses the public service as little more than a wasteful cost, the ACT economy stutters.
Their words may merely be sound bites intended for voters in the contested electorates of western Sydney, south-east Queensland or suburban Adelaide. Yet they cause real harm in Canberra, undermining consumers' confidence, scuppering potential sales and delaying proposed investments. Recent reports from forecasters such as Macroeconomics and Deloitte Access Economics blame the ACT's softening markets in part on fears Mr Abbott will win office at the next election and the effect of this on local employment.
The memories of the late 1990s - when John Howard, in his first term as prime minister, retrenched almost 30,000 public servants - run deep for many Canberrans. Back then, the pain was felt not only by those staff who lost their jobs but by businesses across our city. Labor MP and former economics professor Andrew Leigh has trawled through the data from that period and compared it with national trends. He concludes that the cuts in 1996-97 alone slashed the price of the average home by $25,000 (a far greater amount then than it is now), raised the ACT's jobless rate by 1 percentage point and caused an extra 100 personal bankruptcies in this city.
Nonetheless, we know better than to expect sympathy from those outside Canberra. The archetype of the ineffectual public servant, who toils away at unnecessary work, is entrenched deeply in the thinking of uncomplicated Australians. Mr Abbott told this newspaper last month that while the Coalition would cut the federal bureaucracy's workforce, it was ''not talking about forced redundancies; we are talking about not replacing everyone who leaves''. Yet those softer remarks were made in the context of an ACT election campaign, in which Mr Abbott was trying to help his Canberra Liberal colleagues. When Mr Abbott and his shadow ministers are outside the ACT, they strike a different tone. Such as last week, when Mr Abbott told business leaders in Perth: ''Do we really need 20,000 more public servants in Canberra today than we had at the end of the Howard era? We don't, and the best way to get government spending down is by eliminating unnecessary programs, by ending duplication and overlap between different layers of government, and by pulling out of the over-regulation of organisations which are more than capable of running themselves.''
This might sound reasonable - if it were true. Alas, Mr Abbott's rhetoric about the bureaucracy is mostly nonsensical. In the five years since Labor won office, the combined Commonwealth workforce (which includes military personnel and government agencies' staff) increased by just over 10,000 full-time employees, not ''20,000 public servants'' as Mr Abbott says. The public service's growth has slowed significantly since the Coalition lost power; indeed, it is now shrinking. Also, the ratio of Commonwealth employees to the population has fallen markedly under the Gillard government. (In contrast, it rose every year that Mr Abbott was a cabinet minister.)
If Mr Abbott was genuinely concerned about waste, he would engage in the difficult work of identifying inefficiencies and ridding the bureaucracy of them; not setting an arbitrary target of 20,000 jobs and hoping, with little logic, that a hiring freeze will somehow leave him with the right balance of staff he needs to govern. It's safe to assume that, if the Coalition wins the coming election, Mr Abbott will be forced to allow so many exceptions to his recruitment ''freeze'' that it will end up as no such thing.
Similar criticisms can be squared at Labor, which has opted regularly to ramp up the efficiency dividend - effectively delegating tough decisions on spending to its senior public servants. Labor might not be shedding as many staff as Mr Abbott threatens to, but it has squeezed the public service tightly in the name of a surplus it probably won't achieve. Neither party is above abusing the public service in the hunt for political gain. Canberrans, and public servants in particular, deserve far more respect from the parliamentarians with whom they share a city.