How good are Treasury officials?
Pretty damn good, if their pay is a useful indicator. Certainly much better than their colleagues at the Department of Home Affairs. But nowhere near as good as the wonks at the tiny Australian Office of Financial Management, who work out of the Treasury building.
The analysis below of existing wage agreements shows minimum salaries as of December 31, 2018. It confirms that new recruits stand to gain, or lose, up to tens of thousands of dollars each year compared with staff hired at the same level in other agencies.
It also shows that some public servants can win promotion to a higher-level job in a different workplace - a job that's more demanding and which requires greater experience - yet end up with a lower salary.
The Office of Financial Management's enterprise agreement is clearly the most generous in the bureaucracy. (Its job, by the way, is to ensure that the government can pay its bills.) For example, its executive level 2 officers earn at least $45,000 more than new Treasury EL2s, and about $76,000 more than whichever suckers accept an EL2 job at the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.
Yet even if we exclude the office's finance specialists from the charts above, the pay gaps between agencies remain vast. The difference in minimum salaries for an EL1, which is the largest cohort of APS staff in Canberra, is about $22,700. For APS level 6 officers, the second-largest cohort in this city, it's about $18,700.
These gaps aren't new: they began to widen more than two decades ago when the Keating and Howard governments decentralised wage bargaining, splitting a single pay negotiation into more than 100 separate negotiations.
Every government since has kept this devolved model in place, arguing it gives agencies the flexibility to craft a wage deal that best suits its workforce's unique needs.
How less pay suits anyone beats me. Why does an APS level 5 executive assistant at the Australian Government Solicitor earn almost $18,000 less than they would in the same job at the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority? After all, formal work-level standards exist to ensure that an APS5 in one workplace has a similar level of responsibility to an APS5 elsewhere.
A few public servants have argued to me that these pay disparities are justified and reflect the value of staff in different agencies. The Treasury, one said, rightly pays its employees more because the department recruits only the best.
Yet even if this were true of Treasury staff, the argument is nonsense.
The reason Department of Home Affairs staff are paid poorly has nothing to do with the value of their labour; it's because they struggled for years to get a new wage deal in place.
Similarly, the relatively poor salaries offered by the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies do not reflect the value of its scholars' work. Rather, the institute's low pay reflects its weak political, and hence budgetary, position. Put simply, cabinet ministers care less about this institute than other parts of the bureaucracy.
Most senior public servants know the devolved pay system is an utter mess with no benefits, yet are unable to voice that view; publicly criticising government policy is not their role.
Every now and then, however, someone points out that the emperor has no clothes.
Most recently, the team reviewing the APS, led by David Thodey, suggested the bureaucracy move towards "common pay".
Yet when journalists asked what this meant, Mr Thodey quelled much hope of a fix. "We never said there should be standardised pay," he said. "It's saying we're trying to move towards an environment that would have greater transparency and more common terms, because one of the problems we've got at the moment is there's so many of them out there."
We'll find out just what this means very soon, when Mr Thodey's panel delivers its findings to the government.
My tip: brace for very little change.