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Opinion Piece

Australia should show more respect to its public servants

Originally published in the Guardian, 18th September 2013. 

We Australians love targeting Canberra, and the city’s public servants are the most obvious target of all. The exercise works for Abbott, who plans deep cuts in the sector.

A train loaded with iron ore from a BHP Biliton mine makes its way through West Australia's Pilbara region in this undated handout photograph obtained August 12, 2009. BHP Billiton Ltd, the world's largest miner, reported a 30 percent slide in annual profit excluding writedowns, its first fall in seven years, pummelled by a slump in metals prices and demand.  REUTERS/BHP Biliton/Handout (AUSTRALIA BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS :rel:d:bm:GF2E58C0HJ801
‘Public servants are dedicated to building important infrastructure such as roads, rail and ports – infrastructure we all use’. Photograph: Reuters

Once again, it looks like our public service is going to suffer after a federal election. After his 1996 victory, John Howard cut 30,000 public service jobs. In 2007, Kevin Rudd said he would take “a meat axe” to the public service. As a result, the ALP put Canberra in the firing line throughout their term. Most recently they increased the efficiency dividend to 2.25%, a move which looks likely to lead to a loss of 5,000 jobs.

This time around, the Coalition has promised 12,000 jobs will be cut from the sector, with 660 jobs to be lost per month in the first year of Abbott’s administration. On top of that, the Coalition will add anadditional 0.25% to the efficiency dividend, with potential other cuts on their way.

It’s amazing if you think about it. If the Coalition announced thousands of job losses in any other industry, it probably would have cost them the election. Whilst they based their campaign on adding two million jobs to the national economy, they have simultaneously proposed a policy that will potentially cost tens of thousands of jobs in the ACT.

But when we look at the way we treat the public service, it makes sense. Australians love targeting Canberra, and public servants are the best target of all. Rupert Murdoch provided the perfect example when hetweeted on the Sunday after the election:

Aust election public sick of public sector workers and phony welfare scroungers sucking life out of economy.

And that highlights the bigger issue here. Abbott’s plan, and the ALP’s previous moves, represent a deep lack of respect for what the sector does. And this lack of respect is something that hurts us all.

Let’s think hard about what the public service does for a minute. I used to work in the department of infrastructure and transport, where teams were dedicated to building important infrastructure such as roads, rail and ports – infrastructure we all use. Other teams were working on increasing safety on our roads and in our airports -– the kind of safety measures we all expect from the government.

Friends in the department of education are working to ensure our schools are well funded and others are enforcing proper regulation of education providers so students attending schools, TAFEs and universities get the best education possible. I have acquaintances who work in the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), providing us with the research data that we need to ensure our programs are efficient and effective. In the department of broadband and communications, people are working to maintain and improve our digital infrastructure – from switching us all over to digital TV to building the NBN.

The list goes on and on. Across the sector, public servants are working hard to provide services and programs designed to help all of us. These are the services that define who we are: a compassionate society that looks after everyone.

And yes, it costs money to hire people to do that job. But the services this money pays for are essential to the well-being of our community. They are the difference between whether we can all access healthcare and education or not. They are the difference between whether we can bounce back when we hit hard times or not. They can be the difference between having a clean environment and climate or not. I really want highly-skilled, highly-qualified and well-resourced people to do that job, and am willing to pay for them to do so.

That is the crux of the problem: these cuts are not about making the sector better at what they do, nor about improving the services they deliver. They are blind attacks designed to make a political point. And in doing so, we are attacking the ability of the government to provide the services we need.

It seems very likely to me that Abbott’s plan will result in a loss of services. A loss of 12,000 jobs, the increase in the efficiency dividend, and any attack on public service workers rights will mean increase workloads for those who stay around and in turn a downgrading of the services and programs that are important for all of us.

Public servants are not some slackers who are sucking the Australian economy dry. Anyone who knows them will know that the majority are hard working people delivering essential services to our community. It’s time we recognised that and worked to ensure they have the resources they need to do their job, rather than continue to use them as a political punching bag.


About Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.


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