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Thursday, 1 November 2012
Page: 13066


Mr ZAPPIA (Makin) (11:49): In recent times Public Service bashing seems to have become commonplace among some politicians and media commentators. Public servants are considered easy targets and expendable by those who seem to have little appreciation of the role public servants play within our society. Those same people offer their one-sided opinions in the full knowledge that the public servants whom they are attacking cannot retaliate. Ironically, those that are often the first to criticise the Public Service are also the first to criticise poor service when government departments are inadequately staffed because of funding cuts. The reality is that we live in a society where governments deliver many of the mainstream and essential services that we rely on—for example, health, education, policing, environmental protection, housing, national security, social welfare, unemployment services and so on; the list is endless. They are services we rely on daily. Those services, however, are delivered by people whom we refer to as public servants. Again, there seems a strange contradiction in that on one hand the demand for government services continues to grow, while simultaneously we hear calls to cut public service numbers.

Of course there are always opportunities for improvement, to provide services more efficiently or to scale down services. However, to make sweeping, ill-informed statements portraying all of those people working within the public service in a demeaning way is totally unwarranted and irresponsible. The attacks are even more irresponsible when they come from governments and political parties, who are not only seen as community leaders but are expected to have a better understanding of the role of public servants. Yet that is what we are seeing from the conservative side of politics throughout Australia today.

The federal opposition leader believes there are 20,000 jobs too many in the Public Service. In Queensland, the Newman government has announced major cuts to government health programs and other government services, with about 14,000 jobs in the firing line. In New South Wales, the O'Farrell government has ripped $1.7 billion out of the state's education budget and, in Victoria, TAFE funding has been cut by $300 million. In South Australia, opposition leader Isobel Redmond has said that, if elected as Premier, she will cut 25,000 jobs from the South Australian public service. There is no consideration of the stress or the effects on morale such a statement causes to South Australia's state public servants and no consideration of the impact on service delivery that those cuts will have. For South Australia, 25,000 jobs is three per cent of the state's workforce so, presumably, unemployment would go up by three per cent. Under pressure, Ms Redmond has subsequently retracted the statement. Her retraction, however, was hardly reassuring, because Ms Redmond simply handballed the proposed cuts to an audit committee.

Given what the conservative governments are doing in the eastern states, it is clear that they all have a similar agenda. Of course, there are potential ways of making cuts without making any real savings. The most commonly used trick is to outsource public service jobs so that government employee numbers are reduced. However, what inevitably happens is that the cost to governments remain about the same, and sometimes actually increase, or service levels deteriorate. To add to the woes, we end up with services delivered by organisations that sometimes do not have the expertise or experience available through the public service.

There is another reason the public service is so often the target of attack from the conservative side of politics. Smart business operators see a business opportunity in services being transferred from government to the private sector, either through subcontracting out services or through direct sale of government instrumentalities, and they run campaigns about how governments are not well placed to deliver those services. When there is a fee for service provided, it may even be a further incentive for governments, because by not being responsible for the service governments can distance themselves from any price increases that may be coming. It is clever politics.

Public service cuts do hurt. They hurt the community, they hurt public servants and they hurt their families. Public servants around the country are understandably concerned about the cuts that they are seeing or that are proposed. I understand that governments have to work within their budgets and that, at times, difficult decisions have to be made. But to treat public servants as easy pickings when budgets need to be balanced shows a total lack of regard and respect for them by politicians who have probably never met them and probably never will. Our public servants deserve to be treated better than that, and their work needs to be valued.