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Tuesday, 28 February 2012
Page: 1105

Senator HUMPHRIES (Australian Capital Territory) (20:13): I want to contribute to the Senate's adjournment debate tonight by raising an issue which affects a large number of hard-working and dedicated public servants, in this city particularly. In the distractions which have been provided by the government in the course of this week it might have been easy to overlook issues of this kind but they are very important and I suspect that the end of this story is very far from us at this point in time.

I am referring, of course, to the future of public servants and the way in which government—small G—will be dealing with those public servants and their futures in the coming years.

Senator Polley interjecting

Senator HUMPHRIES: Believe me, Senator Polley, I will have plenty to say that you can respond to. I am very happy to have your views on what I have to say. Before the election in 2007 the Labor opposition was very quick to reassure public servants that they would be safe under a Labor government. Senator Lundy said:

The overall impact on jobs in Canberra will be insignificant under a Labor Government as Labor will be just rearranging priorities …

What reassuring words they are. At the time the then leader of the Labor Party, one Mr Kevin Rudd, talked about taking a meataxe to the Public Service, but other signals from other members of the government were somewhat more reassuring. In November 2007 a Labor government was elected.

Moving forward to 2010, the government, seeking re-election, again reassured the people of the ACT and public servants in particular that their jobs were safe under a Labor government. They had to do this because during the intervening three years the government, despite its promise to leave the efficiency dividend untouched, had in fact increased it from 1¼ to 3¼ per cent over a period of 12 months. They gave assurances that people's jobs were 'secure' under a Labor government. In April 2011 with the weight of the government's excessive spending beginning to bear down on Australia's financial system and its budgetary arrangements, we found the first cracks began appearing. The efficiency dividend was increased from 1¼ per cent to 1½ per cent. Would this have an impact on jobs in the Public Service? Not according to the member for Fraser, who said:

This is a modest change. The efficiency dividend has been in place for a long time and I'm confident that it shouldn't lead to job losses.

In the mid-year economic financial statement late last year, the government further broke its promises by increasing the efficiency dividend from 1½ per cent to four per cent, again in breach of its commitments made at the previous election. The untruth of what was going to follow was again perpetuated. Labor members repeated the assertion that there would not be job cuts under this mounting trimming policy of the Labor government. Within a few days of the announcement of the increase of the efficiency dividend, the Department of Health and Ageing put out a call to employees to accept voluntary redundancies. They were taking them from anywhere in the department; they needed redundancies and they needed them fast. Agencies began to scramble to deal with what was obviously an enormous burden coming down onto the Public Service.

I indicated that I would take the following questions to the most recent round of Senate estimates hearings. What is the effect of this increase in the efficiency dividend? What will it mean particularly in terms of jobs? Could the commitment made by the local Labor members to the people of the ACT that their jobs would be safe—notwithstanding the broken promises with respect to the efficiency dividend—be a promise they could keep? The lessons of that questioning of departments was salutary. I could not get to every committee and every agency, but everywhere I went, every agency I asked—with only one exception—was prepared to confirm that job losses were very much in the offing. The Australian Crime Commission outlined its burden from the increased efficiency dividend: $2.2 million approximately for each of this coming financial year and the out years. With 67 per cent of resources in that agency tied up in staffing, the Chief Executive, Mr Lawler, said:

… the reality is that for the commission … there have been very significant cuts to supplier budgets, already to the tune of in excess of 50 per cent against some line items. This leaves us in a position where, in all probability, depending on how the budget falls, there will be staffing reductions, yes.

The Australian Federal Police detailed how almost $100 million would have to be found from its budget over the coming four financial years. Commissioner Negus said:

Yes, there will be staff reductions. It is a matter of trying to limit those on the front line of the organisation … but there will be some staff losses accordingly …

The Director of Public Prosecutions said:

The staffing establishment is reducing by natural attrition.

   …   …   …

To account for this measure and to account for a restrictive budgetary environment generally, I can see that we will have to continue doing that.

The Human Rights Commission was quite plaintive in their comments about how hard the increased efficiency dividend would impact on their operations. The Hon. Catherine Branson said:

My expectation is that it will result in both some staffing losses and in some program work having to be dropped.

The Department of Parliamentary Services, a department not far from the hearts of this chamber, made very clear through its acting head, Mr Kenny:

Yes, it is around 60 per cent, so it would be difficult to absorb all of that within the non-staff side of things.

It is the clearest statement that you can have that there will have to be job cuts. Ms Leonard from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner said:

We will be looking at all our options there and attempting to manage that through attrition.

Senator BOYCE: But it will mean staff reductions, a reduction in staff numbers, at least?

Ms Leonard: Yes.

The Australian Rail Track Corporation repeated the same claim, and so it went on and on for every agency.

We were told there would be no job losses under this increased efficiency dividend and almost every agency said that it had to happen. With agencies having variously 50 per cent to 80 per cent of their costs tied up in staff and with several years of increased efficiency dividends having already been dealt with—things like travel, consultancies and stationery requirements already having been dealt with—and the hollow logs raided, it is not surprising that today those agencies are saying, 'We cannot make these cuts without losing jobs.' I am not going to be a hypocrite and pretend that job losses are not in the offing under whichever party wins the next federal election. My party has made it quite clear that we consider the excessive and wasteful spending of this government to be unsustainable and we consider the balancing of the budget to be the highest priority for Australians. In particular we want to do something about the billions of dollars which Australians are spending every year simply servicing debt that this government has run up. For those reasons, we will attack the cost of government, and that will have implications for the size of the Public Service. But the difference between this coalition and the Labor government that now sits on the government benches is that we went to the last election saying—honestly but to our detriment—that we would lose Public Service positions. We even gave a figure for how many we expected to lose under the implementation of our balanced budget policies. We said that and we took a hit from that in terms of our vote in seats like the ACT and Eden-Monaro, but we stood by our approach that we should be honest and up-front with the Australian people.

The Australian Labor Party did not take the same approach. It said: 'You can trust us. Your jobs are safe under us. Public servants, come home to the Labor Party. You'll be all right.' And today their promises, like so many other promises made by this government in so many areas, have turned out to be nothing more than shallow, insincere statements. The same charade presents itself for the coming election, but the record will show that this government cannot be trusted on such questions.