By Julian Bajkowski
Opposition leader Tony Abbott has sought hose down rising fears that between 20,000 and 30,000 federal public service jobs will ultimately be axed in a repeat of Howard-era mass public service sackings in Canberra, taking to national radio on the ABC to pledge that only 12,000 jobs will go.
Mr Abbott told ABC Radio’s AM program on Thursday morning that 12,000 federal public service jobs was the Coalition’s target and flatly denied that there was actually ‘real target’ of 20,000 jobs to be cut.
“Look, I am determined that while the public service will be somewhat trimmer, it will be at least as good at delivering services. That’s what people want,” Mr Abbott said.
“The public don’t want numbers of bureaucrats, they want good services, and that is what I am determined to ensure people get.”
The only problem is, especially in Canberra, that bureaucrats are people too.
Labor immediately pounced on comments by Mr Abbott on Wednesday that a Commission of Audit for an incoming Coalition government will put a ruler over the entire bureaucracy to find efficiencies and started running online attack ads using his comments.
One Labor attack ad uses a grab from a press conference where Mr Abbott responds to a question about whether the probe will be “open slather”.
“I am very happy to have the Commission of Audit go through the whole of the administration to tell us whether in their opinion they think things can be done better,” Mr Abbott said in response to a question put to him during a press confrence.
Pushed on whether there was a larger target, Mr Abbott later told ABC’s AM program “No its 12,000, we think we can deliver good services with 12,000 fewer by natural attrition. My real objective is to build a stronger economy.”
But Mr Abbott’s words on the proposed Commission of Audit were seized upon by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in his address to the National Press Club, although Mr Rudd steered clear of mentioning public service cuts in his main speech.
However he equated cuts following the last Commission of Audit at the beginning of the Howard government to 2.7 per cent of gross domestic product, or “$43.4 from the economy over the next two years.”
Labor Senator for the ACT, Kate Lundy was certainly not letting the issue of job cuts go unanswered and hit out at Mr Abbott’s comments over the scope of the Commission of Audit on Twitter, saying this meant Canberra was now in the firing line.
“When the Libs had a [Commission of Audit] in 1996 they cut over 30,000 [Australian Public Service] jobs,” Senator Lundy said.
Mr Abbott’s pledge to create a “trimmer” public service is an added headache for ACT Liberals candidate Zed Seselja, who now has the unenviable task of selling big job losses to his constituency.
Mr Seselja’s electoral chances are also complicated by bad blood in the ACT branch of the Liberals over the acrimonious way he snatched pre-selection from longstanding Liberal Senator Gary Humphries who was regarded as a strong defender of the public service behind closed doors during the Howard era, even to the detriment of his ascendancy in the party.
However Mr Seselja has said that he would oppose any moves to relocate larger government departments or agencies out of Canberra, especially the Department of Families, Housing Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.
The nightmare outcome for the Coalition in the ACT is that Mr Seselja could, after preferences, lose the Senate seat to high-profile Greens candidate Simon Sheikh who previously fronted social campaign group GetUp!.
It is understood that polling in the ACT is being especially closely watched because a Liberals Senate loss in the ACT could potentially contribute to an overtly hostile Senate even if the Coalition secures the House of Representatives with a solid majority.
Outside the battle over the Commission of Audit, the Community and Public Sector Union said that a 0.25 per cent increase in the maligned efficiency dividend by the Coalition would take the annual savings measure to 2.5 per cent, an increase the union estimates would cull another 6,250 jobs.
The CPSU is affiliated with Labor in the ACT, but temporarily withdrew campaign support from its members after Labor announced further cost cuts ahead of the election.
“Tony Abbott needs to come clean with the community. You can't cut 12,000 jobs without hurting services,” CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood said.
“These are real people doing real jobs."
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