By Julian Bajkowski
The union representing federal public servants has cautioned the Abbott government against instigating a Queensland-style “slash and burn” program of cuts through its National Commission of Audit announced this week.
Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) National Secretary, Nadine Flood, said that although the new government “clearly has a mandate to conduct a Commission of Audit” this did not mean Mr Abbott would be justified in undertaking mass sackings or going above the reduction of 12,000 positions it outlined during the election campaign.
So far the Coalition’s pledge to prune public sector numbers has largely been predicated on the assumption that it will be able to make up the numbers through natural attrition.
However many managers in agencies likely to be targeted privately concede a combination of forced and voluntary redundancies will be needed in order to achieve the 12,000 figure.
The CPSU now clearly fears that the Commission of Audit, whose recommendations will feed into the next Federal Budget in May 2014, will be sorely tempted to increase the scope of personnel reductions.
“If the Commission of Audit produces deeper cuts, that goes beyond their mandate,” Ms Flood said.
“The Commission of Audit process should not be used as a cover to pursue an ideological agenda of cuts, privatisation and outsourcing.”
Ms Flood said that the short timeframe “risks a quick and dirty shopping list of cuts that hit jobs and services communities rely on.”
That worry has been compounded by what Treasurer Joe Hockey said were very broad terms of reference that would look into the activities, performance and efficiency of government activities and service delivery.
In Canberra, the big public service reductions of the late 1990s and some of their unintended consequences are well and truly seared into the memories of those who lived through them.
During the Howard era the pursuit of an agenda of “whole-of-government” technology outsourcing was a major part of efforts to reduce the public service headcount by around 30,000.
Scores of public sector technology positions were sent to multinational outsourcers like Electronic Data Systems (since acquired by Hewlett Packard), IBM and Computer Sciences Corporation in contracts that devolved technology strategy to corporate service providers.
However successive Howard government ministers later candidly admitted the outsourcing experiment had not delivered the savings anticipated and resulted in such big loss of corporate memory that it created a supplier lock-in scenario that took more than a decade to break.
Ironically, many of the private outsourcers who took on outsourced government staff were then saddled with the unwanted novelty of a unionised workforce prepared to take industrial action over pay and conditions.
This time around, the CPSU has wasted little time in reminding the public of some of the previous difficulties of outsourcing, including degraded services.
“The community wants government to provide high quality and effective services,” Msa Flood said.
“That’s not the same thing as cutting jobs, defunding services and handing out lucrative service delivery contracts to a handful of multinational corporations.”
The union has also taken a swipe at the idea that the size of the public service is a big contributor to the Budget deficit.
“Our public services aren’t driving debt,” said Ms Flood.
“In fact they’ve already delivered billions in savings. The biggest growth in government spending is on health and infrastructure. Slashing public services won’t fix that.”
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