More public service cuts will harm Australia and the Government itself
By Nadine Flood, CPSU National Secretary.
They say silence is golden, but there's been something strange and a tad unsettling about how little the Turnbull government has said before this year's federal budget. Treasurer Scott Morrison and the government in general have said much less about the national accounts than they normally would.
That silence hasn't exactly been reassuring for the public servants who keep the wheels of government turning. This government has repeatedly used them as a political football while also making harsh and short-sighted cuts: 18,000 jobs slashed and up to another 4500 to be ripped out in this budget if the government maintains its hard-line cuts.
The Treasurer has touched on debt, wages growth and housing affordability ahead of the Federal budget while Labor has its own ideas on getting back to surplus.
But trying to kick a football that you've sucked the air out of hasn't worked out so well for the government. In the past year, there have been many reminders of the damage their cuts have caused: 36 million unanswered phone calls to Medicare, Centrelink and the Child Support Agency, the robo-debt crisis, the census debacle, major IT problems at the Tax Office, more cuts to CSIRO and ABC, and the list goes on.
That list is bad enough. But unless the government uses this budget to begin a concerted and long-term effort to repair the damage it's caused, the problems will only worsen. Ordinary Australians will bear the brunt through shoddy services and more. Even a small increase in the so-called "efficiency" dividend, a bizarre euphemism for what amounts to arbitrary cuts, would have a disastrous effect given how under-resourced key agencies are already.
There are far more logical and sensible targets for the Treasurer to identify savings, starting with the astronomical amounts spent by the government on contractors and highly paid consultants. There's a startling lack of transparency around most of these arrangements and, in many cases, that money could be far better spent on directly staffing essential services.
There also remains plenty of low-hanging fruit to bolster the budget in the area of tax. The government's tried to talk the talk on clamping down, but loopholes allowing tax avoidance are rife for those rich enough to access them, with the very rich and 600 large companies paying little or no tax at all. It seems the government won't lift a finger to collect these billions of dollars, but will move heaven and earth to chase a pensioner for $200 through its robo-debt program.
Morrison is blasting more holes in revenue, wasting billions of dollars on company tax cuts that strong evidence says will do nothing for jobs or economic growth. Yet, with a straight face, he'll likely say the budget bottom line requires cuts to the services and support the public relies on.
We have a better idea. An idea that is fair. Make the largest corporations and the very rich start paying their way. Rein in the rorts, including capping spending on contractors and consultants.
The urgent need for these changes in underlined by the crisis in the Department of Human Services. Australians need and deserve far better than the shoddy Centrelink and Medicare service standards resulting from short-sighted cuts. They don't need the terrible and ongoing human cost of robo-debt.
A main cause for this dysfunction is the 5000 permanent jobs the government has slashed from the department. We've offered them a simple and practical plan to return the department to an acceptable standard by converting existing casual jobs into permanent, trained staff. That would be a great start in providing the resources and the know-how to turn things around.
The Tax Office is another agency is desperate need of resources to do its job properly. The government's cuts to the agency that ensures everyone contributes fairly are either dangerously stupid or worse. Either way, it's a scandal. If the government is serious about tax avoidance, it must restore many of the 4500 Tax Office staff its scrapped.
One recent development from the government that we've watched with mixed emotions is the Nationals' push for decentralisation. We've fought regional job losses and long advocated for the importance of public service jobs in regional communities. Thousands of regional jobs have been cut under this government: more than 1000 in CSIRO, Tax Office jobs gone from 28 regional locations, and so on. We've also seen regional Department of Human Services centres lose hundreds of permanent jobs – like Traralgon, which now has more than 400 casual staff.
If the government is ready to undo some of their own cuts to regional jobs, that's a big plus for communities reeling from shoddy services and high unemployment. Instead, we see the Turnbull government launch into scarily bad policy: uprooting the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to Armidale at great cost, losing specialist regulatory scientists along the way. The Senate inquiry has made clear the damage to the pesticides authority.
Relocating existing jobs or functions, whether they are based in Canberra or elsewhere, may make sense in some cases but, generally, it will be a very expensive way to create no new jobs. It's not hard to suggest a better option for regional communities: create jobs in agencies like the Department of Human Services that already have a regional footprint and service pressures. That lifts net employment, is far cheaper, provides new jobs for people in regional communities and could improve struggling services.
Let's hope the government puts ordinary Australians first with this budget, rather than shooting itself in the foot with another round of counter-productive public sector cuts.
Nadine Flood is national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union.