Op-ed by Melissa Donnelly National Secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union.
Published 23 June 2021 in the Canberra Times.
Today is World Public Service Day, and over the last two years our public-sector workers have been there for us.
We are all tired of hearing terms like "now more than ever" and "the pandemic has shown us" or "unprecedented". But, the bushfires, drought and COVD-19 have truly demonstrated the critical work of public services, and without that work our communities would have faced greater risks and threats.
The facts are clear.
The ABC saved lives in the bushfires and has kept us informed throughout the pandemic. SBS has been ensuring all Australians have up-to-date information in their native tongue. The CSIRO did over a year's worth of work in two months exploring a coronavirus vaccine.
Services Australia launched a Herculean new payments program that helped millions of Australians suddenly out of work. The ATO stood up the JobKeeper program in a tight time frame, keeping small businesses' doors open and people in jobs.
The examples are endless. Unfortunately, there is one practical "thank you" missing.
Instead of recognising the contribution of public-sector workers, the government introduced a new workplace bargaining policy that drives low-wage outcomes for federal public sector workers, caps increases to the wage price index and means workers must vote on mystery pay deals, with unknown pay outcomes.
This health crisis has again proved what most Australians already know: to have a fair society we need a strong public sector.
And as we now start to look beyond the pandemic (vaccine rollout aside) there are opportunities in our recovery - opportunities to improve public services for the community while also creating secure jobs.
But not if the government continues to pursue ideological cuts, privatisation and outsourcing.
Since 2013 the Coalition has cut over 12,000 jobs under its staffing cap, moving to replace the workforce with multinational contractors and labour-hire arrangements that cost the taxpayer more, while paying less tax themselves.
In the most recent budget, the government finally acknowledged what APS employees have always known - that the APS-wide staffing cap is inherently flawed.
The cap has driven the use of labour-hire arrangements - insecure for individual workers, and expensive and ineffective for agencies. As a result, departments such as Veterans' Affairs have 40 per cent of staff on labour-hire arrangements, and more than 50 per cent in the claims-processing areas.
These workers are helping the same veterans, answering the same calls, processing the same claims as their APS colleagues, but with fewer rights, no job security and therefore greater turnover, while a middle-man pockets public money for essentially nothing.
For the veterans seeking assistance, it means each time they call they may be dealing with a new staff member, having to retell their entire story and why they need support.
CPSU research suggests that for the amount currently spent on Veterans' Affairs' labour-hire contracts, the department could transition all labour-hire workers to APS employment, and with the savings employ up to 200 more staff to assist with the backlogs.
While the recent budget took the first tentative steps in dialling back the reliance on labour-hire arrangements, more needs to be done across the whole of the APS to deal with the tens of thousands of insecure labour-hire workers. On top of this, the government has been trying to privatise core public services. First it was Medicare, now it's visa processing.
The government is again working with bidders to run Home Affairs' visa-processing facilities. This is the third time the department has tried to outsource the building of a new visa platform. The previous two - the 2006 Generic Visa Platform and the more recent privatisation project - were expensive failures.
The third sphere of government interference is the gutting of public-sector capacity by outsourcing in temporary personal services and ICT.
The 2017 ICT Procurement Taskforce found that one in three APS ICT workers are now contractors, and the 2015-16 ICT Trends report revealed that, on average, the cost of contractors is $213,906, nearly double the cost of an APS employee at $131,530.
More shocking is that, according to AusTender, since July 1, 2015 the total spend on "temporary personnel service" contracts was more than $7.7 billion. This doesn't even include all the labour hire and outsourcing contracts across the APS, as there is no standard categorisation, and therefore no transparency.
The government seems delighted to outsource essential jobs, privatise national security functions, and pay double for it - all while cutting secure public-service jobs and capping pay rises.
The government likes to talk the talk on public services being effective and efficient, but their policies so often drive outsourcing and privatisation, which time after time proves to be neither effective nor efficient.
Is anyone else scratching their head?
Handing out millions upon millions in public money to multinational, tax-avoiding labour-hire firms for work that could be done by the public service for half the cost does not make sense.
Undermining the capacity and strength of the very institutions and public services that got us through the last two years just does not make sense.
This World Public Service Day, let's commit to rebuilding the capacity of our essential public services and ensure they're run for the good of all, not the profit of a few.
A public sector with secure jobs and good pay, that supports communities no matter the postcode? That makes sense.