Now is the time to invest in, not cut, public sector jobs

First published in the Canberra Times

Over the last six months while Australians have grappled with the consequences of the pandemic, the public sector has been working tirelessly to triage and respond.

The public sector has delivered for the community through this crisis, whether it is the ATO helping small business keep their doors open and their employees paid. Or Services Australia staff talking to the throngs of people queuing outside every Centrelink office in the country.

This key work is one of the reasons why it is so astonishing that public sectors jobs continue to be cut by this government. While CSIRO scientists work overtime to try and prepare a vaccine in this pandemic, they are watching their colleagues lose their jobs.

Even months after the initial shock of the pandemic, its impact and the consequential social and economic challenges continue to loom large.

We all want to see our community rebuild strongly and with more resilience. But we must do this in a way that sees more job security, a higher skilled and higher waged workforce and with a greater focus on self-sufficiency in key economic areas.

The current job market is bleak and according to the recent OECD Employment Outlook 2020 that unemployment is projected to reach a "record high level by end 2020". We need urgent job growth to hold our economy up and we need to be focusing on areas that will support our social and economic rebuild for the long term.

As history has shown us, the public sector is going to be key to doing this successfully. The private sector will come back more quickly if there is stronger, better resourced public service there to facilitate that reconstruction.

Our communities will be safer and fairer if strong support to families and businesses underpins our rebuilding strategy. But instead in recent weeks we have seen a series of cuts to key government agencies, notably the CSIRO, ABC, and national cultural institutions with the likelihood of further cuts in other areas on the horizon.

As we face the most significant challenges of our generation - the question becomes what should government do?

Direct support to business and individuals through programs like JobKeeper and JobSeeker is crucial to the short-term response - we must not only maintain this level of support but also extend to groups of workers and businesses cut out. Governments can also directly employ people in areas that will drive long term economic and social benefit. And they can put those jobs in the communities that need them the most, and target groups like women and younger people who have been hardest hit by the economic impacts of this pandemic.

We have all seen the exceptional work of the CSIRO during the pandemic, but the government has cut 619 jobs over the last year alone. In fact, since the election of the Coalition government in 2013 CSIRO staff numbers have been cut by 18 per cent.

Ironically at the same time the Morrison government has shifted policy on university fees, looking to increase STEM students. If Australia is to become a technology superpower, we need to be increasing job opportunities and career paths for STEM graduates, not cutting them.

The most recent cuts are to the CSIRO energy team, including key scientists, engineers, and researchers. At a time when business is looking to the government for leadership and certainty over the future of our energy needs, they are more concerned with cutting jobs.

The ABC has delivered through all major crises of this year, providing in some cases lifesaving information throughout the droughts, fires and now a health pandemic. The ABC has also proved to be a saving grace of this crisis, for me Bluey and ABC education has helped educate and keep my little ones occupied while I work from home.

But since 2014 the ABC has cut over 1100 jobs, due to continued budget cuts by the Morrison government. And the latest cuts of over 250 staff are not related to COVID-19, and no matter how cute the Minister tries to be with his words, the budget is clear, they are a direct result of the $84 million funding freeze to the ABC.

The National Gallery of Australia plays a critical role in collecting, restoring, and exhibiting Australia's most significant art. And in times of economic and societal hardship this mandate is more important than ever. But they too have been hit by staff cuts in recent weeks.

The government can seek to go down the path of austerity and cuts, or they can embrace the lessons of other post-depression recoveries and invest in the public sector and national building projects.

In fact, over the last decade our national cultural institutions, like the NGA, have struggled for funding. Added to this is the ongoing pressure of the efficiency dividend, a forced yearly saving that every agency must find. As a result, over 30 jobs are to be stripped from the gallery this year, on the back over 2050 job cuts to other cultural instructions since 2008.

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on media and arts industries, we need the ABC and our national cultural institutions now more than ever. Cutting jobs now is utter madness.

Just this week we have also seen 60 positions cut in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Cutting jobs from DFAT is not in our economic or national interest. This pandemic has shone a light on the essential work of departments likes this. Our members have been working hard to bring Australians home from across the globe, as well as continue our important trade and diplomatic work.

These is no doubt that cutting jobs like these will have a significant impact of the Ddepartment's role and ability to push our national interests. Frankly given the increasing global challenges we face regionally and economically; we need to be increasing our soft power through departments such as DFAT.

A good government would be investing in more jobs to support Australia's economic and industry recovery. These cuts are the tip of the iceberg and they are not one-off decisions. Recent data shows that the level of APS staffing is at its lowest levels in 15 years with 21,000 jobs cut since 2013.

In the next few months, the government has an opportunity to shape the way our community rebuilds. On October 6 when the Treasurer stands up to deliver the delayed Commonwealth budget, we will know whether they are going to pursue an austerity agenda or have the courage to imagine something better.

The government can seek to go down the path of austerity and cuts, or they can embrace the lessons of other post-depression recoveries and invest in the public sector and national building projects.

A good government would be investing in the public sector to simulate growth and meet the unprecedented demand for government services.

We urge Mr Morrison to focus on increased investment in more jobs in essential public services in the regions. Creating more frontline roles in agencies such as Services Australia, the National Disability Insurance Agency, the Australian Taxation Office will ensure quick access to services and ensure these towns can rebuild.

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