This is a public service announcement

After the success of the recent guest post by my mum, Kay, she’s contributed again with this post about public service cuts. Enjoy!

Why is it that conservative political parties feel so comfortable attacking the public service? We are seeing public servants sacked or threatened in Queensland, NSW and Victoria. The federal Coalition and the SA Liberals are promising cuts if they get into office – Isobel Redmond even suggesting that a quarter of the state’s public servants could go – though she later backed away from this. (No doubt someone in her party reminded her you tell people that after the election, not before.)

I think this is more than just a knee jerk reaction, and it reflects a conservative view about limiting the role of government that is quite scary.

It’s true that conservative administrations attack the public service because they can. When they want to cut expenditure (rightly or wrongly), their own employees are the easiest target. They tell the electorate that of course they are not cutting the front line staff who deliver services to the public. It’s just those wastes of space in the back room – you know, the ones that run the systems that support the front line staff so they can get on with their work.

They usually feel safe in doing this because lots of Australians love to hate public servants. Not the teachers and nurses and police, but the paper pushers, the bean counters, the generators of red tape. Everyone has a rude public servant story. The concern felt for bank staff, or miners or vehicle builders who lose their jobs isn’t extended to public servants.

However there can be an electoral backlash – as appears to be the case in Queensland – if it seems that front line services will be affected. It is also true that the savings from getting rid of public servants are often illusory, as outsourced functions are expensive and often unsatisfactory. The commonwealth public service has grown under Labor at least in part because they turned some of the contract staff the Liberals had employed into salaried public servants, having almost certainly made the calculation it was cheaper that way.

But there are actually more fundamental reasons why conservatives don’t mind cutting the public service. They don’t want the state to do lots of the things that the public service currently does. Some of these things they think private enterprise should do. Others they don’t want done at all.

Getting things done by private enterprise comes in two different forms. The first is the extreme version of user pays. Consider the Baillieu government’s plans to cut TAFE funding and therefore TAFE jobs. Don’t we need people with the sort of training you get at TAFE, like trades apprenticeships, and technical training of all types? Yes, but there are now private providers who do that sort of thing. They are more expensive than TAFE, but that’s not the government’s problem. They are passing the cost back to the customer. Can’t afford it? Live in the country where there are no private providers? Tough luck. This is called taking personal responsibility. (See what Mitt Romney says about this.)

The second is the contracting out model. Both Liberal and Labor governments already use this model, for example out-sourcing significant functions like running prisons and immigration detention centres. In Britain, they are taking this much further, contracting out whole chunks of government activity – such as children’s services. In Devon, Virgin Care (as in Virgin airlines) and Serco (as in Adelaide busses) competed for a contract to run services for children and families at risk. Neither has experience in the area. And naturally they expect to make a profit. The services are still free at the point of contact, so profits have to come from somewhere else. The conservative theory is of course that private enterprise must be more efficient than a government-run one; what this usually means is fewer staff and less accountability. Are the Liberals planning to follow the lead of the British Conservative Party should they win government?

Though the Liberal Party is not telling us where they would make cuts to the public service, they are starting to talk about a revamped federalism, handing responsibility for some functions such as health and environmental matters back to the states. This at a time when states are themselves cutting their public services; who will take on these extra tasks? How will they be paid? The states – even the Liberal ones – will want extra money to take on extra responsibilities. Who knows where that will come from.  A rise in the GST, as is being urged by the NSW Liberal government? And how will differences between the willingness and capacity of the states to administer these areas be dealt with? This is looking very like an attempt to curtail what government actually does.

And then there are the things that conservative governments just don’t want to know about. The Liberals aren’t telling us much about what they will cut, but Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey says “The Department of Climate Change would be very high up the list for close scrutiny.” No surprises there. Since climate change is a hoax, we don’t need anyone to do anything in that area. But wait. What about the Liberals’ direct action policy to reduce carbon emissions? Won’t that need someone to administer it? Whoops. Worry about that later. Then there’s all that regulation – the red tape they are going to do away with; this presumably means they will abdicate oversight in various areas where they think private enterprise should have free reign. Other as yet unnamed programs will also go, though we aren’t being told the criteria to be applied. A further reduction of state responsibility.

None of what I’ve said is meant to suggest that public service can avoid scrutiny. It ought to be as efficient and effective as possible. Programs that don’t work should be scrapped, even if this means job losses. But what we need – from both sides of politics – is some explanation of their view of the role of the state, and what resources they need to sustain this. What services should governments provide? How equitable should they be? At what cost? What can private enterprise do better than the public service? What risks are associated with private provision? What areas should never be left to the market?

All these questions arise from cutting the public service. Liberals, state and federal, really need to tell us how they view them, and what they think the role of government should be.

Dr Kay Rollison


  1. There is a war on government throughout the West right now. The goal is to delegitimize and weaken government itself. Government is all that stands between exploitive corporations and the people who own and control them. The goal is, apparently, to turn the world into the kind of Latin American fiefdoms. Any government that resists by, for example, taking control of its natural assets–like oil–is immediately attacked. Well-paid public servants are not easily corrupted, so must be intimidated and eliminated,

  2. Not to mention that mowing down as many public servants as possible will also reduce funding to the Labor Party in the form of the support they receive from public service unions. This nation had it right when almost all of our essential services were publicly owned, but the mantra “private = good, public = bad” is so well ingrained in the minds of our politicians, that they accept it without question.

    In fact, it’s worse than that! Over the past 30 years I’ve watched the sad decline of what was once an excellent public education system. Those from both major parties have been guilty of unfounded criticisms of the public system. The result? Parents who really care about their children’s educations have frequently taken flight to the private system. This in turn impoverishes the public system as the more able move to private schools.

    Starving public schools of decent funding allows politicians to point to greater failures in the public system, and so on the downward spiral goes. In one sense though, encouraging parents to send their children to non-government schools is consistent with the “user pays” philosophy.

    Parents have been stampeded into having to pay more for a service that used to be just as good but far less expensive. And the Howard government in particular poured enormous resources into new non-government (often Christian) schools, so helping to ensure that the educational outcomes for children in these schools are often superior to those for the state school just up the road. A good example is provided in the town where I live. The state school children are taught largely in tin “dog boxes”, while the children 300 metres away in a Christian school spend their days in beautiful new brick buildings. There is something fundamentally wrong with a system like this. All children are entitled to be educated under the best possible conditions.

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