The opposition has taken up the idea of public service decentralisation as a vehicle for regional development, but gone further than the government with a promise of 300 permanent full-time Human Services jobs based in North Queensland.
Cairns would get 100 new jobs on the DHS payroll and 200 would go to Townsville under a Labor government, according to matching press statements on Friday, to boost each city’s role as a “service delivery and administration” hub while injecting as much as $72,000 per public servant into their respective local economies.
The announcement cuts across two bones of contention between the major parties: the Coalition government’s approach to public sector decentralisation, which was championed by Nationals in particular but achieved little success, and the use of labour-hire contractors in the public service, particularly in DHS contact centres.
On the campaign trail in Cairns, Bill Shorten said some citizens had received “shocking and unacceptable treatment” from the federal government’s main service delivery arm and promised to improve standards, but made a point of blaming the government rather than its current employees, who are some of the most unionised in the federal bureaucracy.
“I make no negative judgment about the existing staff at DHS,” Shorten said.
“They are true Trojans. They are doing a magnificent job. They are being asked to do more with less. The problem is we have a government that does not value looking after Australians that periodically need assistance. What we see is the casualisation of our government services. We see the use of contractors. We see the use of unfair contract arrangements undermining and cutting back the social safety net.”
In the press conference it was put to shadow minister for Human Services Ed Husic that about 1400 jobs were shed from the department under the last Labor government. He did not deny this but argued there had been more job losses, more roles given to contractors and a rise in complaints under the Coalition; the opposition’s press release claims the government has “cut and outsourced” over 1700 DHS roles since 2013. It has also overseen a big increase to the number of casual and non-ongoing roles with the agency.
Service standards in DHS call centres have slipped under both major parties over the past decade, with some phone lines averaging extraordinarily long waiting times. Broadly, both major parties pin their hopes on redirecting most of the traffic into self-service digital channels that work with minimal assistance, but this has proved a challenge for DHS.
If elected Husic promised the “lion’s share” of new service delivery roles would be in regional areas but explained the 300 positions in North Queensland would not appear all at once.
“They will be stepped out over the forward years, roughly the same amount each year,” he said.
“But we want to make sure that we get these things done right, and that we’ve also got to deal with a whole stack of the ‘where you put them, how you do it,’ and I don’t think that’s the type of thing that you leave to run in the middle of a press conference, but we’ll be making those calls over that period of time.”