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Union budget response: public sector austerity holding back everyone’s wages

The Commonwealth public sector workforce shrank over the past year in net terms, despite the last budget suggesting it would grow slightly.

In response to the budget, which shows public service and military wages are expected to grow by only 1.76% in the next four years, Community and Public Sector Union national secretary Nadine Flood argues the government should use public sector wages as a lever to stimulate income growth in the wider economy.

“It’s a slap in the face just after they cut the take-home pay of some workers in Home Affairs by thousands of dollars a year,” said Flood.

“The Government directly sets the pay for nearly 300,000 Australians around the country, yet they’ve only used that power as a brake on the entire economy.”

The new staffing budget for federal government agencies again suggests mild growth over the coming financial year. But it also shows the workforce actually contracted by 1081 employees, averaged over the last year, when the 2018-19 budget suggested it would expand by about 912.

Nothing ever goes to precisely to plan and yesterday’s early budget revises the average staffing level for the general government sector in this financial year, excluding the military, to 165,491.

The new resourcing paper suggests the government will put about 1272 more staff members on the payroll to end up with an ASL of 166,762 for 2019-20, but obviously, a lot could change in the next 12 months.

These net fluctuations are quite small in percentage terms and reflect the government’s policy of keeping the public sector workforce in a holding pattern – aiming for the 2006-07 level of 167,596 – but they are significant from the union’s perspective, especially when looking at individual agencies. While some public sector organisations grew, the CPSU focuses on those that shrunk.

The new numbers show the Australian Tax Office workforce decreased by about 777 employees over the past year, when the last budget suggested it would grow slightly. The CPSU points out the ATO will still be smaller than it was a year ago, even if yesterday’s estimate for 2019-20 turns out to be correct.

Flood said the government was only “pretending to be tough on multinational tax avoidance” and claiming to be providing additional resourcing to the agency while budgeting for a “smaller and weaker” Tax Office.

The union also notes the Department of Human Services’ ASL went down by 1053 since the last budget, although the last budget estimated it would decrease by 1280. The new budget aims to make up for that, cutting another 209 from the department’s ASL for the coming financial year.

In an election-focused response to an election-year budget, the CPSU also links the staffing cap to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, where the government has spent $1.6 billion less than planned.

Echoing widespread criticism of this aspect of the budget, this means the National Disability Insurance Agency “isn’t helping as many people as it should” in Flood’s view.

“The cap means fewer NDIA staff, which means fewer care plans so people aren’t getting the services they need, often services they were receiving prior to the NDIA,” she said.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.