For those on the left, the Coalition's actions speak louder than the Prime Minister's words

By Stephen Easton

August 27, 2019

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Federal Labor members and the public sector union both agreed with parts of the Prime Minister’s speech to his public service troops but argued the Coalition’s actions since 2013 speak louder than Scott Morrison’s words.

Responses to the speech, taken together, reinforce the sense that there is a broad consensus about what a good public service looks like, or at least many areas of general agreement. For those on the left side of the situation, it not what he said, so much as the gap between the rhetoric and the reality that was the main bone of contention.

The shadow minister for the public service, ACT senator Katy Gallagher, said she agreed entirely that departments were bound to faithfully serve the executive government of the day but pointed out their ability to deliver and meet expectations depended to some extent on resourcing.

After years of austerity, small-government policies and ballooning use of outsourcing and expensive consulting firms to fill the gaps, she suggested Morrison’s words had a somewhat hollow ring.

“I think policies that this government have put in place have challenged the public service here, whether it be the wages, the staffing cap, the efficiency dividend, the contracting out, the privatisation of some services there,” Gallagher said in a radio interview.

“They’re all conscious policy decisions which have, I think, weakened the public service. So, I think the Prime Minister’s finger-pointing and wagging and saying it’s, you know, ‘You deliver for us’ — that’s fair enough if they’ve got the capability and the resources and the leadership, frankly, to do that.”

She said the PM was asking the APS to work harder and faster while maintaining policies that directly hamstring its ability to do that.

Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers was given a free kick in a doorstop interview after Morrison’s footy-themed speech, which doubled as a political message to the general public.

“Do you think it’s a bit hypocritical for them to demand more from the public service at the same time as they have got consultants charging $16,000 a day to do consulting work?” a journalist asked him, referring to a full rate quoted by McKinsey recently.

The firm reportedly knocked two-thirds off this eye-watering price to win the job of helping Martin Hoffman guide the transition from the Department of Human Services of today to the Services Australia of tomorrow.

Naturally, Chalmers felt this question hit the nail on the head.

“We have had six years under this Liberal government of hollowing out of the public service at the same time as they spend billions and billions of dollars on very expensive contractors and consultants and labour hire,” the shadow treasurer said.

“The problem here is when Scott Morrison sees the public service, he sees another opportunity for conflict, not collaboration. When he deals with the good people of the Australian Public Service, he sees them as something that needs to be tamed, not something that needs to be tapped.”

At the Community and Public Sector Union, there was a similar tone. The union welcomed the focus on collaboration and high quality digital service delivery that is arranged around the needs of citizens, but said these ideas were “at odds” with the government’s actions.

“We welcome the focus on services and delivering for Australians, and our members in the APS will want to make this happen — for many it’s why they joined the public service,” said national secretary Nadine Flood, who will soon step down from her role for health reasons.

Commenting on McKinsey’s $848,000 contract to work with Hoffman on the Services Australia taskforce, Flood told it could have covered a team of about 10 public servants that would bring more expertise to bear.

Labor MP Julian Hill, deputy chair of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit, accepts consultants can play a valuable role in the public sector but offered a similar view to the same outlet: “This is exactly the kind of project that should be led by some of the best and brightest next-generation leaders, taken outside of their day-to-day and tasked with thinking and redesigning, supported by external expertise where needed.”

Flood says CPSU members are on board with Morrison’s priorities like successful digital service delivery, creating jobs, growing the economy and providing better services. She is pretty sure they are happy to put “the needs of ordinary Australians” ahead of professional corporate lobbyists, as the PM asked.

But she said Morrison’s desire for “good advice, good services, and enforcement of rules like those that protect us from predatory banks” would be undermined by his party’s ideological predilection for privatisation, outsourcing, job cuts and small government.

The outgoing union boss pointed to the government’s focus on border security while it paid Australian Border Force officers “the same dollar amounts they earned in 2013” as well as delays in setting up NDIS support plans, the ongoing angst caused by the harsh robodebt system, and the agricultural impact of pests slipping through quarantine.

These, said Flood, were all caused by the government’s policy of keeping a tight grip on the size of the APS workforce.

“You can’t have it both ways; fewer staff means less work gets done.”

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