Eric Abetz's olive branch: public servants 'deserve more credit'

By Harley Dennett

November 28, 2014

The Commonwealth minister in charge of the latest public service cuts has acknowledged the difficulty of shrinking the APS in “tough times”, saying he is mindful that each forced redundancy is a fellow Australian and makes more difficult the workload of those that remain.

Speaking at the public sector’s awards night on Thursday, Employment Minister Eric Abetz asked those who survive the cull to not think of public service as a meal ticket, but an “exceptionally high calling”.

“As a government we do in fact notice the Australian public service and are highly appreciative of the fantastic job that you do especially at the moment in these exceptionally difficult financial circumstances,” he said. “If we keep borrowing money to pay interest on existing borrowings, I’ve got to say to you, times are tough.

“When I’m given the numbers on a regular basis by the long-suffering commissioner [of the public service, Stephen Sedgwick], I’m very mindful of the fact that they are not only numbers but each one of those represents a fellow Australian who hopefully some of them are natural attrition going into retirement, but I know a lot of them aren’t and may not necessarily be that excited to be leaving the Australian public service. Of course, as the numbers shrink, the tasks and the workload does become more difficult as well.”

On behalf of his ministerial colleagues, Abetz expressed thanks for what the Australian public service does, saying more could be done to honour that service.

“In the public service, there is not the recognition that I think is so richly deserved.”

“We in Australia don’t tend to celebrate achievement as much as we should, other than on the sporting field. What we ought to do is have that same sort of celebration for the public service, for our Rhodes scholars, for our scientists and for whoever else from all walks of life. In the public service, there is not the recognition that I think is so richly deserved,” he said.

“Don’t think of it just as a meal ticket or something that will allow you to pay the bills. Being involved in the public service is in fact an exceptionally high calling and it is genuinely making yourself available for the service of your nation, for the service of your state or territory.”

Abetz paid tribute to two senior figures of the APS retiring in December, Sedgwick and secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Dr Ian Watt.

Relaying an anecdote of an earlier time in Watt’s career, Abetz says the then budget speech drafter got noticed in one of the most unnoticeable jobs in the public service by putting a mistake in the Treasurer’s speech. Getting noticed, albeit for a mistake, set Watt on a path that eventually led to the highest position in the public service.

“In life we all do make mistakes from time to time, and when we do we just have to accept it and don’t let it undermine our self-confidence,” Abetz said.

“If someone like the secretary of PM&C can make a ‘little error’ like that …  and can still proceed because of your quality and your determination, that speaks volume for the acceptability of people in the public service making mistakes, but dealing with them and moving on. I think Dr Watt is a classic example of that.”

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