Government declares days of ‘large scale economic stimulus’ are behind Australia, with budget redirection impacting APS numbers

By Melissa Coade

March 29, 2022

Some departments and agencies have lost staff. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and minister for finance Simon Birmingham. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

According to this year’s budget, the hallmarks of the modern public service have been collaboration, digital tools, and harnessing data to target service delivery. But as the federal government announced Australia was transitioning to the ‘next phase’ of its post-COVID fiscal strategy, some departments and agencies have lost staff. 

“While Australia’s economic performance through the COVID-19 pandemic has been the envy of the world, the achievements of these past three years defy the myth of Australia as a passively ‘lucky country’,” finance minister Simon Birmingham said in paper 4, the agency resourcing tome of this year’s budget. 

“The government’s pandemic-response measures have been targeted, strategic and proportionate, keeping businesses afloat and saving jobs, to ultimately enable economic and social conditions to normalise as our vaccination rates rose.”

Public sector staffing is being put ‘back onto sustainable terms’, with only a ‘moderate uplift’, as the government has outlined in this year’s budget, citing a strong rebound across sectors of the economy. This was also reflected in the type of work public servants were doing, Birmingham explained.

“The government considers that in some instances a temporary continuance of peak ASL resources is necessary to support measures which sustain Australia’s strong recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, bolster Australia’s national security, support jobs creation and improve essential services,” the senator said, noting that the extra staffing numbers were lower than projected in last year’s budget due to recruitment challenges in a competitive labour market.

“All decisions have been taken in line with the government’s policy to manage the size of government administration through careful assessment of any specific needs for additional staff.”

Overall, this year’s budget has lifted average staffing levels (ASL) across the general government sector by about 416 people but an analysis of where money is being given and taken away for the APS workforce across portfolios paints a more telling picture.

In the Social Services portfolio, Services Australia will have 2,719 fewer staff compared to 2021-22. Because the department gets an extra 144 workers, the overall staffing reduction for the portfolio this financial year is 2,574 job cuts. 

The government said it had decided to add more ASL resources than previously planned for Services Australia in order for the agency to continue to respond to flood impacts affecting Queensland and northern New South Wales. According to the budget paper, more resources were also being directed to the National Disability Insurance Agency to facilitate the timely delivery of services under the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Treasury has lost 765 APS staff as a combined total of losses incurred by the department and across its agencies (most of this loss, 732, are due to the ABS losing staff numbers for a non-Census year), with the Australian Security and Investment Commission (ASIC) losing 123 people. 

Meanwhile, the Departments of the Parliament have lost 26 staff this financial year, with 13 losses in the department of the senate, and four from the Parliamentary Budget Office. According to departmental expenses, this group will get $5 million less this year compared to the last financial year. 

So where are all the public service jobs going in 2022-23?

Unsurprisingly, given the spending announcements, this financial year Defence will get 4,288 new personnel across its agencies, Home Affairs numbers will be boosted by 807 APS staff, and Industry, Science and Resources will get 572 new extra employees (448 of those new public sector jobs at the CSIRO).

The finance minister said government security agencies needed more ASL resourcing to address the risk of ‘high-risk terrorist offenders’ and strengthen national defences against transnational, serious and organised crime. 

In his budget speech on Tuesday night, treasurer Josh Frydenberg said a 10-year defence capability plan worth more than $270 billion would pay for more than 100,000 jobs. He also unveiled $9.9 billion would flow to Australia’s defensive cyber capabilities over the next decade.

“Hobart Class Air Warfare Destroyers, built in South Australia, now in the water. Combat vehicles, maintained in Queensland, now in service. And F-35A Joint Strike Fighters with parts made in Western Sydney, now in the air,” Frydenberg said.

“In this budget, we continue to make record investments in our Navy, Army and Air Force. Expanding the size of our Defence workforce, at a cost of $38 billion [and] deepening strategic partnerships through agreements such as AUKUS and the Quad.”

The decision to make ASL increases in the Defence portfolio reflected workforce needs to deliver the Sovereign Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordnance Enterprise, the National Naval Shipbuilding Enterprise and the AUKUS trilateral security pact, the paper added. Growth in the department also reflected changes in need for certain skills as a definition of capacity-building. 

“The main longer-term structural change at a portfolio level will be the start of a build-up of Defence capacity, across both civilian and ADF workforce, reflective of the changes in the strategic risk environment,” Birmingham said.

“The government has announced a long-term plan to increase Defence’s total permanent workforce to over 101,000 by 2040, representing an increase of 18,500 over baseline growth already agreed in the 2020 Force Structure Plan.”

Prime Minister and Cabinet will get an extra 434 staff this year, with a big boost (101) to the National Indigenous Australians Agency, the department itself (50), the Australian Public Service Commission (42), and the Australian National Audit Office (41). 

The Attorney-General’s portfolio will be boosted by 225 people (mostly in the Commonwealth DPP, Australian Financial Security Authority, and Administrative Appeals Tribunal), while 145 new employees have been added to the agencies across the Agriculture, Water and the Environment portfolio (justified by a record investment in Antarctic science and to implement environmental protection framework reform), and 112 added to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. 

The Health portfolio will experience a bit of a shake-up, with job cuts in seven agencies (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australian Sports Foundation Ltd, Cancer Australia, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, National Blood Authority, National Health and Medical Research Council, and the National Mental Health Commission) and even in the department, whose staff numbers are set to decline by 381 personnel. 

The numbers in Health are made up however by a massive addition to the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, which has been announced will receive 371 new staff in the financial year. In terms of departmental spend forecast for this financial year, Health has $123 million less than the previous year.

“We are ensuring residential aged care facilities (RACFs) remain prepared for COVID-19 outbreaks, with $124.9 million to help meet the costs of COVID-19,” senator Birmingham said.

“This funding also extends the ‘ready to deploy’ surge workforce to ensure continuity of care for residents and intensive case management during outbreaks to the end of the year.”

This year’s budget for Health also included $50.4 million for 4,000 new training places for registered nurses in aged care facilities to become ‘authorised nurse immunisers’ who can dispense vaccines ‘in-house’ for illnesses residents may be more susceptible to, such as COVID-19, seasonal influenza or pneumococcal disease. 

“The government also continues to strengthen Australia’s aged care system, building on a total investment of $27.0 billion in 2021-22, including home and residential care, increasing to $30.1 billion in 2022-23,” Birmingham said.

For the Education, Skills and Employment portfolio, 18 new jobs were created but the departmental expense this financial year dropped by $39 million. 

This year the portfolio overseeing Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications will receive an extra 146 personnel.

Comparing this budget’s ASL figures with historical estimates, the last time Australia had more than the number of APS personnel today was just shy of a decade ago. In 2013-14, the ASL estimate across government agencies was 177,258 compared with this budget’s 173,558.

Senator Birmingham said agencies were required to inform the government about opportunities to reprioritise resources from other activities before requesting additional ASL.

“Where new activities cannot be undertaken within existing staffing resources, an assessment is made as to whether ASL or other delivery methods are the appropriate way to deliver policy outcomes,” he said.

“As has been evident over the challenging period of the COVID-19 pandemic, this framework is dynamic and facilitates ASL increases when they are appropriate to address specific pressures.”

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