Sizing up the public service – have workforce numbers actually grown under the Coalition?

By Melissa Coade

May 5, 2022

Josh Frydenberg
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. (File image, AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

During Wednesday’s debate at the National Press Club, treasurer Josh Frydenberg claimed the public sector workforce had grown in number under his government. How does this claim stack up in the harsh light of day?

The answer is no, as a matter of record for the Coalition government, with official statistics showing APS numbers are just under 7% less today than they were in June 2012 when Julia Gillard was the prime minister. 

APS numbers have grown in the short term, but only as a modest response to the needs of COVID-19 pandemic. For example, numbers in the Social Services portfolio dropped by more than 2,500 this year compared to last, and agencies in the Treasury portfolio will lose 765 APS this year as the government revises down its COVID response.

When Frydenberg handed down his latest budget for the Coalition in March, an additional 416 public servants were added to the overall headcount. But finance minister Simon Birmingham conceded at the time that the ‘moderate uplift’ in APS labour to respond to the pandemic would be set on a more ‘sustainable’ course. 

Of course, an analysis of overall APS workforce numbers is a blunt measure of assessing the public sector’s capability. The Mandarin’s recent review of where headcount would grow and diminish under the budget showed a reallocation of government funding for staff painted a more telling picture beyond the headline that 400 extra public servants would boost the workforce. 

For example, 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). This government investment decision comes at a cost to other agencies and portfolios. 

The four biggest government agencies Services Australia (21.4%), the Australian Taxation Office (13.0%), the Department of Defence (10.6%) and the Department of Home Affairs (8.6%) accounted for 53.6% (83,560 employees) of the APS workforce as at December 2021.

Official government sources also point to reasons such as ‘seasonal patterns, business and government requirements’ to explain fluctuations in APS headcount trends. 

Last year the biggest growth across agencies were seen across Health (934 extra staff, of which 633 were ongoing and 301 non-ongoing); the AEC (854 extra staff, of which 42 were ongoing and 812 were non-ongoing); the ABS (724 extra staff, of which 145 were ongoing and 579 were non-ongoing); and the NDIS (638 extra staff, of which an additional 930 ongoing staff were added and non-ongoing staff decreased by 292).

Machinery of government changes were also a driver of staff movements. In the 2021 calendar year, this affected 294 public servants who moved across to assist with work in Treasury, the National Recovery and Resilience Agency, and the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC).  

Painting a picture of the APS workforce by numbers

There were 155,796 people employed in the APS as of 31 December 2021. According to the APSC, 136, 284 of this group were ongoing employees, meaning 12.5% of the workforce was employed on a non-ongoing basis. The government employed more than 10,800 public servants for a specified term or task in this period and another 8,696 people worked as ‘casual’ employees.

In 2019, there were 150,474 people employed in the APS as of June 31. And a total of 132,101 of this group were ongoing employees, meaning just over 12% of the workforce were employed on a non-ongoing basis. 

The commission said a comparison between APS numbers as of 31 December 2021 and the same time in 2020 revealed a 4.8% increase. A total of 3.6% of the overall growth could be attributed to the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the first half of last year, the commission said.

“From 30 June 2021 to 31 December 2021, there was a further increase of 1,851 (1.2%) employees.  

“APS employee numbers have fallen by 6.9% from their peak of 167,339 in June 2012,” the commission said. 

A review of high-level APS numbers over the past 10 years shows the following:

Julia Gillard (2010-2013) — During Gillard’s tenure, APS numbers shrunk from 162,829 in 2010 to 162,574 in 2013. In 2012, APS levels were at their peak.

Kevin Rudd (2013) — During Rudd’s return to office as prime minister, APS numbers sat at 162,574.

Tony Abbott (2013-2015) — Abbott’s two-year turn as prime minister saw the APS headcount contract by 6.68% to 151,702.

Malcolm Turnbull (2015-2018) — On Turnbull’s watch, APS numbers dropped by a further 4,948 public servants (3.2%) to 146,754.

Scott Morrison (2018-present) — Morrison continued the contraction of the APS until the pandemic hit. In recent years the APS headcount has gone from 146,754 in 2018; 144,537 in 2019; 148,626 in 2020; and 155,796 in 2021.

Labor’s Katy Gallagher took a swipe at the treasurer for his claim public sector numbers had grown under a coalition government, opting for a longer view to compare actual figures between 2013 and 2021. 

“Facts matter,” Gallagher tweeted on Wednesday, tagging Frydenberg in her post.

“The Liberals have cut the APS, increased expensive outsourcing and reduced services to people who rely on them,” she said. 

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) told The Mandarin its monitoring of annual APS workforce data found a cut to 13,312 jobs since 2013. The hangover of these cuts was more outsourced and privatised work arrangements for the APS, union national secretary Melissa Donnelly said.

“[These] arrangements are more expensive for taxpayers, less efficient, worse for workers, and ultimately deliver lower quality public services… all while private corporations rake in eye-watering profits at taxpayers’ expense,” Donnelly said, adding the treasurer had lied about the size of the public service under the Coalition government.

“On top of his staffing lie, the treasurer has also claimed that the government is making sure the public service works ‘efficiently and effectively’. We know that the explosion in outsourcing and privatisation of public sector work that has occurred under the Coalition does the exact opposite.”



Temporary jobs ratio in Australian Public Service highest in 20 years

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