Criticising the public service is no longer a vote winner

By Chris Johnson

May 23, 2022

voting line
It should have been obvious to Morrison that this was not the election to criticise the public sector. (AAP Image/Luis Ascui)

Australians have overwhelmingly rejected a coal-toting, disaster holidaying, blame-shifting prime minister, and public servants emphatically let it be known that they’re tired of being election fodder. 

‘Public servants in Canberra’ are often used, particularly by the conservatives, during election campaigns in a bid to win votes. The Coalition has long been prepared to criticise the bureaucracy and promise slashes to public sector funding during election campaigns.

The thinking is that the rest of the country couldn’t care less about ‘fat cats in Canberra’ and pandering to such a sentiment will go well at the ballot box. After all, the Coalition isn’t going to pick up too many seats from the progressive Canberra vote.

So, giving public servants a kick is a vote winner, yes?

That tactic might have worked for John Howard and Tony Abbott. It did work for them, in fact. 

But Scott Morrison’s venture down a similar path during this election was folly.

There are a number of critical things Morrison and his advisers didn’t factor into this strategy.

The first is that we live in vastly different times to those of Howard and Abbott. The nation has undergone a dramatic and traumatic transition over recent years – pretty much during Morrison’s entire term in office.

It has been abundantly clear to most Australians that the public sector got the nation through these crises.

Morrison was holidaying in Hawaii while Australia was burning. But public servants (states and federal) stepped up.

The Coalition government was slow to act on COVID vaccinations. But public servants stepped up.

And while Morrison was wont to fight with the states during the height of the pandemic, public servants stepped up and got on with delivering for Australia.

So it should have been obvious to Morrison that this was not the election to criticise the public sector.

It was especially unwise to blast public servants while also boasting how his government had guided the nation through the pandemic. 

Secondly, criticising public servants in relation to the outrageous sports rorts scandal was never going to wash with the voting public.

The pork-barrelling rorts only came about because the Morrison government ignored advice and recommendations from the public service – and everyone knows that. There was a whole enquiry into the scandal that concluded the government went outside of the proper process that had been correctly used by the public sector.

When Morrison answered questions on the campaign trail about the sports rorts scandal, he kept stating that his government – not some public servant in Canberra – knew what was best for local communities.

In repeating this refrain, Morrison was only confirming that he was the one to blame for such a large scale abuse of taxpayers’ money. Not public servants.

Thirdly, promising to slash public service funding and jobs as a means to pay for election promises was a pathetic ruse the electorate easily saw through.

Reducing public sector funding naturally translates into fewer services and tougher access to them for all Australians. 

These are not the times to tell Australians they will be getting less from the public services they so much rely on.

Talking about taxpayers’ money, Labor was smart to bring the public service into the election campaign by promising to scrutinise the amount of money going to consultants, contracts, and labour-hire.

The Coalition could only see fit to counter that by 1) criticising public servants and 2) advertising directly to consultants that it was actually their jobs that were under threat. None of that was smart on Morrison’s part.

Another consideration the Coalition didn’t factor into its ‘blame the public service’ strategy is that far more Australian Public Servants live outside of the Australian Capital Territory these days than they have in elections past.

The criticism of federal public servants is no longer only heard and harshly felt in Canberra. Voting public servants around Australia reacted to Morrison’s criticisms – including state and territory public servants who were also affronted by such disrespect of a government’s workforce.

There were many important factors at play during this federal election campaign. Climate change, respect for women, equality, Indigenous inclusion, the economy, foreign affairs and diplomacy just to mention a few.

Morrison didn’t perform well against any of those measures and it is evident now that his fate was likely decided some time ago.

But there is one thing that should also now be clear. 

A self-inflicted wound during an election campaign can be acquired when you are trying to wound the public service. 


Election 2022: Add seven new secretaries and a couple of senior agency heads?

About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The essential resource for effective
public sector professionals