Lean times as newly-minted treasurers ‘collapsing government’

By David Donaldson

Monday April 3, 2017

The government’s waterwise public housing project will be expanded by another five years.
The government’s waterwise public housing project will be expanded by another five years. (Taras Vyshnya/Adobe)

When budgets go into deficit, the public service is often a government’s first port of call for extracting savings. Such is the case in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, both of which are looking at receiving less GST money than in previous years.

WA’s new government has announced it will cut down on its multitude of public agencies as the state struggles to cope with a significant post-mining boom revenue shortfall.

The current system is financially unsustainable, says Treasurer Ben Wyatt, explaining his concerningly-worded plan to ‘collapse’ government.

“Without pre-empting anything, yes of course there will be savings if you are collapsing government into a smaller number of agencies.

“Whilst that is a more important part of what we are trying to achieve, we are also want to achieve more user-friendly government to West Australians.”

WA has 29 major government departments — far more than other jurisdictions. Queensland has 20, South Australia 17, the NT 13, New South Wales and Tasmania 10 each, and Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory seven.

Apart from looking neater, it’s not certain that having fewer departments makes a significant difference to costs. Victoria’s recent experience shows super-departments put a premium on collaboration between departmental heads.

WA Labor promised during the election campaign to hold a review to find $750 million in savings over four years from the public sector. The government aims to cut the number of agencies by one fifth.

“The government is currently in the process of drawing up the terms of reference for the Service Priority Review which will commence within weeks,” Wyatt states.

He’s also making noise about senior public servants’ pay, saying some top bureaucrats’ salaries are “disconnected with reality”.

There are about 30 WA public servants who earn more than the premier’s $355,000, reports the West Australian.

And yet WA often struggles to fill high-profile public sector jobs, suggesting the going rates perhaps aren’t good enough to convince potential recruits to move across from the private sector or the eastern states.

The state government is also dealing with the fallout of a toxic workplace culture at the Department of the Environment, with the public sector commissioner removing departmental boss Jason Banks from the role, reports PerthNow.

The Northern Territory is enduring a similar deficit problem to WA, having seen its GST entitlement recently cut. The Gunner government is planning to shave off $150 million from its public service spend over the next two years.

Treasurer Nicole Manison is trying to reassure public servants everything will be okay. “Nobody is getting sacked and we are not going to see frontline service delivery compromised,” she says.

But the Community and Public Sector Union thinks this could mean 1500 job losses over the next 24 months.

The government has also suggested capping pay rises at 2.5% when enterprise bargaining agreements are renegotiated.

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