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Verona Burgess: federal budget an olive branch — of sorts — for the public service

Close up photo of an olive branch with one single green olive, covered in snow. Shot during winter in Blenheim, Marlborough, South Island, New Zealand

The second Turnbull budget declares a moratorium of sorts on the Coalition’s war with the public service. Small government is out, or at least shelved for now and intervention, targeted regulation and nation-building are the new black.

The budget might even offer a chance for the public service to prove its worth to those ministers who still believe, in their hearts, that it is by nature bloated, stubborn and obstructive.

Australian government agencies will administer about $464.3 billion in expenses in 2017-18 and the budget shows that the government is reasonably satisfied with the size of the bureaucracy overall.

The expected total of civilian average staffing level positions for this financial year is now 167,248 (up slightly from the 167,155 predicted in last year’s budget). There will be a net cut of 184 jobs to bring staffing down to 167,064 in 2017-18, about 8% below the most recent peak in 2011-12, while this budget also claims savings of some $7.6 billion since 2013 through its various belt-tightening efforts.

As reported, Human Services will be the biggest loser with 1188 jobs to go and 250 outsourcing positions to be substituted. Let’s hope that is not about punishing staff who have consistently rejected the government’s wage bargaining offers.

The past few budgets have consistently underestimated the cost of getting rid of public servants and this one is no different. Last year it said it would spend $51 million on separations and redundancies this financial year – instead, it will actually have spent $145 million. But what’s $94 million between friends?

There are also a few new bodies – the Infrastructure and Projects Financing Agency, the National Disability Insurance Scheme Quality and Safeguards Commission and the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority (the latter being carved out of Finance).

With the next election expected well before July 1, 2019 (when half the Senate will turn over) the timeframe is narrow but much can still be achieved.

It will be all about doubling down on professionalism and finding solutions to the myriad very practical and unromantic problems involved in setting up solid foundations for the $25 billion worth of ‘nation-building’ infrastructure promises, not least the Brisbane-to-Melbourne rail, Snowy 2.0, the new Badgery’s Creek airport and more.

Skills-based recruitment will never be more important in the public service than at these preliminary stages, when deficient oversight of the early scoping studies and poor design and control of contracts could end up wasting millions if not billions of taxpayer dollars.

Ongoing difficulties with the National Broadband Network and the National Disability Insurance Scheme, both originally Labor flagship projects taken over by the Coalition, loom large.

The ghosts of stuff-ups in defence acquisitions such as the air warfare destroyers and, most recently, problems with the new landing helicopter docks, also suggest there is plenty of opportunity for mistakes as $200 billion worth of defence acquisitions begin to flow.

Then there’s the new requirement to waste time and money pandering to the pork-barrelling Barnaby Joyce obsession with dispersing departments and agencies to the regions, despite the fact that around 60% of the public service already works outside Canberra. Moving the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to Armidale has hardly been a raging success so far.

In contrast, the budget also reveals that the Australian Electoral Commission will reduce its presence in the Northern Territory to the tune of $6.8 million saved over four years.

Yet the public service still has internal cultural problems to deal with. The spirit of hatred and downward envy that appears to motivate sections of the community still has plenty of outlets in this budget, even if channelled more narrowly than before.

You might even say there are now 16 departments of state and two departments of hate. That is, if you’re a person who hates refugees, foreign labour, dole bludgers and anyone apart from yourself who gets income-support, you might look on the paramilitary Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the punitive Department of Human Services as your kind of departments.

Never mind that there are many really decent people working in both, doing the best they can with some difficult, ethically challenging and demoralising jobs. The overriding external perception is that they are far more about rigid gatekeeping and enforcement than customer service and facilitation. Haters can now also cheer on ScoMo for kicking the greedy banks.

But at least we’ve been spared the spectre of a Department of Homeland Security, which would have seen Immigration gobble up all the law-enforcement agencies.

Now roll on the next two weeks of Senate budget estimates committees when the opposition and crossbenchers get their chance to ferret through the fine print.

Author Bio

Verona Burgess

Verona Burgess is a former Government Business Editor and senior columnist for the Australian Financial Review. She has been writing about the Australian Public Service since 1990. A former Jefferson Fellow, she was also joint winner of the inaugural Richard Baker Senate prize and won a Walkley award with The Canberra Times for team coverage of the 2003 Canberra bushfires.