An Unhealthy Policy

My op-ed in the Canberra Times points out that since Tony Abbott was Health Minister, the federal Health Department has grown more slowly than the Australian population. Yet he now claims not to know what it does, and is threatening savage cuts.
Liberals' unhealthy dose of purging threatens, Canberra Times, 19 June 2013

Recently, I was chatting to a public servant who works at the federal Department of Health and Ageing – working on ways of reducing smoking, encouraging better nutrition, and decreasing obesity rates.

The conversation turned to this year’s election, and what it meant for our jobs. As a politician, I know that every three years I’m up for a job interview with a 130,000 person panel. But it turned out that this person felt much the same. They’re concerned that their job turns on the election result.

Having done countless mobile offices and community forums, I know that many Canberra public servants feel just the same. They’ve heard Joe Hockey say “the public service here in Canberra has to be reduced by 12,000 over the first two years as a starting point”. When Chris Uhlmann on 7.30 asked Mr Hockey whether he in fact intends to cut 20,000 public servants, Mr Hockey confirmed “we’ve already said that.” Some of his colleagues are more contemptuous still, with Western Australian MP Don Randall describing public servants as those who ‘feed on others’.

But public servants who work for the Health Department have a special reason to be worried, because the Liberals have made the department a special target. In his budget reply speech this year, Tony Abbott said “The objective will be to reduce and end, as far as possible, the waste, duplication and second guessing between different levels of government that has resulted, for instance, in the Commonwealth employing 6,000 health bureaucrats even though it doesn’t run a single hospital.”

This statement is daft on so many levels. First, according to the December 2012 APS employment snapshot, the Health Department had 5040 employees. Second, the Department’s staffing numbers have barely increased since the Coalition was last in office. The same data source shows that the department had 4802 employees in June 2007. From June 2007 to December 2012, the Australian population grew by 9 percent, and the number of staff in the Health Department grew by 5 percent.

It gets worse. The Minister for Health from 2003 to 2007 was none other than Tony Abbott. When it suits him, Mr Abbott is happy to boast of the expertise that this period as minister gave him, calling it a “solid record of achievement.” Yet when it suits him, Mr Abbott is happy to feign complete ignorance of what the Health Department does.

At a personal level, I find this willingness to use public servants as political playthings pretty shocking. In the four years that Tony Abbott spent as their minister, Health Department officials worked late nights and weekends, spent time away from their families, and did their darndest to implement his policies. Yet when it suits his political purposes, Mr Abbott is happy to pretend that none of this ever happened.

Politics is a rough game, but public servants should not be pawns in it. In case the Liberals need reminding, federal public servants in the Health Department have achieved a lot over recent years. They have designed a Dental Reform Package that will make it as easy for 3.4 million young Australians to see a dentist as it is to see a GP. They have crafted a mental health package delivering additional services and a greater focus on prevention and early intervention. They have worked to close the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. And they have written Australia’s world-first plain tobacco packaging rules, which will help reduce smoking rates.

The Liberals’ treatment of the Health Department is of a piece with a larger pattern of behaviour towards public servants. Still smarting from Treasury finding an $11 billion hole in their costings at the 2010 election, Shadow Finance Minister Andrew Robb has said of budget numbers: “My assumption is that Finance and Treasury will not engage in what are clearly the sorts of fiddles that we have seen take place in this budget to create the prospect of future surpluses.” This is a none-too-veiled threat: give us the numbers we want, or heads will roll if we win office.

The impact of public service job cuts on the Canberra economy would extend beyond the 1 in 4 workers who work for the federal public service. As the experience of 1997-98 shows, swingeing job cuts would drive up unemployment and bankruptcy rates, and drive down house prices. Acknowledging this, Mr Hockey recently quipped “There is a golden rule for real estate in Canberra – you buy Liberal and you sell Labor.” Is there any other context where a federal politician would be content to joke about how their job-shedding policies will bring down house prices?

Federal public servants have faithfully served both sides of federal politics. Going back to Menzies, there is a strong tradition in the Liberal Party of respecting the role of an apolitical public service, and encouraging critical advice. It’s a pity that Menzies’ heirs today seem to wish that the public service was flaccid and fearful rather than frank and fearless.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and his website is www.andrewleigh.com.

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