Australians rarely have much sympathy for public servants. But as I outline in this piece for the Canberra Times, they're real people and are facing real challenges because of the Abbott Government's public service cuts.
Public service recruitment freeze keeps Canberra locked in uncertainty, Canberra Times, 19 January
At one of my regular mobile offices in Gungahlin, I met a young couple – let’s call them Jess and Dan. Jess struck me as the kind of person employers are always crying out for: bright, well-spoken, professional, passionate about her work.
Like a third of all Canberrans, Jess works for a federal government department. She has three degrees and has volunteered overseas, as well as having years of experience in the public service which she gained by working on short-term contracts. She’s obviously seen as a great asset to her current agency, because in October last year her bosses ruled her eligible for a permanent position.
Unfortunately for Jess, that news came on the same day that the Abbott Government declared a total hiring freeze across the public service. Federal public servants are always amongst the first to be sacrificed when Liberal governments are looking to make savings, and the current Government has proven itself no exception. Having said they would axe 12,000 jobs, the Abbott Government is cutting 16,500 positions from the public service over the next few years. The Government has put a hiring freeze in place as a way to get to that target.
We all know what this kind of freeze means in practice. Government agencies still need people to administer new projects, cope with overflow work and cover those on leave. So non-permanent staff get offered six or 12 month contracts instead of ongoing positions. They work from month to month not knowing whether their contracts will be renewed, or if they’ll be able to find another one when it’s not.
Nationally, around 10 per cent of public servants are currently working under these uncertain conditions. Jess and Dan came to speak with me because that insecurity is taking a heavy toll on her family life. She’d like to have a baby, but can’t be sure she’ll qualify for maternity leave or be able to find another contract role when she’s ready to come back to work.
Being a contract worker gives Jess fewer workplace rights, and makes her more vulnerable to discrimination. As she put it to me: ‘I just don’t have the confidence that I can sport a seven-month belly and negotiate an extension of contract.’ So for now, Jess and Dan are putting off starting a family until she can find a job which offers more certainty.
I’m hearing more and more stories like Jess’s around Canberra these days.
People tell me about taking redundancies they never wanted simply because they knew that it was jump or be pushed. I hear from young, enthusiastic graduates who despair of ever finding a way into the public service, and older workers sweating over who will hire them if they’re forced out.
I hear from small business owners saying people aren’t spending like they used to, and families who are putting off planning a holiday or fixing the car because they’re just not sure what next year will bring.
The Abbott Government’s drive to shrink the public service is covering Canberra in a cloud of uncertainty, and it is hurting our community.
One in 11 Canberra public servants have already lost their jobs. That’s just over 7,200 people in the past year alone. As a result, Canberra’s unemployment rate has spiked up to 5.4 per cent. That’s the highest it has been since the early years of the Howard Government – not coincidentally, the last Liberal government which saw the public service as a political punching bag.
Canberra jobs are going for no good reason other than pork-barrelling. Over 350 Canberra staff have already been sacked from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, but it was announced during the recent Victorian election campaign that Tony Abbott had promised to bring 250 new Bureau of Statistics jobs to Geelong.
The Australian Tax Office has sent 3,000 people out the door in the past year and has over 6,200 desks sitting empty at sites across Australia, but Joe Hockey was recently up on the Central Coast promising millions of dollars and 300 jobs for a new office there.
Public servants should not be pawns for the Liberal Party’s political ends.
Public servants are real people. They have families and fears about the future. And right now they are being hurt by a government which seems to believe they don’t matter just because they live and work in this much-maligned place called Canberra.
People like Jess do matter. And when the Government treats the public service as a source of endless savings or a pork-barrel to be dipped into in times of political strife, people like Jess get hurt.
The last word should go to Jess, who wrote to me: ‘I want to make this very clear. The interim recruitment freeze is the only thing stopping me from planning for a family. The Liberals’ philosophy is grounded in individualism: the power of the individual, and the merit of hard work in the pursuit of excellence. The flaw in this logic is that no matter how hard women strive, no matter how smart or what levels of excellence they achieve, there are still societal barriers preventing many women from achieving equity. Because I am a woman, I am feeling the human cost of the Coalition’s policy.’