25k to go from SA public service? Redmond isn't sure
South Australian opposition leader Isobel Redmond stumbled badly on proposed cuts to the public service. It gave Labor all the ammunition it needs, writes Tom Richardson of InDaily.
“In an interview earlier today, I answered some questions incorrectly and I wish to correct the record. It is not Liberal Party policy to reduce the public service by 20,000 or more.”
When you have to send out a statement to that effect around 7pm, you know the preceding day hasn’t been everything you’d hoped for.
South Australian Opposition Leader Isobel Redmond’s day started to turn bad the second she decided yesterday to hold a media conference to criticise the state government’s performance on cutting public-sector jobs. The Libs had obtained documents under freedom of information revealing several of Labor’s much-lambasted targeted voluntary separation packages had been granted to employees who were only months away from retirement. This meant effectively they were being paid out to walk away from a job they were going to give up imminently.
A reasonable point to raise, of course. But two days after Campbell Newman’s Liberal-National Party government in Queensland announced the axing of 14,000 public service jobs (from a 200,000-strong public sector) you’d think one of the last Liberal oppositions in the country would tone down the rhetoric on public sector waste for a bit, lest they be asked whether they had something similar in mind.
Which, of course, she was. And she did.
For a good 10 minutes she dodged artfully, pronouncing sweet nothings about how the Liberals would streamline the public sector through natural attrition and wouldn’t go anywhere near what Newman was proposing, and how if Labor had met their initial reduction targets the opposition leader would be “reasonably happy”.
And then, for some reason, she started to get specific. I asked her several questions based on the figure — which she quoted and accepted — that the total number of people employed in the SA public sector, full-time equivalent and part-time, was a little over 100,000 (in fact 101,485 mid-last year). To ensure I am not accused of taking things out of context, here is a large chunk of what ensued:
Me: “What number [of public servants] do you think South Australia, given the size of the population, should have?”
Redmond: “Well, I’d say it should be no more than about 65,000 overall, when we’ve got the numbers down.”
Me: “65,000, counting part-time?”
Redmond: “Um, probably 65,000 to 75,000, counting part-time.”
Me: “You’re saying that you’d be pursuing 3000 (annual job reductions) as a starting point, and you’d be doing that year-on-year until you reduced the public sector to 65-75,000?”
Redmond: “Yeah. At the moment we’ve got more public servants per head of population than just about anyone else in the country, and we’re not getting better services for all those extra public servants.”
Me: “But you are saying that your policy position is to, over a period of time, reduce the public sector by 25,000 people?”
Redmond: “Yeah, I think we need to do that. I mean, you know, the fact is that we have a public service that is much heavier than the number of people in this state would warrant.”
Me: “Over what period?”
Redmond: “Look, at least over the first term [of a Liberal government], but probably we’d need to do it hopefully more gradually, depending on the number of retirees.”
Apparently, Redmond believes that up to 12,000 employees will be retiring each year within the next parliamentary term, which will make cutting the public service by a quarter as simple as a common-or-garden variety staff freeze. This may require some suspension of disbelief, but not as much as the final line of her subsequent “mea culpa” press release: “In answering the question with the 65,000 to 75,000 public service figure, I erred in using the public service figures of when the Liberal Party was last in government.”
That is simply not true. She correctly acknowledged that the public sector had around 85,000 full-time staff, and around 100,000 total employees. She repeatedly accepted that her figures meant a reduction of at least 25,000 employees, and justified why this was necessary.
And, most bizarrely of all, she knew that all of this was recorded on camera by at least three television networks (despite reporting widely on the media conference, no local newspapers were present). She seemed well aware how many people are currently employed in the state public sector, and entirely cognisant of how many jobs she wanted axed.
The initial stumble can be put down to the Opposition Leader’s over-exuberant candour and lack of political judgment. The subsequent sloppy attempt to retreat from it appears to be far more cynical.It’s the latest chapter in a week that’s already lurched from the bizarre to the ridiculous for Redmond.
In the wee hours of Sunday morning, she hosted three of her male frontbenchers (Duncan McFetridge, Stephen Wade and Mark Goldsworthy, though any other combination of Lib frontbenchers would have been just as hilarious) on a tour of the notorious Hindley Street strip that has been the subject of much recent debate over late-night violence. Their intent was to liaise with proprietors, bouncers and patrons, to gauge some of the issues on the street.
Their nocturnal sojourn took them into one establishment which, they realised too late, was not your average nightclub: specifically, The Palace strip-club (although, it’s not clear whether it was just Redmond who was blissfully ignorant about the venue’s function, nor which member of the party suggested they step inside).
As Redmond cheerily volunteered mid-week: “N-ked female bodies don’t do anything for me, but I was quite pleased to go in and see what life’s like inside.”
Not that she got much of a feel for what life was like inside, since she insists she and her three male colleagues happily chatted to the proprietor with their backs to the gyrating dancers on stage, and “the owner of the premises was facing the sort of, action, as it were”.
The mental picture this awkward gathering evinces leaves me somewhat ambivalent: I’m kinda torn between wishing I could’ve been there to see it and being really, truly glad that I wasn’t.
The Liberal opposition has now been on Redmond’s Magical Mystery Tour for three years, lately a wild ride of strip clubs and razor gangs, and it — like everyone else — still isn’t quite clear what to make of it all (though it’d be fair to say there’d be a few more discontents this morning than there were 24 hours earlier).
What is clear is that the Opposition Leader yesterday gave the Weatherill government the most cherished gift it could have asked for: an unambiguous campaign slogan with which to hammer the Liberals; or, as they’ll henceforth be dubbed: “The Party That Wants To Slash 25,000 Jobs”.
As her statement last night underlined, the fact that Redmond already appears to have a reduction target in mind makes a mockery of her stated intention to establish an Audit Commission (that is, a razor gang) to recommend budget savings. And the fact that she was forced to blame the entire episode on her brain going temporarily AWOL makes a mockery of the genuine points she raised about South Australia’s capacity to maintain a 100,000-strong public service.
Most in her party would have spent last night in vocal despair. And a few, of course, would have been wringing their hands in quiet delight.
*This article was originally published at InDaily
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