The Australian Public Service grew almost 10% last financial year. The public service is now considerably bigger than in the earliest days of the Howard Government – which came to office pledging to reduce public sector numbers.

There are now 146,434 cardie-clad pen-pushers — up from 43,192 in June 1996 — according to figures from the Public Service Commissioner tabled in Parliament yesterday.

After initial cuts, the size of public service has increased steadily since 2000. Indeed, public service numbers grew at five times the growth rate of the workforce as a whole last year.

The figures directly contradict the Government’s own rhetoric. Indeed, one signally confused Liberal, Senator Gary Humphries, now boasts about how the Howard Government is good for the public service and good for Canberra.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s director of economics and taxation, Michael Potter, has told the Financial Review the rise is disappointing and an indication the government was giving up an opportunity for tax reform.

“Obviously, if you have a smaller public service, you’re paying less in public service wages — and with the money left over you can fund tax reform,” he said.

The figures illustrate the reform fatigue and bureaucratic capture that has enfeebled the Howard Government.

Centrelink, for example, has employed an extra 3000 people in the past 12 months, illustrating the growth of politically motivated welfare that flourishes behind the Government’s tough on bludgers posturing.

Shadow minister for public accountability Kelvin Thomson says “this is a big government that rewards its supporters with government largesse”.

Thomson also says the report does not include the cost of consultancies, which has risen from under $150 million in 1994-95 to more than $350 million in 2004-05.

He says the real state of the service was revealed by the Cole inquiry – a Government that had no clue what was going on in the public service, and ministers who never read the cables and reports prepared for them.

And he has criticised the public service for never being more politicised or less accountable, despite the sums spent on it.