We all know that the GST and taxes from the mining boom have given state governments record revenues – and that they’ve largely spent it all on public-sector salaries.

So, with a change of federal government in the offing, we have to steer the ALP towards governing in the spirit of Peter Walsh, not Jim Cairns, and start asking why there has been such little mention of the massive growth in Commonwealth public service numbers under Howard.

It’s all too easy to see a drift from big government conservatism to plain old big government happening, and the tax-and-spend, the-centralise-bribe-and-patronise cycle churning away.

When Howard came to power in 1996, he removed around 26,000 public servants over the first two years. It did wonders for housing affordability and the rental market in the ACT. Since then, though, public service staffing has grown apace.

The crude sledgehammer of an annual “efficiency dividend” supposedly is used to slow staff growth, but this punishes smaller and more efficient agencies while larger bodies and those with programs from new or changed policies simply add in staff costs to every new program – and off they go.

The public service should be leaner and meaner than ever, but the numbers of cardie-clad pen-pushers are higher than they have ever been. This has occurred despite the actual services delivered to the public being increasingly outsourced, delivered differently – online, for example – reduced or removed altogether during the Howard years.

So, why all these additional employees and what are they doing?

The answer can be found in the Public Service Commission’s State of the Service reports. They show that – like in any fat and lazy company – there has been a massive expansion of middle management.

There are huge numbers of “policy” people and “contract managers” and whole agencies whose existence should be questioned. Unfortunately, no one’s asking.

Unlike the public service during the last Labor government, there are almost no entry-level (ASO1) entrants or positions to which high-school leavers can be appointed. The entry level is now university graduate. There are almost no blue-collar positions – a greater reduction than in the wider community.

Unlike a private company there is no revenue constraint or profit, what pays salaries, at least while the economy (and taxation) is growing. If the board – the Cabinet – do not rein in the excesses so there is robustness for the tougher times, then their managers certainly won’t.

This is a virtually impossible issue for oppositions to raise. The consequences can be severe. They almost inevitably feed scare campaigns as governments point to cuts.

There are people in the ALP who are well aware of how the public service has swelled thanks to John Howard’s big-government conservatism. They come from all sides of the party – Craig Emerson, Lindsay Tanner and even Kevin Rudd himself. But you won’t find them saying anything.

In fact, outside one or two think tanks, there’s hardly any debate on this topic at all.

The Mannes and the Marrs of the world rightly rail against how Howard has “cowed his critics, muffled the press, intimidated the ABC, gagged scientists, silenced non-government organisations, neutered Canberra’s mandarins, curtailed parliamentary scrutiny, censored the arts, banned books, criminalised protest and prosecuted whistleblowers” (as Crikey started saying back in, oh, 2002).

They need to realise that this is a product of big government – big government that simply has to interfere and tolerates no rivals – not just John Howard himself.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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