Kevin Rudd’s pledge to cut “bloating” within the federal bureaucracy will delight public servants.
The Coalition’s solitary Canberran representative, the hapless Gary Humphries, probably thinks he’ll be on a winner with this, but he’ll be quite mistaken. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, razor gangs are beloved by bureaucrats. Razor gangs inflict cuts, and cuts mean redundancies, and for long-time public servants, redundancies are highly rewarding.
The usual APS redundancy benefit is two weeks’ pay for every year of service, up to 48 weeks’ pay – plus accrued leave. The only “penalty” is that you can’t work in the Public Service for twelve months afterwards.
The last major public service cuts were in 1996-97. They are now the stuff of legend in Canberra. The new Howard Government – in its first and only bout of fiscal rigour – launched a wave of cuts that yielded a significant transfer of taxpayers’ money to Canberrans, who used it to pay off mortgages, finance renovations and travel the world.
The CPSU – a strong argument for Joe Hockey’s claim that unions are irrelevant – made a lot of noise, but public servants realised what an opportunity it was, and queued up to be sacked. Old hands knew that the Government would succumb to pork-barrelling and special interests and start expanding the Public Service again – though no one anticipated just how completely it would turn its back on any notion of small government.
The smarter ex-bureaucrats established consultancies and were back working in their departments as contractors within months. Others returned to their old jobs after a year, having enjoyed a taxpayer-funded break.
It’s unlikely to be any different under a Rudd Government, though there’ll be lots of talk from department heads about “targetted” cuts.
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The only loser out of such slash-and-burn exercises is, eventually, the community. The most eager candidates for redundancy are always the most capable public servants, who know that their skills are highly marketable. What’s left behind are the pencil pushers, the shiny bums, the devoted CPSU members who are unemployable outside government.
With each wave of redundancies, such people form an ever greater proportion of the permanent service. As a consequence, punters wanting quality administration – or politicians out to accomplish genuine policy outcomes – lose out.
Still, the Chainsaw Al Dunlap logic applies – forget the consequences, just look at how deep the cuts are.
It’s ironic that Labor goes to the election promising to sack bureaucrats while the Coalition, desperately pumping money into every marginal in the country, is likely to need even more of them in the future. But not nearly as ironic as the fact that it should ensure that Canberra will be even more of a Labor town than usual on 24 November.