Yesterday at Estimates hearings of the Economics committee, Senator Eric Abetz was able to extract from Treasury an admission that a senior officer had worked 35 hours straight in preparing the Government’s Fuelwatch for urgent introduction.

The committee required officials to remain until 11pm last night. Being cooped up in a room for that length of time with Abetz, who has the voice of one of those people who starts talking to you on the bus and won’t shut up, wouldn’t have exactly been fun either.

Abetz’s complaint is that this torturous example of poor work-life balance was simply because the Government wanted to seize control of the political agenda. Because, you know, the previous Government never did that.

Forgive the grizzled veteran act, but I worked under the previous Government, on some fairly high-profile legislation. I never did 35 hours straight but I recall times when I returned from Parliament late at night after spending the day there helping with the passage of a bill, and sitting down for several hours to go through my in-tray which had filled up during the day. Then coming back at 7am because there was a raft of amendments to work through before Parliament reconvened later that morning.

It’s not ideal but it’s what you get paid for — paid pretty well, at senior levels — in the public service. And you can’t beat the feeling that you’re genuinely contributing to key policy decisions. Not to mention it looks bloody good on the CV.

Moreover, it’s in the very nature of the public service, especially in policy areas, that there are times when things aren’t quite so busy. Or in fact busy at all. Work tends to balance out over time.

That’s the thing about the public service. It can be a lottery. There are, undoubtedly, many pockets of the APS currently where you can forget about this talk of everyone being overworked. Primarily in line departments, especially in areas where they’re waiting for the Prime Minister’s office to make up its mind on an issue, or where they run programs that can be left to tick over.

Others areas will be flat out, but it will partly be because of the APS-wide difficulties in attracting and retaining staff.

The only Departments that are likely to be uniformly under the hammer are the central agencies. Finance staff are permanently overworked — it’s just part of the reality of working there, although there’s usually plenty of leave taken there and in Treasury after the exertions of the Budget, which also demand a lot from public servants. And everyone knows that PM&C, in the direct line of fire of 24/Kevin, is running on No-Doze.

But don’t have too much sympathy for public servants. There’s a new government with a big agenda to implement, and a Prime Minister fascinated by policy. This is ostensibly what a public sector career is about. And if they don’t like it, well, unemployment in the ACT is 2.8%. Changing jobs has never been easier.

The Economics Committee resumed this morning with Graeme Samuel and the ACCC fronting up to an array of Coalition senators looking for a weak spot in the Commission’s defence of Fuelwatch. A well-briefed Samuel — still going at the time of writing — has given a strong, almost aggressive performance explaining the ACCC’s modelling and why Fuelwatch will work effectively, sufficient that Abetz and George Brandis have been reduced to complaining about the ACCC’s change of heart on the issue.

Reckon there’s any chance Samuel won’t get re-appointed?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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