Discreet words of warning. The Annual State of the Service Report by the Public Service Commissioner is not a document that sends the Canberra press gallery in to a frenzy of excitement. Apart from The Canberra Times, which has a particular readership to appeal to, and a minor reference on ABC radio, yesterday’s words from Commissioner Lynelle Briggs escaped media attention. Which is a pity really because hidden away among the many platitudes and endless statistics is an important, if discreetly written, warning to the Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner about the dangers of indiscriminate budget cutting.

It has been a feature of governments for many years now to impose what is euphemistically called an efficiency dividend on departments. Instead of governments making the hard decision to scrap or wind back particular programs, the order goes out that the public service must cut administrative expenses by an across the board two or three or whatever percent. A recent addition to this philosophy of finding savings is to insist that any salary increases for individual bureaucrats in a department must be compensated by a similar reduction in the total departmental wages bill.

It sounds very simple and perhaps for a year or two it was but Ms Briggs in this year’s report draws attention to some of the undesirable consequences. “Many agencies,” she writes, “are now at financial crossroads — the impact of continued across the board efficiency measures is making it extremely difficult to properly maintain their core functions.”

Particularly hard hit are some of the smaller agencies where it is not easy to find a few indians to get rid of so that the chiefs can be paid public service market rate salaries. The result is that good staff just don’t want to work for these small agencies no matter how important their function might be. Or, as Ms Briggs puts it:

The combined effect of the efficiency dividend and the partial funding arrangements for remuneration increases have placed pressure on some agencies whose size, or the nature of their activities, affect their potential for cost saving productivity gains to be generated year after year. For some agencies this has impacted on the remuneration levels they are able to offer. A key issue is how to ensure the APS operates in a sustainable way so that agencies of all types and sizes can attract and retain staff with the capability to deliver on their core functions. It may be timely to consider putting a safety valve mechanism in place to ensure the ongoing ability of lower paying agencies to attract and retain a skilled workforce in what will no doubt continue to be a tight fiscal environment.

Pathetic pettiness over the Walkleys. Newspapers blowing their own trumpet is one thing. Excluding the name of journalists who work for rivals from coverage of the Walkley awards for journalism is another altogether. This morning, the Australian press displayed all the pathetic pettiness which helps bring the whole profession in to such disrepute.

In The Australian they headlined “The Australian scoops three Walkley Awards” then almost grudgingly acknowledged that the now defunct 9 Network Sunday program picked up the top gong – The Gold Walkley – and mentioned winners from 7 News, Reuters, the stablemate the Sydney Daily Telegraph, and their own company’s Australian boss. The only reference to a Fairfax winner was to note the Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism going to the late Pamela Bone for her support of humanitarian causes and commitment to the advancement of female leaders in the media. In a display of churlishness there was no reference to the fact that Ms Bone used to write for the Melbourne Age.

Winners from the ABC and SBS got not even an oblique mention.

Coverage in the Melbourne Age was even less gracious. “Past and present journalists of The Age were last night honoured at the annual Walkley Awards”, it said and listed its own winners. The Sunday program got a gong but no-one else qualified — not even the Walkleys won by sister Fairfax publications the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian Financial Review and the Illawarra Mercury.

For the SMH it was Super 12: Fairfax journos shine – a story which, fair enough, featured its own six winners but did not list the other six from its stablemates with the exception of a reference to Ms Bone. The award to the journalist from the Fairfax owned Illawarra Mercury was not even counted in reaching the total of 12 mentioned as shining.

The ABC followed the lead of the daily papers in slanting its Walkley story towards some self congratulation. “The ABC picked up nine Walkley Awards for journalism at a ceremony in Melbourne last night,” it trumpets on its website this morning. “The broadcaster made it a clean sweep in the radio category, with awards for news, current affairs and feature reports.”

It might have added that the feat illustrates the paucity of fair dinkum news reporting and current affairs programming on commercial radio!

Sunday got a mention for its Gold as did Bone, Hartigan and Don Watson, a speech writer for former prime minister Paul Keating who won the Walkley for best non-fiction book for American Journeys. Reuters photographer David Gray was acknowledged as press photographer of the year and writing about Aborigines clearly qualifies non-ABC journalists for a mention. The Australian newspaper’s Tony Koch and Padraic Murphy were noted for their story about a group of men who escaped a jail term after pleading guilty to raping a 10-year-old girl at Aurukun in north Queensland. Other print journalists were not so lucky and nor was 7 News for winning Television News Reporting.

For the record, here is a full list of the Walkley winners by organisation.

Peter Fray

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