A quick word about Tony Abbott’s savings initiatives last night.  Cutting Tuesday’s $650 million addition to the government’s renewable energy fund makes sense.  After all, Abbott thinks climate change is crap, so it’s commendable that he’s actually basing expenditure on that view.  Or it would be, except he’s using that to fund his dire “direct action” climate change initiative, which will be a variant of the Regional Rorts program in which farmers are handed vast sums of taxpayers’ money in order to biosequester carbon at prices tens of times more expensive than under an emissions trading scheme.

In any event, given the government has struggled to actually spend any of the money it has allocated to its previous renewable energy programs — some of it is going to fund solar projects at existing coal-fired power stations — there’s no harm in the Abbott proposal.

The plan to cut 6,000 jobs from the public service is a bit rich, though.  During the last five years of the Howard government, the public service grew by 14%.  Desperate agencies combed back alleys for drunks and shanghaied drunken sailors in an effort to find enough people to help the government deliver its handouts, with all thought of the Liberals’ traditional “small government” mantra entirely abandoned.

Now Abbott — the party’s most senior Big Government figure — claims to have discovered old-time fiscal rigour and wants to cut back public service numbers — but he can’t quite bring himself to do it properly, so it’ll be done via a recruitment freeze.

The numbers add up — there are about 10-11,000 ‘separations’ from the APS every year, so 6,000 makes sense if you exclude some of the biggest agencies, which Abbott has, in the name of service delivery.  “Natural attrition” sounds easy — just don’t replace people who leave — but in reality, it isn’t.  It ends up becoming a partial ban on promotions, because you stop promoting people to replace those who have left.  It means more temporary workers are used, because they can be kept off the books more easily.  It would probably end up being translated into yet another efficiency dividend — agencies are simply docked the $4 billion Abbott believes would be saved from the measure, on a pro-rata basis, and left to find the savings.  That, as we’ve seen from the Rudd government’s own efficiency dividend, makes life hell for small agencies.

Ultimately, of course, it leads to poorer policy advice and program administration.  This is what the Howard government found — the more programs it wanted to roll out, the more public servants it needed. The only way to cut the number of bureaucrats is to cut the number and size of programs.  It’s cart-before-horse stuff; fake savings that sound good before an election, but which mean nothing until there’s an actual commitment to reduce the size of government by stopping programs.

As for Abbott’s commitment to reduce government advertising by 25% — is he kidding?  The Liberal Party should take a vow of silence on anything to do with government advertising for next few terms, after its disgraceful and scandalous effort while in government.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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