The opposition has been giving the impression they’re all about slashing and burning to get the federal Budget back to surplus faster than Labor, right down to yesterday copying $1.4 billion worth of Labor savings, causing some momentary embarrassment to Joe Hockey who had bagged one of the measures.

But once you tote up its election commitments, the party of small government turns out to be anything but.

The Liberals have, true, committed to a public service staffing freeze for two years, a clunky and unworkable way of trying to cut public service numbers — they’d announce actual cuts but it would put Gary Humphries’ Senate spot in jeopardy and ensure they couldn’t win Eden-Monaro. The freeze, which will kill graduate recruitment into the public service for two years, with flow-on effects for a decade or more, is designed to pay for Greg Hunt’s execrable “soil carbon” drivel.

And among the Labor cuts they adopted yesterday was an increase in the public service efficiency dividend in 2011, guaranteed to make life difficult for small agencies.

But this is undermined by a number of policies that call for more public servants, in the style of the last years of the Howard government, when the public service had to grow rapidly at a time of rising labour shortages to hand out money under all the spending programs set up by the Liberals.

  • There’s a $93.1 million expansion of Customs to enable it to expand cargo inspections. More Customs officers.
  • There’s the shameful plan to degrade one of the Howard government’s finest achievements, the Productivity Commission, by replacing it with a bigger ‘Productivity and Sustainability Commission’. It will get an extra $16 million for, one assumes, extra public servants with expertise in ‘sustainability’.
  • As part of its $13.5 million small business package, the Liberals want a new regulatory office, the Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, that will need public servants to run it.
  • Tourism Australia, a government-funded body, will get an extra $10.5 million for more people to help it chase “business events tourism”.
  • The Australian Crime Commission will expand by 200 people to establish a ridiculous ‘National Violent Gangs Squad’, replicating the work of state law enforcement bodies, costing $95 million.
  • Another $90 million will be spent paying bureaucrats to support the local hospital boards to be set up across the country under the Coalition’s policy, which will have even more local boards than Labor.
  • There’s Scott Morrison’s offshore processing centre on Nauru, which he has refused to cost, but which based on the cost of the Howard government’s Pacific Solution is going to be in the vicinity of $200 million a year, some of which involves more public servants to oversee the facility.
  • There’s a whole new agency to roll out the Coalition’s dog of a broadband scheme, the ‘National Broadband Commission’, which will produce a ‘National Broadband Database’. Tony Smith and Andrew Robb didn’t cost this new agency when they announced their broadband policy the other day. A new small agency would cost around $10 million a year to staff and set up.
  • There’ll also be a new ministerial advisory committee on social networking, which will need bureaucratic helpers, again uncosted.
  • And yesterday the Liberals unveiled a new ‘Office of Due Diligence’ to be set up within PM&C to vet all significant government spending — a Herculean task that Abbott, when questioned, insisted could be done by a small number of public servants whom, Abbott said, would be taken from elsewhere in the public service, not recruited. There’s no cost for this little empire-in-the-making. Labor, by the way, has also promised to set up a small office within PM&C, to oversee relations with Non-Government Organisations.

This comes on top of the welcome establishment of a new ‘Parliamentary Budget Office’, one of the few good ideas of the Malcolm Turnbull era to survive the intellectual devolution that has gone on under Abbott — who said back in June would cost around $2 million a year.

Remember this is in addition to a host of new programs across areas like tourism infrastructure, community crime programs and handouts to favoured groups that, as happened under the Howard government, require warm bodies at desks in spending agencies to hand the money out.

While Labor promised to take a meat-axe to the public service in 2007, no one ever really believed it could embrace the role of slashing the size of government. But the Liberals are supposed to at least start off slashing government, even if they undo all their good work after a couple of terms in office. This time around, they’re not even proposing to do that. The party of small government will arrive in office needing more public servants than ever.