There’s plenty of attention when manufacturing workers face the sack. Cameras follow blue-collar workers as they dejectedly leave the factory gates; politicians spend hundreds of millions propping up marginal industries (especially if they’re in marginal seats). But what about when those facing the sack are wearing suits and sitting at a computer?

A public service cull has swept the country from Brisbane to Hobart to Adelaide. A nationwide analysis by Crikey has found 38,000 job cuts have been announced at the federal and state level over the past few years, and a further 24,000 positions are on the line. Maybe more.

There’s been nothing like it since Max “the Axe” Moore-Wilton slashed the Commonwealth public service in 1996. We’re losing staff, we’re losing expertise, we’re losing the wise heads who advise governments, we’re losing the people who answer our phone calls and process our forms and payments.

So why aren’t we having a rigorous debate about it? These culls may be necessary, they may be smart. Governance expert Stephen Bartos suggests reasons for a leaner public service in our story today:

“There’s a demonstrable need for change. These [job cuts] aren’t always bad things … it’s not all negative.”

Yet so far, the debate — which has tended to be highly localised — has oscillated between knee-jerk outrage at any job cuts, and “public service bashing” from those who think bureaucrats don’t do much real work.

So let’s look at the numbers. Let’s talk to the experts. Let’s hear from public servants. Let’s have a nuanced debate about what these cuts will mean and whether the trade-off is worth it. As former WA premier Geoff Gallop told Crikey:

“We need a more sophisticated discussion; we’re not getting it. They’re just slashing, and I don’t think that’s a very sophisticated way to proceed.”

Peter Fray

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