The arrival of the new Coalition government will be a little different for the public service compared to the arrival of the last two governments.

In 1996, John Howard started with a bang, sacking half-a-dozen secretaries, but the big cuts to Australian Public Service numbers didn’t start straight away; they came after the government announced the budget situation was much worse than expected and big spending cuts were needed. That’s when redundancy offers began flying around departments, inducing much fear and loathing among many — and delight among the few who realised it was a great way to finance an extended holiday or a major renovation before returning to the APS down the track.

In 2007, Kevin Rudd has promised to take a “meat axe” to a public service that had bloated to deliver John Howard’s spending programs, but ending up holding off after a change in fiscal strategy dictated by the emerging financial crisis.

In 2013, the APS knows that the Coalition has promised to slash 12,000 from their ranks, but it comes on top of successive rounds of efficiency dividends imposed by Labor, including one explicitly aimed at curbing the fastest-growing sector of APS employment, the Senior Executive Service. Some departments, like Health, have been cutting staff since late 2011. There’ll be many more cuts to come, even though the Coalition has abandoned its “budget emergency” nonsense and adopted the same fiscal policy as Labor, and is now even talking about stimulus. Plunging the Canberra economy into recession carries no political cost for a conservative government.

And these cuts, at least, stand a chance of genuinely removing bureaucratic deadwood. The great APS tradition is that it’s the talented who take redundancies, leaving an on-average poorer quality public service behind. But after Labor’s cuts, the low-hanging fruit has all been picked. Long-serving duds, who’ve relied on the APS’ byzantine performance management “system” to stay on the public payroll while underperforming, might now be found out.

While that process is ongoing, there’ll likely be some restructuring occasioned by the Administrative Arrangements Orders, to be issued today (update: here they are).  The AAOs basically assign functions across the public service, with different departments and agencies given different Acts to oversee. Ministers are also supposed to receive a “charter letter” from the prime minister outlining their responsibilities and priorities. Early in the Howard years, ministers were supposed to reply to their charter letters, a task so sensitive it was often abandoned.

For public servants who find themselves in new departments, life on the ground doesn’t change much. Relocation plans might be drawn up for eventual implementation but budgets are tight and leases hard to break. Areas moving departments — such as Aged Care, which will switch to the rebadged FAHCSIA, now known as Social Services — have to be switched over to other IT networks, which can be a major challenge, especially if different IT providers are involved (thank you John Fahey).

Tony Abbott today announced three secretaries were going: Don Russell, Blair Comley and Andrew Metcalfe. Treasury chief Martin Parkinson will stand down mid-next year. Lisa Paul steps in as Education Secretary, Paul Grimes will head up Agriculture, and Glenys Beauchamp takes on Industry. Gordon de Brouwer is the new Environment chief, and Renee Leon is the Secretary of Employment.

New secretaries, appointed to replace those knifed, or existing ones given new or additional responsibilities, will come around to meet their new charges, stand awkwardly at a morning tea or address a meeting. Some particularly enthusiastic ministers will do the same (to their lasting benefit — public servants react positively to occasional interaction with their primary client). New ministerial advisers will start poring through the incoming government briefs carefully prepared prior to the election.

For some departments, this will be their third or fourth minister in a matter of months. But APS life will go on, even if there are fewer warm bodies at desks for the next couple of years.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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