In defence of the public service

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Public servants are often subject to wildly inaccurate stereotypes and unfair criticism by the media and conservative politicians, Dr. Eric Athurson sheds some light on the workers who keep our country running.

In 2012, Joe Hockey unashamedly stated that in the first years of an Abbott Government 12,000 public servants would be sacked.

IT'S A THANKLESS TASK, serving the public.

Day in and day out, public servants are subject to abuse and ridicule from the media and politicians, not to mention the very public they serve.

As the federal election nears, this will only intensify.

The Coalition is boasting about how many public servants they will assign to the scrap heap of unemployment. The Murdoch press are reporting – unchallenged – that the public service is ‘bloated’ and ‘wasteful’.

If people in the private sector lose their jobs, Coalition MPs shed tears and demand compensation. However, when people in the public service lose their jobs, Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey gloats about it.

The reason for this is simple. The Coalition don’t understand that public servants are human beings worthy of respect, just like every other Australian. To them, they are “faceless bureaucrats” pushing paper in a grey office in Canberra. Making life more difficult for “hard-working” Australians.

They are not understood as people with families and mortgages. People with the same hopes and fears as everyone else. To them, they are the heartless purveyors of red-tape, looking to strangle small business.

This is why The Daily Telegraph makes absurd claims about public servants with impunity. They call a public servant on $92,000 a year a bureaucratic ‘fat cat’, and in the next sentence describe a family earning $250,000 a year as ‘struggling’.

abbott and newman
Tony Abbott gave Queensland Premier Campbell Newman's 14,000 public service sackings his tick of approval. (Image courtesy news.com.au)

Nobody talks about the fact that the overwhelming majority of public servants are on a hell of a lot less than $92,000.

Let’s be very clear who public servants are. Teachers are public servants. Nurses are public servants. Community and child protection workers are public servants. Police and soldiers are public servants, as are customs officials and humanitarian aid workers.

Even those hapless Treasury officials are public servants. The people tasked with working exhausting hours interpreting the demands of successive Treasurers. For this, they have the privilege of being abused by politicians and the press on a regular basis. These are the same officials who crafted the highly successful stimulus package that saved Australia from the Global Financial Crisis.

Let’s be clear about the Coalition’s plans. They want to cut 20,000 jobs, 12,000 in the first two years, from the public service. These cuts will hurt families. Local businesses in Canberra and nearby NSW towns will suffer. There will be fewer customers with less money to spend. Some businesses will even have to close as a result of this.

We know this will happen. It is what happened when John Howard came to power in 1996.

Labor MP for Fraser and economist Andrew Leigh conducted a study – in the impacted regions – that found after the Howard cuts:

- $25,000 was slashed from the average price of homes

- unemployment rose by 1% and

- personal bankruptcies increased by 100%.

While there are those who attempt to talk down the impact of such swingeing cuts, any fool can see slashing jobs in such vast quantities in small communities is like taking a wrecking ball to its local economy.

Earlier this year, Joe Hockey joked:
“There is a golden rule for real estate in Canberra. You buy Liberal and you sell Labor. Think about it.”

Now isn’t that just hilarious? Homes losing value, businesses folding and families struggling. That’s a real laugh riot Joe Hockey.

This is not to say Labor have always been kind to the public service.

They have imposed stringent cost cutting measures in recent years in a fruitless attempt to produce a surplus. There have been job losses through attrition, and last year public service numbers went backwards. Kevin Rudd yesterday announced a further 800 job losses.

This brings us to the claim that the Australian public service is “bloated”.

The facts clearly show that the public service has grown less than population growth since Labor came to power in 2007.

Last year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a report looking at ‘value for money’ in various public sectors around the world. It argued that Australia was an ‘example’ country for others to follow.

The report found that:
“The size of the Australian federal public service in general government is substantially below average.”

Would billionaire Gina Rinehart be willing to do the hard work public servants, like AusAID workers, do every day?

It also found that Australia had adopted modernising reforms for the service significantly earlier than the other OECD countries surveyed.

These are the indisputable facts. The conservative media and politicians, however, never let facts get in the way of a good ideological crusade.

It’s pathetic when you think about it. Most of the politicians and journalists who attack the public service would never make the same sacrifices public servants make.

They wouldn’t do what an AusAID officer does on a daily basis. They wouldn’t work with the poorest people on Earth, in some of the hardest conditions imaginable, exposing themselves to the risk of malaria, dengue fever, or various other tropical diseases.

They would never understand what it’s like to visit a country in the aftermath of a hurricane or tsunami to work with the suffering, amongst the ever present stench of death.

They conveniently forget that AusAID staff and other diplomats have been the target of terrorist attacks in Indonesia. Many have been wounded and some have died.

God knows they wouldn’t understand the life of an emergency room nurse, or a social worker dealing with families broken by poverty and addiction. They wouldn’t understand the life a teacher working in a public school in a poor socioeconomic area.

Yet, they have the temerity to call these public servants ‘fat cats’?

Sure, there are some public servants out there that fit that stereotype. The lazy seat warmers. All organisations, public or private, have their share of the ineffectual. In the case of the public service, the myth these assertions are built upon is a thing of the past; replaced by modern and professional departments.

It is also true there are politicians, and those in the media, who genuinely believe in the public service.

There are war correspondents and foreign correspondents. There are still some journalists who believe in hard-hitting investigative journalism against vested interests. There are those, as I once heard Paul Bongiorno say, who “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”.

These are, unfortunately, becoming a shrinking minority. The remainder breathlessly and mindlessly report polls and leadership speculation instead of policy or matters of public interest.

Do they look like 'fat cats' to you?

They endlessly regurgitate media releases from lobby groups. They take the political screeds provided by ‘think tanks’ and pretend it somehow furthers public debate. They bring pillows for the comfortable, and brick bats for the afflicted.

The ‘fat cats’, in truth, are those hacks in the press who make six and seven figure salaries from the pockets of billionaires. The ‘fat cats’ are those in the unprofitable parts of the mainstream media who live in a sheltered workshop constructed by the vanity of people such as Murdoch and Rinehart. The ‘fat cats’ are the politicians who pad generous salaries out with outrageous expenses claims.

For every Penny Wong or Malcolm Turnbull in the Federal Parliament, you’ll get fifty ex-political staffers, mediocre lawyers, ex-union officials or political party hacks working under the patronage of just another party hack. Patronage piled upon patronage.

Yet these are the very people who denigrate the public servants who help make this country run?

A life committed to public service is a noble one. No wonder then, then, that self-interested media companies or vain, ignoble politicians hold it in contempt.

Lucky for Australia our federal public service is one of the most effective and least corrupt in the world.

Lucky for the rest of us that those teachers and nurses, those aid workers and social workers, those customs workers and treasury officials go about their business quietly and competently no matter how much vitriol is directed at them.

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