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Evidence please, not more bashing of our public sector

By James Whelan - posted Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) is no friend of public servants or of the idea of public service. They champion privatisation and outsourcing, believing instinctively that the private sector cannot help but maximise efficiency. By their definition, the public sector is an inefficient and ineffective way to meet community needs.

IPA research fellow, Julie Novak, launched her latest broadside on the public service in Online Opinion this week. Her 'cutting the slack' invective echoed another missive earlier this year where she yearned nostalgically for the 'meat axe' to wield 'savage spending cuts' and appropriately decimate the 'new endangered species' of 'pen pushing bureaucrats' (public servants).

Before the Centre for Policy Development (CPD) launched our Public Service research program this year, the IPA enjoyed considerable political space where their anti-government and anti-public service rhetoric was unchallenged. When Novak described an upward trend in the number of Commonwealth public servants, no-one responded that this upward curve came after years of retrenchments that saw almost one-third of the Australian Public Service gutted. In this week's baseless vent she again describes the public service as 'fat', contrary to the reality that there are no more public servants now than in 1990 despite 20 years of steady population growth.


In September, CPD released 'The State of the Service: An Alternative Report'. Our analysis of public service staffing and funding trends, public sector reforms and community attitudes toward public servants and services was based on extensive research including twenty years of attitudinal studies, scrutiny of five years' parliamentary and media discourse and included 174 citations. In contrast to the IPA's casual 'poison pen' approach, we found that Australians have high expectations of public services, consider public servants 'highly committed' and a growing proportion of Australians would cheerfully pay higher taxes to increase the funds available for public services (by OECD standards, we under-invest in the public sector).

Our research highlighted the gap between the IPA's anti-government politics and the attitudes of ordinary Australians. Novak argues that a speedy return to budget surplus will require increased pressure on agencies through the efficiency dividend and the elimination of some programs. In reality, popular programs have already been cut, and almost 70% of Australians support delaying the return to surplus.

Novak asserts that CPD's report 'bemoans' Australia's successful privatisation record'. The IPA's ideological passion for privatisation is shared by few Australians. Who benefits from privatisation? An EMC survey conducted just this month found that only 6% of Australians believe that the general public has benefited most: 59% believe that private companies have benefited most. Significantly, Coalition voters share this belief.

Privatisation and outsourcing have been key elements of public sector reforms by both Coalition and Labor governments, contrary to community wishes. Most Australians support government exercising an active role in society and the economy, strongly prefer public (rather than private) sector agencies to deliver services such as transport, policing, health and education and have much more confidence in public service agencies than major companies.

And no wonder. Just last week, New Matilda learnt through Freedom of Information that Serco, the international service company engaged to operate Australia's immigration detention centres, hires untrained guards, check's detainees' welfare only four times each day and has no obligation for an independent audit.

We welcome this discussion. Decisions about the staffing, funding and role of the public service are decisions about what kind of society we want to live in. Equally, though, we hope for a rigorous discussion rather than oppositional ranting. We drew attention to the lack of justification in Joe Hockey's pledge to retrench 12,000 public servants 'for starters', and will continue to advocate a considered and evidence-based approach to public policy.

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About the Author

Dr James Whelan is Public Service Research Director at the Centre for Policy Development.

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All articles by James Whelan

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