Standing up for Canberra

Cuts to the Australian Public Service

I rise today to speak on an issue I have been campaigning on since I was elected, and that is the Abbott government's disdain, contempt and lack of respect for the Australian Public Service and, most importantly, Canberra. As predicted, Canberra and the capital region are bearing the brunt of the government's harsh and sweeping Public Service job cuts. 

The Australian Taxation Office is feeling the full force of the Abbott government's axe; already there have been more than 3,000 job cuts, with a reported 1,700 more to follow. There have been more than 270 redundancies at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to date, three-quarters of which have been Canberra based.

What of the Abbott government's pre-election promise that every single Public Service job loss would be made through natural attrition? We heard that in 1996. In 1996, the Howard government said before the election that 2½ thousand Public Service jobs would go through natural attrition. That ended up being 15,000 Public Service jobs here in Canberra and 30,000 Public Service jobs throughout the country, and they were not through natural attrition. The Abbott government's promise was repeated by ACT Liberal Senator Seselja on almost a daily basis in the lead-up to the election; and, like most of the government's pre-election promises, it has been broken. Unsurprisingly, the Public Service attrition rate has dropped since the election—because why would anyone voluntarily leave their job when there are no jobs to go to?

These job losses, the forced hiring freeze and the threat of privatising Public Service functions are taking their toll on Canberra's economy. I often speak to businesses. I go on business walk-arounds all the time. I speak to small businesses, large businesses and developers here around Canberra. I speak to them in little industrial enclaves in Fyshwick and Hume. I speak to them in satellite city centres, in Woden and Phillip in the inner south and in Weston Creek and Tuggeranong. The story always seems to be the same: consumer confidence has been down since the election, and it dipped even lower in the lead-up to the budget. It did not just dip; it fell through the floor. Canberrans just closed their wallets and purses. There was no spending going on in this town in the lead-up to the budget.

Consumer confidence has been sluggish since the Abbott government was elected and it has not recovered. It is still incredibly low. Canberra businesses are doing it tough across every sector. Their profits have either plateaued or, in some of the businesses I have been speaking to, dropped about 20 to 30 per cent.

Canberra learnt the hard way in 1996 that slashing public service jobs hits our economy hard. Despite the fact that our economy in Canberra is about 50 per cent public service and 50 per cent private sector, the 50 per cent private sector is still incredibly reliant on the public sector. A strong public sector means a strong private sector here in Canberra; they are interdependent. Thought of the Howard government years always sends a feeling of shock and horror through Canberrans, because whenever they reflect on that period they just remember the doom and gloom in this town. In 1996-97, non-business bankruptcies rose dramatically, by 17 per cent, while business bankruptcies jumped by a frightening 38 per cent.

Many of those opposite know that I am always talking about the value of the public service and that I am always talking about how important it is for Canberra, our nation's capital, to be respected. I know that those opposite get a bit bored with what I am saying, but I would just like to know how comfortable they would feel if some of the figures that I am recounting here in terms of job losses, the hit on the private sector, the business bankruptcies and non-business bankruptcies if that were happening in their electorate.

I speak here from personal experience, because, like so many Canberrans, like the 15,000 public servants in 1996, I lost my job when John Howard was elected. I saw firsthand what happened in Canberra when the Howard government came to power and how it sent our city into a downward spiral. I saw local shops closing down. I saw people leaving town. I saw house prices plummet. I saw people in tears because they had been sacked. I saw people who were trying to get jobs but who could only get part-time jobs—my husband was one of them. There were no full-time jobs. There was nothing going on in the town in terms of employment. I saw town centres where office space after office space had been completely abandoned. That is the future this Abbott government sees for Canberra. It is back to the future in terms of 1996. The Abbott government is doing exactly the same thing to this town, to the public service and to the capital region as the Howard government did in 1996. This is not just about people losing their jobs. The Abbott government also continues to wage war on public servants over their workplace pay and conditions—conditions that have been hard fought over a number of decades. The Abbott government's attacks on ADF pay, defence civilian pay and public service pay and conditions just underscores its contempt, its disdain, its lack of respect for the public service.

I have been very vocal about the government's unfair and insulting ADF pay and conditions offer. The original offer cut the real pay and conditions of our service men and women and slashed precious Christmas and recreation leave. After the offer sparked widespread community outrage, the Prime Minister backtracked on parts of the offer. While we welcomed this backdown, the Prime Minister still did not go far enough. He still cut the real pay of our service men and women. He still cut the real pay of the people who defend Australia, who defend our national interests and who put themselves in harm's way to protect what we hold dear. Australians were shocked then and they are still shocked. More than 65,000 people have signed Tony Dagger's petition on calling for a fair deal for our ADF personnel, and they are signing it because ADF members do not have a voice in their pay and conditions negotiations. They cannot vote, and they cannot take industrial action. That is why Labor has and will continue to stand up for our ADF personnel.

The Prime Minister has also used this insidious campaign for cutting ADF pay to set the bar for defence staff and public servants more broadly. Defence department staff were just last week offered a below inflation pay increase of 3.16 per cent over the next three years. This offer averages to just 1.05 per cent annually. Under this insulting offer, defence staff will not only see their real wages fall but also lose a range of conditions—hardfought for conditions over decades. They will lose two days leave a year, including Christmas leave; they will have slower progression through pay grades; and they will have to work an extra 4.5 days a year. This unfair deal is worse than what was offered to the ADF personnel, and even the Secretary of the Department of Defence, Dennis Richardson, has labelled this wage offer 'regrettable'.

These attacks on ADF pay and Defence pay mirror what we are seeing across the Australian Public Service. The CPSU is currently bargaining for around 165,000 Commonwealth public servants, because agreements in 117 agencies expired in June last year. The Australian Public Service simply cannot continue to function effectively when staff are being sacked in droves and those left behind are forced to battle for the most basic workplace conditions and entitlements. Two weeks ago the Secretary of the Department of Finance, Jane Halton, came out and said that it is a myth that further cuts to the bureaucracy will create a surplus. Referring to the Public Service, she said:

We're actually a relatively small proportion of the spend.

Despite this, the government continues to target public servants.

I will continue to stand up for public servants everywhere. Public servants are valuable and valued people who keep Australia working. They support our community; they manage our hospitals, our schools, our universities and our transport networks; and they look after our forests and oceans, our Defence Force and our financial institutions. But, more than that, they are altruistic, they are people who take pride in their work, and they are people with families, with mortgages and with car repayments—like every other Australian.

I will also continue to stand up for a strong and central Public Service here in Canberra. It is a model that Robert Menzies championed and established, and I will continue to advocate for his legacy. Labor will continue to stand up against these attacks on ADF personnel, Defence staff and the Public Service, because what they mean is all bad for Australia.

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