Standing up for Canberra

Transcript: National Drive with Waleed Aly

SUBJECTS: Defence pay deal, public service jobs

WALEED ALY: Gai Brodtmann, thanks very much for joining us.

GAI BRODTMANN, FEDERAL MEMBER FOR CANBERRA: Thanks Waleed, it’s great to be here.

ALY: Do you have a separate set of criteria that should apply for Defence personnel as opposed to other public servants?

BRODTMANN: No, essentially the criteria should be that wages should keep up with the cost of living. And what we’ve seen with the Abbott Government with the announcement in the last day regarding the ADF pay and conditions deal – which is 1.5 per cent - well below inflation and means an effective pay cut. I’m very concerned, as is the Opposition, about that put cut particularly for ADF personnel, many of them deployed at the moment to Iraq and the Middle East. We’re concerned about what that also means for the public service.

ALY: Well I can understand that you would be concerned and they would be concerned. An effective pay cut is never a pleasant thing. But isn’t this just the reality of being on public money? I wonder, speaking as an ABC employee, how many ABC employees will be looking forward to above inflation pay increases the next time their pay comes up, or the next time their award is negotiated.

BRODTMANN: Well, our view is that wages should keep up with the cost of living and that wage offers ensure that people can actually maintain a decent standard of living. What we’re seeing is a considerable slap in the face and an insult to our ADF personnel – and it looks like the public service is also going to get the same.

ALY: But isn’t that an inflexible view in light of a budget situation that is difficult? There’s insufficient revenue coming in, we’ve got a revenue problem, public money is simply tight. Any pay rise at all might be difficult for the Government to afford?

BRODTMANN:  Well we’ve got to ask the question Waleed – the Government has asked ADF personnel to put them in harm’s way, they are undergoing operations overseas, they are the defenders of our national security – they should be respected. They should be respected through decent pay and conditions. Through pay that actually keeps up with the cost of living, through conditions that allow flexibility and allow them to be with their families when they return from operations. These conditions have been hard fought for for many years.

ALY: But a moment ago you were saying that Defence personnel shouldn’t be treated any differently to public servants. The fact that we’re asking them to do a dangerous job, or defend the nation, doesn’t necessarily come into calculations does it?

BRODTMANN: No, what I’m saying is public servants and ADF personnel should have pay that keeps up with the cost of living. What’s being offered at the moment to public servants here is between 0-1 per cent pay rise, and what’s particularly concerning is the erosion of conditions. Centrelink and Medicare are being asked to accept an erosion of conditions of around 60 per cent - as I said these conditions have negotiated over many, many years, hard fought for gains, and we’re opposed to that.

ALY: Does that effectively mean, if we were going to stick to that criteria, that jobs would ultimately have to go? And if so, how many public sector jobs would you be prepared to see go, in order to preserve that pay and conditions?

BRODTMANN: Well, just in terms of the Coalition, it’s got form in terms of cutting public service jobs. I was a victim of the public sector cuts here in 1996, when the Howard Government came in. That Government got rid of 15,000 public sector jobs here in Canberra which sent us into an economic slump. It saw house prices plummet, it saw businesses close down, it saw businesses go bankrupt – people left town. We went through a considerably difficult stage for about 5 years. They also got rid of 30,000 public servants nationally. I’m concerned that the Coalition has the same kind of cost cutting target on Canberra’s head. They’re looking at getting rid of 16,500 public servants, and that’s just the beginning. We’re particularly concerned about the Commission of Audit and what that actually means for Canberra and the public service.

ALY: The idea of cutting public servants is a bipartisan thing. We were having this conversation; these exact themes were arising under the Rudd Government. Ultimately it’s one thing to look at these workers whose conditions must be a certain level and who must receive a certain pay rise. It’s another though when you have to deal with the political realities of not having the money to pay for it?

BRODTDANN: Just going back to your comments about the Rudd and Gillard Governments, we never targeted jobs; we always looked at getting savings through greater productivity, through a greater use of technology, through non-staff savings in range of measures. Through looking at travel arrangements and trying to improve those or trying to reduce the amount of travel through teleconferencing. So we looked at a number of mechanisms but we never targeted jobs, we always looking at non-staff savings.

ALY: Kevin Rudd in the lead up to the last election was looking at natural attrition within the public service; he was looking at cutting 800 senior public servants.

BRODTMANN: That was something that I was actually very outspoken about, but in terms of the volume that we’re seeing now in terms of the Coalition. I mean they’re looking at 16,500 public service jobs. As I said they’ve got form on this, in 1996 there were 30,000 nationally. In 1996 the Coalition said they wanted to get rid of 2,500 through natural attrition, as I said that ended up being 15,000 here in Canberra and 30,000 nationally. I’m very, very concerned what this 16,500 could actually end up to be, particularly in light of what’s to come from the Commission of Audit.

ALY: Isn’t it possible that people who end up leaving the public service under these sorts of conditions anyway would simply be re-employed in the private sector, perhaps a better way?

BRODTMANN: Well, no we didn’t see that in ’96. We saw a number of people leave town. Our population fell and as I’ve said we went into an economic slump. We were really hit hard and Canberrans are going through a second round. We’re going through all that again, businesses are doing it particularly tough at the moment, house prices are pretty sluggish, and people are living in fear of their jobs. I get people every week coming into my office, phone calls, emails, from public servants who are very, very fearful about their future. And what people tend to forget, particularly outside of Canberra is the fact that Canberrans are just like Australians everywhere else. They’re people with families, they’re people with hopes and dreams, they’re people with mortgages, they’re people with car repayments. They’re people like everywhere else, who face the same challenges that every family faces around Australia, and also the same concerns. And at the moment they’re very, very fearful about their jobs.

ALY: Well we’ll see what comes of it. At the moment jobs cuts are not their issue, it’s the pay cut that seems to be in the offing, we’ll see how that unfolds. Thank you very much for speaking to us Gai, appreciate it.

BRODTMANN: Thanks Waleed.