Op ed: The disappearing public service

Click here to read Christina Hobbs' opinion piece, published on Wednesday 27 April.

In the lead-up to the last federal election, Ford announced it would close its Australian manufacturing workshops and shed 1,200 jobs. Many of us remember that news from Melbourne sending Australian politics into crisis mode.

Months later, Holden's announcement that it would cease production in Adelaide, cutting 1,250 jobs in South Australia led to a huge backlash against the then-newly elected Prime Minister Tony Abbott, with public outcry and even internal criticism from within the Government's own ranks.

Large scale jobs losses in the car, mining and manufacturing industries, are at the forefront of our collective psyche. But of all the sectors and states that have suffered job losses since the Abbott-Turnbull Government came to power, it is the public sector and ACT jobs that have suffered the most. That suffering has been largely in silence. The Community and Public Sector Union estimates that over the last three years, some 18,000 jobs have been cut from the public service. More than 7,700 of those jobs were based in Canberra.

By the end of the 2014 financial year, after Abbott’s first budget, federal government public service job cuts in Canberra had reached a rate of almost one in 11 positions.

It hurts us all
The loss of such a huge number of jobs in Canberra is just as significant as the closure of BHP in Newcastle — and many times greater than the closure of Ford on Melbourne. That's because these cuts don't just hurt public servants. They have a flow-on effect for all local businesses that rely on the public sector.

The problem faced by people employed in the public sector is the fear that fighting for your industry can end up costing you your job. Few voters outside Canberra have reason to think about how many staff the government employs and few public sector employees in Canberra are willing to be the public face of an awareness raising campaign. We’re a city that’s been taken for granted for too long.

As Greens, our vision for a strong and sustainable society requires a creative, independent and well funded public sector to deliver services. We can’t prevent tax avoidance by the ultra wealthy while slashing thousands of jobs at the Australian Taxation Office; we can’t renew our economy with a gutted Renewable Energy Agency and a depleted CSIRO; and we certainly can’t learn important lessons from our past and enlighten future generations by turning the lights out at some of our most important cultural institutions.

As Greens we want to see safe and secure jobs for all workers, but this standard is undermined when the Australian Government cuts, casualises and outsources its own workforce.

Treasurer Scott Morrison is reportedly preparing to tear up a pledge from last year's budget to ease back on the "efficiency dividends" that have been eroding Commonwealth spending since being introduced by the Rudd Labor government.

Saying we can do "more with less" is a code that Canberrans have come to understand. It means more jobs will be outsourced and casualised with more pressure on the workloads of those left behind.

We already know that one in three phone calls to the Medicare, Centrelink and Child Support agencies went unanswered last year. That means there were 22 million times when a pensioner, a parent, someone with a disability or a job seeker needed help and couldn't get it. That’s not efficiency, it’s failing service delivery.

Where's Zed?
Throughout all of this, the ACT's Liberal Senator Zed Seselja has been missing-in-action. After nearly three years in the Senate, he has only spoken about public service jobs once — and that was to defend the cuts in Tony Abbott's brutal 2014 budget. Unlike job losses in Victoria and South Australia, this indifference has allowed both Abbot and Turnbull off the hook.

If the last three years haven't been bad enough, Scott Morrison has now flagged even more cuts to the public service in next week's budget. Leaked figures are indicating at least a further $1.2 billion to be sliced from the public service.

More than ever, Canberra needs a strong voice standing up for our public sector and the valuable services that Canberrans provide and Australians rely on. The good news is that the ACT is once of the most marginal Senate seats in the country. We've come so close so many times, but this year something seems different.

Together, we can stand up for the public services that Australians rely on — and for the hard working people who provide them.

Christina Hobbs is the lead ACT Greens senate candidate.