Earlier this week at a Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) meeting, Tony Abbott reaffirmed his commitment to reduce the size of commonwealth government employment to more reasonable levels, as part of broader objectives to reduce overall public expenditures:
Now, the Coalition will get spending down. We will do it in ways which we believe are responsible. Some of the ways we will do it will be controversial. For instance, we’ve announced that the so-called school kids bonus will go because this is a cash splash with borrowed money that has nothing necessarily to do with education. We won’t go ahead with the 6,000 person a year increase in the refugee intake because that would send the wrong signal to the people smugglers and in any event, at the moment the people smugglers are determining that intake. We will trim back the Commonwealth public sector, not because we fail to respect the work of public servants – as a minister for nine years I very much respect the work of public servants – but there’s 20,000 more in the Commonwealth public sector than there were five years ago and there hasn’t been a commensurate increase in service delivery or efficiency. So, just those changes will save about $10 billion over the forward estimates period.
It hasn’t taken altogether too long for the Gillard government to critically respond to the expenditure‑reduction commitment. Today, it was the turn of the Special Minister of State (SMOS), Gary Gray, to wield his own special brand of ‘relentless negativity’ against what looks increasingly likely to be the next government.
SMOSie had this to say in an opinion piece published today by The Sydney Morning Herald:
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott often portrays the Australian Public Service as a bloated and slothful organisation that should be cut down in size. In talking about growth of the public service, he repeatedly includes growth in the Australian Defence Force and Australian Federal Police to fictionalise his numbers.
So, what’s the truth?
First, it’s important to distinguish between public servants working under the Public Service Act 1999 and divided into departments and agencies and Commonwealth entities outside the core public service such as the defence force, police, ASIO, the CSIRO, and the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority.
Since the election of Labor in 2007, the core public service has grown by just over 13,000 to the latest available official figures in June 2012 (155,424 to 168,580). That is less than the population growth.
I suspect the Special Minister is playing a rather mischievous game here in an attempt to smear the alternative Prime Minister as some sort of bad guy and/or to cloud the judgments of the general public over the true size of public sector employment.
To be fair there is no one single source of reported statistics on the size of commonwealth government employment which, to repeat, I think is designed to deliberately add confusion into the debate about the appropriate roles and functions of government. In the interests of transparency, I report three key sources of statistical information on government employment:
Australian Bureau of Statistics public sector employment statistics (headcount) (coverage: all public sector employees, except defence forces, embassy and consular staff, and employees based outside Australia)
May quarter 2007: 232,200
June 2012: 250,000
Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) APS Statistical Bulletin (headcount) (coverage: Public Service Act employees)
June 2007: 155,424
June 2012: 168,850
Commonwealth government Budget Papers (average FTE) (coverage: general government sector including defence forces and employment in statutory authorities)
SMOS Gray is using the APSC numbers as the basis for his arguments, whilst Abbott appears to be using data drawn from the commonwealth budget papers.
At the outset I do not believe that Abbott has been deliberately misleading with regard to the government employment numbers he cites. He has drawn from a published source of information and, if there a problem with the underlying statistical coverage of that information, it is incumbent upon the government, and not Abbott, to fix it.
The broader question, to my way of thinking, is that it seems ludicrous to conceive the likes of defence, AFP, ASIO, CSIRO and APRA as representing anything but part of the organisational apparatus of government.
Take the case of APRA as an example. A prospective employee of that organisation would inspect its job opportunities webpage to find a document which states the following: ‘Established in 1998, APRA is a commonwealth statutory authority.’
For the fun of it, consider the organisational attributes of the Australian Federal Police. The AFP website describes the organisation as the ‘commonwealth’s primary law enforcement agency,’ and indicates that its strategic priorities ‘are set through Ministerial Direction and national forums such as COAG.’
The purpose of highlighting these examples is to emphasise the point that distinctions between ‘core’ and ‘non‑core’ public sector entities serve little meaningful purpose in circumstances when such entities are enabled through legislative authority and their operations are backed by, or even themselves enforce, state coercion.
The protective state and the regulatory state alike are firmly part of government, and the regulatory state in particular is quickly growing in terms of its reach over economic and social affairs. Legislative and definitional demarcations standing, I believe it is mischievous for the likes of the SMOS to abstract such entities from any proper discussion and debate about the size and scope of government.
On a final note, those interested in a more detailed mapping of commonwealth government entities to their relevant employment legislation can look at this chart and let their minds boggle accordingly.