The 'slash and burn' commission

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Today, former nurse Ged Kearney, now President of the ACTU, looks at the Commission of Audit appointed by the Abbott government to examine the ‘role and scope of Government’. Kearney argues that the Audit Commission is just a fig leaf to cover the new government’s agenda to drastically ‘slash and burn’ public services.

If you wanted to make our government work better and improve services for ordinary Australians, why would you give more power to a group of business people with a stake in contracting out government services?

That’s the question I’m asking after the Government announced its Commission of Audit into government – effectively contracting out policy-making to big business.

It has placed one of the most important reviews of our public services in the hands of a committee that is sure to recommend outsourcing, budget cuts and privatisations.

Ged Kearney.

You can only assume that it is this Government’s agenda to drastically reduce the size and scope of our public service  and that this Commission will be the cover that allows them to do it.

The leader of the Commission of Audit will be Business Council of Australia (BCA) head Tony Shepherd, assisted by the BCA’s chief economist. Other representatives include former Liberal Minister Amanda Vanstone and Peter Boxall, a former bureaucrat and chief-of-staff to Peter Costello. It has subsequently been revealed that Mr Shepherd is chairman of Transfield Services, a company that has won hundreds of millions of dollars in outsourced government contracts.

Peter Costello.

The overall picture of this review is of a very small pool of people examining institutions that touch the lives of all Australians. There is no representation from workers, not-for-profits or other groups outside a narrow range of business interests. The Business Council of Australia does not even represent small or medium-sized businesses, it is made up of banks and mining companies.

This is a conservative government attempting to put the fig leaf of legitimacy on its desire to shrink government and cut public services. This is the national version of what has happened in Queensland under Campbell Newman.

Joe Hockey has repeatedly boasted that he wants to cut 20,000 jobs in the Australian Public Service.  This is the ideological view that government is inefficient, that government is the problem and cutting it is the solution.

The mantra that “government should be run like a business” ignores the fact that government and business perform very different functions. Protecting children or deciding on environmental approvals are not activities that could or should be left to the free market.

Public services are things whose existence benefits everyone in the community or which need to go to people on the basis of need rather than ability to pay.

At a federal level, organisations like the CSIRO, Customs and the Bureau of Meteorology all provide functions that can’t be done by the market. Centrelink and Medicare serve millions of people each year, including the nation’s most vulnerable.

The Commission of Audit has been handed ridiculously broad terms of reference and a ridiculously tight timeline to report – with a preliminary report due in three months. This will not be a measured examination of the state of our public services. It will simply be a cover for the slash and burn agenda of the Abbott Government.

It is founded on the false premise that we have a public sector that is oversized and out-of-control.

As a nation our governments – federal, state and local – spend a lower percentage of GDP than most other developed countries.  The Australian Public Service has grown more slowly than the general population since 2007. It is also subject to an annual “efficiency dividend” (basically a compulsory budget cut) which has seen net job losses in recent years.

No doubt there are efficiencies that can be found, but the fact remains we have a world-class public service.

There is a view that governments are inherently inefficient and that contracting out services to the private sector is a magic pudding that saves money and improves results. But the results of contracting out services are mixed to say the least. There are many cases where contracted workers have failed to meet the required standards, and where governments have been forced to take provision of services back in-house.

Australians who value public service should be on the alert for any sugar-coated attempts to downsize, privatise or outsource what should be basic functions of government.

Polling shows that Australians value their public services and don’t want them cut, which makes it harder for conservatives to implement these policies.

In the UK the Conservative Government implemented a policy known as the ‘Big Society’ which was supposed to see community organisations empowered to take over the functions of government. Despite the rhetoric around empowering communities, opening up government and opening up opportunities for volunteers, it soon became clear that this was a cover for an austerity program that cut public services.

Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews has publicly expressed his interest in the ‘Big Society’ and how it could be put into action in Australia.

Many Australians rely on public services, our government-funded health and education systems and pensions. They are central to our egalitarian tradition.

The shift to a small government, based on privatised and contracted services, may save some money in the short-term but its long-term effects on Australia would be catastrophic.

This article was originally published in Working Life.

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