James Whelan responds to Julie Novak | Evidence please, not more bashing of our public sector


This Monday. Julie Novak from the IPA once again targeted public service cuts as a necessary step toward a surplus budget. In her most recent article published on Online Opinion, she took aim at our report on the public service. Among her targets are the “policy advisory, administrative and regulatory roles” of the public service that are an “unnecessary burden” to the Australian economy.

James Whelan, CPD’s Public Service Research Director, today responded to Novak in Online Opinion. James debunks some of the myths about the public service being ‘fat’ or bloated and summarises research that indicates Australians’ support for government exercising an active role in society. James responded that:

The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) is no friend of public servants or of the idea of public service. They champion privatisation and outsourcing, believing instinctively that the private sector cannot help but maximise efficiency. By their definition, the public sector is an inefficient and ineffective way to meet community needs.

IPA research fellow, Julie Novak, launched her latest broadside on the public service in Online Opinion this week. Her ‘cutting the slack’ invective echoed another missive earlier this year where she yearned nostalgically for the ‘meat axe’ to wield ‘savage spending cuts’ and appropriately decimate the ‘new endangered species’ of ‘pen pushing bureaucrats’ (public servants).

Before the Centre for Policy Development (CPD) launched our Public Service research program this year, the IPA enjoyed considerable political space where their anti-government and anti-public service rhetoric was unchallenged. When Novak described an upward trend in the number of Commonwealth public servants, no-one responded that this upward curve came after years of retrenchments that saw almost one-third of the Australian Public Service gutted. In this week’s baseless vent she again describes the public service as ‘fat’, contrary to the reality that there are no more public servants now than in 1990 despite 20 years of steady population growth.

In September, CPD released ‘The State of the Service: An Alternative Report’. Our analysis of public service staffing and funding trends, public sector reforms and community attitudes toward public servants and services was based on extensive research including twenty years of attitudinal studies, scrutiny of five years’ parliamentary and media discourse and included 174 citations. In contrast to the IPA’s casual ‘poison pen’ approach, we found that Australians have high expectations of public services, consider public servants ‘highly committed’ and a growing proportion of Australians would cheerfully pay higher taxes to increase the funds available for public services (by OECD standards, we under-invest in the public sector).

Our research highlighted the gap between the IPA’s anti-government politics and the attitudes of ordinary Australians. Novak argues that a speedy return to budget surplus will require increased pressure on agencies through the efficiency dividend and the elimination of some programs. In reality, popular programs have already been cut, and almost 70% of Australians support delaying the return to surplus.

Novak asserts that CPD’s report ‘bemoans’ Australia’s successful privatisation record’. The IPA’s ideological passion for privatisation is shared by few Australians. Who benefits from privatisation? An EMC survey conducted just this month found that only 6% of Australians believe that the general public has benefited most: 59% believe that private companies have benefited most. Significantly, Coalition voters share this belief.

Privatisation and outsourcing have been key elements of public sector reforms by both Coalition and Labor governments, contrary to community wishes. Most Australians support government exercising an active role in society and the economy, strongly prefer public (rather than private) sector agencies to deliver services such as transport, policing, health and education and have much more confidence in public service agencies than major companies.

And no wonder. Just last week, New Matilda learnt through Freedom of Information that Serco, the international service company Serco engaged to operate Australia’s immigration detention centres, hires untrained guards, check’s detainees’ welfare only four times each day and has no obligation for an independent audit.

We welcome this discussion. Decisions about the staffing, funding and role of the public service are decisions about what kind of society we want to live in. Equally, though, we hope for a rigorous discussion rather than oppositional ranting. We drew attention to the lack of justification in Joe Hockey’s pledge to retrench 12,000 public servants ‘for starters’, and will continue to advocate a considered and evidence-based approach to public policy.

You can also find James Whelan’s article in Online Opinion here.





One Response to “James Whelan responds to Julie Novak | Evidence please, not more bashing of our public sector”

  1. Colin Edwards


    An excellent response to Novack, but it seems to me that you are forgetting that arguments are rarely won just on the facts. The public sector globally has been under sustained attack for more than thirty years by theories and ideologies – specifically the free market ideologies of Friedman and Hayek (see Dan Hind’s excellent ‘The Return of the Public’). The free marketeers have won because, with the help of the media, they have captured the way in which the debate is framed. And Novack’s ‘fat’ and ‘bloated’ diatribe is clearly irrational, but the free marketeers control the debate and therefore the adjectives.

    We desperately need to turn this around because, in NSW, it looks like we are in for a rough ride that will make the Cross City Tunnel look like a walk in the park. Who could have missed the recent appointment to head Infrstructure NSW of Nick Greiner a patron of another IPA – Infrastructure Partners Australia, a powerful global cartel of finance and construction capital. The machine is already at hard at work.

    Perhaps we should refer to such interests as ‘privateers’. Historically, privateers were pirates who prospered from cannon and cunning; from theft on the high seas without regard for the lives and property of others. The legend suggests that they led swashbuckling lives and didn’t care overly much who or what they hurt or damaged. Sounds a bit like Enron or Lehmann Bros to me. Many had support from famous principals such as the Kings and Queens of England. Many were eventually drowned or hung.

    Best Wishes

    Colin Edwards


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