Comment: Public servants are hard-working, iconic Australians too

(File: AAP)

Why do Australians care more about a dying car industry than the men and women whose work supports our country?

A Deloitte business report last week stated that job cuts to the Australian Public Service (APS) will create a bigger impact in Canberra than the closure of Holden.

If you don’t live in Canberra, you’re unlikely to have heard about this. Moreover, if you don’t live in Canberra, you’re unlikely to care.

The Deloitte report says that Canberra is expected to lose 6,000 public service jobs. Given that the federal government is Canberra’s biggest employer, this presents a very real economic challenge for the territory. When Holden closes its doors in South Australia, on the other hand, that state will be in a much better position to handle the loss.

The news about Holden’s closure back in December caused a public outcry, and it continues to be passionately opposed. People remain highly concerned about the fate of Holden’s workforce.

It just goes to show that the loss of car industry jobs is a valid cause for anger. But it’s a markedly different story when the same scenario applies to the public service.

So, why is it that Australians care more about Holden workers than the APS?

Perhaps it is because manufacturing jobs are higher on job hierarchy. Blue-collar workers are the poster children of ‘hardworking Australian families’. When Holden closes, 3,000 workers are set to lose their jobs. But note that this unfortunate turn of events will happen not now but in three years time. Yet the government is already placating an angry public with the promise of a $100 million package to support Holden workers’ transition to new jobs.

Assuredly, there will be no such support for the average government employee, many of whom received the news of cancelled contracts and job losses just before Christmas.

It also seems that many Australians lack a clear understanding of the role of their federal public service. People are willing to perceive the APS as a bunch of fat cats earning plum salaries. Or an industry dragging a lot of ‘dead wood’ that’s in need of a good trim.

But doctors, nurses, teachers, child protection workers, police officers, firemen, customs officials, and soldiers are all public servants too. Would Australians be happy to cut their jobs?

Or is it just the paper pushing bureaucrats whose roles are excessive?

Cutting the public service is always a popular choice with voters. This is because federal government workers are faceless and largely hidden away in Canberra, a relatively small city situated in a remote Australian paddock. There is nothing particularly sexy about government administrators.

Scandalous news stories such as the Ballarat Council’s $30,000 cake bonanza certainly doesn’t help a public servant’s image either.

Yet the faceless bureaucracy behind a distant Canberra desk belies the enormous and challenging task that is running the flourishing yet peaceable country we live in. It is a responsibility that is infinitely more complicated, time-consuming and challenging than many Australians can imagine. The task of implementing government policies and managing complex programs on health, education, transport, security, communications, environment, business, agriculture, defence, immigration and every sector you can think of requires thousands and thousands of people. The mountains of paperwork is indicative of an adherence to rigorous accountability processes protecting taxpayer dollars.

The magnitude of the role of the APS cannot and should not be underestimated by the public it serves.

Granted, there is deadwood in the public service. So too, there is ineffectiveness, bullying managers and indolent workers. Just as there is in every workplace. There may even be a couple of lazy panel beaters at Holden.

But the reality is that cutting federal public service jobs doesn’t necessarily equate to efficiency, no matter how the government may sell it. The APS is actually already quite efficient.

Those public servants who have or are soon to lose their jobs are primarily from the service and corporate sectors, such as call centre operators, and IT and human resource personnel. The loss of such essential roles only serves to hand those left behind a bigger workload. This is hardly efficient.

Undoubtedly, the loss of any job is difficult, regardless of when or where it happens. Federal public servants have mortgages, kids in school and high living costs, just as Holden workers do.

It is important to remember that public servants serve our country in countless, indelible ways and far from being just “numbers of bureaucrats” they are hard-working, iconic Australians too.

Lilani Goonesena is a freelance writer based in Canberra.

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