Unhappy new year looms for Australia’s public servants

Public Service Minister Eric Abetz has left himself little room to manoeuvre. Photo: Andrew Meares Public Service Minister Eric Abetz has left himself little room to manoeuvre. Photo: Andrew Meares

Public Service Minister Eric Abetz has left himself little room to manoeuvre. Photo: Andrew Meares

Public Service Minister Eric Abetz has left himself little room to manoeuvre. Photo: Andrew Meares

The nation’s 160,000 federal public servants, the ones who still have their jobs, will limp into their Christmas breaks, punch-drunk from the toughest year the service has seen in a generation.

And things will probably get worse in 2015.

The redundancies that have been racking the Australian Public Service for three years now show no signs of letting up, making life ever harder for those who are left behind, they haven’t had a payrise in 18 months and probably won’t get one before two years have  passed.

Even then, they’ll get nothing without a fight, never a welcome prospect for one of the more mild-mannered workforces in the Australian industrial landscape.

The only bright spot, and it’s not real bright, is that the Abbott government has admitted, in its recent MYEFO budget update, that it has cut as deep as it dares to for fear of causing economic slowdown.

But that doesn’t mean that things aren’t going to get rough in 2015.

The battlelines for an industrial war were drawn more than 12 months ago.

It’s just that, in true public service style, the opposing sides are taking forever to deploy on the front line.

To recap: the government’s “APS bargaining framework” rules out absolutely any wage increases that are not paid for with cuts to conditions and entitlements.

(The official euphemism “productivity offsets” is a fiction. They are cuts.)

While the Department of Human Services got crazy-brave in July and offered 1.2 per cent, at most, with $250 million worth of cuts, senior bosses across the bureaucracy winced.

“If I made an offer like that, my staff would lynch me,” one agency chief confided while he and others bided their time, waiting to see if something might give.

Something did, sort of. The offer collapsed before a vote could be taken, well and truly sabotaged by the Community and Public Sector Union, whose ambit wage claim is 4 per cent per year. Remember that?

The offers that have made it to the ballot stage in recent weeks, at Employment and the Australian Financial Services Authority, have been run out of town in landslide results. If offers were people they’d have been tarred-and-feathered too.

And AFSA was offering 4 per cent over three years, albeit with swingeing cuts to conditions.

The margins of the no-votes – 95 and 82 per cent respectively – gives us no reason to believe those deals would be palatable anywhere else.

The problem for departmental bosses is that they haven’t been able to cobble together cuts-and-wages packages tough enough to get past the Public Service Commission, Finance Department, and  minister Eric  Abetz, who all need to approve any offer before it can be put to workers.

The effect on all of this of having a new Public Service Commissioner, John Lloyd, who thinks job security is a quaint anachronism, remains to be seen.

Public servants at big workplaces, such as Defence and the Tax Office, are getting restless. There is no sign of an offer for them, they were expecting something at least this year and, because the bargaining framework bans back-pay, they’re facing an open-ended wage freeze.

It’s starting to look vindictive.

The CPSU has been warning  for weeks about “spreading unrest” but what is unclear is the union’s ability to harness the unhappiness that is so clearly present in public service offices around the country.

The union, for sheer numbers, is not what it used to be.

Even where it is strong, DHS for example, any meaningful industrial action like disrupting Centrelink, Medicare or Child Support Agency payments pretty much guarantees a nasty public backlash.

Besides, it’s just not that sort of union.

On the other side, Abetz hasn’t left himself much room to manoeuvre either.

The minister’s tough rhetoric has worked him into a corner where anything less than a complete acceptance of his demands will be seen as a failure.

In recent weeks, the minister has resorted half-truths, circulating figures showing public servants’ pay has increased 42 per cent in the past 10 years, against consumer price index figures of about 28 per cent.

“The Australian community will have little sympathy for industrial action taken” by public servants who have enjoyed those pay rises, Abetz said, not bothering to mention that 42 per cent is about the same as everybody else has had over the last decade.

The rhetorical shift suggests that Abetz has given up trying to persuade public servants to see it his way and is now tailoring his message to the broader public, painting the bureaucrats as greedy and out of touch.

Digging in, it appears, for a long fight.

As 2015 dawns, we have a minister who can’t or won’t compromise, a union that lacks the strength to force the issue and a workforce wondering where this is all going to end.

None of it points to a very happy new year.