Governments Rush To Retrench Criticised
By Kate Hannon (The Courier-Mail, 30/6/1999)

THE Federal Government's haste to cut public servant numbers led to $711 million in redundancy payments for about 20,000 staff over three years.

An Auditor-General's report has criticised a lack of planning which left government departments and agencies with low morale and reluctant to introduce changes.

It said the poor planning had allowed large numbers of experienced staff to leave without thought as to how to replace their expertise.

"It was common to determine the number of retrenchments required on the basis of budget constraints in a given year," the Auditor-General said.

During the 1996 election campaign, then Opposition Leader John Howard forecast public service cuts of 2500 over three years through natural attrition.

Last month, Auditor-General Pat Barrett attacked the cuts and contracting out of services as eroding the ability of public servants to monitor government programmes. In a newspaper interview, he said there was a concern about whether "Parliament has sufficient assurance" that public administration was suitably accountable in this atmosphere.

The audit report also said the average age of public servants was now over 40 because recruitment had been reduced to its lowest level in 10 years. This couples with the loss of experienced staff and the larger proportion with less than two years' experience had "the potential to affect the agencies' ability to conduct their business in the longer term."

The Opposition last night seized on the report saying the Government's "slash and burn" had caused the problems with new policies on nursing homes, Austudy, Centrelink and the Job Network.

Opposition Senate leader John Faulkner said the cuts were carried out without any thought of the future.

"Because of the pressure, the Government applied on agencies to achieve budget reductions quickly,the vast majority of the staff reductions . . . were achieved by retrenchment rather than natural attrition," Senator Faulkner said.

The report by the Australian National Audit Office said there was anecdotal evidence some staff were being re-hired through sub-contracts, but little thought was given to redeploying these staff before they had been retrenched.

In the three years to June 1998, the federal public service was cut by 16% from 144,000 to 121,000.

An assistant national secretary of the Public Sector Union, Doug Lilly, said the lack of planning had cost Australians, especially those in regional areas, efficient public services.

"Many of them have been unnecessary cuts just driven by ideology," Mr Lilly said. "In regional Australia, the public service and banks provide the back-bone of jobs for young people in the community,"