The shimmering heat haze and red dirt roads of Alice Springs seem like a world away from the morning fog and paved parallel streets of Canberra.
And in a lot of ways they are.
But on a recent trip to the Red Centre with shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, I saw how the resources of the public service, based primarily in Canberra but spread out across the country, impact the lives of those miles away who rely on government services.
People who had trekked in from all around the area queued up inside Warren Snowdon’s electorate office in the middle of town to use a phone to get in touch with Centrelink.
Then, in a tiny side room, they’d take turns to sit on hold.
It was confronting sight that doesn’t belong, but is all too common, in the rural and regional parts of our country.
And it was a sobering reminder that the work done by our public servants and the services they provide are just as important to those who live walking distance away from the federal buildings in our nation’s capital as they are to people who would have to drive constantly for more than a day to get to them.
We expect the Australian Public Service to provide quality services, policy advice and implementation, and financial management.
Our public servants are dedicated, hardworking professionals who do their best.
But recent developments have diminished the public service’s capacity and damaged its ability to perform these key functions.
Blunt policy instruments to rein in costs, like the Liberals’ arbitrary ASL cap, have created false economies. As a consequence, we’ve seen spending on contractors and consultants blow out substantially at the same time as this practice is becoming less transparent.
Service levels have deteriorated and information technology changes have been botched.
Unanswered calls to Centrelink have more than doubled – up from 22 million in 2014-15 to 55 million in 2016-17; the ATO website has repeatedly crashed; the roll out of the My Health records is chaotic; the 2016 online census failed; and, of course, 20,000 people were issued with false or incorrect debts due to the robo-debt debacle.
Decentralisation has been bungled, the use of data to drive better social policy outcomes has been found wanting, and politicisation has reached dangerous new lows.
On top of all of this, Australians expect more than ever from their public service, including important services such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
All of these things, understandably, have consequences for the morale of our public servants.
The Independent Review of the Australian Public Service is a welcome opportunity to reflect on these challenges.
But it shouldn’t be used as a stalking horse for more ideologically-motivated cuts to services, or as an excuse to delay much-needed action to get the public service back on track.
We don’t need the review to tell us what we already know or to deal with the more pressing challenges.
That’s why on Thursday I’m announcing a range of ways Labor will address the concerns that have plagued the APS over the past five years and ensure the public service is best placed to serve Australians.
That includes reining in wasteful spending on contractors and consultants. The work of the public service should predominantly be done by public servants. We’ll rein in contracts for management, business professionals and administrative services.
Agencies will ensure APS employees take on a greater role in IT projects. All up, well save hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars.
And it includes abolishing the Liberals’ arbitrary cap on public service staffing numbers. Just like businesses determine staffing levels based on an overall budget and operational requirements, the APS should do the same.
We need a public service that has the experience, expertise and resources it needs to help deliver the services people rely on, whether they’re in the centre of the country, our capital, or beyond.
This opinion piece was originally published in the Canberra Times on Thursday, 9 August 2018.