If you work for the Queensland Public Service, you’re lucky to be getting a pay cheque, and you know it, because the Premier has told you that. According to the Brisbane Times yesterday, Premier Newman
Premier Newman’s slash and burn solution to the Labor Government’s economic legacy is to cut – cut – cut. I’ve lost track of the number of projects and programmes that have been seen funding cut or cancelled altogether. Underlying all of that has been the constant threat that public service jobs were in danger."…argued the state employed 20,000 more public servants than it could afford, following Friday’s report by the Peter Costello-led financial commission of audit."
Peter Costello’s interim report on Queensland’s economic position was released last week, giving the government more certainty of their financial position. According to the report, the Queensland Government is employing 20,000 more public servants that it can afford to pay: not 20,000 public servants more than Queensland needs, just 20,000 more than we can afford. As of March 2012, Queensland had a little over 200,000 public servants. Apparently we can’t afford about 10% of them.
At this stage, the Premier says he is trying to protect those jobs, and warns public servants and their unions not to ask for pay rises.
So what’s the point? Why would the Premier be making big nasty noises with big nasty numbers, and scaring every single public servant in Queensland unless he’s trying to soften the ground in front of an even nastier announcement?
In fact, we didn’t have to wait for the next scary announcement.
"The Premier said the former government was paying for 20,000 full-time-equivalent public servants with debt and referred to the state as heading towards “the blackest of all black abysses” in regard to its financial position."
Black black black black blackity black.
On Monday, when Fairfax announced that it was terminating 1,900 employees, there was a lot of talk, possibly fuelled by the fact that the people whose jobs were threatened are the same people who bring us the news. In any case, 1,900 is a big number, and a genuine blow to the entire industry. I wouldn’t want to be studying journalism right now; it’s a shrinking market.
Twenty thousand is more than ten times bigger, but when it comes to jobs, it’s a concept many of us can’t comprehend. Twenty thousand is the entire population of Armidale, in New South Wales. Can you imagine an entire town – including kids, grandparents, part-time workers, and both staff and students at the University of New England – being told their jobs are under threat because we can’t afford to pay them?
So what are these jobs?
I doubt that it’s been decided, but we do know that the Queensland Public Service encompasses over 200,000 workers in a wide array of roles. The average wage for a Queensland Public Servant is around over $80,000. Multiply that across 20,000 full-time equivalent roles, and Mr Newman is talking about Queensland having to borrow $1.6 billion to meet its payroll for that 20,000 workers that he says we can’t afford.
But can we afford to do without those roles? The clichéd picture of a public servant is the desk-bound pencil pusher in a beige cardigan. The Queensland Public Service consists of jobs in Health, Education, Police, Justice, Economic Development, Environment, Museums and Galleries, Transport, Roads, and more, as well as the bureaucrats you’ve probably pictured. Details of the QPS Workforce are here. These people provide necessary services that we expect from our state government, and while it’s usually possible to find efficiencies and savings that allow an organisation to trim the headcount, there’s also a limit.
Cut past that point, and frontline service levels fall. For now, we might be talking about a few less back office bean counters that take longer to prepare reports for their middle-management bureaucrat bosses, but at some point, it starts to hurt. It starts to matter. I'd even argue that it's not a bad thing to have a little depth on the bench, a little wiggle room in the back office. It gives an organisation flexibility, which is what the Queensland Government needs most right now.
Premier Newman’s dire predictions that Queensland is sinking towards the inky depths of despair is undoubtedly alarmist, but what is his worst case scenario? Is it larger class sizes, longer hospital waiting lists, fewer police, dangerous roads? Is it rising unemployment (and $1.6b dollars less circulating through and stimulating the Queensland economy)? Or is it simply a wages bill we still can’t afford to pay?
Frankly, the most acceptable of those options is the wages bill we can’t afford. Premier Newman must keep the state functioning, growing, while we work our way back out of debt. Protect those jobs at all costs. Don’t pay off the state debt to prove that you can, while the careers of Queensland public servants pile up in your blackest of black abysses.