Rudd won’t save jobs in the public service

Despite its promise to create jobs in the economic downturn, the Rudd government is imposing job cuts on the federal public service.
Cuts of 3.25 per cent in each department, or as the government calls them “efficiency dividends”, imposed in last year’s budget have resulted in job cuts and increased workloads for staff.
Around 130 jobs were cut in the Tax Office in January as management scrambled to make savings to meet their 3.25 per cent budget cut.
The department has also revealed a major restructuring plan in its Operations Division designed to cut wage costs. Unions have estimated 3000 job losses would be necessary under the plan.
This comes after two decades where governments have demanded “efficiency savings” every year in the public service, stretching all the way back to the days of Hawke and Keating.
The result is that in most departments any genuine efficiencies were made years ago—so agencies are forced to make cuts to basic operations.

Neo-liberal razor gang
This year’s budget is expected to impose more cuts, and has been dubbed by Finance Minister Lindsey Tanner “Razor Gang stage two”.
In a recent address to the National Press Club, he proudly recalled how, “since we’ve been in office, we’ve cut over $4 billion from the cost of running government.”
In the Immigration department up to 1000 jobs look set to be cut in this year’s budget. Management has already written to all staff announcing that major savings must be made.
The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) has launched an “Essential Services” campaign against the cuts. It aims to mobilise union members to demand properly resourced public services.
As the CPSU campaign points out, demand for services like Centrelink and Medicare will rise with more people joining the ranks of the unemployed as the economic crisis bites.
The government’s cost cutting approach demonstrates that its commitment to neo-liberalism continues, despite Kevin Rudd’s declarations that its time has passed.
At the same time as it is trying to inflate the economy with its multi-billion dollar spending packages, the government is calling for “savings” and cutting jobs in the public service.
Public services are crucial to cushioning the blow as hundreds of thousands of working class people are thrown out of work or forced to take pay cuts.
And directly employing more workers in public service jobs would be the fastest way the government could create jobs to ease unemployment.
By James Supple


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    This is a comment I originally made in regards to the ‘Is Rudd Returning to Real Social Democracy?’ feature in the February 2009 issue of Solidarity. I think it fits appropriately with this article. I’ve slightly re-edited here, hoping that it will now appear in under the Feedback section of the Solidarity website.

    I want to elaborate on the meaning of the so-called ‘efficiency dividend’. As James Supple points out in this article, federal agencies of the APS were told to tighten their belts in accordance to an ‘efficiency dividend’ of 3.25% in the 2008 Federal Budget. I basically take that to mean cut-backs in the agencies spending of 3.25% relative to living standards – I stand to be corrected on this minor detail and not lose the essence of my argument.

    In a capitalist system that inherently suffers from regular crises in profitability, and is generally underpinned by more obscurred longer term trends towards lower profitability, then it follows that proponents of the system have to look for ways to maintain profitability. In the real economy this can be achieved by cut-backs on workers pay and conditions. In the agencies of the APS I’d argure these cut-backs come under the misleadingly titled and innocously sounding ‘efficiency dividend’.

    What does efficiency mean? To the captalist it most often means cost minimisation. Cost efficiency may be achieved in the short term in the way that capitalists compete with each other for the limited market shares in things, investing in the development of new technology that increases the productivity of the labour producing these things (i.e increases the relative exploitation of workers), and laying off costly workers in the process.

    But what happens when the efficiency gains from this relative exploitation begin to fail – perhaps
    due to staleness in an aging capitalism, or environmental stresses feeding back on the capabilities of the system, among other possible reasons? They can still layoff workers, but the net effect of a technological staleness is that those workers who remain employed have to work harder if there are cost efficiency gains to be had for capital. They can also cut wages relative to living standards. Both of these options represent an increase in absolute exploitation of the workforce. Additionally, valuable services can also be cut.

    The consequences and severity for workers of these essentialy pro-capital policies will quantitatively vary in accordance to the unique circumstances of each public agency. In the Bureau of Meteorology, where I’m employed, workers have been offered a pay rise of a mere 3% per annum. Negotiations for the Bureau’s Certified Agreement on pay and conditions have continually been delayed, as executive management almost purely under the dictates of capital are reported to be keep walking away from the negotiating table, saying that they can’t afford to offer workers a higher wage increase, and accusing the workers of being “unreasonable” in their demands for a better offer.

    In the Bureau job cuts appear to have been achieved so far without making workers redundant. These cuts are achieved by not replacing workers as fast as they are leaving. Some workers have retired and others have been lured by the incentives of capital to take flight out of the Bureau. Simply, public services can have difficulty holding onto their valuable resources in an economy dictated by capital.

    Cost efficiency in the Bureau is arguably also gained by shifting resources to other sections of the agency, and this can involve a shift to different geographical regions, disrupting workers who desire settling down in one region. A recent proposal put forward by the executive management is the relocation of many weather observers from regional centres to capital cities. The proportion of these shifts that are due to cost effiency is complicated by the fact that the Bureau has a responsibility in fulfilling objectives towards providing a quality public service. Executive management may use language that suggests these changes are to ensure that the Bureau keeps up with the requirements of modern society and the like. But one can’t stop help thinking that underpinning the predominantly neoliberal agenda of the Australian government that there is a cost-cutting motivation behind the relocation human resources.

    Workers, to some degree, have resisted taking on larger work loads as staff levels are gradually run down. The solution to this resistance has been to stop providing some services. At the same time there is an increased demand for more services in order to cater for the agency’s public and registered users objectives. One can clearly observe a contradiction being fought out between the objectives of capital and those objectives fulfilling the provisions of a quality public service.

    People often complain about the quality of the services of the various public agencies. This may be long waits to speak to an operator on the telephone or the reservation of a complaint for a service delivered, such as a weather forecast. But has one ever contemplated that underpinning an apparent deficiency in service quality may be the lack of sufficient funding – insuffient funding in compliance with capital-fulfilling objectives of the agency. If there were more workers employed, then there can be more prompt attendance to public telephone enquires. If agencies were allocated more funds, then they have greater ability to act to improve the delivery of services.

    Getting labour to work harder, and cutting valuable services, has to at some point come at a cost to the quality of the services that the agency delivers. Tired and overworked labour may be too stressed, and lack the energy and time to achieve the delivery of higher quality services – energy and time needed to engage in projects aiming to develop the quality of delivery. It can be perceived as degrading and dehumanising for workers only having time to fulfil the objectives of capital, an agenda of cost-cutting at the expense of quality. It is within the innate capacity of workers to critically review and change the way that they and society do things, providing for the real democratic input into things, and not merely having to be subjected to the exploits of capital for the rest of their working life.

    Overall, we see that efficiency for capital is an ideologically narrow definition that serves to maximise the return to capital, potentially neglecting the quality of things, and exploiting workers. An efficiency measure that doesn’t serve the needs of capital, and instead being compatible with the innate capicity of humans to be democratic, is an efficiency maximised by a fully
    employed society that is critically engaged in the issues and decision making that effects everyone, solving environmental problems and alleviating society from economically exploitative forms.


    On the one hand we are being told that the purpose of the stimulus package is to create or save jobs, but on the other hand there is talk of more cuts to the funding of APS agencies in future federal budgets. I get the feeling that Rudd’s stimulus package will be largely misallocated in giving concessions to the private or financial sector (i.e concessions to wounded capital).

    Instead, we can demand that a proportion of Rudd’s economic stimulus is used to create more jobs in the public sector, providing for public services that meet the basic material needs and security of every worker, and eliminating poverty. The so-called ‘efficiency dividend’, which has a track record of serving the needs of capital at the expense of societal well-being, can be abolished.

    Economic stimulii can also be channelled into nationalising companies that employ many workers, such as Pacific Brands, where unemployment as such may have discernibly negative effects on aggregate spending of goods and services through other parts of the economy, leading to more job losses. We can also demand the construction of more publicly affordable housing, having the double effect of taking some burden off neglected sections of the working class and creating jobs for construction workers. Along with public spending, this can provide the buoyancy needed to save the beloved capital of the ownership classes, temporarily
    alleviating, or at most postponing the inherent tendencies of capital to crises. More importantly however, is the benefits of guaranteeing job security, a security that is one of the main imperatives we should demand of any government stimulus package.

    As James Supple pointed out in this article, one of the major unions servicing the Bureau of Meteorology, the CPSU, recently launched an ‘essential services’ campaign, a campaign taking a critical slant on the “efficiency dividend”, shedding light on how this dividend is contributing towards the degeneration of the quality of services that the APS produce. We have to keep in mind that CPSU officials, as with officials in other unions, generally have interests that are not necessarily the same as those who produce the things of value in society – the workers. The ‘essential services’ campaign is one area where workers can support the CPSU, but at the same time realising the limitations of the CPSU to the extent that their officials have economic interests that differ from ordinary workers. Overcoming these limitations would require an organised workforce that consciously shapes the agenda that workers demand of their unions. If the proposed union strategy is insufficient in meeting workers’ demands, then this needs to be discussed among workers’ themselves. Sufficiency would require that the governments neoliberal agenda is put in check, or rolled back, and any union strategy that falls short of this will be rendered insufficient in providing for healthier public services.

    The sentiment of many workers in the Bureau of Meteorology is overwhelmingly against having their pay and conditions subjected to the dictates of capital. However, the consciousness of most of these workers is not one where they recognise this adverse relationship between their interests and those of capital. The challenge will be in resolving this consciousness into a form where the workers see their interests as those of a working class in contradiction with the needs of capital.

    I’m in agreement with James Supple – despite the talk of Rudd’s stimulus package as representing a move to the left – that the neoliberal agenda of the Australian government is likely to continue. The talk of more cuts to public spending at future federal budgets’ would support this claim, as cuts in such spending is complicit with neoliberalism. For as long as neoliberalism is the main show in town the likelihood of achieving workers’ demands will be remote. The only force capable of challenging the neoliberal order are organised workers that dictate their needs and desires to unions for the common good.


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