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A Rising Tide


As a nation, Australians have faced some of our most challenging times in recent history.

We have come together to support regional communities impacted by lengthy and debilitating drought; we have survived unprecedented bushfires and started to rebuild the homes and lives of our neighbours, friends and loved ones.

Now together we face a global pandemic, a health crisis that has changed every aspect of the way we work, educate our children, care for each other, and socialise.

Over the past six months, Australians have shown resilience and compassion. And behind the actions and sacrifices of individuals, have been the people working in our public services, tirelessly acting to keep us safe and supported.

I have the privilege of leading the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) which represents our dedicated public sector workers. Much of the time their work goes unnoticed behind the scenes, so I wanted to share some stories of their work today.

Our public service is working overtime to assist in crisis response and recovery nationwide.  

This summer’s widespread ecological disasters saw unprecedented damage to communities and the environment.  Lives were lost, homes were burnt or flooded, and animals and their habitats have been decimated.

We saw fire and smoke grip the nation like never before. And it felt like we collectively held our breath for relief from the skies. But what I noticed through the summer is the nation looked to first responders and essential services run by public sector workers for clarity and action.

During that time, our ABC was operating across the nation, in all emergency zones, bringing communities lifesaving information and updates.

The Bureau of Meteorology was working through the night to keep front line responders safer with the most up-to-date weather reports and forecasts for all fire zones across the nation. In a typical summer, they would receive an average of 2-4 incident forecast requests per day, this summer it was 14-19 a day.

The BOM Global and National Science Relationships team were also able to obtain unprecedented access to real-time, high-resolution imagery of fire fronts from the Japan Meteorological Agency, this made a huge difference.

While the world watches a pandemic unfold, thousands of people are still rebuilding their lives. And staff at the Department of Human Services are still assisting those impacted by the traumatic fires and floods - on the ground, as well as on the phones.

Over the last seven years the government has cut APS staffing by nearly 19,000 jobs, or 11.4%, so prior to this devastating summer these workplaces were already struggling. Yet, amid years of a staffing cap and budget and staffing cuts, our members have been striving to fill the gap.

Now as the nation comes to terms with the impacts of COVID-19 internationally and locally, our public sector workers are stepping up again.

Services Australia workers are slogging their guts out to help the hundreds of thousands of people who have lost their jobs. The ATO is helping small business access programs to keep their doors open and their employees paid.

The NDIA is calling over 62,000 vulnerable participants to ask if they need any additional support, including occupational therapists or additional support workers.

The CSIRO have done over a year’s worth of work in two months exploring a coronavirus vaccine. Quarantine Officers have been keeping our borders safe at airports with health screening. And the Department of Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs is helping bring Australians home from across the globe.

SBS has been ensuring all Australians have the most up to date information in their native tongue. ABC is providing round the clock critical analysis, and education tools for parents’ home schooling. And the Australian Bureau of Statistics has rolled out a national survey on the effects of COVID-19 in just 10 days, a project that would have previously taken months to launch.

And for as long as this list is, those not mentioned is undoubtedly just as long.

Across the country, our members are working to keep the nation moving. And communities around the country are looking to the public sector at this troubled time, more than ever before.

But our members have been working from crisis to crisis, with little reprieve; first Robodebt, drought, bushfires, and now COVID-19. All of this comes on top of business-as-usual work for which, even under normal circumstances, there are quite simply not enough permanent staff. 

These last six months have been hard for all of us, but our dedication and Australian spirit has shone through. As the curve continues to flatten and we look to rebuild, our public sector is going to be key.

Now is the time to invest again in our national growth, and the APS is ready to take up the challenge. That is why we need to see increased investment in essential public services and jobs, just as we saw after similar periods of global downturn.

After the Second World War there was an expanded role of the Commonwealth in health care, tertiary education, housing, and employment that we take for granted now. IMF figures show that in 1939 Commonwealth government expenditure was 5.39% of GDP, and it increased to 12.72% by 1949.

The CPSU wants to see a replication of this expansion, with a focus on regional Australia. This opportunity for expanded APS services in our regions was also supported by Anthony Albanese in his most recent speech and is a critical opportunity for Labor as we look beyond the current health crisis.

Creating more frontline roles in the Department of Human Services (DHS), the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) will ensure quick access to services and ensure these towns can rebuild.

There are opportunities in this recovery. A stronger public service with better in-house capacity and IT that won’t see Government websites crashing at the first surge, and hours and hours on phone queues is a good start.

Employment, training, and an industrial relations program that supports high skill, low carbon economic growth with secure jobs should be an aspiration across our community. These are just some of the areas where the role of the public service will be critical to our rebuilding.

And the public sector can be the rising tide that lifts all boats – the private sector will bounce back more quickly if there is stronger, better resourced public service there to facilitate that reconstruction. Let’s not miss the opportunity to do this.

Melissa Donnelly is National Secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union. Twitter


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