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We Need a Stronger State

Melissa Donnelly

Throughout COVID-19, with jobless queues skyrocketing, small businesses under pressure and uncertainty at the borders, our communities looked to the public sector more than ever before. 

The pandemic proved, what many progressives already know, to have a strong society we need a strong public sector.

As we now start to look beyond the pandemic there are opportunities in our recovery – opportunities to rebuild our national capacity, create secure jobs and address the of fault lines of inequality in our society.

The public sector is a crucial piece of this puzzle.

Indeed, to deliver on the promise of the ALP platform, a future Labor Government will need a strong public service.

Creating new public sector jobs and ensuring existing jobs provide job security and good wages and conditions is essential for economic recovery. This is particularly true for women and Australians in regional areas, who have so far been left behind in the Morrison Government’s response.

After years of cuts and ideological attacks there is much work to do. Since 2013 over 12,000 jobs have been cut from the federal public service because of the Morrison Government’s staffing cap.  

This cap is driving the privatisation of our public services and an increase in insecure jobs. Even at the height of the pandemic, when the nation desperately needed job creation, the Morrison Government single-mindedly pursued privatisation and insecure work.

The Morrison Government’s ideological approach to the public sector is not only apparent in the staffing cap and privatisation, but also in its obsession with attacking and undermining key national institutions such as the ABC, the CSIRO, and Bureau of Meteorology. 

A Labor Government will need to undo the damage wrought by the Morrison Government’s policies – rebuilding public sector capacity, increasing the number of direct, permanent public sector jobs and reducing the use of outsourcing and contracting out.

As we look to the big challenges facing an incoming Labor Government, the role of the government and the public sector in turning the economic tide and our fight against climate change cannot be overstated.  

We have lost considerable ground over the last eight years, with action and mitigation replaced with budget cuts and party rhetoric. Since being elected the Coalition Government’s total budgeted expenses for public sector agencies and departments that deal with climate change have been cut by over $3 billion per annum. 

Institutional infrastructure has been degraded with cuts to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the abolition of the Climate Commission, the defunding of the Climate Change Authority and the axing of programs such as the Energy Efficiency Opportunities program. These actions must be reversed if we are to have a chance of meeting our international obligations.  

Good Labor Governments know that the public service has a critical role as a risk mitigator, enabler of innovation, anchor of support for regional communities during transitions, and a leader through its own actions.  

Leading by example, a future Labor Government should commit to a carbon-neutral public service.

Climate change is and will continue to exacerbate existing inequalities, making further investment in regional areas and public services critical.  Regional communities, already hard hit by the COVID-19 recession, need support to make the changes necessary. 

In regional areas especially we know investment in public service jobs boosts local economies. Research from the Australia Institute shows that for every APS job created a further 1.79 direct jobs are created in that local community.

That is why there must be a stronger and larger role for the public sector assisting the transition of those employed in carbon intensive industries and prioritising new public sector jobs in these regions.  

Creating more frontline roles in Services Australia, the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) and the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) will improve access to services and ensure these towns can sustain themselves in a lower carbon economy. 

The opportunity at this Conference is to chart a course on the public service that delivers for the Australian community – one that create secure decent jobs, values our public institutions, and offers the nation a way forward on climate change.

In stark contrast to the low road we have seen from the Morrison Government – privatising services, slashing staffing and budgets, increasing the precarity of work and cutting wages.

Our actions at this Conference will determine the agenda and capacity of our nation after the next election.  Labor must proudly and unreservedly back the public sector. It is only by doing that, that we will be able to achieve our broader vision and see this platform become a reality.

Melissa Donnelly is the National Secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, the union that represents APS, ACTPS and NTPS employees.


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