Premier promises to “walk and chew gum”, steps in it instead
That was the claim Premier Rockliff made just weeks before his State Budget: that funding for a stadium would not come at the cost of addressing the need to fund our public services. That claim appears to have fallen apart, with the $240 million in the budget for the Premier’s stadium overshadowed by more than $300 million in cuts to public services through an ‘efficiency dividend.’ Members wrote in demanding answers.
“First off, a dividend is a payment that a shareholder receives. Government Departments are “Departments” not GBEs. So how can this be a dividend if the government is simply choosing not to spend money on vital services?”
“The efficiency dividends are a joke and ignore the hyperinflation environment in which we all are operating. Health is in a death spiral whereby we have to get contractors in to do specialist work, at a far greater cost, as we have not built this capacity in within the Department and are now reliant on contract staff.”
Unions Tasmania’s Jessica Munday was also quick to call out this classic weasel word: Your questions about the impact on jobs was put directly to the Premier in Estimates:
Well, that’s nice. Calling all Tasmanians: do you feel reassured? We expect these members did not:
“Health HR is so incredibly stretched that even if you have applicants and vacant permanent roles available, it takes FOREVER to get people into front line service roles, even where these are funded and ‘supported’ by Government. By successively gutting the services that support our frontline services, Government is preventing things from working the way they should, let alone getting better.
“How are agencies are supposed to deliver services with an efficiency dividend when we’re already struggling to attract staff and secure full time, permanent positions? …. All areas of my Department need staff, yet the best we can offer is all these short term contracts, we then act surprised when people leave for a better offer.”
Frontline? Backline? Where’s the line?
With the Premier’s repeated claims ‘frontline’ services will be protected from his ‘efficiency dividend’, it’s no surprise members wanted some clarification: what exactly does he consider the ‘frontline’? Here’s how another member put it:
“I manage projects and write policy to support frontline services. The frontline services don’t have the capacity, resourcing or skills to do these things themselves… and yet project people and services, and other agency processes and services will disappear under these efficiency requirements.”
Sarah Lovell MLC put your concerns directly to Premier Rockliff:
That has to be a non-answer for the history books.
We learned from the pandemic that there is no ‘front line’ or ‘back line’. There’s one line. There’s no doubt that there’s efficiencies to be made in the public sector. But it’s in productivity gains and IT, not cutting jobs. Blanket cuts lead directly to events like a third of the state’s ambulances having failing brakes; or our state’s fire commission headquarters not having an evacuation plan.
Not only do ‘efficiency dividends’ not work, as The Australia Institute’s Matt Grudnoff pointed out in their post-budget wrap, “they’re the laziest of cuts: it’s the kind of cut you use when you can’t be bothered to find out where you can actually find good savings.”
Not only are agencies faced with 0.6% of their budgets being wiped away. Not only are those budgets being deliberately indexed below CPI (another cut by stealth). They also have to contend with the Premier’s plan to reduce public sector staffing to 30 June 2022 levels.
Another CPSU member was quick to point out the “efficiencies” the Rockliff Government seems all too willing to overlook, given their track record for splashing millions on external consulting firms like PWC and KPMG. Successive cuts to the public service over many years have increased the State Service reliance on external consultancies and reduced our capability:
“The use of consultants means that State Service staff are not being offered opportunities to use their skills and hard-won institutional knowledge. It is in effect de-skilling the State Service as the consultants develop their skills and then depart to use them elsewhere. The consultants are also not accountable in the same manner as TSS employees and the ease and speed of the departure results in lack of hand over and transition of important lessons and knowledge.”
Following the revelation the Premier nearly $3 million on consultants and advertising between 1 January 2022 and 31 October 2022, the Opposition proposed to freeze spending on consultants at 2020 levels, saving an estimated $120 million.
Not the kind of efficiency the Premier has set his sights on.
Another member asked: “I’d appreciate questioning on the increased and ever increasing use of consultants to undertake work that could be performed by state service staff. It is my opinion that contracts with private consultants and consulting forms are used obscure the issue staff vacancies and the impact these losses are having on service delivery. It allows the departments to say savings have been achieved via natural attrition i.e. staff leaving and their positions not being advertised and filled so overall it looks as there is a reduction in FTE.”
Again, we got the question put directly to the Premier:
Leaving aside the Head of the State Service’s somewhat disconcerting halting familiarity with the State Service Act 2000, the Premier was content to hide behind this answer instead of providing one himself. We’ll have to wait for the Treasurer’s Annual Financial Report for the facts.
Child Safety in Crisis
Members in Child Safety want to know what steps the Government is going to take to fix the recruitment and retention crisis facing their service. With no additional funding for staffing until 2025-26, the State Budget nothing for this service that is at breaking point today.
“When are CSS going to get the funds and personal required to deliver training and professional learning required?”
“Every week we are losing staff at Strong Families Safe Kids Advice and Referral Line. This largely because the work is extremely stressful, there is a high demand on the service and workers feel undervalued. We train up staff only to lose them after a few years if lucky. The remaining staff are left to pick up the burden and carry the heavy load. This causes burn out. What is the Rockliff Government intending to do to address this massive retention problem?”
We got no answers, but in the state with the single-highest substantiation rate for child safety referrals in the country, coupled with lengthening waits between referrals and investigations, the Minister showed us how in touch he is with reality:
We’re not waiting for answers. Check out this week’s story on Child Safety workers who have headed to Canberra to lobby for a national workforce plan to address the recruitment and retention crisis facing child safety.
We thank each and every member who got in touch with questions. Your voice matters, and through our collective voice as union members we’re able to get direct access to decision-makers (and the public) in forums like these where a lone voice cannot.
As CPSU General Secretary Thirza White writes this week, Budget Estimates has fallen far from its intended purpose of providing transparency to the Tasmanian community into how projects are being funded and delivered. Instead of actions we saw a week of prepared statements, re-announcements, goalpost-moving and question dodging.
That’s why, if we believe in the principle of a public sector that is “frank and fearless,” it’s up to us to step up and speak out.
Public Services Watch is a new tool developed by the CPSU for workers to raise their concerns around service disruptions and failures disadvantaging or putting our communities at risk. Whether it’s vacancies left unfilled, program cuts, outsourcing to labour hire, political overreach, impact of unmet demand, or anything else.
You can find it at https://www.cpsu.com.au/pswatch/ You can submit evidence confidentially. We’ll use it to show the Tasmanian community how widespread the problem is and to advocate for change.
These words from a member underline just how important it is:
“Thanks for all the work you do to support us and look after us. It’s much appreciated. I want to do the work to change the world and make it a better place … and it’s hard when we do this despite the systems we work for, and the Government we work for, rather than it supporting us to do those things.”