November 12, 2020

When the bushfires and COVID-19 hit, Australia's public service was struggling under the weight of seven years of Liberal-National cuts and mismanagement. By the end of 2019, the government had slashed 18,000 APS jobs since it took office, including cutting 1,705 APS jobs in regional areas. In 2019 alone, it cut 2,270 staff from Services Australia and 1,260 staff from the ATO. So, instead of having a strong public service ready for a crisis, we had to scramble. In March we saw shocking images of queues around the block at Centrelink offices as people desperately tried to access services. Hundreds of thousands of people were unable to access the myGov website because of capacity issues. It was so bad that the minister initially tried to blame hackers, only to later concede that he'd got it wrong. In this budget the government has had to give top-up funding to essential government agencies just so that they can maintain their core operations. This seems to be an admission that the staffing cuts along with the $9 million in funding cuts through the efficiency dividend have gone too far. Minister, my first question is: why did it take an unprecedented health and economic disaster for the government to admit that it has run down the public service to an unsustainable level?

During the same period the government slashed the size of the public service, it's spending on contractors and consultants doubled. Contractors and consultants engaged by this government now cost taxpayers around $5 billion per year. Some of the most important service delivery departments and agencies now have an extraordinarily high reliance on contractors rather than APS staff. At the Department of Veterans' Affairs, over 40 per cent of staff are engaged through labour hire firms—40 per cent. At the aged-care regulator, 27 per cent of staff are temporary contractors. These agencies are trying to support our veterans and keep aged-care residents safe during COVID-19, yet this government continues to impose arbitrary caps on the number of public servants they can hire, forcing them to resort to temporary staffing arrangements. My questions to the minister are: when will this government finally admit that its policy to cut staffing levels has been a total failure, and why are taxpayers spending so much money on fees for labour hire companies to do little more than put public servants onto their books as contractors?