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Issue #1568      10 October 2012

Defending the public sector

2012 CPSU/CSA Union Delegates Convention – Western Australia

As people in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria were reeling from the cuts to public services and drastic cuts in public service staff numbers, over 90 delegates of the Community and Public Sector Union/Civil Service Association gathered for their annual Delegates Convention in Perth.

The Green’s Alison Xamon (centre) said that too many workers were working long hours.

In the shadow of a slowly receding resources boom the states’ public sector workforce had remained relatively unscarred by the more drastic cuts experienced by their comrades in the East. The state’s Liberal government Treasurer Troy Buswell had recently announced that he was seeking a reduction of 1,500 Full Time Equivalent positions – or roughly the amount of vacancies which currently exist in the state public sector.

The first speaker at the Convention was Professor Bill Mitchell, Director, Centre of Full Employment and Equity at University of Newcastle in New South Wales who presented the findings of the CofFEE Report: The Impact on Community Services of Staff and Service Reductions, Privatisation and Outsourcing of Public Services in Australia.

The report was commissioned by the CPSU/CSA to examine the impacts of recent attacks to the public sectors in the eastern states and foreshadowing what public sector workers in Western Australia needed to be prepared for to defend their jobs and conditions. A report based on factual evidence would arm them well in this task.

Bill Mitchell, in presenting the report to the CPSU/CSA, opened by observing, “It annoys me the lies that the polity tells about the economy”, referring to the push to run their public sectors on surplus budgets.

The private sector was championed by conservative governments as needing to be given, “room to move”. However, it is fallacious to say the private sector is more effective or more efficient than the public sector when the public sector can deliver many services more cheaply and of a higher quality than the private sector. Mitchell added that this was especially true of Public, Private Partnerships where parliament often had difficulty ascertaining exactly how money was spent because of commercial in confidence requirements. This led to corporate welfare.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s fiscal stimulus package actually did work according to the data as it, “stimulated the economy and increased economic growth and jobs.” In 2012, labour force participation rates were falling once again and as at August 2012, stood at 65.2 percent. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics figures the unemployment rate had fallen but that was due to the lower participation rate (people given up looking for work) and the fact that even one hour of work counts as being employed. This also accounts for a decrease in aggregate monthly hours worked.

Mitchell said this illustrates that, “Austerity and growth cannot work together” and “if one looks around the world today, the countries that are taking on the discourse of fiscal austerity, are the ones that are going down the gurgler quicker.”

Recent years have seen the failure of leaving the operation of the economy to market mechanisms. A vibrant well resourced and funded public sector was needed to ensure a healthy society and economy.

Branch secretary Toni Walkington followed and spoke of the increased workloads which public servants were facing in continuing to deliver public services with often decreasing funding and resources. However, polling done by the union suggests that people need, want and support keeping public services in public hands. Only 44 percent of respondents said government was too large but also 80 percent said markets can’t solve all issues.

To this end Ms Walkington spoke of a campaign to engage the community to defend the services which the public need and expect – the Save Our Services (SOS) campaign – and challenge myths on privatisation, contracting out and outsourcing. The campaign will run along the lines of the Your Rights at Work campaign, though it is hoped that unlike that campaign, the SOS campaign will continue amongst activist union delegates and community activists.

Delegates from three agencies, Dental Health Services, Department of Transport Vehicle Licensing and Child Protection gave presentations of struggles which they have had with lack of resources and staff.

They spoke of how they united and resisted management to hang onto their conditions and improve their working lives.

These campaigns also activated members politically and it is hoped that this activism will continue beyond the election as that is when it is projected Liberal or Labor, will make major cuts to the public sector. It is only through an organised working class and a supportive community that this battle will be won.

To help make the exercise more real for WA delegates, the next speaker was from one of the states that have been through a significant attempt to downsize the public service and reduce overall public service staff numbers.

Branch secretary of the CPSU Victoria, Karen Batt, said that members in public sectors about to receive cuts should be wary of the promises of politicians around election time about the financial status of the public service. It is a signal that they are usually considering significant cuts to the public service – in the case of Victoria it centred around their TAFE system with colleges being closed and/or increased fees, and services being given to the private sector. The union mobilised and tapped into resentment in the community about these policies.

Another reduction was the paid co-ordinators of hundreds of volunteers who managed coastal land care and the ongoing effect this will have on the environment when no one will step in to fill that breach. When Liberal Premier Ballieu came to power he began moves to stand down 4,200 full-time equivalent positions. CPSU Victoria also began a wage campaign in which the government aggressively sought to minimise and marginalise public servants through a language that demonised public servants, ie calling them bureaucrats and saying they do not contribute any economic activity to the Victorian economy.

Greens MP Alison Xamon said that too many workers were working ridiculous hours to undertake important work such as prescribed burns in parkland to prevent bushfires. Staffing reductions at the Water Corporation were also causing work to be built up or not be performed. Al Rainnie had recently returned from the United Kingdom where he said that the “extreme business efficiencies” which were part of the Big Society vision of Conservative Prime Minister Cameron went far beyond what had been contemplated or carried out in Queensland, Victoria or New South Wales.

The sacking of workers, their displacement to the armies of unemployment, coupled with the steep rise in some services, have caused massive social upheaval in the whole of the British Isles.  

Next article – Youth rising

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