Massive Cuts to Health and Education: a Tale of Two Cities and One Party
I believe that it's healthy for people to have their support for a particular political party tested every now and then. Those who blindly follow a party or a cause and never question its direction do themselves no favours. Anyone who has read my blog or heard my public comments will know that from time to time I have quite a lot to say about how the Labor Party could lift its game. However, at the end of the day my concerns about Labor always seem so much less worrying than what the alternatives have to offer.
Tuesday was such a day. In two cities – Sydney and Brisbane – conservative Premiers took the knife to public services. They did so in a way that should alarm anyone who believes that the primary obligations of State governments are to properly educate young people and give the best care possible to the sick and disabled – regardless of their age or means. In Queensland the assault on a range of government services – particularly Health – by Premier Newman reached new levels of savagery as he announced, without a hint of concern, that a total of 14,000 public servants will lose their jobs. Of those 14,000 positions, 4,100 will go from Health.
What sort of government cuts Health services when, as we all know, demand is growing as our population ages? It is true that Labor in government increased the number of public servants during its term in office and almost half of this increase was in Health – 28,633. The second biggest contribution of jobs and funding was to Education. Labor under Beattie and Bligh can be proud of those extra staff and services. When Labor came to power Queensland was trailing in the provision of health services compared to other states and it has an ageing population which for years has been growing at a rate of more than 1,000 a week from interstate migration alone.
Newman – based on Peter Costello’s “audit” of the State’s finances – seems to suggest that because Labor put extra positions into Health that somehow it had engaged in overstaffing. What cash strapped government creates extra jobs just for the sake of it? The better argument is that Health was under resourced when Labor came into office and that these extra positions filled the service gap. The other argument being advanced by Premier Newman is that these are nonessential positions. This, frankly, is nonsense. Support and administrative staff are there to make the work of “frontline” staff more efficient and effective. Viewed that way, there really is very little, if any, difference in the importance of frontline and back office staff.
Campbell Newman’s popularity has already dropped dramatically with his dissatisfaction rating going from 19% in May to 49% in August. Who knows where it will go after the impact of these cuts sinks in?
In Sydney it was a similar story, only this time the target was Education. Premier O’Farrell announced a mind boggling $1.7 billion worth of cuts to public, Catholic and Independent schools as well as TAFE colleges. 1,800 positions in the Department of Education will go. In addition, the Catholic and independent schools will be forced to sack an undisclosed number of staff. The last time there was such an assault on education was in the years immediately following the election of the Greiner Liberal Government in 1988. Back then the Education Minister, Terry Metherell, commenced a programme of school closures which eventually saw 70 schools closed or amalgamated and 2,500 teaching and 800 ancilliary positions axed. The resultant public outcry really only subsided when both Greiner and Metherell were ignominiously forced from the government they created.
Barry O’Farrell was an adviser in the Greiner government – he saw the social dislocation caused not just by school closures but by major cuts right across the public service. Rail services were slashed and 8,000 positions abolished, 7,500 hospital beds were closed and child welfare services were cut to the bone resulting in $1 billion worth of cuts in Community Services alone. These were just some of the programmes which went over seven years of Coalition government in NSW. My real concern is that these cuts to Education are just the beginning. After all, O’Farrell’s principal adviser on infrastructure matters is Nick Greiner himself.
Unfortunately, this is the stuff of Coalition governments in Australia. They are obsessed with closing down services and where possible, outsourcing them to the private sector or just letting them wither on the vine. All in the name of balancing the books. Ironically, in NSW the State’s liabilities grew by $6 billion under the Coalition between 1988 and 1995 and for all their talk about balancing the Budget, they delivered six consecutive defits.
In the coming months there will be more dislocation – sackings will continue, services will be cut and I suspect there will be a growing sense of unease that when it comes to service and job cuts under Liberal governments around the country that history does repeat itself. The other interesting consideration for observers of national and state politics is how this will play out for the Abbott opposition. Abbott is already under pressure to turn back Labor’s workplace reforms and there are signs that he is buckling. Only two days ago Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey, reaffirmed the Coalition’s promise to cut 12,000 jobs in the Australian Public Service.
So, perversely, in the last couple of days it has been two Liberal Premiers who have served to reaffirm my belief in Labor. In the end it just comes down to values. In saying this, I don’t mean to disparage those people who support the Coalition or the Greens or other mainstream parties – thankfully we do have competing values and contestable ideas in Australia and it makes for robust debate.
However, there are days when for me the reason for supporting Labor over the other parties on offer is as plain and transparent as an empty classroom.