Thursday, October 09, 2008

Public service balloons in Qld

Queensland has undoubtedly been one of Australia's boom states in the past 10 years, accounting for one third of Australia's growth.

As the population grows from Cairns through to Coolangatta, Queensland not only has a bigger economic base, but a greater cosmopolitan feel to it as well.

Queensland's economic growth is outpacing that of NSW and Victoria, and the unemployment rate is at its lowest for a generation.  While the economy still depends on mining and farming, the growth of services has also led to an increasingly diverse industrial base.

Queensland public servants have also had good times over the past 10 years.  Since the Beattie Labor government was elected in 1998, the number of bureaucrats has risen by more than 44,000 to a grand total of 261,500 in 2006/07, an increase of about 21 per cent over the life of the Beattie-Bligh tenure.  Looking at the core Queensland Public Service, numbers have risen from about 162,400 in 1998/99 to about 211,600 in 2006/07.

As bureaucrat numbers grew, the QPS has become a mish-mash of new agencies, expanded agencies (wine development, anyone!) together with old agencies with new names.  The Mines and Energy Department turned into Natural Resources and Mines, then Natural Resources, Mines and Energy, then Natural Resources and Mines, then Natural Resources, Mines and Water, and back to Mines and Energy.

Queensland's bureaucrats have also forged ahead on the wages front.  The amount of government funds to pay employee expenses has risen from about $9 billion in 1998/99 to about $15 billion in 2006/07, or a whopping 77 per cent over the period.

Total average weekly earnings of those working in the private sector have actually declined as a proportion of earnings for government workers.

A noticeable trend over the past year or so in all states is the increasingly vociferous campaigning by public sector unions seeking more pay at taxpayers' expense.  Whether it is public hospital staff or other bureaucrats striking for higher wages, or school teachers over housing accommodation in the far north, public sector unions realised long ago that governments are an easy target.

The taxpayer inevitably loses out, either through the inconvenience posed by stop-work campaigns or the greater fiscal burden to fund extra bureaucrat salaries.

Bureaucrat numbers and salaries are well up, but there is so little to show for it.  On any major performance indicator -- such as school student benchmark test results, waiting times for treatment at public hospitals, complaints about policing services or peak-hour travel times on major city roads -- it is clear that the service outcomes are mixed at best.  Indeed, on some indicators, Queensland has gone backwards compared with other states.

If taxpayers are to get real value for money, the unrestrained growth of the state's bureaucracy and wage conditions has to end at some time.  While State Treasurer Andrew Fraser denies it, the present global economic slowdown could hit the Government's budget bottom line through lower revenue growth.  This scenario would expose the State Government's record of lax spending, and finally force its hand to trim the excess fat out of its public service.


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