By Jenny Long
SYDNEY — Even before the newly re-elected Labor Party's NSW budget was released, rumours of savage cuts to the state public service were confirmed. Cuts, which will effect every department, have been announced in several departments, Sydney Water and State Rail. They involve chopping services, job losses, voluntary redundancies and relocation of departments to rural areas.
Cuts to the Department of Local Government (DLG) were announced on May 28, the first day of the annual conference of the union covering public servants. Public Service Association (PSA) officials were briefed, but did not report on the specific attack during the two-day meeting, preferring to speak more generally about expected "budget blues".
As news filtered through to the conference, central councillor Ian Jordan confronted PSA president Maurie O'Sullivan about the fact that he had been spotted at the Premier's Department the previous day, when the union was briefed by department head Colin Gellatley but, according to O'Sullivan, "no details were available".
O'Sullivan issued a written denial of rumours sweeping the DLG that he had been promised a safe seat by the ALP in return for offering minimal opposition to the attacks.
The union hurriedly released a press statement saying that the promise of jobs to the country by the new minister for local government, Harry Woods, who is also the minister for rural affairs and state and regional development, was dishonest.
A second belated press release by the PSA said it would be issuing a clear directive to members in the light of the rumours of a horror budget. O'Sullivan said that "at the middle of March we were told there was a $900 million surplus in Treasury". The government's post-election attitude, he said, was "a far cry from the euphoria of dedication to the state that inundated us prior to the March election".
The restructuring and relocation of the DLG will split the agency, shed 40% of its staff and move the remainder, only 58, to Nowra. There has been no justification for the savage cuts, which come at a time of increasing concern about corruption and mismanagement in local government.
A statement by the PSA departmental committee emphasised that these cuts will make it impossible to offer much to councils. The splitting of the department, and shifting of staff to the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning (with further job losses), will also undermine support for councils.
Neither, adds the statement, has there been any genuine rationale provided for the move to Nowra. The cutting of jobs and moving of agencies from one depressed area to another is being called "job creation". The move is an effort by the Labor government to shore up support in the marginal seat of South Coast. For the people of Bankstown, where the DLG is now, the message is "bad luck".
DLG staff have been advised that the cuts are to be absorbed by shedding key functions — chiefly in acting on individual complaints against local councils. If the cuts go through, when a member of the public complains about their council, staff will be forced to refer the complaint back to the council, rather than investigate.
The department provides advice and assistance to councils and ratepayers regarding building regulations, legislation, financial management and local government policy. It handles complaints and allegations concerning the conduct and activities of shires and councils, elected councillors and staff, and it provides financial assistance to councils in the form of $400 million in Commonwealth grants and $71 million in pensioner concessions.
Most of the state's councils are in the Sydney area. The department's staff say that moving to the country makes no sense at all.
DLG management, in collaboration with the Premier's Department, is seeking to delay as long as possible the registration of staff who cannot move for redeployment, and force them to take their annual and long service leave until they are redeployed.
Union members at the DLG sprang into action following the announcement. A June 1 meeting was attended by 52 out of 75 members, and another 16 observers who are joining the union. The meeting rejected the proposal as totally unrealistic and endorsed a PSA deputation to meet urgently and separately with the minister and DLG management.
A list of work bans affecting councils and the minister was drawn up. If there is no reversal of the decision, PSA members will be taking industrial action from June 23.
The June 1 meeting also called on the union to form urgently an interdepartmental rank and file campaign committee to coordinate a militant response. On June 14 the PSA Central Council endorsed motions from the DLG members for the work bans and an interdepartmental delegated campaign committee which will represent all departments facing cuts and relocations.
The meeting also endorsed the appointment of an industrial officer to the group, and the secondment of delegates as required.
On June 17, another union press release, also sent to members, attacked a massive cut to the Department of Gaming and Racing, announced to the PSA on May 21. Jobs controlling casinos, inspecting casinos and checking and regulating the assembly and the dividend from poker machines are to be severely reduced.
In effect, O'Sullivan noted, poker machine payouts will be regulated by the manufacturer of the machines. "Gambling in NSW is up for grabs and will be wide open to the criminal belt. Gambling patrons who are often counselled by casino inspectors etc will be absolutely naked to the tendency to go for broke."
The budget for gaming and racing will be cut by close to $4 million and reduced by 50% over the next three years. This represents a loss of 61 jobs in 1999-2000 (from 352 to 291) and 173 positions (to 179 full-time positions) in 2002-2003.
According to a report to the PSA Central Council, the department says that Treasury's figures are flawed. The budget cut includes identified savings, for example, of $600,000 from a relocation of casino surveillance staff to the Casino Control Authority, but this relocation will cost more, not less. The biggest losses will come in the areas of direct regulation — casino inspectors, gambling and clubs inspectors and the Technical Services Branch.
The job losses are particularly harmful for the public servants employed by the Gaming and Racing Department because legislative restrictions apply regarding alternative employment within the industry for three to four years. Even with a blanket exemption, these staff will have difficulty gaining employment with the organisations they previously regulated.
Like the DLG, Gaming and Racing has advised that it has been directed by the Premier's Department to require redeployed staff to take accrued annual leave and long service leave entitlements during the 12-month period of maintenance of salary level which is allowed while redeployed staff try to find another job at their former level.