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Libs Plan for Public Servce Commissioner

March 20, 2011

As an experiment it is going to be entertaining : the NSW coalition is planning that its proposed Public Service Commissioner will drive public sector reforms independent from the politicians. Former Liberal MP Peta Seaton, who is oversighting their policies, believes the new position can take responsibility for unpopular reforms.

Changed work practices in hospitals, reduction in station staff in the railways, closing what remains of the railway workshops, forced redundancies in clerical employment : according to one Liberal, when there are complaints about these reforms the government can say, “That’s the responsibility of the commissioner. He or she is independent. Their decision stands and we, as ministers, can do nothing about it.”

High hopes.

The government will never be able to escape responsibility. Politically there is no way out. Nor should there be with parliamentary government. And I don’t know how ready ministers will be to surrender their roles to an independent, all-powerful mandarin. They will surely understand that in the parliament or media they will not be able to get away with saying, “Oh, those sackings and contracting outs and extra workloads for child protection officers have nothing to do with the government or me. Take your complaints to the Public Service Commissioner.”

Good luck in driving the public sector shake-up. Liberal governments can sometimes, not always, be more adventurous than Labor. But you will never remove ministerial responsibility and shunt it to a commissar. The Premier won’t get away with saying, it’s got nothing to do with me. Try that on Alan Jones. Or at an all-in media conference.

A bigger challenge may be the NSW Industrial Relations Commission. It awards pay increases to public sector employees higher than in other states and higher than in the private sector and with no reference to the state’s capacity to pay. A test for a coalition government is using its upper house majority to change the legislation governing the commission, a fully-equipped judicial body with a shrunken role – now that the states have lost their industrial relations role – only for public employees. It could be abolished in a flash, if the government wanted. A Labor government could contemplate no interference with the commission, irritating as its judgments have been.

The lesson from the Greiner years ( 1988 to 1992 ) is that a public service shake-up can be done without strikes. Indeed as Opposition Leader I saw the then-Labor Council as being somewhat collaborationist towards Greiner. The problem for Greiner was not industrial resistance but the political backlash.

But government cannot achieve public sector reform without political responsibility. I couldn’t have reformed workers’ comp to wipe-out the legal rorts or given the Police Commissioner unfettered power to sack bad police and pretended it was all the work of a Public Service Commissioner and had nothing to do with me as Premier or the government.

One Comment
  1. Thaddeus Du Fresne permalink
    March 20, 2011 7:50 pm

    Great post Bob, I guess we’ll see if the NSW Liberals will be modern day candidates for an Antipodean Profiles in Courage soon enough. Nothing will happen in this crucial area whilst the Industrial Relations Commission of New South Wales remains a superior court of record in this State. We’ll know that answer before Christmas.

    As for the NSW unions they are the most backward regressive unions in the country today. A far cry from the earthy Labor building pragmatism of days gone by. These people should be holding regular votive offerings in the splendid newly refurbished Trades Hall building in Sussex Street to you and the governments you led. The Bourbon-like quality of the NSW unions probably means they dont understand the appropriateness of doing that.

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