Aspiring premier Campbell Newman has flagged higher pay rises for public servants – but also a reduction to the overall size of the public service.
In an interview with brisbanetimes.com.au, the Queensland Liberal National Party leader vowed to scrap the existing 2.5 per cent annual cap on public sector wage rises, while arguing the government had “allowed the public service overall to be too large in terms of what Queensland can afford”.
During the wide-ranging discussion, Mr Newman also:
- confirmed the public would not be told how LNP spending promises would be funded until “a few days” before the election;
- said the LNP had no asset sale plans and had not yet set a specific debt reduction target;
- and ruled out changing the existing laws surrounding abortion.
Public service shakeup
Mr Newman, who opinion polls suggest is on track to defeat the Bligh Government at the election due in February or March, flagged long-term reductions to the total size of the public service through non-replacement of some employees who leave their positions.
“Well I’m saying that we do need to see over time through attrition a reduction in the overall headcount, but not on frontline services which actually in many cases need to go up,” he said.
“So this has to be a managed process. We’ll work with the unions.
“Every year thousands of people actually do depart voluntarily from the public service and the idea is to manage that; that’s an opportunity to actually not have pain, to not have cuts, but to actually change the shape and size of the organisation, so it then actually is affordable for all Queenslanders and we actually get the budget back into surplus.”
Mr Newman, who first raised his public service headcount concerns in March, is yet to detail how many positions might not be replaced in the long term under an LNP government.
The Bligh Government is currently in the process of offering hefty payouts to non-frontline public servants as part of a two-year “voluntary separation program” to save money by farewelling 3500 public servants. The program was forecast to cost about $250 million this financial year and then save $175 million annually from 2012/13.
Mr Newman condemned the government’s approach, decrying the cost of the payouts and denying the process was voluntary.
“They are actually firing 3500 public servants because they’ve allowed the public service overall to be too large in terms of what Queensland can afford,” the former Brisbane lord mayor said.
Issues with employee costs have not been limited to the state government. The Queensland Treasury Corporation last year lowered Brisbane City Council’s financial outlook to “strong with a negative outlook”, citing concerns including rising employee costs, although the positive outlook was reinstated this year.
Mr Newman said he opposed the government’s wages policy, which involved capping public servant pay rises to 2.5 per cent a year. The measure was unveiled in 2009 in the name of economic responsibility and applied to any new pay agreements.
Treasurer Andrew Fraser has said 2.5 per cent pay rises can be granted if accompanied by productivity improvements.
Similar wages policies have been retained by the Victorian and New South Wales Coalition governments, but Mr Newman said the cap was unfair on public servants.
“I don’t think it’s fair that the staff in the Queensland public service are being told they’ll only get 2.5 per cent because the government can’t manage the overall headcount and the expenses of government,” Mr Newman said.
“They’re asking effectively the hard-working public servants to pay the price with lower wage increases, less than inflation, because they haven’t managed the state’s finances properly.
“I can assure people that won’t be my view, but what I’m after from unions is a willingness to actually practically work on the headcount issue, accepting that it does have to be fixed otherwise the state’s going to go broke.”
Mr Newman, who has regularly campaigned against the state’s debt levels, said the LNP did not yet have a specific target for the long-term level for borrowings.
He said an LNP government would first work to rein in the growth in debt to avoid hitting the $85 billion level projected in coming years.
He argued the LNP did not yet know “the true state of the state’s finances” and he did not trust the State Budget, so an audit of the books would occur following a change of government.
Mr Newman said a manageable level of debt would be an amount the credit rating agencies could look at and reinstate the state’s AAA credit rating.
He pledged to focus on managing the operational costs of government and the capital expenditure of departments and government-owned corporations.
“We’re going to be absolutely focused on doing what has to be done to improve economic performance, and leaving the ‘nice to haves’ for some later date,” he said.
Mr Newman said the LNP would need to make some tough decisions, but insisted the party had not discussed asset sales and had no plans to do so.
“Our commitment to people continues to be that we would only contemplate asset sales after telling people upfront, prior to an election, that we were going to contemplate that,” he said.
Long wait for costings
The LNP has faced government criticism over its tendency to announce policies without saying where the money would be coming from. Premier Anna Bligh has accused Mr Newman of racking up $2 billion in spending commitments without detailing what cuts would be made to fund them.
Mr Newman said the LNP would put all its promises on the table, reviewed by an independent accounting firm, “prior to the election in the normal way”.
At the 2009 election, LNP treasury spokesman Tim Nicholls unveiled the party’s costings document two days before polling day.
“The convention has always been that promises are costed, independently verified, and then released prior to the election, a few days out,” Mr Newman said.
“That’s what’s always happened; that’s what we plan to do this time.”
Mr Newman said the opposition did not have the resources of government.
He insisted the government’s attack over campaign promises was a bit rich given Labor’s own costings document, also released two days before polling day in 2009, was a single page and no mention was made of asset sales and the abolition of the fuel subsidy.
Social issues not a priority
During the interview, recorded on Friday, Mr Newman also vowed to repeal the recently passed same-sex civil unions law if the LNP won the election and no ceremonies had occurred by that time, but said it would be “unacceptable and intolerable” to abolish it after some relationships had been registered.
The comments, published on Saturday, prompted Ms Bligh to claim that Mr Newman was fence-sitting.
Meanwhile, Mr Newman said the LNP would not pursue changes to the Queensland Criminal Code relating to abortion, noting the Labor government had not acted in this area either.
Pro-choice advocates have called for the decriminalisation of abortion in Queensland, saying women should not be liable to up to seven years’ imprisonment for procuring a miscarriage.
However, based on a 1986 District Court ruling, abortion is legal if performed “for the preservation of the mother’s life” and if it is “reasonable having regard to the patient’s state at the time and to all the circumstances of the case”.
Mr Newman acknowledged he had received correspondence about the abortion issue but said no one had come up to him in the street about it.
“We have a position where we see no changes to the current laws. We won’t be making any changes there whatsoever,” he said.
“Some of these issues are important to people, but they’re also ones that distract a government that is intent on reform as we will be – reform that matters to people. We don’t want to be distracted from the task at hand.”
Mr Newman said he wanted the first term of an LNP government to be defined by measures to ease the cost of living, infrastructure planning and delivery, and greater empowerment of locals in the running of schools and hospitals.
Mr Newman made the comments in his first in-depth interview with brisbanetimes.com.au since he quit his job as Brisbane Lord Mayor in April to lead the LNP from outside Parliament as the candidate for Ashgrove.
brisbanetimes.com.au has sought a similar end-of-year interview with Ms Bligh.