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Tova O'Brien: Public servants get an unfair rap and the Government's at fault

Public servants get an unfair rap.

Bundled into a collective they become an easy political punching bag. Catch cries of ‘a bloated public service’, an overpaid public service, they’re the officials that get blamed when things go wrong in Government and one of the easiest hits for opposition to demand cuts of.

But the collective of 61,100 full-time public servants is not just the sum of its parts. They are 61,100 individuals, with lives, families, healthcare requirements, mortgages (if they’re lucky) more likely rental costs, and - like the rest of us - rising bills and expenses. 

Political Editor Jenna Lynch’s excellent story which led the Three news last Friday about the surreptitious thawing of their pay freeze will rightly be stirring up a hornet's nest of issues for the Government. 

Since 2020, public servants earning over $100k weren’t supposed to get pay rises.

Jenna’s story revealed that 15 percent of full-time public servants earning over $100k still managed to get a pay bump despite the freeze. 

It speaks to several things:

  1. The Government got offside with all public servants by absolutely screwing up the selling of the pay freeze when it was announced and now, in creating a tonne of exemptions to placate livid officials, it made a mockery of the rationale for the freeze. 
  2. The Government got offside with low-wage public servants. They’re now beyond livid that their wealthier colleagues were still getting a raise. The tens of thousands going on strike next month now have even more ammo. 
  3. The Government is now offside with higher-wage public servants too. If 15% of the 100k club got pay rises…. Why not the rest? 

It didn’t take into account the long hour's public servants would be working during the pandemic, in trying covid circumstances.

100,000 may seem like a lot of money but if you’re working 60-hours plus a week and have the pressure of ministerial expectations hanging over your head - which can range from needing to do extra work cause your minister’s a bit useless to doing extra work because your minister’s extremely high-functioning and demands it of you. 

Suddenly that 100k looks very piddly compared to what you’d be earning in the private sector. 

Is it any wonder so many public servants quit to either earn big bucks at private companies or to start their own consultancies and work contracting to the very same ministries they used to work for except earning far more lucrative contractor rates and with better self-determined hours and conditions? 

The public service is spending a little less on contractors and consultants, but does $939 million seem ok to you? Especially when there’s a pay freeze in the public sector. 

Don’t forget these guys are the engine room of Government and therefore basically everything that determines our day-to-day lives. The public service is 19 percent of the entire national workforce.

And yet it’s being topped up by nearly a billion dollars worth of consultants and contractors while receiving very little extra despite rising inflation. 

If you’re a public servant earning over $100k and you’re not one of the 2670 who got pay rise exceptions during the pay freeze, I suggest you head straight to your manager's office and ask why on earth not? 

Why weren’t your circumstances as exceptional as your colleagues? 

That’s 15,600 higher earning public servants who now have a very strong case to argue for a pay rise. 

Not to mention the very very strong case that the more than 10,000 public servants earning under 60-thousand dollars have to argue for a pay bump. 

The Government’s made a mockery of its own pay freeze. It’s also created the case for public servants everywhere to rise up and demand better.