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Protecting Public Servants in Queensland

Speeches in Parliament
Larissa Waters 1 Mar 2013

Senator WATERS (Queensland): I rise this evening to talk about the public service. In my home state, Queensland, the public sector is under attack. Job cuts are putting people out of work and reducing the services upon which many in our community rely.

Over 240,000 of my constituents are public servants. We have already seen 14,000 jobs go in Queensland in a merciless stream of job cuts all across the state. Premier Newman's Liberal-National government had said that the job cuts were finished, but now we are seeing new attacks on public services in the name of privatisation.

I was proud to successfully move in this place for a Senate inquiry into the rights of public servants. It has been fantastic to see numerous unions get behind this inquiry and make detailed submissions recounting the experience of their members. It is noteworthy that many of the submissions came from Queensland, clearly demonstrating the recent experience of their members under the Newman government.

Public sector workers often bear the brunt of incoming conservative governments, and frankly I worry for the people of the ACT if an Abbott coalition government is elected and slashes the Commonwealth Public Service. I worry for the 12,000 public servants that Mr Abbott has already committed to slash—as I worry for the downturn, of course, for the businesses that rely on public servants buying their goods and services. I also worry for all the folk who rely on services provided by Centrelink, Medicare and the CSIRO if these slashes are made. Ongoing efficiency dividends by the federal Labor government are also taking their toll on the Commonwealth Public Service.

With such a large number of public sector jobs threatened, public sector job security will be an election issue. The Greens will continue to campaign strongly for public servants who are threatened either by efficiency dividends—for a wafer-thin surplus which has now been ditched—or threatened by the coalition's promised job cuts.

In August 2012, the Newman Liberal-National government removed a raft of employee entitlements that were reflected in awards and collective agreements with the stroke of a pen by amending our state's Industrial Relations Act. Those amendments removed provisions in awards and agreements that delivered job security. So it is now the case that Queensland public sector workers have fewer rights than Commonwealth public sector workers. My inquiry is looking into that very point.

In Queensland, the evidence is clear: Campbell Newman's Liberal-National government's cuts hurt workers. These job cuts include 234 health jobs in Cairns, and 200 hospital jobs in Townsville, including 45 nurses from the Townsville Hospital. The Maryborough hospital's pathology unit has closed. One hundred and twenty-nine beds were lost at the Moreton Bay Nursing Care unit. Almost 200 full-time equivalent positions were cut from Brisbane's Metro North district, including 96 home-care services positions, which have gone to the private and non-government sectors.

It is disappointing that the LNP government sees these essential services as something to be provided for a profit or something where the community sector will fill the gap, rather than seeing those services as a central responsibility of government. At Brisbane's Royal Children's Hospital, 99 full-time positions were cut. As a parent who gave birth to her daughter in this hospital, the scale of reductions in services for children's health strikes fear into my heart.

Five hundred and fifty jobs were cut from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, folk who do important research into all sorts of things, like sustainable fishing levels; provide important services on food security; and of course look at sustainable commercial and recreational fishing more broadly—not to mention forestry; they have certainly had a lot on their plate in that respect this week.

In the environment and heritage department, we have had 220 jobs cut. They are the folk who are tasked with protecting Queensland's iconic and beautiful environment from the threats of the rapacious mining boom, invasive species, pollution and climate change—important work, in doing which they are now down 220 people.

Let us remember that, while for Premier Newman and his LNP cabinet colleagues these job cuts are just numbers on a page, for my constituents each of those numbers is attached to a family. The cold hard reality for Queenslanders is that, in the face of cuts and under the threat of privatisation, times are tough for public sector workers and for those who rely on public services.

And this is by no means every job cut. It is tough, in fact, to find the details of every Queenslander who has been condemned to unemployment by Campbell Newman's Liberal-National government, but every day I am hearing stories of families finding it harder to access public services. Contrary to Mr Newman's promises, there is even less openness about what is happening on the ground. Moves like privatisation and the use of health boards are the ways in which this Liberal-National government is passing the buck on its responsibilities to deliver services. Queenslanders are right to ask what is going on and why the Newman Liberal-National government is hell-bent on making life hard for them and their families.

In 2012, the newly-elected Newman LNP government attacked the jobs of people who worked hard to make Queensland better. Now, in 2013, Premier Newman's privatisation agenda is an attack on the services on which Queenslanders rely. Privatisation of public services costs the community more and delivers less.

On Tuesday, Queensland's health minister, Minister Springborg, hosted a $200-a-head lunch for corporate lobbyists to announce his government's plans for health services. He chose corporate lobbyists over the public sector workers who provide those health services, and over the patients and families who rely on high-quality, accessible health services. He chose the people who will profit from the privatisation of Queensland's health services, rather than the people who will see a reduction in the quality of the services that they need, and the workers who will experience the downward pressure on wages and conditions associated with privatisation.

The LNP government put public servants to work producing their health blueprint document, and then asked major private health players, like Ramsay Health Care, to give money to the LNP in return for an exclusive briefing on that document's contents.

It is just extraordinary that the private corporations that are looking to be handed taxpayer money in the sell-off of Queensland's health system are being so openly solicited for donations to the LNP's campaign fund.

Public sector unions in Queensland are gearing up for a fight about the privatisation of public services, and I am proud to stand alongside them. The front line of this fight is in aged care, where facilities in Rockhampton and Wynnum, among others, have been privatised. It is also in prisons. Recently it was revealed that there is a Queensland Public Service taskforce to study the feasibility of privatising prisons. It has reportedly found that private prisons are 10 per cent cheaper than publicly funded prisons. But those savings are found through lower staff-to-prisoner ratios, raising questions about community safety and inmate welfare, as well as creating perverse incentives for companies that profit from harsher sentencing.

The front line of this fight is also in hospitals, with new private facilities such as the new Sunshine Coast University Hospital delivering services that should be delivered publically. Through his health minister, Minister Springborg, Premier Newman has made the LNP health agenda 'more private and not-for-profit corporations delivering public health services'. I congratulate the Queensland Nurses Union for asking questions about what the privatisation of Sunshine Coast University Hospital will mean for the accountability of health services in Queensland.

A reduction in the quality of public services always hits the needy and the vulnerable hardest—the very people that governments, regardless of their political persuasion, should be aiming to help. Although we may share a state, Premier Newman and I differ very much on the issue of public services. He sees necessary public services as something to sell for a profit; I see public services as the way we as a society care for each other.

With all these horror stories, it is important that senators are both informed and ready to act. If the Senate takes seriously its job as a house of review, a states' house, we need to have hearings in the states where these job cuts and moves towards privatisation are happening. In my home state a hearing of the inquiry in Brisbane would hear firsthand the accounts of the effects of Premier Newman's LNP government job cuts. Hearings in regional centres such as Cairns and Townsville would provide evidence of the ways that cuts to services have a disproportionate effect outside the big cities.

Once we have gathered the evidence, the next step has to be taking whatever action is available to us at the federal level to protect workers' rights. Public services are important. We cannot deliver high-quality public services by cutting public sector jobs. We do not make our public services more efficient by taking away job security, wages and conditions. We cannot look after the needy and most vulnerable in our communities without a strong safety net. The Greens care for people, and that is why we stand alongside public servants, and their unions, campaigning for more secure jobs with fair wages and conditions. The Greens care for communities, and that is why we stand up for good quality public services. The brutal agenda of conservative state governments is clear. We need the Senate to thoroughly investigate through this inquiry and turn those findings into legislation.

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