The NSW Carr Labor government is approaching mid point of its historic third term. Observers of NSW state politics broadly acknowledge that the Carr government is on the nose with the electorate on key issues like public transport, health services and education. With a huge 17 seat majority in the Lower House Bob Carr appears to believe his government can weather the storm. But approval ratings have been falling and the Opposition has made up some ground.
NSW Labor has adopted such an uncompromising conservative agenda that it is finding itself increasingly outflanked by a populist Liberal led Opposition. The Carr approach was set in it 1995 legislation named the "General Government Debt Elimination Act" which placed the elimination of government debt above all other service based objectives. [http://www.treasury.nsw.gov.au/aboutofm/governing.htm]
Basic essential services such as public hospitals and the passenger train network suffer not only from neglect but also from deliberate government policy. Country and City travelers are confronted each day with a string of broken promises of improved train service. Similar problems happen with hospitals, education and most state agencies where the government has successfully sold the mass media the idea that massive reductions in 'back room' staff will somehow translate into better 'frontline' service delivery.
Following determined union opposition outright privatisation has been momentarily supplemented by "private-public-partnerships" (PPP) where the development and management of new facilities are 'temporarily' handed over to private corporate interests. The idea for PPPs come from Tony Blair's New labour and are aimed at saving the government the cost of borrowing for new infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and roads. In reality they leave the government open to accusations of handouts to corporate mates.
Take the case of the Port Macquarie Base Hospital built in the early 1990s at public expense by the then Coalition government and dogged with controversy ever since. The Auditor General said of it in 1996:
"The Government is, in effect, paying for the hospital twice and giving it away." NSW Bureaucrats Blowing Deals: Harris (Auditor Generals Report) Australian Financial Review 30 May 1996
The bankruptcy of this policy has been emphasised by consideration by government to "buy back" the publicly built, privately managed funded Port Macquarie Base Hospital last year.
The Greens, who increased their local council and state parliamentary representation in recent elections, call for increased public expenditure but have a two way bet by saying this could easily be achieved even with a balanced budget i.e. little or no borrowing. The Liberal's John Brogden these days makes noises about defending spending on government infrastructure. He is on record as speaking in favour of increased expenditure on public infrastructure. He says he is not in favour of further outright privatisation but will extend private-public-partnerships. Brogden has a habit of attracting media attention by bashing the public service. His latest idea is to share 10% of the spoils of job cutting with the senior bureaucrats who "identify waste"
Anne Gardiner, Progressive candidate for Public Service Association General Secretary, described John Brogden's latest policy for the public service as "a recipe for further job cuts and corruption.The incentive payments will go to senior executives, not those who will pay the true price of the cuts - the public and our members".
One of the reasons the Carr government gets off so lightly with this sort of behaviour is the spineless attitude of many union leaderships such as the current leadership of the Public Service Association, (PSA, one of the largest public sector unions in NSW).
Given the lack of fight displayed by their current union leadership to date many PSA members doubted the sincerity of recent attempts to organise a broad coalition of union based opposition to job cuts.. Such scepticism proved well founded when after just one meeting PSA leaders blamed other public sector unions for their own failures to defend their members wages and conditions.
Each major public sector union covering teachers, nurses, police, transport workers and public servants is running its own campaigns. But there is a crying need for close co-operation and unity to overcome the attacks led by the Carr government. The NSW Labor Council led by right winger John Robertson has led some spirited opposition to the government on attacks to workers compensation and privatisation. However the unity displayed on these issues has not been apparent when increased staff for the "frontline" services (nurses, teachers, police) comes at the expense of the the "backroom" public servants. 'Robbing Peter to pay Paul' has been used as a successful divide and conquer tactic both within the agencies covered by the PSA and between the public sector unions.
An opportunity to replace the current PSA leadership comes up later this year. One of the oldest union left caucuses is running a strong campaign. Leon Parissi, "Progressive" candidate for PSA President said:
"The Progressive PSA is the only group in the PSA to have consistently opposed unfunded pay increases which lead to job losses and decreased services to the NSW public. It is unacceptable for our members to pay for salary increases through the loss of jobs and the services to the public of NSW they provide."
Access, equity and accountability
It is not only in areas of public spending that the Carr government is conservative. His government has a string of law and order "reforms" such as 'truth in sentencing' which would make a Tory blush. But a little explored series of attacks on internal critics, or potential critics, marks Carr as a true conservative.
The following agencies were established following years of public pressure for government involvement in matters of access to the corridors of power, equity for disadvantaged groups and accountability of public bodies. They have all suffered massive cuts and grave doubts exist for the ability of government to satisfy demands for improvements on matters of discrimination, privacy and general advocacy for members of disadvantaged groups.
The Department for Women was an active, energetic advocacy and advisory body which also funded a variety of projects designed to advance the cause of women in NSW. While never a very large agency, earlier this year the Department for Women suffered a massive funding cut over two years of $4m from a budget of $5m. Its status has been reduced to that of an Office for Women within the Premiers Department.
Privacy NSW appears to have been punished for its advocacy role on matters of privacy. It came into public controversy after the Privacy Commissioner defended the right of a convicted murderer to some degree of privacy. In November 2002 the Sydney Morning Herald reported "State Cabinet will decide this week whether to introduce laws to abolish the privacy rights of convicted murderers such as serial killer Ivan Milat."
In the end a bill was passed which according to Justice Action was "supposedly to prevent the payment of any form of compensation to prisoners or prisoners' families in cases where DCS has breached their privacy." [http://www.justiceaction.org.au/]. Two years later Privacy NSW suffers massive cut backs in funding
The President of the Anti Discrimination Board became embroiled in controversy surrounding allegations of improperly advising an acquaintance about matters before the Board. His real 'crime' was said to be the release of a report shortly before the 2003 elections "Race for the Headlines" which was highly critical of the government and its media mates for exploiting race as a public issue. The President, Chris Puplick resigned and the ADB staff was cut by 25% last year.
The Women's Equity Bureau has been gradually eroded in staff and funds as a part of the Office of Industrial Relations. Since 2000 the government has been reducing the effectiveness of this research, policy and advocacy unit.
By a public servant