Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Job security shaken by debt war Down Under

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BRISBANE -- Once upon a time, working-class Australian mothers dreamed their boys would grow up not to be a Nobel Prize winner or prime minister or even the first antipodean pope, but a railway clerk.

Australia's public service has for a century followed the old British tradition that traded the slick-suited glamour of the private sector for the more tweedy world of modest monetary reward, partially compensated by premium pension plans.

The one constant in the public service from federation in 1901 through the depression, two world wars and the recession of the 1970s and 1980s has been job security.

A job in primary industries, state-run electricity outfits or perhaps a state-run school were all prized. They offered not only job security but often a leg up into the white-collared world of the middle classes, away from the grime of industry.

A young railway clerk had a fair chance of career progression and the certainty of the retirement plan which, right up until the 1980s, was the envy of many in the private sector.

The railways also gave a young bloke the chance of having a shot at becoming a train driver -- a job that once carried the faint whiff of a blue collar, earth-bound version of an air force top gun.

Well-paid, highly valued, the train driver had status (former Labour prime minister Ben Chifley was one) and a working life with an aura of solid dependability, much like those steel rails that kept the nation moving.

"Finish the 10th grade, pass the public-service exam, get a job with the railway and Bob's your uncle," many an Aussie father has told his bright-eyed son.

"You'll have a job for life."

Not any more. Canadians may also be redefining the notion of job security in the public sector but in Australia change has come with the force of the aforementioned freight train, horns blaring and lights blazing.

On Wednesday afternoon, more than 10,000 usually reserved Queenslanders took to the streets to protest the sacking of 14,000 public servants.

The mass sackings are part of a newly elected conservative-leaning state government's bid to get the state's finances back in the black, and its much touted Triple A-credit rating restored.

But there are reservations the long-term ramifications of tossing out the aura of dependability that the public service once carried will cost the state dearly in the long term.

Public servants were often accused of laziness but still formed the bedrock of a community, taking out the mortgages and the car loans in the knowledge they could meet repayment plans.

And they often became the driving forces in sporting organizations and other community projects in the spare time that was more plentiful than that of their private-sector colleagues.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd, writing in his Brisbane hometown newspaper The Courier Mail, also questioned the mad dash out of debt that has led to the Queensland government's job slashing and, by its own admission, a rise in unemployment.

Rudd noted that whether it be Mitt Romney in America or David Cameron in England, the chant of the right was "debt, debt, debt and more debt."

"There is a reason for this," Rudd wrote.

"The political right like scaring the life out of people. They know fear is a highly potent emotion. That's why they use it."

Rudd noted that when the global financial crisis hit it required extraordinary intervention by the federal government to keep Australia out of recession and keep people employed.

The result -- Australia in debt but the only major advanced economy not to go into recession.

The economic lesson of the Great Depression was that when the private economy collapsed, governments stepped in and temporarily filled the gap to avoid mass unemployment, Rudd said.

"Because not only is mass unemployment bad in itself, it also means less taxes being paid, more benefits being paid and greater debt than would otherwise be the case."

 

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press Australia correspondent. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2012 A13

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