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In defence of public servants

Alecia Simmonds
Published: November 27, 2012 - 8:09AM

It is one of the great ironies of parliamentary politics that NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell is telling other people to lose weight. To be precise, not all people, just his employees: the public service.  Barry has told public servants that they need to ‘trim down’, that he wants them to ‘change shape and slim down the back’ and that he has ‘no apologies’ for engaging in this flagrant size shaming.

Now before you say that this is just Barry projecting his own body image issues on to the public service, I should mention he’s not alone. On a Federal level special minister of state Gary Grey reported that he has ‘managed to identify more fat in the public service’, Campbell Newman in Queensland claimed to be ‘cutting the fat excess’ and letters pages are filled with outraged members of the private sector telling their public service counterparts that their offices need to ‘slim down’.

Is our public service really being plagued by an obesity epidemic? How porky are our public servants? Do they spend their days in a riot of gluttony and Bacchanalian excess? If not, what’s behind the name-calling? And what do our politicians (who are none too svelte themselves) mean when they say that their employees should lose some extra tonnage?

On one level, the answer is obvious. If you were a short-sighted Liberal government, how would you justify cutting 15,000 public sector jobs in NSW, 14,000 in QLD and a proposed 5,500 in Victoria? How would you convince people that slashing essential social services like child protection and aged care is a good thing? Like any politics of hate, you’re going to need an arsenal of metaphors.  Nazi Germany justified killing Jews through referring to them as rats. It then makes sense to exterminate them. Racists call migrants smelly. So of course we want to rid them from public space.

Calling the public service fat shames it, denigrates the services it offers and curiously transforms Barry O’Farrell into a benevolent personal trainer. Fat carries particular cultural meanings. People associate it with being lazy, unproductive, greedy, overly-feminine and out of control.

Although, I should mention, not all areas of the public service are overweight.  Fire-fighters, police, teachers and nurses are categorised as essential military combatants. They are ‘on the frontline’. So if the Liberals want to keep you then they have to imagine you as a hyper-masculine military warrior. If they want to sack you then you’re a feminine figure of voluptuous excess.

This is not just semantics. The Liberals chose a metaphor that has traditionally been used to deride women because the public service is, relative to other workplaces, a more feminised sector. Between 2011-2012 57% of public service employees were women. 46% of executive level public servants are women. Why? Because the public service is one of the only areas that offers highly-educated women decent conditions that allow them to have kids and maintain a job.

For women with children, who on average perform an extra 40 hours of unpaid care work outside of paid work, the public service offers them the kind of flexible work arrangements, decent maternity leave (18 weeks) and paid leave that they need to shoulder such a heavy burden. They’re the kind of arrangements that every office should have if they want to keep women of child-bearing age. There’s nothing bludgy about these conditions. Research has shown that women use their leave to take kids to doctors or perform child care during holidays. They tend not to take cruises through the Mediterranean.

Yet these conditions are all part of what the Liberals have termed the fatty excess of the public service. In NSW, O’Farrell is proposing to take away parental leave entitlements for staff who are long term foster carers or who have children through kinship arrangements. They want to get rid of domestic violence leave entitlements and they’re abolishing the flexibility to work from home.

In terms of the kinds of public services offered, it’s the ones that affect marginalised groups which are seen as particularly fat and unprofitable. Services being considered for defunding include 2010 a gay and lesbian counselling service, women’s resource centres, certain legal aid offices, welfare rights centres and the cystic fibrosis foundation.

The point is that the public service is there to provide social goods not to make profits. Medicare, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, public and private education, public hospitals, roads and public transport are all the products of our once happy and vibrant public service. Australia is more environmentally sound, smarter and more humane thanks to our public servants.

People who choose to relinquish the higher pay offered by a life of corporate rape and pillage to work for the common good should be given a yearly ticker tape parade, not publicly vilified. And given that understaffing and underfunding has reduced most of these services to skin and bones, they certainly shouldn’t be told to lose weight.

In Plato’s utopian Republic, public servants are the guardians of the state. They are virtuous citizens who serve the public good rather than pursue their own self-interests. They occupy the highest positions in the land. Sadly, in our own Liberal dystopia, they appear like emaciated ghouls rattling their chains and begging for rations as they’re sent to the gallows. These people and their offices need food.


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