Chloe Swarbrick: Public sector wage crackdown a bitter pill for pandemic heroes

OPINION:

Who asked for a crackdown on wages of public sector workers?

It wasn’t the teachers, nurses, midwives and border workers who toiled throughout Covid-19 to teach our kids and ensure our communities’ health and safety. You wouldn’t have thought it was the same Government who trumpeted the vital importance of these workers at the daily 1pm press conferences.

Yet, two weeks out from the “recovery Budget”, the Government announced its “restraint” to suppress wage increases for tens of thousands of New Zealanders working in the public sector. It’s since been widely reported that those impacted had learnt about it in news headlines.

For those earning below $60,000, it’s business-as-usual negotiation. Those above $60,000 but below $100,000 will see increases only in “exceptional circumstances”, and those above $100,000 will be frozen.

The next day, the Government announced the Budget was looking $5.2 billion better than projected, and we’ve taken on far less debt than comparable nations.

We’ve been told to expect a “recovery Budget” on May 20. The question is, whose recovery?

We tend to think of recovery as a process of investment. Time, attention, rest and resources are necessary. The public sector machine that drove us safely through the pandemic will be lucky to get just one of those things.

This pay suppression is bad policy: we’ve got screeds of historical evidence that freezing public sector pay pushes people into the private sector, sometimes to then be contracted back at higher cost to government departments stripped of institutional knowledge and skills. For those that stay, they may have to churn across departments and ministries in order to get access to pay increases untenable if they stay put.

It’s also just straight up bad politics: Colmar Brunton reports the reputation of our public sector is at a record high. Not even the National Party – more interested in stoking a culture war on tried-and-tested dog-whistles of secret plots for Māori sovereignty – was asking for this.

There’s been an attempt to sell the move as somehow targeting inequality. The Prime Minister has said that those in the $60,000-plus bracket will still move through pay bands. But as the Public Service Commission’s advice illustrates, “the default position is that there are to be no increases to bands for lower to middle earners”.

We also know a number of teachers and nurses and administrators – those who’ve spent more than several years in the profession – are already at the top of their pay band, despite falling far short of the $100k mark.

Government can and always should have increased the wages of our lowest-paid public sector workers. You don’t need to suppress the wages of other public sector workers to do that.

So, again, why are they doing this? They can’t tell us how much this will cost, but the declared rationale is to “[take] financial pressure off the public wage bill”. That is, our public sector will bear the cost of the Government’s self-imposed plan to pay down internationally comparably low debt faster than expected or necessary.

When someone’s losing a debate, you may see them whip out the old “straw man” argument. Instead of addressing the arguments made by those on the other side of the debate, you carefully swap out their argument with a different one and attack that instead.

The Prime Minister has defended the austerity move by pointing to hypothetical “other governments” who would freeze all wages in similar circumstances.

But that’s not the debate we’re having. We’re having a debate about what Aotearoa New Zealand should do in the context of “recovery” from a global pandemic.

We’re having a debate about how a kind, transformational, nuclear-free-moment Government will shift its focus from an immediate crisis to the slow-moving crises of hollowed-out public infrastructure, climate change and child poverty.

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, as my old man frequently reminds me, is the definition of insanity. For more than 30 years, successive governments have talked up “saving for a rainy day” and enabled the growing storm of inequality to gather.

As Grant Robertson said in 2009, responding to the then-National Government’s pay freezes, “A turn to austerity measures will simply mean it takes longer for us to rebuild society in pursuit of numerical goals that ignore the real world we are living in.”

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