There was a time when the postmaster-general’s department employed around 125,000 staff. Then the telecommunications function was sold off — it now exists as Telstra, with around 30,000 staff — and the postal functions were turned into a government-owned company. Through corporatisation, privatisation, redundancies and attrition, around 90,000 staff disappeared from just one federal government department.

Multiply that across the public service and you can see why staff numbers are no longer anything like a reliable indicator of the size and scope of federal government departments and agencies. The role of public servants in supporting government functions has been cut back by a more extensive use of consultants and contractors (for reasons including government and ministerial distrust of government organisations at all levels) combined with an ideological faith that private sector organisations can do things better and a craving for the alleged benefits of greater flexibility.

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