Public Service wages and conditions in Coalition crosshairs

Senator Eric Abetz

The Abbott government has moved decisively to put the rollback of long-standing employment conditions for 160,000 federal public servants at the forefront of its battle to curb the influence of unions, setting the stage for a major confrontation by mid-year.

In a provocative manoeuvre certain to inflame already elevated tensions in the public service, government employees will be asked to choose between trading away conditions and entitlements for a maximum productivity-linked pay rise of 2.5 per cent or simply sacrificing any pay rise at all.

A key element of the conditions the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) says the government is trying to water down is personal and carer’s leave (effectively counted as sick leave) from present levels of between 18 and 20 days to a “service-wide maximum standard” of 15 days.

Such leave provisions are generally accepted as more generous than private sector allowances.

However ability to access higher levels of carer’s leave or similar provisions is widely regarded as an effective incentive for attracting the kind of full-time talent to the public sector that would otherwise command much higher remuneration in the private sector or be more expensive if resourced under contracting arrangements.

The hardball tactics come as the clock counts down to the expiry of Australian Public Service’s main industrial agreement by the end of this financial year and follows continued uncertainty over the number of forced redundancies that have been estimated to be between 14,500 and 26,500 positions.

The key details of the government’s latest plans are contained in a new enterprise bargaining policy officially put to the powerful CPSU.

Dubbed the Australian Government Employment and Workplace Relations Policy, the new guidelines indicate that the government wants agency heads to be essentially sidelined in forthcoming industrial negotiations.

According to the CPSU, it is now highly likely the government will attempt to block ‘whole-of-service’ negotiations with the union by pushing a strict new and highly centralised bargaining model that requires deals to be struck agency-by-agency.

Importantly, the CPSU claims that the latest moves by the government aim to “severely restrict” what department and agency chiefs can potentially negotiate into deals for their employees because they will be forced to stick to a rigid template that requires a representative of the Australian Public Service Commission.

The CPSU has also hit out at the level of oversight and control from Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service Senator Eric Abetz’s office, saying the new bargaining policy amounts to the centralised vetting of individual deals by the minister.

“The Coalition Government is telling us it is not ready to talk about bargaining, yet it appears it has all but drafted the fine print on a highly-aggressive policy to cut real wages, conditions and rights,” said CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood.

“Public sector workers are facing a double whammy. Firstly thousands of jobs are being cut and the remaining staff are being flogged harder to get the work done. Secondly, no-one is going to get a pay rise that keeps up with inflation, unless they agree to have their rights and conditions cut.”

One issue that the Coalition’s industrial tacticians will have to deal with is the raising of political stakes around industrial relations after Senator Abetz hit out at “weak-kneed employers caving in to unreasonable union demands” – comments that were later bookended by the Abbott government’s announcement of a Royal Commission into union governance and corruption.

Government News understands there is a degree of unease within some parts of the Coalition that a fresh round of attacks on and already demoralised public service could act to impede the implementation of wider policy and service delivery reforms.

One concern is that bureaucrats who are necessarily focused on their own survival are less likely to be effective in pushing for reforms internally or delivering the kind of workplace and systemic innovation now common in the private sector.

Some public servants also indicated that a push to wind back conditions as a trade-off for minimum pay rises effectively reduced the ability of senior public servants to reward their high performers with tangible incentives, particularly if both the range and flexibility of options available were restricted because of industrial conflict.

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One thought on “Public Service wages and conditions in Coalition crosshairs

  1. The Treasure Hocking had better come out with understandable images of the difference between outlays (detailed in major items with projections), and the mismatch to income (detailed in major items with projections) which backs up his claim even with impending increases in taxation Australia can never achieve a surplus.

    Treasure Hocking also needs to detail the major policy option choices the ‘Australian Citizen’ have to make to enable a surplus to be met and the pros and cons of each. This has to happen before the budget – as it can be simply presented as an option paper – the final choice made by the Government at budget time simply have to be justified then.

    At least the Australian citizen may then be able to engage more constructively when the budget comes out inclusive of the Public Service.

    The fact is the Public Service wages and conditions are way above the Australian average, and yes this has to be justified. But to simply demand reduced wages and conditions on the basis of averages given Public Servants are now days much more than simple clerks (tasks they have actually had to take over along with their other work) means their relative worth may not be matched by the intended reduction in wages and conditions and the value of Public Service output will inevitably trend downwards.

    Public Servants themselves comprise a small percentage of Government costs compared to Government outlays overall and Hocking should make this clear as well, given it would be totally erroneous to claim any significant savings to the budget bottom-line can be made by reducing Public Service wages and conditions, in fact over time such cuts may be quite counter-productive.

    The last time contracting out IT services occurred, having personal experience of the same, Departments that did not were quite thankful they had resisted.

    Also the required percentage reduction on Departmental budgets year on year by Labor and Coalition Governments have meant there has been a dangerous rundown in my opinion, of the ability of Departments to innovate and provide improved services via improved technology hard and soft.

    There has been a run down of infrastructure to the point in one Government Bureau it rather reminds me of a Cuban taxi. Highly intelligent people having to reinvent the wheel every month because they lack the resources to innovate appears to me to be a waste of talent. What was rather upsetting the incumbent for years only decided to reveal the great risk of such a state on retiring – such is the ‘no fear’ at Public Executive level to give the Minister ‘advice’.

    Social expenditure (Private and Public combined) as a percentage of GDP in Australia has been historically one of the lowest in the OECD even less than the United States. Hocking may be able to show things have changed dramatically particularly into the future.

    Lets hope so because if Hocking cannot clearly justify his rhetoric to match the pain Public Servants inclusive of the broader community are to endure, although not known for their militancy Public Servants may bring this Government down – simply by not turning up for work.

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