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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