Australian Taxation Office (ATO) chief Chris Jordan has all but shut down any prospect of a meaningful breakthrough in the bitter two year industrial battle over Australian Public Service pay and conditions, before a 2nd July election.
He’s frankly told more than 20,000 ATO staff what happens next is simply unclear after they delivered a thumping 71.5 per cent rejection of the agency’s latest offer.
The announcement of a negative result from the ATO’s Enterprise Agreement vote revealed on Thursday afternoon – in which 85 per cent of eligible staff voted – wasn’t the only big news though.
It contained the strongest signal yet that agency heads are simply not prepared to try and force through any more deals based on the Abbott government’s hardline industrial bargaining policy.
With as little as just one working day left before the public service and the Turnbull government hit caretaker mode, timing is everything.
“I am very disappointed that we didn’t reach agreement,” Mr Jordan said in a communique to ATO staff.
“Given that the Government is likely to announce an election soon, we are not in a position to give certainty about the next steps at this time.”
Disappointment was not the sentiment expressed by the Community and Public Sector Union, for which the effective collapse of the Bargaining Framework will be a major victory.
“ATO management pushed incredibly hard for staff to accept the harsh and unreasonable offer they put on the table,” said CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood.
“This result makes it crystal clear that our members won’t settle for anything less than a fair deal that protects their rights and conditions while granting a decent pay rise to compensate them for two long years of negotiations.”
The ATO’s up-front position on what comes next sets a strong precedent for other agency chiefs to follow after the Australian Public Service Commission blanked taking a public position on the caretake bargaining issue in late March.
“The APSC will issue advice to agencies regarding bargaining during the caretaker period prior to the period commencing,” a statement from the Commission provided to Government News said at the time, with no further information provided.
With Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull expected to head to Yarralumla on the weekend, the glaring absence of an official position on whether bargaining should continue effective draws a line under the two year-long battle that commenced with former Employment and Public Service Minister making the winding back of APS conditions and entitlements a frontline industrial issue.
The announcement of the ‘No’ vote at the ATO is the second major rejection from public servants this week after Defence civilian staff also rejected their enterprise offer.
While there have been a handful of smaller agencies signing off on their new workplace deals, the vast majority of federal public servants are now almost certain to head to the polls with their existing industrial deals expired and a new one no-where in sight.
That scenario leaves the APSC, and its chief John Lloyd, in a decidedly awkward position of being the custodian of one of the Abbott government’s most visible failures.
Labor has already announced that it will tear up the existing bargaining framework if elected, a move clearly intended to warn senior public servants of the potential dangers of trying to force a result before the election.
There is also a widely held belief that retaining Mr Lloyd in the position of APSC Commissioner would be unworkable if Labor is elected.
Much less clear is what a re-elected Turnbull government’s intentions for the APSC might be, with some Liberals known to be unconvinced of the need for the agency to exist at all.
One of the biggest hints for what would be in store for the wider public service appeared in May 3 Budget which lumped together the theme of “Transformation” with the reviled Efficiency Dividend to slash $1.9 billion in spending, a savings measure that was ranked second in prominence in the so called Budget ‘Glossy’ that spells out spending and savings initiatives.
With public service numbers already sheared back to levels of a decade ago, the anticipation is that government spending on back office functions, technology, paper and process heavy functions like procurement costs, property leases and vehicles will all be targeted.
That expectation was fuelled by the tapering down of the renewed efficiency dividend in the later year of the forward estimates because there would be fewer efficiencies to be found.
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