Michaelia Cash: Friend or foe?

“Rather more amusing than Abetz”? New Public Services Minister and Employment Minister Michaelia Cash.

Public Services Minister and Employment Minister Eric Abetz has been shown the door while rising Liberal Party star Michaelia Cash takes the reins in turbulent portfolios where rolling strikes and public sector rebellion have become the norm.

Public servants and unions will be wondering if Ms Cash – who was a senior industrial relations lawyer with legal firm Freehills before she entered Parliament in 2008 – will play hardball and refuse to compromise during public sector negotiations, or whether she will inject some calm and diplomacy into the proceedings, perhaps backing down on some of the government’s proposed cuts to conditions and entitlements.

Ms Cash is no stranger to stoushes with unions, one of the most recent being when she oversaw an increase in temporary visas as Assistant Minister for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection earlier this year.

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has accused her of importing cheap foreign labour in the offshore oil and gas sectors and undercutting Australian workers.

The MUA said:

“New Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has shown he wants to keep employment and industrial relations as an ideological battleground with his surprise decision to promote Western Australian Senator Michaelia Cash to Minister for Employment,” the union said.

“Senator Cash has shown a singular stubbornness and inflexibility on standing up for Australian jobs, rivaled only by her predecessor Eric Abetz. The new Minister appears to be anti-union and anti-Australian worker.”

But Ms Cash has always given back as good as she gets and she will not be easily cowed by unions. In return she accused unions of rank hypocrisy for employing foreign workers on 457 visas when the jobs could have been done by Australians.

Honorary Associate Professor of Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney Dr Michael O’Brien said industrial lawyers on the right side of politics were “fairly rare”.

“She’s interesting, she did industrial law but she worked for Freehills, who are well known as advisers to very big employers. I gather she’s not particularly a friend of unions but anyone who works for Freehills usually isn’t,” Dr O’Brien said.

Asked if Ms Cash might bring a little tact to the negotiating table Dr O’Brien said: “She’s not known for her diplomacy and she doesn’t take prisoners but at least she’s rather more amusing than Abetz.”

It is a rocky time to take over as Public Services Minister. On her first day in the job, Ms Cash confronted the first of ten days of strikes by Immigration and Border Force workers at Australia’s eight international airports, with two-hour stoppages planned in the morning and the afternoon every day until September 30.

From Thursday, staff from other departments, including Human Services, the Tax Office, Defence, Veteran Affairs, Environment, Employment and the Australian Bureau of Statistics will also walk off the job.

After 18 months of negotiations, there are still around 90 government departments and agencies yet to sign enterprise agreements, which elapsed in June 2014. Earlier this month, four major departments – Human Services, Health, IP Australia and Veteran Affairs – rejected their draft enterprise agreements.

The departure of Mr Abetz to the backbenches has led the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) to call for a “fresh approach” to negotiations around public sector pay, entitlements and conditions and to tentatively hold out hope that Ms Cash will be more amenable to their cause than her predecessor.

CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood said: “Minister Cash inherits a portfolio where the loss of 17,000 jobs has added to the pressure on services and eroded policy capability, posing a real threat to public service capacity.

“This new ministry, and Minister Cash’s past experience in the field of industrial relations, provides an opportunity for rethinking the Government’s failed bargaining policy and instead taking a modern, productive approach to public sector workplace relations.

“The ill-conceived experiment of an unfair and unrealistic policy – making agencies attempt to remove workplace rights, existing conditions and, for many workers, cut current take-home pay – has evidently failed.

The CPSU has called on Mr Turnbull to make resolving this dispute with the public service a priority and indicated it would like to meet with Ms Cash sooner rather than later.

Perth-born Ms Cash was a lawyer who specialised in industrial and employee relations, equal opportunity, occupational health and safety and unfair dismissal at Freehills law firm until entering Parliament in 2008 and she has a degree in public relations, politics and journalism.

She was appointed Employment Minister, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service and Minister for Women in the Cabinet reshuffle at the weekend. Tony Abbott appointed Ms Cash Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women in 2013.

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