Industrial action looms as parliamentary pay rise infuriates Victorian public sector union

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday September 24, 2019

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Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews says government employees could get pay rises above 2% if they increase productivity and make unspecified “trade-offs” as a far more generous boost to parliamentary salaries threatens to derail enterprise bargaining.

Andrews has emphasised the independence of the new process that boosted his pay by 11.8% over two years, making him the nation’s highest-paid state premier. That argument did not wash with the Community and Public Sector Union. State secretary Karen Batt says its members are “white hot” with rage and warns their fury could easily boil over into industrial action that disrupts service delivery.

The state’s newly formed Independent Remuneration Tribunal has arrived at a 3.5% base increase and overhauled the system in other ways, giving MPs overall increases between 3.8% and 11.8% over the next two years, depending on any additional offices they hold. This is on top of a 2.92% pay increase to all MPs on July 1 this year, based on a previous process that tied annual parliamentary pay rises to general wage inflation in the state.

The CPSU openly questions the rigour of the process used by the tribunal, particularly its reliance on advice from Mercer Consulting, and the independence of its members: former South Australian public sector commissioner Warren McCann, former federal Finance official Barbara Belcher, and Jennifer Acton, a lawyer with lots of experience on quasi-judicial bodies and public sector boards.

“MPs didn’t need to pay three former career public servants, who then just engaged a consultant to pick a salary point, except MP’s needed the cover and appearance of independence,” said Batt.

Many factors the tribunal is legally required to take into account could also apply to public servants, says the union. But it is prevented by law from raising them as arguments in enterprise bargaining, or in arbitration at the Fair Work Commission, if it comes to that.

With the general Victorian Public Sector Enterprise Agreement expiring on New Year’s Eve, the bargaining period has been underway since July 1 and runs until December 1. The fallout from the tribunal’s decision bodes ill for a swift agreement.

“The government needs to urgently re-think the wages policy for its workforce,” said Batt. “The justifications of their wage tribunal for granting these increases equally apply to each and every government employee, but these workers are denied access to similar tribunal determinations until we’re forced to take industrial action and hurt the Victorian community, and that makes no sense.

“Our members are white hot about these increases for MPs and the blatant double standard on wages.”

Batt has formally asked Andrews to come to the table with the CPSU and other unions “to discuss a sensible way forward before the frustration in his workforce starts disrupting service delivery, and support for MPs”.

Pay rises for MPs are always a political factor in such negotiations, which can descend into a battle between public sector workers and politicians for the hearts and minds of voters. Regardless of how independent and transparent the tribunal’s decision was, public opinion is probably on the union’s side in this case following blanket coverage in the media which has clearly linked the windfall for MPs to the austerity facing public servants.

While the Liberals officially support the decision, Victorian Nationals leader Peter Walsh says the pay rise for he and his colleagues is “obscene” while the Herald-Sun has splashed the big salaries of the tribunal members across its pages (the same as a non-judicial member of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal for McCann and slightly less for Belcher and Acton).

Batt argues the new tribunal process “undermines bargaining as we’ve known it” in Victoria and says other MPs have privately told her they feel the same as the Nationals leader.

“MPs I’ve spoken to know this and are embarrassed but are being fed ridiculous talking points to regurgitate about ‘independence’ and ‘business as usual’. That wage decision ends business as usual, as the factors their new tribunal took into account are forbidden to workers to use in any wage case.”

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