Public servants can swap holidays like Australia Day but not all agencies promote it

By Jackson Graham

Thursday January 20, 2022

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All APS agencies and departments “respect Australia Day”.  (myphotobank.com.au/Adobe)

As Australia wrestles with sensitivity surrounding the date of Australia Day, some public servants are making use of little-known clauses in their employment terms that allow them to take the public holiday on another day in lieu. 

Experts and advocates point out the arrangements — which can broadly apply to all public holidays — should receive more promotion in public services and they’re eager to see managers remove any workplace barriers that might stand in the way. 

A spokesperson for the Australian Public Services Commission emphasised all APS agencies and departments “respect Australia Day”. 

The spokesperson said the Fair Work Act 2009 allowed enterprise agreements to contain clauses for public holidays to be substituted. 

“Most APS enterprise agreements contain a clause of this type,” they told The Mandarin. “There are a myriad of reasons why employees may elect to substitute public holidays, for example religious and cultural reasons.” 

Jon Altman, an ANU emeritus professor and former director for the Centre of Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, wants to see the option promoted in agencies for Indigenous public servants and workers more widely.

“The colonisation of Australia is pretty brutal and some people aren’t comfortable with Australia Day, so if that option was there we would get a sense of how our bureaucrats feel about this issue,” Altman said. 

“If the Morrison government is genuine about reconciliation, collaboration and codesign with Indigenous Australians, this is the sort of thing they should be promoting. They should put some of their rhetoric into practice.” 

A spokesperson for the National Indigenous Australians Agency said staff observed the public holidays as published by their respective state or territory government.

The agency has a provision for an employee to substitute any public holiday for a cultural or religious day of significance to the employee. 

“This is by negotiation between the employee, their manager, and the delegate of the CEO,” the NIAA spokesperson said. 

The provision has existed since at least 2007 and it’s believed public servants do not widely take up the option at the agency. 

The Victorian Public Service also allows workers to negotiate with managers to substitute national and state holidays for “occasions of significance to the employee, including religious or cultural occasions”, a Department of Premier and Cabinet spokesperson said. 

Public Service Research Group UNSW Canberra’s Sue Williamson, a researcher in human resources management, said swapping leave could be perceived as a hindrance. 

“There’s a sense that it is not well understood why people need different cultural holidays. It can be seen as a rort by some people,” Williamson said. 

She said planning was key for public service managers to ensure diverse workforces were given the opportunity and confidence to enquire about taking leave on significant days to them. 

“Agencies really should have a calendar of days of cultural significance and managers need to talk to their staff … this is an issue that needs further thought and guidance from HR.” 

Diversity Council Australia chief executive Lisa Annese told The Mandarin many organisations had flexible public holiday policies. In leading workplaces these included reasonable requirements such as prior written notice, she said. 

Annese said a leave swap should be approved in most cases except exceptional circumstances where there was an unreasonable burden on the workplace.

“For many Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people, and non-Indigenous allies, January 26 is not a day of celebration,” she said. 

“Allowing employees to substitute this public holiday for another day can support those employees to feel respected and welcome.” 


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