One of the unique features of a public service career is the series of changes carried through with each turning of the political tide, as the party coming into government puts its own stamp on how the bureaucracy is run.
With one of two parties capable of forming government based around organised labour and the other opposed to it, one of the clearest shifts is seen in the attitude public service leaders are expected to take towards the unions that represent some of their own staff. Labor governments remove obstacles to public sector unions increasing their membership; the Coalition puts them back, and its efforts have contributed to a drop in public sector union density.
In Queensland, the Liberal-National opposition managed to stir up controversy this week with help from the Courier-Mail, which reported the government’s quiet re-instatement of its “commitment to union encouragement” in the workplace. The newspaper outlandishly described the policy as an “extraordinary deal signed in secret” and agreed with the opposition that it made the government “in effect … a recruiting arm of the union movement”.
Opposition leader Lawrence Springborg (pictured above) led the charge against the unusually explicit but nevertheless benign piece of policy guidance, which was in place for 12 years before he and his colleagues first banished it in 2013 when he was Health Minister in the Newman government. He aimed one shot at Treasurer Curtis Pitt in Tuesday’s question time. Would Pitt let new employees opt out of having their “identities and private details” given to unions? In several moderately evasive answers, he replied cryptically:
“They can opt in or opt out of almost anything because there is nothing compulsory about this process … If they wish to join a union or if they wish to hand over information, they are able to make those things available to their supervisors. That is the important point here. We respect the privacy of employees, and that is exactly what we will continue to do.”
Most of the claims against the resurrected policy that make up the opposition’s salvo are overblown, according to public sector industrial relations expert Linda Colley, especially Springborg’s suggestion that it will reduce productivity.
“He actually couldn’t be more wrong,” she told The Mandarin. “All of the research and the evidence in the academic world says that a ‘high-commitment’ model of employment — where you give job security and you make sure employees have a voice, whether that’s through their own consultative committees or through a union committee — actually leads to the most productive workplaces.”
Colley says the Newman government’s approach was more likely to harm productivity, as it featured low job security, and caused public servants to fear for their jobs. The Central Queensland University business lecturer, who has both experienced work in the state’s public service and done considerable research into it, also echoed the government’s arguments that the policy had been benign when it was in place previously.
“It was in place, it all operated very quietly and no one ever talked about it,” she said. “It didn’t actually get paid very much attention before to be honest; when I have worked in the public service, it was a pretty invisible clause.”
Colley says the directive’s recognition of the role of unions is “nothing new” and that it appears to contain all the necessary caveats like “subject to relevant legislation” and “provided that service delivery is not disrupted and work requirements are not unduly affected”. She doesn’t imagine unions being particularly cock-a-hoop over its implications and views the situation as the reinstatement of an “uncontroversial” policy document following a period of upheaval in the public service, caused in part by the LNP’s earlier shift to an “extreme” anti-union stance.
Of course, Springborg maintains the narrative that in the past, the directive cultivated a wasteful culture where the public’s time and resources were effectively stolen by crooked union bosses and their delegates, and only he and his colleagues rescued the state from their clutches. Now they’re defending freedom and choice again.
Another industrial relations researcher, UNSW Business School lecturer Sue Williamson, said the document simply stated the existing freedom of association that employees enjoy and that the claims made by the LNP and the Courier-Mail seemed “exaggerated”. She says the same thing as Colley about productivity: “Research has shown that workplaces that have employee voice mechanisms are more productive than those without. So instead of hindering productivity, union presence could actually improve it.”
And she found Springborg’s claim that union bosses had been given “a free and unfettered reign in impugning the independence of the public sector” particularly strange:
“To impugn the independence of the public sector is quite a strange comment because even if there were quite a high density of active union members in the workplace, I don’t see how that is going to influence public policy or the independence of the public service. I think the independence of the public service is more affected by the politics and parties of the day than union access or how many union members there are.”
Like Colley, Williamson dismisses the suggestion that union activity harms productivity in the workplace along with the idea of union delegates taking over the public service. Still, she was surprised to see Queensland even bothered to write the edict in the first place, all those years ago.
“What struck me was the existence of this policy; most of my work is on the federal public service, which doesn’t have anything like this and as far as I know, hasn’t for many decades,” she told The Mandarin.
Of course, a change of government still means that federal mandarins — those that survive — are required to undergo a huge shift in attitude towards the public service unions. But that shift, says Williamson, takes place at ministerial level and flows through secretaries, influencing the way agencies are run and policy is developed, and she doubts that explicit statements like Queensland’s would make much difference to rank-and-file staff, whether unionists or not.