The government has released its official response to last year’s Senate committee report on the Australian Public Service’s never-ending enterprise bargaining process, surprising no-one by agreeing to precisely none of the Labor-dominated committee’s 17 recommendations.
Digging in on positions it has long held, the government rejected calls to adjust upwards its 2% annual pay-rise cap, to amend the prohibition on offering back-pay to those whose salaries have been frozen for the past three years and to provide explicit provision for family violence leave in agreements.
All but two of the recommendations contained in the evocatively-named Siege of attrition report were rejected outright — and in some cases the government even took the unusual approach of stating it “rejects the premise” of the suggestion. The government “noted” recommendations that it “facilitate a discussion” with the Community and Public Sector Union and find the best way of tackling future enterprise bargaining rounds.
The proposal to lift the 2% cap “overlooks the fact that the federal budget is in significant deficit”, the government argues, noting that it already lifted the cap from 1.5% to 2% when Eric Abetz was replaced with Michaelia Cash as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service. “This figure is competitive with the increases to the Consumer Price Index and the Wages Price Index in recent years. The pay rises on offer to public servants are fair and reasonable.”
It is normal practice not to offer back pay, the government maintains, stating that this would be unaffordable due to the deficit.
Where agencies lack a family violence leave policy — as is the case for most public servants — “agencies have the ability to support employees using existing provisions” such as personal/carer’s leave, counselling and support services, and flexible working arrangements, the response argues. It also cites privacy as a reason for not providing dedicated family violence leave.
The government “rejects the premise” of the recommendation it “immediately” ensure public servants moved into a new department after machinery of government changes are paid the same amount as their colleagues, responding that “several agencies in the current bargaining round that have experienced machinery of government changes have been able to reach new agreements sensibly within budget constraints”.
The response reprises the ongoing debate over whether moving certain entitlements from enterprise bargaining agreements to department policies — which could be altered or removed more easily — amounted to a loss of conditions. While the CPSU is concerned removing entitlements from agreements could be the precursor to removing them altogether, the government maintains the change is part of making the public service more “flexible”:
“Over successive bargaining rounds, a range of superfluous content that does not provide employees with any specific entitlements has crept into agreements. In some cases, large swathes of HR manuals and procedures have been included in agreements. Such content complicates the use of enterprise agreements and makes them highly inflexible. In the case of agencies experiencing machinery of government changes, the option of grandfathering some employment conditions is available under the bargaining policy. Such arrangements have already been agreed to for some agencies.”
While a large number of public servants, including several of the largest federal departments, are still waiting for a new enterprise bargaining agreement — and have had their pay frozen in the meantime — the government argues it is making progress. As at February 8, a total of 83 agreements have been made in accordance with the bargaining policy. “This demonstrates that agreements can be made if the relevant bargaining representatives sit down and genuinely attempt to resolve outstanding issues in a positive, conciliatory and constructive way,” says the government.