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DHS finally out of enterprise bargaining, but the ‘anger’ remains

The Department of Human Services finally has a new enterprise bargaining agreement after more than three years of wrangling, but the long and acrimonious negotiations leave behind lasting tension within the huge department.

Just over three quarters of the department voted in the ballot and of those, 71% accepted the new EBA, which will soon deliver a 3% pay increase, rising incrementally to 6% over 18 months.

Babies born in mid-2014, when the last agreement expired, are now in preschool and there is no back-dating pay rises in the Australian Public Service.

The APS Commission blames the Community and Public Sector Union for the long delay but the union says the department’s senior leadership refused to listen to their real concerns, and it’s not all about the money.

“DHS management finally realised that retaining workplace rights and conditions was the key to settlement and as a result the CPSU did not oppose this agreement,” said the union’s national secretary, Nadine Flood, pointing out the union’s members had largely followed its advice to vote down all previous offers.

John Lloyd, the public service commissioner, provided his view in a statement immediately after the deal.

“The tactics of the Community and Public Sector Union have not been constructive for most of the bargaining process,” he said. “However, recently the union appears to have stepped back and ran a neutral campaign in DHS.

“Employees would rightly ask the union for an explanation as to why they have waited so long for their pay rise.”

Perhaps the agreement will help the department move forward in a more positive way with a new secretary, Renee Leon, who recently took over from Kathryn Campbell in the great mandarin reshuffle. But Flood says there is “anger remaining” in the department.

The much smaller Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority also accepted a new EBA yesterday, and with the massive DHS now out of bargaining, Lloyd says there remains only 2.6% of APS personnel without a new pay deal since a stricter government bargaining policy was introduced after the 2013 change of government.

Many of those are in the Bureau of Meteorology and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, which entered a Fair Work Commission arbitration process almost a year ago. Like DHS staff, the DIBP employees are more concerned about retaining various workplace entitlements in the agreement than pay rises.

“Both the DHS and ACARA enterprise agreements offer employees reasonable remuneration increases, generous terms and conditions of employment and improved workplace flexibility that balances agencies’ operations with the needs of employees,” the APS commissioner said.

Lloyd said he encouraged “parties still engaged in bargaining to move forward in a pragmatic fashion to settle new agreements” and pointed out another startling fact about this extraordinary bargaining battle: it has taken so long that some agreements signed early on will expire next year.

In some ways the impasse has turned public servants and their bosses into pawns something like small nations in the Cold War, caught in a damaging proxy war between the two major powers of Australian politics.

Some members of the government may see the effective pay freeze for several years as a good thing, but there are other uncounted costs of the long-running stand-off, described quite accurately as a war of attrition by an opposition-dominated Senate committee.

On average, new EBAs have only been accepted with weak ‘yes’ votes and at the end of the day, the government has been standing firm over a small percentage, of a small percentage, of its overall budget. The committee argued the government’s unflinching hardline approach has done little to improve its finances, but has clearly caused workplace disharmony.

“The government has risked the very fabric of the public service ethos by undermining the goodwill of countless public servants and engendering hostility between senior management and employees,” the report said. “In fact, the government has given every appearance of being willing to cut off its nose in spite of its ideological face.”

This article was updated shortly after publication to add more quotes from the Australian Public Service Commission.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.