Commonwealth pay unrest: a 'return to command and control'?

By David Donaldson

November 5, 2014

The government’s hard-line approach to public sector pay negotiations signals “a return to a more command and control approach to industrial relations” that risks creating unnecessary hostility, labour law academic Professor John Howe has told The Mandarin.

Tensions between the government and public servants have been rising following the Prime Minister’s comments that he “would be very surprised if anyone in the Commonwealth public sector receives more than is received by our Defence Forces.” Below-inflation pay rises of 1.5% per annum for Defence personnel were approved on Monday.

In response to low pay offers, employees at the Department of Human Services are deciding by ballot whether to take protected industrial action that could include stoppages, work bans, strikes or other action. Fair Work Australia has also approved a ballot at the Department of Veterans Affairs on similar measures.

The current workplace agreements for 165,000 public servants in more than 100 Commonwealth agencies expired on June 30 and bargaining negotiations are currently under way in around 70 agencies.

Assistant Defence Minister Stuart Robert has reiterated Abbott’s comments, telling The Australian:

“I can almost guarantee that no one will get a higher increase from government than our Defence Force people … I suggest you are looking at the very, very high, high-water mark.”

It’s unsurprising that many public servants are unhappy with this situation, says Howe, a director of the Centre for Employment and Labour Relations Law at Melbourne Law School. “If you’re making it harder to get any pay gains, you’re always going to have some unrest,” he told The Mandarin.

“Particularly in the broader context of job cuts and restructuring. People are being asked to wear pay restraint when there’s a lot of uncertainty, and that seems to be a recipe for unrest.”

Under the Abbott government “there seems to be a return to a more command and control approach to industrial relations: ‘you must achieve these goals, you mustn’t work with unions unless you have to'”, Howe argues.

“If you want to bring people along with you, you’re less likely to achieve that with a command and control approach …”

“If you want to bring people along with you, you’re less likely to achieve that with a command and control approach, in the broader context of less job security, etcetera,” he said. “It would be better to be sending a more positive message that we want to cut the size of the public sector, but we’ll treat the remaining staff well. The reality is they’re going to cut jobs and the remaining people will probably have more to do.”

He is also critical of the government’s position that future pay rises should be tied to productivity increases. “It can be very difficult to measure productivity gains, particularly in the public sector, but in a lot of other industries as well. It’s difficult to identify specific areas where productivity gains could be made. Instead it’s seen as code for ‘we don’t want to give you any pay rise’,” Howe said.

The previous government already made significant cuts to the bureaucracy through the efficiency dividend, argues Howe, so it’s questionable whether further belt-tightening is necessary. “I don’t think there’s been much of a change in situation to justify a further round of cuts,” he said.

“It seems to be largely an ideological position about having a balanced budget. You can get a lot of disagreement among economists about whether that’s a good approach. The government certainly has an ideological agenda on industrial relations. It’s sending signals to private sector about how it would like things to be done, and using what it has direct control over to make some significant changes.”

Community and Public Sector Union National Secretary Nadine Flood said in a statement:

“The Prime Minister’s statement suggests that he is unaware that while pay is an issue for public servants, their biggest concern is the government’s hard-line attack on their rights and working conditions. They are not going to sit back and accept losing most of their rights in return for pay offers that are sitting at less than 1% a year.

“Unlike soldiers, public sector workers are allowed to fight back. They can bargain and they can take industrial action if their employer won’t reach an agreement and that’s where we are at today.”

“For example staff in Centrelink and Medicare are voting for industrial action because they’re being asked to accept 60% of their rights being removed and their conditions being cut, all for less than 1% on pay; that’s even worse than what the ADF are being forced to cop.

“We are calling on Minister Eric Abetz to sit down and discuss the problems created by the government’s deeply flawed bargaining policy. It is frankly bizarre in public sector bargaining that the Minister won’t even meet and discuss their policy, given the scale of these problems.”

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