Bargaining policy: clock ticking on government's toxic war with its own workforce

By Verona Burgess

May 30, 2018

The terms of reference for the independent review of the Australian Public Service do not specifically list agency bargaining but it is not something that can be easily ignored.

The new round of federal government agency bargaining is already upon us – but, shamefully, the 2014 round is not truly dead and buried.

The new behemoth, the Department of Home Affairs, is facing arbitration and a handful of remaining agencies – most notably the Bureau of Meteorology and the Federal Court – are still to cross the finishing line.

The saga has dragged on for so long that it is hard to remember that agency enterprise agreements were in synchronisation as recently as mid-2014, when they all expired on June 30.

The first agreement of the next round, Comsuper, was not finalised until mid-2015. Now, all their nominal end dates vary by up to three years – hardly the image of a unified workforce.

According to the Australian Public Service Commission, just seven expire mid-year, including the APSC itself and the Treasury. Another 13 expire by the end of the year, including Communications, Foreign Affairs and Social Services. Thirty-six more finish in the first half of 2019 and another 16 in the second half, while 54 finish in 2020 and the last nine or so in 2021.

The critical mass – Defence, Tax and Human Services – are in the 2020 group; Home Affairs in 2021. These are the agencies with large numbers of lower-paid staff (and higher proportion of union members), who are often also on the frontline of customer service.

They, and staff in many other agencies, fought long and bitterly in the last round not only for wage rises but also to retain and safeguard conditions in their agreements rather than have them left to the basic award, and the national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, Nadine Flood, describes it as the most protracted and messy round of Commonwealth bargaining in 30 years.

Anti-public sector ideological agenda

Flood is also deeply critical of the new bargaining policy, which is now in force and which she says continues to reflect the government’s anti-public sector ideological agenda but with new elements that encourage the use of labour-hire and contractors and individual agreements. The union is also arguing for a change of rules to reduce the APSC’s control – although that might have to wait until a change of government.

Added to the mix, and not in a good way, is the latest twist in the tale of the Public Service Commissioner, John Lloyd, who has carriage of the policy and is hardly the union’s best friend.

John Lloyd: not the union’s best friend

Following the drama at the Senate finance and public administration committee early last week, it turned out the non-existent inquiry by the Acting Merit Protection Commissioner, Mark Davidson, into a code of conduct complaint about Lloyd’s emails to the right-wing think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, was not quite a dead duck.

Late on Wednesday, Davidson wrote to the two presiding officers, saying when he had received the complaint on January 11, he had been expecting a new Merit Protection Commissioner to be appointed in the near future.

“I advised the person making the allegation that the matter would be referred to the new [commissioner] when appointed,” he wrote. “A Merit Protection Commissioner has not been appointed and I have continued to act in the position. In late March 2018 I decided that the allegation needed to be addressed. In light of any perception of bias arising from my substantive employment in the APSC, in April 2018 I asked a former secretary to assist me to consider whether the allegation, on its face, warranted the start of an inquiry. I have not yet reached a view on whether to start an inquiry. I will advise you if I decide to do so ….”

Conflict with own workforce hardly productive

But the clock is ticking – and none of it feels comfortable for the new round of bargaining, given the powerful role of the APSC in effectively accepting or rejecting agreements, which it took over in 1999 from the old Department of Workplace Relations.

In the meantime, many agency heads – and many have changed since the last round – would evidently like to get the show on the road with as little conflict as possible. It is a no brainer: a toxic war with one’s own workforce is hardly productive. Some have already started the ball rolling, including the APSC itself, Treasury, Communications and Social Services.

Flood says,  “The agencies where bargaining has recently commenced were the first to settle last time around. Workers in these agencies still faced long delays compared with any other bargaining round and the agencies are advising that they’re keen to finalise new agreements more quickly this time around.”

Finance also wants to get moving. Deputy secretary Katherine Jones told Senate estimates that while no formal discussions had begun, they were working on the basis that negotiations would be completed by the time the current agreement expires in January.

Nothing will be easy, with public-service wage rises still capped at 2% a year and forbidden to be retrospective; the nigh impossibility of measuring productivity in a meaningful way; the average staffing level cap still being in force; the unquantified use of consultants, contractors and the use of labour hire causing deep resentment and, rubbing salt into the wounds, the government’s optimistic budget projections of wage rises that apparently do not apply to its own workforce.

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