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Discussion of the implications for public servants of the new collective bargaining model approved by the Industrial Relations Commission

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Government, unions and employers this week hailed the new direction in wage determination, the so-called collective bargaining model approved by the Industrial Relations Commission. Even Opposition MP John Howard thought there was some merit in the Full Bench decision. But what does it mean for Federal public servants? Talks stalled last week with the Government on a special pay rise application of between 4 and 6 per cent for public servants. That application was based on a market rate survey with the private sector. Peter Robson is the National Secretary of the PSU. Good morning, Peter.

PETER ROBSON: Good morning.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: What are you doing to kick-start proceedings?

PETER ROBSON: Well, I think that the decision does allow us an opening to proceed with a case on our market rates claim. What's important to note is that we have been negotiating extensively and exhaustively with our employers and the Government to seek an honouring of the agreement for a second pay increase this year. The problem with those negotiations is that the Government doesn't have a positive agenda for productivity change. It and the employers are applying a bean-counting approach and they just want, essentially, trade-offs of conditions and we won't accept that.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Yes. In the past trade-off of conditions have gone under the guise of actual productivity increases, haven't they?

PETER ROBSON: I think that's true of the second tier approach, although we did have a more positive agenda there. We won't proceed along a second tier approach again, that is the '87 wage-fixing system. We believe that there is a lot of ground for negotiation on a positive agenda. We call a positive agenda things like improving the skills of public sector employees, improving the quality of service, improving internal quality, better performance from technology, improved work organisation. Now, that's our agenda. The employers' agenda is get rid of appeals, can we sack public sector employees more easily? How can we introduce more casual and temporary employment? And there are other points. And to us that's a very negative agenda and totally unacceptable. And that's why I must say after intensive negotiations that have gone on really over the last two months, the PSU and the ACTU suspended those negotiations last week. We're just not going to be in that approach.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: All right. Now you're going to go before the Full Bench of the IRC next week, pleading a special case for the market-based pay rise. But that approach is really separate to the Full Bench decision on collective bargaining.

PETER ROBSON: Well, let's get the sequence of events clear. Our Executive's meeting next week to consider the next steps, and certainly the decision does allow us to run a case and that will be before our Executive. We will then be discussing that with the ACTU, and I expect to get support from the ACTU for that approach.

Yes, you're right to say that it is a different vehicle to enterprising bargaining. We would be running, if we adopted this approach which I expect we will, a full-blown arbitration case to test out once and for all the viability of market rate adjustments on paid rate awards. The decision of the Commission I think's a good one in that it separates those sort of issues from enterprise bargaining and direct bargaining. And, in the public sector, we have got to come to grips with this issue. I am very disappointed that our negotiations have come to a standoff situation, but there's no doubt we've got to come to grips with it because there are many productivity changes occurring in the public sector. You may be aware that the recent studies done by EPAC show that productivity levels are higher in the public sector than the private sector, and we want to make sure our members gain benefits from this.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: All right. Now, if I can just get this quite clear I suppose, put it little bit more simply. The PSU is seeking rises on two fronts: the first will be the 4 to 6 per cent market-based rise, and talks with the Government have stalled so you're going to discuss going to the Industrial Relations Commission on that. But there's also a further prong and that is that there's a second round of rises under the new wage guidelines.

PETER ROBSON: Well, yes, I believe there is a prospect of both, although in arguing a market-based adjustment we will also be including productivity changes. You know, when you are comparing yourself to the private sector and rates in the private sector, you've both got to argue the market, that is the market forces, and also increases that have occurred generally due to productivity in the private sector. So we will be arguing both factors, and there is some interlinking.

The problem we've got on the direct bargaining, enterprise bargaining approach is the employer, essentially. And we have an agreement with the employer to negotiate both market and productivity together, and that's our position. Our members have endorsed that. But the employer refused to recognise the significance of the market and, quite frankly, their agenda on productivity is just totally unacceptable.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Yes. Well, of course, the private sector argues that the public servants can't enter enterprise bargaining because they have no enterprise with which to bargain.

PETER ROBSON: Yes. Well, you'd have to be very careful if you were pursuing that argument. Certainly that's not true of Government business enterprises; it's not true of many statutory authorities; it becomes less clear in the Australian Public Service proper. And one of the things that we are attempting to sort out with our members and with the employers is the bargaining unit for the Australian Public Service. And it is a problem in the Australian Public Service, but Australian Government employment covers some 320,000 employees; the public service is only 160 of those. So for 40 per cent of our members we don't have any problem in defining the bargaining unit and being able to bargain.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: But there is a big problem for that remaining 60 per cent?

PETER ROBSON: I think it is a very significant issue. It's not just the size of the bargaining unit, it's how you define and measure productivity. You know, we're just not going to be in a sort of cost-cutting, bean-counting approach. We think that productivity in agencies such as, particularly in the service agencies such as tax, such as social security, et cetera, can be defined and there can be many very progressive changes made providing we're working on a positive output-oriented agenda. I mean, quite frankly, the clients of the public service, that is the Australian community, have got a lot to benefit if we can just get our employer and the Government to go into the 20th century. They're really still wanting to operate on the old Taylorist agenda, or Henry Ford's agenda of the early part of this century.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: All right. Peter Robson, thank you.

PETER ROBSON: Thank you.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Peter is National Secretary of the Public Sector Unit. And a few hurdles in the way for that pay case. I'm not sure on this, but I think the last round of 2.5 per cent which was translated into a flat $12 for public servants is still trickling through in some areas, so don't hold your breath.