Negotiations at Home Affairs were complicated by the merger of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, a restructure leaving public servants in the new department with markedly different conditions.
Bargaining reached an impasse and public servants went on strikes that the industrial umpire terminated in 2016, beginning arbitration.
The full bench of the Fair Work Commission found the federal government bargaining rules had significantly constrained negotiations between bosses and workers.
Exemptions allowed under the 2018 policy would be unlikely to cover the problems created by the departmental restructure in negotiations, the commission said.
Finding a single set of terms and conditions “in a way that balanced the interests of the department and its employees was made nigh on impossible by the absence in the government’s workplace bargaining policy of any meaningful scope to recognise the unique circumstances existing in this case,” Fair Work said in its decision.
“We would suggest that consideration be given to incorporating some degree of flexibility into the workplace bargaining policy to enable circumstances such as those existing in this case to be more effectively dealt with in a constructive and collaborative way.”
The Community and Public Sector Union has long criticised the bargaining rules, which cap pay rises at 2 per cent, require agencies to fund them with productivity gains, and prevent back pay after negotiations. The policy does not let agencies enhance conditions for employees overall, instead forcing them to trade improvements with other conditions or entitlements within enterprise agreements.
New public service commissioner Peter Woolcott in October said the bargaining rules were working and controversy over the policy had cooled. Following the Fair Work Commission’s criticisms last week, Mr Woolcott’s agency said the content of the workplace bargaining policy was a matter for the government to decide.
Senator Cormann said 36 from 41 ballots for new agreements in 2018 led to majority ‘yes’ votes in federal agencies.
“Agencies are continuing to bargain successfully with their employees under the government’s policy and implement new enterprise agreements,” he said.
Other federal agencies restructured under machinery of government changes reached new enterprise agreements under the 2015 policy, Senator Cormann said.
The public service commission in November reported bureaucrats at 18 agencies voted up new enterprise agreements in 2017-18. It said the result combined with low strike action showed employees were satisfied with their workplace deals.
Between 2014 and 2018, bureaucrats at many agencies went years without pay rises and rejected multiple offers from employers in a protracted and at times bitter round of bargaining.
Doug Dingwall is a reporter for The Canberra Times covering the public service and politics.