Treasurer Rob Lucas confirmed the Marshall Government had told public sector unions it had adopted a new position on future pay rises, which will now take effect from the date they are ratified rather than being backdated to the end of the previous enterprise bargaining agreement.
“This gives the unions an incentive to settle and settle quickly, rather than let things drag out for two years of protest action knowing they can retroactively get things back,” Lucas told InDaily.
“We see it as an incentive for the unions to actually get on with it and settle an enterprise agreement in the interests of their members.”
There’s no incentive on you on behalf of your members to get off your backsides and settle the dispute
But the flipside is that the new stance gives the Government less incentive to finalise agreements, with some union insiders suggesting there was a deliberate budget imperative to delay the implementation of new pay increases, which can then be averaged out over a four year budget cycle.
Asked about this, Lucas said it was “not in our interests to publicly speculate about budgeting provisions in how we budget”.
“As a general principle, we’re not prepared to go back to the start if we have a 12 to 18 month negotiation [but] in terms of how we budget, I’m not prepared to speculate publicly about those sorts of issues,” he said.
“From my viewpoint as a minister, it’s in my view in the Government’s interest to settle enterprise bargaining [matters] as quickly as possible.”
Nursing and Midwifery Federation state secretary Elizabeth Dabars – whose union is currently embroiled in an enterprise bargaining standoff with the Government – described the shift as “draconian”.
“In years gone by, we have had robust negotiations with the push and shove one expects, but always with some goodwill,” she said.
“This has resulted in agreements where outcomes have operated retrospectively [but] with this new policy, the Government can benefit simply by delaying and frustrating the process.”
She added that “in our case, while that may benefit the Government, it disadvantages nurses and midwives in their bargaining and ultimately the broader community for whom they are providing care”.
The policy change was outlined in a letter to relevant unions late last year from Treasury’s enterprise bargaining director Simon Johnson, himself a former industrial officer and strategist at the Public Service Association.
“I write to advise that the State Government has, as a matter of policy, adopted a set of objectives and principles applicable to enterprise bargaining within the state public sector,” the letter began.
Those objectives included a provision to “enable workplace and agency reform to achieve government objectives”, and also noted that “for negotiations that have not yet commenced, the Government has adopted as a principle that matters included in the agreement will operate prospectively”.
The letter is dated October 4; the following month, public school teachers voted to go out on their first strike in a decade.
Australian Education Union branch vice president Lara Golding told InDaily the union had “started bargaining well before the introduction of this policy and well before the previous agreement expired”, and as such didn’t believe it should apply to their EB standoff, which remains ongoing a year later.
She likened the removal of retroactive pay rises to “wage theft”.
“We believe it’s fair and reasonable for retrospectivity to be provided,” she said.
“This policy is indicative of a Government that is not interested in bargaining in good faith.”
The Government has relented to an offer to the AEU that includes part-back-pay, with a 1 per cent increase backdated to October last year, and rising to 2.35 per cent by 2020.
However, it has rejected a union request for an interim pay rise of 3.5 per cent, with Lucas saying “that’s the more immovable principle”.
“If we adopt the position whereby we make interim payments while you continue to dispute, there’s no incentive on you on behalf of your members to get off your backsides and settle the dispute,” he said.
“There would be no incentive for them to actually settle the dispute rather than continue to wear the taxpayers down and say ‘we’ve got an interim payment, we’re not prepared to give anything up’.”
However, the Government has agreed to an interim 2.5 per cent pay rise for SA Police, with Police Association president Mark Carroll telling InDaily that deal was guaranteed in the previous EBA.
He said the Government had indicated it wanted to remove such provisions from future agreements, adding: “That’s the Government’s position, that’s not our position.”
“Our position is having a guaranteed payment date in the next EB avoids industrial disputation, and has worked very well for police for a decade,” he said.
Lucas is under pressure to keep wages in check as he wrestles with spiralling debt, a downturn in GST revenue and the likely blocking of his land tax aggregation measures.
However, he wouldn’t detail how much he had budgeted for wage increases across the public sector, saying only that “if the Government’s offer of 2.35 per cent had been accepted, we were ready to go with that particular offer and it was broadly within the parameters of what we’d budgeted for”.
He said the interim police deal of 2.5 per cent took into account “offsets from the Police Association which saved us some money”, including “being able to employ civilian prosecutors”.
“We’re not announcing publicly or to union negotiators what the number in our budget is… we’ve said ‘sensible and reasonable’,” he said.
“We’ve settled a large number of agreements at 2 per cent [while] the 2.5 per cent [deal] had some significant cost efficiency offsets included in it.”
Lucas conceded the shift in bargaining policy had not gone down well with unions.
“My estimation, having met with all of them, is they much preferred the former government’s position… where you can continue forever, knowing everything would be back-paid,” he said.
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