Upstairs Downstairs Queensland style

KBates.gifIn a move that will have far reaching social, political and economic ramifications, the Newman LNP Government has effectively neutralised once legally binding industrial instruments by legislating a new right for their Government to change those agreements with the stroke of a pen.

It was bad enough on 31 July when the Chief Executive Officer of the Public Service Commission issued a directive that effectively overrode job security provisions and protections against unnecessary outsourcing contained in a number of public service workers’ certified agreements.  Queensland unions responded to this blatant attack on workers’ agreed rights by launching a Supreme Court challenge.

Worse was to come. In the dead of night on Thursday 23 August, the last sitting night before the 11 September budget, the Government stepped up its attack by changing the actual legislation upon which public service directives are based.

This is the Government that says to teachers: “Trust us. We won’t strip away your working conditions.”

The anti-public service lobby would have the voting public believe that job security, maximised permanency and conditions around outsourcing in public servants’ agreements are somehow symptomatic of, or the cause of, a “bloated public service”.

It’s an increasingly vicious rhetoric with barely a fact in sight to support the argument. The provisions do, in fact, underpin two important principles. One is that retaining experienced workers with highly developed skills is more efficient and economically sensible than continually retraining new workers. The second is that conditions around outsourcing hold governments accountable for their labour spend, both by making maximum use of permanent employees and limiting expenditure on consultants and contractors unless there is a demonstrated public good.

Private enterprise values corporate knowledge and understands the economic benefits of retaining an experienced workforce – why doesn’t this Government, that purportedly models itself on a “business”, not service, model?

History lesson for the Government

I have heard the actions of Campbell Newman compared to those of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, renowned for rapidly passing new legislation or amendments to existing legislation though our mono-cameral parliament.

However, I would assert that the actions of the Newman LNP Government go well beyond even those regrettable days in an attempt to drag industrial relations in our state back to the 19th century. At the time of the industrial revolution, and up until very recent times, industrial relations throughout most of the world operated on the fundamental principle of a master/servant relationship between employer and employee.

At the time of federation in the early 20th century, the founders of our nation, deliberately and with great foresight, chose to create a new and innovative solution to industrial relations. While still embedded in the master/servant tradition, Australia’s industrial relations regime was very much about equalising the power imbalance between employers and employees to the betterment of our community as a whole. The eight-hour day, workers compensation, awards and agreements and various leave entitlements were all founded in effective bargaining regimes that acknowledged and respected the rights of workers to have a voice in their own destinies.

The new letter of the law

Legislation passed through the Queensland parliament on 31 July takes a massive swipe at these established principles of industrial relations. (Public Service and Other
Legislation Amendment Bill 2012
and Hansard 23 August 2012 pp1722-1760) One of the amendments undoes the previous principles of termination, change and redundancy (TCR) and replaces them with three new ones.

  1. The employer is not required to notify an entity of the decision (to terminate, change or make redundant) until the time the employer considers appropriate;
  2. The employer is not required to consult with the entity about the decision until the employer notifies the entity of the decision; and
  3. The employer is not required to consult with the entity about the decision other than in relation to implementation of the decision.

Even without knowing the history of the TCR provisions, any reader will recognise the fact that this amendment is about removing all responsibility from the Government to talk with workers and their representatives until after it has made its decision. This reverses decades of industrial relations practice that consultation and decisions should be done/made with workers rather than to workers. The Newman LNP Government appears to believe that workers should sit quietly in their place “below stairs” and do what they are told.

Furthermore, in a development that has very specific meaning for our current teacher enterprise bargaining negotiations, the explanatory notes provided with the amendments make two very interesting assertions.

  1. The overriding consideration of the amendments is to give effect to government policy; and
  2. In response to the issue of whether the legislation has sufficient regard to individual rights and liberties (as required by the Queensland Legislative Standards Act, s.4(3)), the notes detail that the amendments will both limit the operation of provisions of industrial instruments covering government employees and delete the provision of the Public Service Act that prevents a regulation from reducing an employees overall employment conditions.

For months, the QTU has been at great pains to emphasise the lack of trust that exists between teachers, school leaders and their union and the LNP Government. These latest legislative actions vindicate that stance and highlight the need for us all to push back even harder on the Government and their despicable enterprise bargaining offer.

Not even in the darkest days of the waterfront dispute and WorkChoices has any government in Australia given itself the power to unilaterally change the remuneration and working conditions of an individual employee or group of employees. Even in those horrible times, the Industrial Commission was the independent umpire and agreement making processes remained intact.

If the actions of the past five months are indicative of what the Newman Government thinks it can do to workers, Queenslanders have every right to be losing faith in Queensland’s leadership and losing confidence in our state’s future.

Kevin Bates

27 August 2012