Crunch time for the CPSU in public service pay negotiations

Relations between the Community and Public Sector Union and the Turnbull government, strained by more than two years of stalled negotiations over pay rises for Australian Public Service officers, are about to be tested in the court of public opinion. At the CPSU's urging, public servants began a series of rolling stoppages this week to highlight their frustration over what they regard as the government's unreasonable demands to link pay rises with trade-offs in award conditions. With airport-based immigration and Border Force personnel striking for 24 hours on Thursday, travellers may face long delays. Other government service-users, including Medicare and Centrelink customers, can also expect to be subject to varying degrees of inconvenience.

In a sign it is courting public support, the CPSU is seeking crowd-funding to pay its members at airports, who it says "are facing serious pressure from taking extra and extended rolling strike action". The government, meanwhile, is playing the "responsible party" card, with Employment Minister Michaelia Cash arguing there are more constructive ways to undertake workplace bargaining than strikes that "cause harm to the public".

Like any lengthy industrial battle, the CPSU's tussle with Ms Cash (and before her, Eric Abetz) is replete with ambit claims, counterclaims, attempts at arm-twisting and coercion, and derision, most notably from Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd.

It began with the expiry of workplace agreements in July 2014 and the CPSU's decision to use the talks as a pretext for seeking above-inflation wage rises for its members of at least 4 per cent. This was, in retrospect, an ill-considered ambit claim, since the Abbott government was in full budget repair mode, having already imposed a wage freeze on MPs, agency heads, judges and other public office holders.

Mr Abetz's response was that public servants could expect a (capped) pay rise no more than 1.5 per cent (less than the rate of inflation) and then only by offering up productivity increases or by forgoing award conditions. Unsurprisingly, talks proved unproductive.

If the Turnbull government's decision to lift the cap to 2 per cent signalled a potentially more receptive attitude, its rhetoric since then has dispelled any such notions. In February, Mr Lloyd claimed that public servants enjoyed work benefits equal to or higher than "community standards" and that they should accept the deals they'd been offered. And Senator Cash, who some regard as making her predecessor appear fair and reasonable, continues to label CPSU's claims as "unmeritorious".

In March, a University of NSW study into the Cash/Lloyd approach described it as a "forcing strategy" intended to limit pay increases and improvements to working conditions, increase labour flexibility, enhance management's ability to ratchet up performance standards, and enable management to gain increased power over the unions".

Such an outcome would undoubtedly please those on the ideological hard right of the Coalition still smarting over the electorate's rejection of John Howard's Workchoices in 2007. Whether a fragmented and atomised bureaucracy is capable of delivering the services that taxpayers expect is another matter, however. It's a message the CPSU will be working hard to disseminate this Easter.