Does it look easy now, Eric Abetz?

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In January this year Senator Eric Abetz - newly minted as Employment Minister just a few months before - spoke at a Sydney Institute function using words he may come to regret.

"As shadow minister it was also disappointing to see weak-kneed employers caving in to unreasonable union demands and then visiting me, advocating for change in the system," Senator Abetz said.

"And now as minister this phenomenon has unfortunately become even more frustrating.

"Instead of agitating for reform to outlaw certain tactics, why can't employers just say no?"

He made the speech at the Gallipoli Club, but those words will be ringing in his ears as he delves into his own difficult and drawn out campaign.


Private sector bosses sit on the sidelines egging him but on with grins that say, 'it's not so easy now, is it Eric'.

His enemy in the upcoming battle is, primarily, the Community and Public Sector Union which will be joined by other workers collectives he would like to see transported in the Doctor Who Tardis to the middle of last century, such as the Australian Services Union.

As his past words show, there is zero chance Senator Abetz can soften his approach on public servants. 

Forget about the fact the senate has blocked savings measures ensuring cutbacks in the bureaucracy are even more vital to the Coalition's plans. Forget about the fact public sector cuts can go down pretty well with constituents outside Canberra.

The senator must now show the jelly-kneed suits in the private sector how it's done. For anything else to happen would be utter humiliation. 

Remember, just say 'no'. It's that easy. Now, who wants to go and grab a soft drink?

But before the sound of ice cubes hitting lemon, lime and bitters breaks the reverie, there is the issue of 160,000 public servants to deal with and they have stolen a page from Senator Abetz's playbook.

They're planning to say 'no' too. This would have been no surprise to the senator and public service workers know this and consequently plan for a long fight in which they intend to tell every half-interested customer ringing Centrelink, Medicare and the Department of Veterans' Affairs for starters - in carefully crafted union messages - just how this government is hurting service delivery by not offering them wages increases to offset inflation. 

The Australian Services Union has already been priming its members at the Tax Office with industrial action rhetoric too and these are the people who collect revenue to keep the budget manageable.

In the senator's favour is the back-pay issue. There is none. So every month this drags on public servants will feel their current wage being eroded, if only psychologically, by inflation and the lack of any offset in wages, even if it is a less than 1.5 per cent annual increase.

Industrial action at the Department of Human Services, if approved, will be watched closely because it is heavily unionised and has contact with almost all Australians through Centrelink and Medicare. 

Unions will be looking at every disruptive option which avoids loss of pay for members. Strikes will not be high on the agenda. Temporarily shutting down forms of communications within departments in an attempt to confuse management is likely.

One thing is certain. Senator Abetz's belief about the threats of "wages explosion" is deeply held and he has a favoured quote which he gave at the January speech.

Like most of his favourites it comes from Labor, this time former treasurer Frank Crean, who once said "one man's pay rise is another man's job".