The Department of Human Services' wage ballot carries huge implications for every worker in the Australian Public Service.
If DHS bosses pull off an audacious industrial smash-and-grab by winning the snap poll of their 30,000 workers, it will be a stunning victory for the Coalition's public sector industrial relations policy.
A vote to accept a pay rise of 1.15 per cent a year would be a triumph in the heartland of the public sector union, the CPSU.
It would strike a crippling blow to trade union power in the public service and Employment Minister Eric Abetz knows it.
But if the below-inflation deal is rejected, the federal government's plans for its 160,000 APS bureaucrats are in real trouble and the door opens to at least 12 months of public sector industrial strife, offering Labor a handy political opportunity.
DHS is the government’s biggest department, a behemoth that runs front-line agencies such as Centrelink, Medicare and the Child Support Agency.
Most of its workers are women, they are paid less than their counterparts in other departments, are more likely to work part-time, more likely to be in the union and not many of them live in Canberra. They are the very opposite of the lazy stereotype of contented, well-paid public servants.
Expect to hear a lot of those figures from the CPSU.
If the government can force through a low-ball wage at DHS, it can win one anywhere in the broader public service. Other departmental bosses, none of who have come clean yet on their own wage positions, are paying very close attention to how this plays out.
The government’s stated position is a familiar one; the budget’s in crisis and everybody – including the lady behind the desk at your local Centrelink – must do their bit to fix it.
But that’s a hard sell to a workforce that knows there was money – $102 million – for plush offices to house DHS’s hierarchy in a posh part of Canberra when perfectly good offices in a less salubrious part of town were available.
They know too that tens of millions – the exact figure is a closely guarded secret – could be spent on a customer service computer system that does not work much of the time.
''Labor waste'' will be Abetz’s refrain. Well, maybe. But he has to convince 30,000 rank-and-filers that the fix-up should come out of their pockets.
If the offer is rejected, the prospect of industrial action comes into play very soon. DHS workers carry a big stick: any disruption to Centrelink payments, for example, and there would be hell to pay for Abetz with his colleagues.
But any strike action might leave the CPSU, touchy about its public image at the best of times, vulnerable to attacks as the old-school union baddies holding the business of government to ransom.
A protracted IR brawl between the federal government and its public servants is an opportunity for Labor to fight on ground where it feels strong. Two opposition frontbenchers were quick to jump into the fray on Thursday as the details of DHS’s gambit went public.
They know it too: this is huge.