A former head of one of Canberra's cultural institutions has a simple idea to spare them from the government's razor gang: allow them to have a single, combined pay deal for staff.
Former National Museum of Australia director Craddock Morton says avoiding the waste of conducting many separate, costly, wage negotiations would allow the government to trim the institutions' budgets without harming the services they provide to the public.
The Abbott government has asked seven agencies – the National Archives, the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Gallery, the National Library, the National Museum, Old Parliament House and the National Portrait Gallery – to merge their "back room" functions to save several million dollars a year. The War Memorial was exempted from the plan.
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However, after years of so-called "efficiency dividends" – annual cuts to administrative budgets – Mr Craddock said the small institutions already ran "very tight, lean ships", with one exception.
"If the government was serious about this, they would combine the one area which takes up a lot of resources for each agency: wage bargaining," he said.
The former senior public servant, who ran the National Museum from 2003 to 2010, said the institutions' staffing needs did not differ enough to justify the expenses of separate pay negotiations, which were a disproportionately heavy burden for small agencies.
"It's expensive and it's an unnecessary expense. There's absolutely no reason why it couldn't be done together under a single agreement. My preference has always been for a whole-of-public-service negotiation but, failing that, a single deal for these institutions is an obvious way of saving money and getting equity."
Mr Morton said the separate agreements in the past had forced the agencies to compete against each other for staff, and helped to push wages higher.
"If the gallery is paying $5000 more for a curator than the museum is, then the museum curators are obviously asking why and demanding to be brought up to the same level. But agencies don't have the same budget pressures," he said.
At present, staff in the seven institutions earn several thousand dollars more or less than workers in other cultural institutions, even if they are employed at the same level to do similar jobs.
The minimum base pay of an executive level 1 officer in the National Museum is almost $6000 more than that paid at Old Parliament House.
Public Service Minister Eric Abetz ruled out a whole-of-government pay deal in March, and confirmed the government's support for agency-based bargaining.
More than 110 government workplaces are now negotiating new, separate, wage agreements with staff to replace the deals that expire on June 30.
Community and Public Sector Union national secretary Nadine Flood said Mr Craddock's idea was interesting, but it was not the main concern of staff at the moment.
"Concern about job security has never been higher than right now and public sector workers want the government to stop playing games, end the bargaining delays and start genuine negotiations on new agreements right now," she said.
"Bargaining together may be an option for agencies set to actually merge into a single legal entity, though that's complicated enough. Where agencies are only sharing some functions, it's even more challenging.
"In either case, the government would have to agree to have good faith negotiations at a cross-agency level."
Mr Craddock also said the government should include the War Memorial in any proposed merger of services: "In terms of possible synergies, it is the closest match to the museum – much more so than the library or the gallery."
In 2008, a parliamentary inquiry found the efficiency dividend should not be applied to Canberra's national cultural institutions, which were cutting services to balance their budgets.
The inquiry said most of the agencies had "a legislated mandate to grow and develop their collections. This does not sit well with the efficiency dividend’s goal of harvesting their resources for government priorities."