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'Something for Eric to contemplate': Brendan O'Connor sizes up Senator Abetz

Date

Phillip Thomson

Brendan O'Connor believes the Coalition would cut the public service too deep and be forced to increase numbers again in the future.

Brendan O'Connor believes the Coalition would cut the public service too deep and be forced to increase numbers again in the future. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Labor's point man on the public service, Brendan O'Connor, says the federal government would reap a nasty harvest if public servants were poorly treated during bargaining negotiations. 

The man who held seven ministerial positions at various time under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard has offered some advice to Coalition Senator Eric Abetz, now overseeing collective bargaining affecting 160,000 public servants across 117 agreements. 

"What we don't need is an anxious disgruntled public service, who feel they've been badly treated, going on indefinitely because that's not going to be good for them or the government," Mr O'Connor said.  

The opposition's employment and workplace relations spokesman said the federal government was in a difficult position.

"You've got a government that has to have enterprise agreements and doesn't like enterprise agreements but hasn't got the courage to repeal them and most Australians do like collective agreements."

He pointed out a change in the bargaining playing field: the en-masse expiry of agreements across the federal bureaucracy, most of which happened last month, allowed a trigger for lawful industrial action under the Fair Work Act. 

"That's just something for Eric to contemplate when he's working out how he's going to get a settlement," he said, adding the Coalition was trying to "cower" public servants into not accepting pay rises.

"I'm always skeptical about the Coalition government to act in good faith when it comes to industrial relations - it's not in their DNA. 

Mr O'Connor, 52, has more time on his hands compared with his days running the Immigration portfolio when he could knock back appearances on high-rating current affairs programs a few times a week.

The former union official looks at public service matters for Labor along with shadow special minister of state, Gary Gray.

"For the life of me I don't know how Minister Abetz is going to handle it," Mr O'Connor said. 

"Eric doesn't strike me as someone great at accommodating other people's points of view on industrial relations.

Mr O'Connor predicted the Coalition would cut too deep and be forced, like the Howard government, to increase numbers again in the future when it realised it could not function properly without the correctly-sized workforce.

He said his party's position on performance pay for public servants had not changed - it was still cynical on the matter. 

"The bonus can be used too readily in the wrong hands as a stick to punish candour and fearless advice," he said.  

He said skills, responsibility and perhaps experience could be measured to guide salary.

"Rather than, 'you did a job for us so we'll give you a bit of money'," he said.

"The flip side is 'we don't like how you said that in Senate Estimates so we're going to hurt you'.

"No one's ever going to admit they'll withdraw money but it's open to abuse if you have the minister having such powers over public servants who, remember, have to remain independent."

Mr O'Connor said secretaries were already well paid.

"The secretary who reported to me (when he was in government) was paid twice as much as me and probably had a less precarious job, didn't have to front the media." 

7 comments

  • Seriously if he didn't like performance pay in the APS why didn't he when in government for 6 yrs abolish it?
    As stated previously, all of the redundancies up until May this year were the result of the ALP Govt's budget and efficiency dividends.
    Personally, am cynical that either hue of govvt would have negotiated in good faith this time around with the APS.
    And to complain that Secretaries earnt twice the amount he did, REALLY!

    Commenter
    Been there
    Date and time
    July 16, 2014, 2:05PM
    • My understanding is they DID abolish it where they could (though some AWA's remained in force) - rather, it's the present government who wants to reactivate bonuses - see here (scroll down to end) http://www.canberratimes.com.au/national/public-service/eric-abetz-on-public-service-performance-bonuses-wages--and-widgets-20140330-35rh7.html

      Commenter
      Mardi
      Location
      Tuggeranong
      Date and time
      July 16, 2014, 4:49PM
  • It depends on who is defining "in good faith". I personally find APS holding government and the public ransom to get a pay rise not in good faith and I am an APS!

    Commenter
    Lucy
    Date and time
    July 16, 2014, 4:03PM
    • Dear Mr O'Connor – Secretaries of Departments have to know what they are doing. All it requires to become a Labor politician is to have been in the party, working for a union, and buttering up the right people (there are other words one can use for this process). Meanwhile, for the incoming Independents we see that the requirements are essentially zero. As such, I can quite understand that a Secretary might get paid more than you.

      Also Mr O'Connor, would you like to comment on Ms Gillard’s treatment of the Public Servants with her not only applying the “productivity bonus” (a nice way of saying they are going to reduce the overall payroll in dollar terms let alone real terms without actually doing anything to make the Public Service more efficient), but also increasing the “productivity bonus” so making the Public Servants contribute unfairly to bailing out the Bligh Queensland government after the floods.

      Meanwhile Mr O'Connor, can you comment in relation to the requirements brought in under Labor to at least one Government Departments that staff must sign to say they agree to their performance assessment before they get their Enterprise Agreement-based (not performance-based) pay-rise?

      Please Mr O'Connor – I really would like to know how, if your stated policy on treatment of the Public Service is correct, your party could have got their actions so wrong during their last period (a whole 6 years remember) in office. Were your party actually managing the Public Service or not?

      Commenter
      John
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      July 16, 2014, 4:47PM
      • Well Mr Abetz all of us public servants are aware of your own approximately 50% pay rises over the past couple years, including those for senior executives. We are not that greedy and would never expect anything near that but you should remember that when trying to bully us into less than we deserve. We generally talk in single numbers which are a far cry from your 50%, notably with no productivity trade offs. You are already burdening us all with extra work to cover for the job losses so that alone deserves some sort of recompense.

        Commenter
        TuffGuy
        Location
        Canberra
        Date and time
        July 16, 2014, 5:35PM
        • We are seeing the Tea Party ideology put forwards in all proposed agreements. Instead of 'you do an important job, do it better and be incentivised like anyone else in the private sector' - it's now a 'Why should public servants get air conditioning? do they think they're special?'. It's a strange 'A Current Affair' mentality and it's only bolstered by anti-APS, Allan Jones subscribers and their rants (which no doubt follow this post). Abetz will continue to throw red meat to the right wing canines on this one. I'd expect more sensationalist stories in the media about the 'wasteful' public service. Go stand in line at a Centrelink office to see just how 'overstaffed' and 'easy going' life is for the average APS staff. Constant death threats are a wonderful way to live.

          Commenter
          RepublicanDimwit
          Location
          Sydneny
          Date and time
          July 17, 2014, 4:59PM
          • Dear RepublicanDimwit - this same APS process has been occurring for a few decades now. Why are you only criticising the incumbent? Surely your comments should include the previous mob at least - unless, of course, you are being selective.

            Commenter
            John
            Location
            Canberra
            Date and time
            July 21, 2014, 7:57AM
        Comments are now closed
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