The Home Affairs Department has spent $2.76 million on external legal services in the prolonged dispute at the industrial umpire between bosses and staff over pay and conditions.
External legal costs for the department and the main public sector union have together reached more than $3 million since the Fair Work Commission ordered strikes to end and later began arbitrating the workplace dispute in November 2016.
The spending does not include the department and union's use of internal legal advice, which would push overall costs higher.
Community and Public Sector Union spending on external legal services reached $344,000 during the Fair Work case. The Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers, advocating for marine unit workers, only used internal legal advice.
The Home Affairs Department's legal spend was a fraction of its annual $59 million outlay on external lawyers last year but indicates the financial toll of a case that forced Fair Work's full bench to make an extensive ruling detailing staff conditions.
CPSU national secretary Nadine Flood said the union controlled its costs by maximising the use of internal expertise, and by using expert witnesses including Rudd- and Gillard-era treasurer Wayne Swan and former Labor trade minister Craig Emerson.
"That’s still a huge amount of money for our organisation, recognising how important this matter is for thousands of our members," Ms Flood said, referring to the union's external legal costs.
Home Affairs, formerly named the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, received the majority of its external legal services from the Australian Government Solicitor in the Fair Work arbitration case.
A department spokesman said it had always sought to reach an enterprise agreement with its employees through bargaining, and blamed the union for taking the dispute to arbitration. The CPSU said Home Affairs' intransigence left arbitration the only option at the time.
Home Affairs in October 2016 asked Fair Work to suspend protected industrial action until November that year, to allow time for the department to put its offer to another staff vote.
The CPSU argued it would be appropriate for the commission to terminate the industrial action, rather than suspend it, saying staff would reject the proposed deal.
A defeat for the offer at the ballot would extend a pay freeze, and continued negotiations would not yield agreement without a major change to the bargaining environment, the union said. Public servants had been without a pay rise since 2013, when their previous enterprise agreement had nominally expired.
Fair Work commissioner Nick Wilson terminated the industrial action on October 5, 2016, saying bargaining had been unproductive and the community had either been endangered by strikes, or could be endangered if they continued.
After 82 per cent of staff voted "no" in a third ballot, held the next month, the dispute went to arbitration leading to 10 days of Fair Work hearings in 2017 and 2018.
A decision from the industrial umpire on Friday began drawing the conflict to a close, but the dispute may not formally end until after a conference about the determination involving Home Affairs and groups representing staff.
Fair Work's newly-released 85-page determination, and its accompanying 185-page decision, will set employment terms and conditions for workers at Home Affairs until 2021.
The full bench in its decision criticised both the unions and the department, saying the negotiation was a good opportunity for Home Affairs and "key protagonists" to rationalise the number of allowances to benefit both the government and employees.
Staff at the department have already received a 4 per cent pay rise in June, when the commission released a part-determination. The second part of the pay rise, another 3 per cent, will be paid 12 months after the full determination is finalised.
The determination increases the amount of work hours in a standard day, and explains how pay classifications will be unified and how much loading is paid for casual workers.