The Immigration Department has told the industrial umpire to cast aside accusations it has been unreasonable in its workplace dispute with staff, saying it was simply taking a robust position into negotiations.
On the first day of hearings by the Fair Work Commission into the bitter four-year stoush over pay and conditions, the department's lawyers opened its case saying employees were offered "fair and balanced" agreements with wage rises that were sustainable for the government.
The commission will arbitrate the pay and conditions of workers after hearing the department and the union in what has been described as the largest industrial relations case since Qantas grounded its aircraft in a high profile workplace dispute six years ago.
Outside the commission before the Canberra hearing, the main public sector union on Monday said it didn't pick the fight with the government, and that the Coalition was trying to impose cuts to wages and take home pay for the department's 13,800-strong workforce.
Community and Public Sector Union secretary Nadine Flood said the department's position forced its staff into industrial action, and that despite strikes, ministers had not agreed to an outcome that recognised the role of Immigration employees.
Speaking for the department before the commission, legal counsel Paul O'Grady was quick to reject claims it had negotiated in bad faith and was unreasonable in its dealings with staff who voted down several offers before the impasse went to Fair Work in early 2016.
"In reality, there's nothing more than a robust negotiation engaged in by participants with an entrenched view of their desired outcome," Mr O'Grady said.
Union attacks on the department's approach to bargaining were misplaced and did not assist the Fair Work Commission in its arbitration, he said.
Mr O'Grady defended Immigration's decision to follow the government's industrial policy for public servants.
"It's a fallacy to suggest that merely because it's seeking an outcome consistent with the government policy, that it's acting unreasonably or not acting in good faith."
He told the Full Bench of the commission that the department's offer to staff balanced competing interests and provided flexibility while the proposed pay rise took account of economic conditions.
"It pays appropriate regard to the lengthy, robust and unsuccessful process of all parties to reach an agreement through bargaining."
Mr O'Grady urged Fair Work to give weight to the government's workplace bargaining policy in its decision, and said it should pay "due regard" to how the government decided to allocate "scarce resources".
After its 2015 merger with the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection tried to combine each agency's agreements in a way that was "fair and balanced", he said.
The Fair Work Commission began hearings more than a year after it halted industrial action by union members including strikes at Australia's international airports, and staff have gone without a pay rise in four years.
The hearing continues on Friday, when the CPSU will open its case.
Former senior Labor government members Wayne Swan and Craig Emerson are expected to appear later as witnesses for the union in hearings, due to finish in December.