30/06/2011 - 00:00

Need to tread carefully on wages

30/06/2011 - 00:00

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Some delicate negotiation is needed in the upcoming round of pay claims if the government is to emerge unscathed.

Need to tread carefully on wages

WITH the opinion polls looking good for the Liberals and many MPs planning overseas trips during the winter parliamentary recess, the state government is about to enter unchartered and potentially dangerous waters.

It must negotiate pay increases for tens of thousands of public sector workers; and the challenge is to find the right balance. Being too generous to one group can raise expectations for another. And given the fact that the wages bill is the main item in the budget, there can be catastrophic knock-on effects for the wrong decision.

The private sector wouldn’t be impressed either, as its workers would demand similar increases.

On the other hand, being too tight can damage the government’s standing in the community. And there can be an electoral impact. There are lots of public servants, and they also have families and friends who can lend sympathy, which, if required, can be expressed through the ballot box.

First cab off the rank is the Police Union. It has already banned overtime in the opening shots to win a 15 per cent pay increase over two years, plus improved entitlements and allowances, for its 5,000 members.

The union’s board dismissed a government pay offer, understood to be 12 per cent over three years in line with its general wages policy. The board warned that if the dispute dragged on there could be embarrassing consequences for the government during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth in October. That could be an idle threat, but it has been made.

The last thing Colin Barnett and Police Minister Rob Johnson want is to get the Police Union offside. Images of police officers – union members – rallying outside Parliament House carrying placards condemning the government for being tight fisted don’t look good on the evening television news bulletins.

And the government would be reminded that these same people put their lives on the line daily in the public interest.

Running a similar campaign has been the Health Services Union, which represents more than 10,000 workers in public hospitals and health services. It was chasing a 13.25 per cent increase over three years for members who include clinical psychologists, social workers, medical scientists, pharmacists and speech therapists, as well as administrative and technical staff.

The claim was close to the offer made to the police, and the government dodged a bullet when its members voted to accept the offer at a mass stop work meeting last week.

But the union has also come up with a unique approach to help attract, and retain, members working in regional areas. It says the government should tap into the Royalties for Regions fund to improve pay and conditions for regional workers; otherwise many will continue to seek to return to the metropolitan area – and its comforts – at the earliest opportunity.

The consequences for making the wrong call in these negotiations can be significant. Just ask ministers in the last Labor government what they think about the Teachers’ Union’s pay campaign, which some believe cost then premier Alan Carpenter the 2008 election.

In response to the teachers’ claim, then education minister Mark McGowan provided what he believed to be a realistic offer designed to achieve an early agreement. But negotiators in this business always see the opening offer as a starting point. Even the suggestion of a ‘final’ offer is frequently ignored.

The pay negotiations dragged on and eventually got caught up with the snap election campaign, resulting in the Liberals dangling a big bucket of extra money in front of the teachers, provided they won power, which they did. And the teachers were happy, for the time being.

As always in pay matters, there is a complicating factor, and this time it is to do with timing. The WA Salaries and Allowances Tribunal has just started the annual review of MPs’ salaries. If the government is to be consistent, the most MPs can hope for is a 4 per cent increase.

But there is a nexus between MPs’ pay around the country. And NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell – in the interests of restraint and setting the example for his state’s public sector – says his MPs should only get a rise this year of 2.5 per cent.

Even if WA MPs followed suit, don’t count on the police and others in the public sector being impressed.

Who wants to sit on a wage-fixing tribunal?

Boundary blue

A FORMER Labor president of the Legislative Council has challenged proposed new boundaries for upper house regions outlined recently by the Electoral Distribution Commissioners.

John Cowdell has queried the decision to transfer the lower house electorate of Mandurah from the South West region to South Metropolitan, saying it is against the spirit of the original legislation.

“The commissioner’s proposals make the already large region of South Metropolitan even larger,” Mr Cowdell said, “And the small region of South West will become even smaller – it just doesn’t make sense.”

There are six upper house regions – three covering the metropolitan area and three for the rest of the state. They contribute six members each to the 36-member chamber.

Under the proposals, the seven lower house seats comprising the South West region – minus the seat of Mandurah – will have 161,473 voters. That compares with the 15 districts making up South Metropolitan, which will have 359,651 voters.

Mr Cowdell, who is also a former assistant state secretary of the Labor Party, says his move is independent of any action his party might be planning. He says he is acting as a voter from the Mandurah electorate.

The official reaction of the major parties to the proposed boundaries is still not clear. But it’s understood the Liberals are pleased that their marginal lower house seats have become slightly safer, based on the 2008 election results.

Numbers in most assembly electorates are roughly equal, because of the principle of one vote-one value, which was introduced during the last Labor government’s term. But that does not apply to the upper house, where the number of electors differs significantly in the city and country regions.

All three metropolitan regions, with a total of 1,042,327 voters under the latest plan, will return a total of 18 members in the upper house and 43 in the lower house.

The three country regions, with 359,454 voters, will also return 18 upper house members. But they will have just 16 members in the lower house.

The Agricultural region has done best out of the current electoral laws, with upper house representation out of all proportion to its 90,725 voters. Although it will have only four members in the assembly, the region still gets six seats in the upper house.

The final boundaries will be released on October 10.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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