21/10/2010 - 00:00

Pay claims process needs overhaul

21/10/2010 - 00:00

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The piecemeal wage and salary fixing mechanism for public sector workers is a political issue that won’t go away, as inaction by both sides of politics demonstrates.

IT was the turn of Health Minister Kim Hames to be howled down at the front of Parliament House last week. And next year, almost certainly, it will be the Education Minister Liz Constable who will be facing the music.

The issue? Public sector pay claims, and the ham-fisted way in which they are generally handled.

At its best, the system can lead to a smooth transition from one enterprise bargaining agreement to the next. At its worst, services to the public are disrupted, ministers are pilloried and, if the campaign happens to overlap an election campaign, a little bit of extortion might surface, at the taxpayers’ cost.

In the current campaign, hospital support workers say the pay offer of about $27 a week – a little more than 70 cents an hour – is well short of the mark, especially considering the increased charges forced on households since the current government came into power.

Admittedly they are among the lowest paid in the system, but they have been trying to enhance their case with work bans in areas such as replacing bed linen for patients, clearing food trays and emptying rubbish bins. It is basic work but also essential, especially in hospitals.

The wage-fixing process usually involves a claim by the union on both wages and conditions, and a government response of a lower pay rate and productivity trade-offs. And it goes from there.

A downside for the government is that the public sector is one area where unions remain well organised. And wage negotiations give the unions, and their leaders, the chance to shine by battling for the underdog.

There was some good news on the pay dispute front, though. The Australian Nursing Federation and the government reached in-principle agreement on a 12.25 per cent pay rise over three years. That seemed to be below the radar and relatively painless for both sides.

So there are some examples where the current system does work.

One where it didn’t work, in the interests of taxpayers anyway, was the last EBA for government teachers, in 2008. Certainly teachers didn’t complain about it.

The government’s initial offer was for a rise of about 15 per cent over three years, combined with several trade-offs including a reduction in pupil-free days. The issue was bounced around with the ‘final’ offer eventually rising to 19 per cent, combined with productivity trade-offs. The offer was accepted by the union executive but required the endorsement of members.

It was then that Alan Carpenter called the state election, and Colin Barnett as opposition leader promised to top Labor’s offer by $120 million over three years. The hip-pocket nerve is pretty important in any election, and it is reasonable to assume that teachers voted in their thousands for a change of government. In such a tight result, it is reasonable to assume the Liberal offer was decisive.

The Liberals honoured their promise, and WA teachers became the best paid in the country. The productivity trade-offs slipped off the agenda.

Only the global financial crisis and the resulting hit on state revenue prevented other groups, such as the police, holding out for similar rises.

The rates for public sector ‘fat cats’ have been out of kilter since Jim McGinty as health minister made Neale Fong the ‘half a million dollar man’ in charge of the Health Department. He was Australia’s best-paid public servant. Mr McGinty justified the rate as required to attract a person of Dr Fong’s calibre. But when Dr Fong left, his successor had comparable rates, as does the incumbent, Kim Snowball. Whether the rate can be justified by performance has probably never been tested.

And then there are the executives leading the four entities that emerged from the previous government’s carve-up of Western Power. They must thank their lucky stars each night as they contemplate the ‘increased competition’ and ‘downward pressure on prices’ that were promised as justification for dismantling the major power utility.

The public perception of these entities is further dented, and the premier embarrassed, when the executives receive healthy bonuses and pay increases. All Mr Barnett can say in defence of a mechanism he inherited is that he’s opposed to bonuses, and they will be removed when the contracts expire.

The government’s challenge is to replace the current piecemeal wage and salary fixing mechanisms with one that achieves major consistency and certainty for both parties, and is independent of the political cycle. Good luck to the teachers for their gains last time, but why should the police, teachers or administrative staff be treated differently?

And what’s in it for the taxpayers – companies and individuals – who foot the bill?

One suggested change is for public sector wages to return to arbitration. Supporters say it would pave the way for greater consistency, and fairness, in rises across the board, and increased uniformity in any productivity trade-offs. The process would be at arm’s length from the electoral cycle.

Ministers might also find it attractive. They’d be less likely to be pilloried on the front steps of Parliament House at angry protest meetings of workers, urged on by officials, over the government’s ‘insulting’ pay offers.

Police, CCC at odds

IT hasn’t received a great deal of publicity, but the importance of the spat between the Police and the Corruption and Crime Commission should not be underestimated.

Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan says the CCC has questioned the quality of an investigation by his officers into an incident in 2008, in which Kevin Spratt had been tasered 13 times.

He says the CCC’s draft report registered approval of the investigation, but this section has been omitted from the final document.

The commissioner described the report into the taser incident, which received international attention, helped by some graphic vision, as neither balanced nor objective.

The CCC says its review of the internal investigation is continuing.

This is the most public falling out between the police and the CCC, and occurs almost on the eve of the changes to the CCC Act, giving enhanced powers to the agency to combat organised crime.

The state government is determined to push ahead with extending these powers, despite a parliamentary committee recently recommending that the issue is best left for the police to handle.

In that context it’s probably not a good time for the CCC head, Len Roberts-Smith QC, to be stepping down, in the middle of a potential demarcation dispute with the police.

It’s shaping as a new turf war; but at the highest level.

• Peter Kennedy is ABC TV's state political reporter.

 

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