01/05/2015 - 04:54

Paying the price for political peace

01/05/2015 - 04:54


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A decision to lift the pay of some public hospital staff above inflation puts further strain on the government’s budget position.

PRICE POINT: Mike Nahan says WA’s public sector pay rates are among the highest in the nation. Photo: Attila Csaszar

A decision to lift the pay of some public hospital staff above inflation puts further strain on the government’s budget position.

The Western Australian Industrial Relations Commission is unlikely to be on Premier Colin Barnett’s Christmas card list this year, following its above-inflation pay rises awarded to more than 16,000 allied health and administrative staff employed in public hospitals.

The government had been quietly satisfied with its current policy of containing public sector wage increases to the inflation rate. Consequently, wages growth appeared to be under control.

That is until the state IRC came along. Just when governments believed that the days of the once all-powerful industrial tribunals were over, the state commission effectively made a clear statement that news of its demise was premature.

Not only did the Health Services Union win a 3.75 per cent rise; it was backdated to July last year. And there will be a 3 per cent increase next July, well above the government policy for 2.75 per cent and 2.5 per cent increases respectively.

It was hardly the sort of news the government wanted so close to its crucial May 14 state budget. As noted previously in Political Perspective, the state’s coffers have taken a big hit thanks to the slump in iron ore royalties and GST reimbursements.

But it was a reality check. The government is paying the consequences for its earlier ad hoc, even opportunistic approach to wage fixing, going back to its successful election campaign in 2008.

That was when Mr Barnett, in his first weeks as the newly minted Liberal leader, promised to find an extra $100 million for teachers over the life of their enterprise bargaining agreement. And that was after the teachers had rejected the initial offer, which then education minister Mark McGowan considered to be ‘realistic’. The teachers were ecstatic.

Similarly in the 2013 campaign, public sector nurses from the Australian Nursing Federation, led by their astute secretary Mark Olson, used the cover of another election campaign to push their pay claims. Mr Barnett, keen to avoid a wrangle over workers with a Florence Nightingale image, was very accommodating.

The wages policy was tightened in late 2013, but not before public sector doctors achieved useful increases, courtesy of the Australian Medical Association’s best efforts.

Treasurer Mike Nahan readily concedes that WA’s public sector pay rates are among the highest in the nation. Obviously the government’s pragmatic generosity towards teachers and nurses would have been a factor.

But he said that was the price of maintaining stability in the public sector workforce when some private sector pay rates were soaring. The last thing the government wanted was to lose well-qualified teachers, nurses and other professionals to the private sector, as occurred in the 1960s iron ore boom.

Now the government has to ensure the pay floodgates remain firmly controlled in the interests of the budget bottom line. With other envious public sector unions getting toey, the premier’s Christmas card list could dwindle further.

Background checks

REMEMBER the scene in the House of Cards television series in which a potential candidate is grilled mercilessly as to whether there are any indiscretions in his past?

The aim was to ensure that if the candidate was endorsed, no unknown problems would emerge to derail his campaign, let alone later if he’s elected.

The pitfalls of surprise issues in a candidate’s history surfaced in Queensland recently when it was revealed that Labor’s successful candidate in the northern seat of Cook, Billy Gordon, had a number of convictions and faced allegations of domestic violence. He was forced to quit the party, jeopardising the new government’s slim working majority.

Perth businessman Stephen Inouye believes the problem could have been avoided if political parties were prepared to pursue checks on candidates, including whether they had any convictions, the nature of such convictions and penalties imposed, such as jail.

Mr Inouye, who heads a Perth-based background checking firm, said 3 million police checks were conducted in Australia annually through CrimTrac for workers in sensitive industries, including the maritime and offshore sectors. About 75 per cent are approved straight up, with the rest needing further processing.

A former US Army officer and graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, Mr Inouye said applicants had to first give consent for the police checks.

“If a police check had been done on Mr Gordon, and if a relevant court outcome had appeared on his record, then an appropriate decision could have been made by the party based on that record,” he said regarding the Queensland issue.

“And the problems that the new Queensland government has had to confront might have been avoided.”

It’s a fair point. It might not have saved federal Labor from the controversy over the union and other activities of MP Craig Thomson that dogged Julia Gillard’s government, but it would have been valuable in the case of Mr Gordon.


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