Public service generals reap the spoils as footsoldiers go hungry

The pay rises awarded to Canberra’s top mandarins on Thursday were stinging salt in the wounds of the tens of thousands of public servants whose pay has been frozen since 2013.

The timing of the pay rises for departmental secretaries was brutal, coming as the resistance in government workplaces to the Coalition’s hardline industrial policy seems to be coming to an end after more than three years of sometimes bitter struggle.

To the victors go the spoils.

Up to 100,000 rank-and-file public servants will pay dearly for their not entirely unsuccessful campaign of defiance, although there is much to be admired in their grit in the face of the siege warfare tactics their employer deployed.

Since 2013, departmental secretaries’ pay packages have soared by more than 9 per cent. The head of a mid-tier department now earns more than $746,000 a year. Those further up the ladder earn even more.

The 36,000 public servants running Centrelink, the Child Support Agency and Medicare, for example, have had no pay increase since 2013. The best they can hope for is a 1 per cent a year raise between 2014 and 2020.

As an exercise in fairness, this is more from the Abbott-Hockey playbook than that of Turnbull-Morrison.

It’s worth noting that the freeze in “top-up” increases for departmental secretaries – part of Joe Hockey’s short-lived experiment with austerity – thawed after Malcolm Turnbull seized power. But the most punitive measure against ordinary public servants, the ban on back pay, was left in place.

In justifying the pay rises at the top, the Remuneration Tribunal indulged in the type of factual cherry-picking more commonly heard in Parliament House.

Yes, it is true, as the tribunal says, that a large number of Commonwealth agencies have negotiated increases of up to 2 per cent each year for their employees since the Coalition’s bargaining policy was put in place.

But those numbers deceive because most public servants still do not have new agreements in place, the recent yes votes at CSIRO and the departments of defence and agriculture notwithstanding.

The Coalition and its enforcers will likely claim victory as one departmental workforce after another agrees to lay down their arms, but it is a hollow triumph.

In return for narrow and short-term ideological goals, which most Australians would not share, real harm was wrought to the Australian Public Service.

The mistrust, bitterness and, in some cases, outright hatred unleashed in departments will not dissipate quickly or easily.

Nor will it be simple in coming years to repair the damage to the organisations that make the Commonwealth tick.

Where to now? All parties should acknowledge that this debacle must never be repeated.

The APS’s industrial relations system, which proved shamefully inadequate in this case, needs to be reviewed and changed so it can act as an effective circuit-breaker when agreements remain out of reach.

Then, perhaps, something might be salvaged from this disaster.

This editorial was originally published in The Canberra Times

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