Uh oh, look out!

It may not be the most attractive analogy, but let’s face it, if you’re walking and a dog has left a deposit on the path in front of you, you can tell what it is immediately. You don’t need to examine it up close, test it with a prod, or a sniff, or how it feels under your shoe to seek further information.

It’s a dog poo, and you should avoid it.

So, when we discovered what the Office of Local Government has in mind for changes to the employment provisions of the Local Government Act to coincide with potential amalgamations, we didn’t really need to wonder too much what it was.

The OLG has proposed that “a set of topic based information papers will be published electronically setting out the details of the proposed changes and the rationale for them” in October but we can call it now - look out, you don’t need to examine it up close, give it a prod or wait for some miscreant in the Office of Local Government to prepare an information paper to tell you that you can happily step in it.

We know that the Government wants changes to the Local Government Act in place and probably new boundaries in time for the local government elections in September 2016. We also know that the Minister for Local Government has assured the unions that whatever happens, employees will remain employed under the Local Government State Award. But it was not until what was intended to be a confidential document prepared by the OLG was tabled by a witness before the Upper House Inquiry into local government, that we discovered how bad the things were that we didn’t know.

By marvellous misadventure and a lucky question, USU northern Manager Stephen Hughes was asked by Standing Committee member David Shoebridge whether he was aware of any proposed changes to employment being contemplated as part of the reform process and, by enormous coincidence, he did.

He had come from a meeting of the Ministerial Advisory Group that morning (LGNSW, LGMA and the USU) where a document prepared by the Office of Local Government and titled The Development of the new Local Government Act Phase 1 Amendments”, had been circulated. Unwise to tell porkies to a parliamentary committee, Stephen had no option but to acknowledge he did and when asked if he had it, because he had come straight from MAG, he did. And it made its way into the official documentation tabled to the Committee.

If the OLG wanted to do things in secret, it would have been smarter not to give anyone that document until the Standing Committee had finished its public hearings.

You can see what’s in the document using this link.

It’s not confidential now and it does give everyone the opportunity of seeing the sort of things that are being contemplated by the Office of Local Government. Phase 1 topics are the priority areas to be legislated for commencement at the start of the next term of councils. The OLG said “these will be largely informed by the outcomes of the work of the Independent Local Government Review Panel and the Local Government Acts Task force”. But will they really?

What were the outcomes of those reviews?

The Independent Review Panel published their “Better, Stronger Local Government” case for sustainable change in November 2012. At 5.4 Improving efficiency and productivity, they commented that there was a view among some managers and elected representatives “that the award provisions are too restrictive and added unwarranted costs to service delivery. Specific concerns relate to the requirements to maintain employment levels and ‘rural service centres’ post-amalgamations. The counter view is that the award is really quite flexible if applied in the right way and on the basis of proper consultations with unions and employees. What is not in doubt is that there would be strong opposition to removing current employment guarantees and to transferring substantial sections of Council workforces to Federal awards.”

When they published their final report in October 2013, with the benefit of consultation with the industry over the preceding 12 month period, they said “however, the Panel is not convinced that the award is as costly and inflexible as some believe, and believes that further efficiency and productivity gains can and should be made through negotiation. There ought to be scope, for example, to balance a commitment to retain jobs in award-based entities (such as the new regional Joint Organisations proposed in section 11) with some relaxation of specific award provisions, such as spread of hours, that increased the costs of operating ‘out-of-hours’ services. There should also be opportunities for some increased flexibility to address specific skills shortages.”

So, the critics of the Award were slammed and the Panel recommended that the negotiations that would normally be held between the parties provide improve flexibilities which, with the development of the 2014 Award, they did.

The Local Government Act Taskforce conducted a total review of the existing Act and the Review of the City of Sydney Act. That explains why only 5% or so of its recommendations focused on employment and part of that small section dealt with the need for greater separation between the strategic and operational responsibilities to provide an even greater line separating the role of the Council and the general manager.

Some incidental observations were made about senior staff continuing to be employed on the standard contract, transferring the prescriptive provisions about advertising of staff positions and staff appointments to regulation or the relevant award and increasing the maximum term allowable for temporary staff appointments from 1 year to 2 years - something which has already occurred to accommodate the option of women taking up to 2 years parental leave.

In summary, both the Panel and the Taskforce decided to leave everything else alone.

What are the Phase 1 Amendments proposing for employment?

As both the Panel and the Taskforce believed that the employment provisions of the Act were fine, flexibility is already available under the Award and the capacity for those flexibilities to be enhanced by negotiation, meant that no detail was necessary. This isn’t good enough for OLG who say that “this is an area that the Panel and Taskforce did not address in detail”. It wasn’t an oversight, it was a conclusion by both capable and competent exercises.

And if the OLG is going to be largely informed by the outcomes, and they should keep their hands of the detail as well.

But they don’t.

They raise these issues: they wonder whether councils should have the flexibility “to reposition their workforces to deliver the objectives councils set in consultation with their communities every 4 years through IP&R.” They wonder “whether Local Government employment practices could be better aligned with more contemporary State Government practices.”

They wonder whether “all senior staff should be employed under a performance-based contract” which opens up the possibility of broadening out the definition of senior staff beyond the current arrangements, just like the fiasco two years ago at Liverpool.

And it is always a good idea to object to anyone who talks about whether local government should change “to be better aligned with more contemporary” practices because the assumption is that contemporary means better, when it can simply mean reduced entitlements and protections for employees. And that’s not better.

They ask these key questions:

  • Should all senior staff employed be under a performance-based contract? This raises the possibility of pushing senior staff positions on term contracts further down the organisation, removing employees from award protection.
  • Should State Government employment practices apply to councils? This raises concepts of roles and capabilities that would challenge conventional and historic understandings of positions, position descriptions, job evaluation and the capacity to place employees in bands levels in the award.
  • Should councils be able to make temporary appointments for up to 4 years (to align with the IP and our cycle and State government practice)? This means the end of permanent employment and career paths destroyed as changes in elected councils make changes to their IP&Rs. A four-year term would remove the protections of permanent employment entirely.
  • Is there a need to provide greater clarity about what the words “as far as is reasonably practical” mean in the rural centre protection? This means if it would become arguable whether the protection for employees in a rural centre would continue.

None of these significant, aggressive and threatening changes to how employees are employed in the industry now and have been for decades, can reasonably be described as being largely informed by the outcomes of the Panel or the Taskforce. And given that the document begins by saying “the Phase 1 changes recognise that the fundamentals of the existing Local Government Act are sound and continue to be fit for purpose”, we are entitled to wonder what this is all about and who thought any of this was a good idea or made any sense at all.

We’ve called it. We know enough already to know what it is. All that remains to be seen in the information papers in October is how messy it is and how much it stinks. We also know that it is a very loose interpretation of the truth to assert that it is “largely informed” by the outcomes of those two respectable investigations.



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