The Guardian • Issue #2072

West Australia: Public Sector wages update

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2072
Wallet with credit cards.

Photo: Nick Youngson – Alpha Stock Images (CC BY-SA 3.0).

In the build-up to the Western Australian government releasing its next wages policy before the end of the year, the State Treasury offered a briefing to all public sector unions.

Public sector unions each brought their officials and selected delegates. The principal unions  were also given the opportunity to ask ten questions at the conclusion of the briefing.

The first to present was the Assistant Under-Treasurer Michael Court who spoke about the review of wages policy having to take place in the context of high interest rates and slower export growth. The Under Treasurer, Michael Barnes said that wages growth would be a risk which could affect the fiscal position of the government and the Treasury would be working closely with Labour Relations and Industrial Relations Minister Bill Johnston, in determining the next wages policy.

Barnes noted that a strong labour market had supported wages growth in the private sector of 4 per cent, but that the unemployment rate had begun to rise. Barnes claimed that WA had one of the highest public sector wage levels in the country.

When Barnes said that the $3000 sign-on incentive for the last wage increase was considered a bonus, he received vocal rebukes from many in the audience! Barnes acknowledged that while electricity rates were lower in WA, housing and rental costs had risen and rental vacancy rates were less than 1 per cent.

The Treasurer and Deputy Premier, Rita Safiotti said they would be taking submissions from the union movement and other sectors of the economy in the formulation of wages policy. Safiotti reiterated that the WA economy had gone through a challenging time, but also that the state had to have a wages policy which could attract and retain its workforce.

The government had reversed the privatisations of previous governments and brought those services in-house which had lowered costs and increased the public sector workforce – 22,000 public sector workers have started since this ALP government came into office in 2017. Safiotti said the government was also hoping to look to other incentives such as increasing regional allowances and improving career progression.

At the conclusion of her presentation, Unions WA Secretary, Owen Whittle thanked Safiotti and then announced it was time for the union delegates from the various public sector delegates to put questions to the Treasurer.

Josh from the Rail, Train and Bus Industry Union (RTBU) asked about the factors which Treasury considers when determining wages policy. Safiotti responded that, while there is a constant demand for government services it was important not to have operating costs so high that you need to borrow to meet daily operating expenses. To which the RBTU official responded by saying that this is what many of his members do to meet their daily expenses.

The Treasurer also tried to deflect a question about whether a drop in 10 per cent of the real wages of her members was a negative, by stating that while real wage growth would be a focus – so too would COVID expenses, public health expenses, an ageing population, and the NDIS. The state was also keen to decarbonise its electricity generation.

When Josh suggested that the state government should create a wealth tax in such a wealthy state as ours, Safiotti’s response was to hose down the suggestion by asserting that the ALP would lose the next state election and the other side would win and engage in a campaign of privatisation to lower debt.

A delegate from the United Professional Firefighters Union asked if Treasury had a process for identifying and addressing areas of staffing shortfalls. The Treasurer chose to answer by talking about the risks of operating budget deficits, and the benefits of diversifying the economy.

With the questions from the union delegates answered by the Treasurer, the forum was now over. The unions had got their questions answered, though hardly the responses they were looking for and the Treasurer and her officials now have a direct appreciation and understanding of the expectations of unions and delegates and officials on what decreases in real wage levels over the last 5-10 years have done to aggravate the cost-of-living pressures being felt by many public sector workers.

After the forum, unions met to debrief they wait for the State government’s new wages policy. It was agreed this would be a long campaign where unions needed to consider various strategies to force the government to consider their personal budgets and workload pressures. It is certain that public sector unions would need to ramp up the pressure and tactics to achieve an improvement on the last time.

The Communist Party of Australia supports public sector unions in their campaign for increased wages to match the loss of real incomes caused by the austerity policies forced on public sector unions, first by a Liberal government through wages caps, and then from an ALP government which did not want to bargain in good faith.

The government has now made their position and expectations known which are: they want to continue to be in government, they will do whatever it takes to win elections, they want to balance their books and maintain budget surpluses, and the demands of workers and their unions come after those goals. Unions must show that their goals are as important as those of the government and without a skilled and experienced workforce the government and its bureaucracy will not be able to achieve their goals.

As Rosa Luxemberg said “The masses must learn how to use power by using power. There is no other way.”

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