by Kimberley Ramplin

In previous posts on the state on NSW politics, I largely focused on what I knew best – the decade I had spent as a Labor staffer.  Today, I turn my attention to the O’Farrell government, because today, my worst fears about the crushing victory Premier Barry O’Farrell secured in March 2011 have been realised.

For the first time since the early 1900s, a NSW Government has used a guillotine motion to effectively gag debate in the Legislative Council (Upper House) on its reforms to public sector wage increases.

The Premier claims, in a facile, lazy way that he is being allowed to get away with by all in the press gallery, bar the ABC’s Quentin Dempster, that he is simply following Labor’s public sector wages policy. This is not true.

While my former boss, then-Premier Morris Iemma, signed a memorandum in 2007 to set wage increases at 2.5 per cent, at no time did Labor seek the extraordinary powers now at Premier O’Farrell’s disposal.

Firstly, the new laws remove judicial discretion. The NSW Industrial Relations Commission, led by Boland J. was not consulted on the intent of the legislation, which effectively strips the IRC ofinterpretation of the law when disputes come before it. Rather than weighing up the totality of the case, the IRC will now simply dispatch the law. It is no longer judging a wages case on its merits but rubber stamping the O’Farrell Government’s policy. The question must be asked: whither the IRC? Why bother preserving an institution which has been gutted.

Secondly, the Premier’s assertion that he is just following on from what his Labor predecessors intended is a furphy. As the NSW Public Sector Wages Policy 2007 makes plain, while the Government intended to maintain real wage increases at 2.5 per cent per annum, at no stage were challenges to the policy, through the independent umpire (the IRC), or even the Executive Branch of Government, banned. If Ministers could demonstrate, via the Public Sector Workforce Office and NSW Treasury, that departments and State Owned Corporations within their purview, had a case for an increase above the 2.5 per cent, they could take that to Budget Committee for consideration. The only caveat on this was that no offer was to be made until this process had been adhered to.

Thirdly, nothing prevented a public sector union from going to the IRC and seeking an increase above the 2.5 per cent. The IRC had the power to say no, but it reserved the right to say yes. The IRC, not the Government of the day, was entitled to consider a case on its merits. Now, the IRC doesn’t even have the powers of FairWork Australia to settle a dispute. It is no longer an umpire. It is merely the scoreboard.

Perhaps the great triumph for the O’Farrell Government has been to divide & conquer public sector workers. In a message delivered at 4.01pm via Twitter yesterday, the Police Association of NSW stated:

Sending good vibes to those members of the Upper House who believe in a fair and just IR system for police and all others

By the 5pm news, it became clear that the O’Farrell Government was not going to take on the police. They would be exempt from the 2.5 per cent rule. This was a move straight out of the Wisconsin, USA playbook, where Governor Scott Walker took on the unions, effectively delivering an 8 per cent pay cut through attacks on benefits. Police were exempted from the legislation. This is plain divide and conquer by Premier O’Farrell. The Police Association hurriedly tweeted:

Rest assured police will continue to stand beside all other public sector workers to fight this unfair IR legislation.

I personally pleaded with the Police Association not to be swayed by the clear political machinations being dealt their way. I do not wish our police ill; far from it. I do believe in solidarity, particularly when it comes to our frontline workers such as the fire brigades, ambulance staff, nurses and teachers. The message I sent was clear:

Premier O’Farrell plays ‘divide & conquer’, excluding police from #nswisconsin. @PoliceAssocNSW, pls stand w/ nurses, teachers, say no!

Obviously, the Police Association is charged with doing the best thing by its members, & that would not entail knocking back the Government’s offer. Sadly, they are the expedient pawns in a political stunt. Public servants working in offices go on strike – what a bunch of whingers. Teachers go on strike, they are a bloody nuisance. Nurses have a stop work meeting – inconvenient but manageable. Fire fighters do the same – they’re hardly going to let a house burn down; but if the police went out, the population of NSW (excuse the pun) wouldn’t cop it. The Government would be blamed, & punished.

As the Fire Brigade Employees Union (FBEU)’s Jim Casey tweeted the Police Association:

Police stand by the rest of public sector. I’ve had my share of bad days with the coppers, but this isn’t one of them. #nswisconsin #solidarity

There is a march against the new laws at 12,30pm, outside NSW Parliament on Macquarie Street, Sydney. I am going to my former place of employment to say no to political chicanery, to say I do not accept an unwarranted attack on the Industrial Relations Commission as an arbiter of the law, to say ‘damn you’, Premier O’Farrell.

Welcome to your world, NSW.