Dilettantes dabble with your future - Could Destination 2036 get any worse?

We’ve got an office full of letters from a succession of Ministers for Local Government, all committing to a review and a new approach to local government. We’ve got one from the current Minister, Don Page MP, as well.

Destination 2036 started badly. Not only did it make no sense if you were looking for serious reform to invite the groups with the most to lose (general managers and mayors) to come to Dubbo to talk about it. Neither did it make any sense to leave the unions off the list of those invited because, if you are going to do anything, the unions would need to be involved in the employment arrangements affected by change.

Clearly it was the usual group at the Division of Local Government who failed to invite us (continuing a long history of failing to acknowledge the role of the unions in the industry), so the Minister wasn’t responsible for this and his office was surprised that the DLG had dropped us off the list of “stakeholders”. In the end we got invited (and we could hear the rocket from the Minister’s office penetrating those responsible in the DLG from our office 9 km from the CBD) but we chose not to go because it seemed a waste of time and we would struggle to get the floor to say anything useful. As it turns out, our instinct was confirmed by the one union official who did attend.

A number of ideas flowed from Destination 2036 but none of them had anything to do with the fundamental problem - namely, that probably 40% of New South Wales councils are not financially sustainable, can’t afford to pay their staff properly, can’t provide flexible working conditions for family purposes, can’t provide good working conditions or market rates of pay, can’t afford to train people etc. What’s the point of a talkfest that doesn’t involve the difficult question of Council sizes and amalgamation?

But it gets worse.

Someone thought it made sense to develop some working parties to look at a number of areas of potential efficiency in the industry. After all, if you not going to deal with the big issues, you might as well try to work around them. If you design a car held together by string, instead of reviewing whether that’s a good idea, just add more string. It’s what governments are good at - they did it with the concept of private certification and now they’re doing it again with local government reform.

They would rather ignore the obvious questions and instead investigate different employment arrangements to allow sharing of staff or even the shifting of staff away from employment by councils to a mixed bag of ROCs and other regional arrangements. All because they find it unpalatable and lack the political will to bite the bullet and construct 50 councils with everyone happily employed under the State Award. And start the change process by removing 100 general managers and 1000 or so councillors.

Ex-Treasury official Percy Allan (who knows more about financially unsustainable councils than most from work he has done for the LGSA) has embraced the developers’ view of making the Council a two-dimensional front (like a Hollywood set) with only elected people and everyone else, including the general manager, employed by some other sort of organisation. Invariably without the protection of the State Award, under the less than adequate Federal industrial system or, what the heck, why not in China or India?

There is a Destination 2036 Action Plan and the Government decided that there should be an Implementation Steering committee comprising the presidents of the Local Government Association and Shires Association, the Chief executive of the Division of Local Government and the President of the LGMA. Not a lot of people with an interest in the employees in the industry there.

Under this partial and prejudiced Steering Committee, the Division of Local Government and the Local Government Managers Association then divvied up the working parties and have taken responsibility for their management. The LGMA (a professional, not industrial organisation, looking after the professional interests of general managers, directors, careerists aspirants etc) has been charged with the responsibility of being a “co-ordinating agency” for some of the action items.

Working parties were established and most of the working parties are looking at industrial issues - things that have are the responsibility of the unions and the Local Government and Shires Association and are currently provided for in the Local Government (State) Award and other industrial instruments under the Industrial Relations Act. But they have opened the doors to LGMA members and other professional bodies like the Planning Institute of Australia and the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australia (but not the professional bodies like the AIBS, or the AIEH or whatever it’s called these days, or the librarians, or the community workers etc etc) to deal with the following:

1a    Develop a program for sharing specialist professional, technical and other staff between councils in rural areas on a regional basis and between urban and rural councils
1c   Explore opportunities for increasing flexible working arrangements to support a variety of models of local government
1d    Identify barriers to establishing inter-Council contractual arrangements sharing staff, including general managers and senior staff, as well as commercialising services
1e  Develop and implement strategies to increase the diversity of skill range of council staff
2e  Develop alternative service delivery business models
6c   Enhance skills in rural and regional councils to better ensure that they secure grant funding from other levels of Government

Danger, danger, warning, warning.

The conglomerate nature of these working parties compromises their ability to properly deal with the issues and consider the interests of the employees. PIA, for example, a decade ago prepared a paper on local government being a “toxic workplace” but because it wasn’t an industrial organisation, could never do anything about it. And their most recent pressure has been to establish a certification regime for planners working in the local government which, like all of these certification regimes proposed by professional bodies, should come with a warning about the conflict of interest because they want to run it - and provide the training that underpins it.

And if you going to invite professional bodies, why be exclusive rather than inclusive and invite the professional bodies for planners and engineers but not the professional bodies for half a dozen or so other local government professions?

Not to mention the LGMA members populating the working parties. We all know that the Award negotiations always go better when the LGSA is able to keep the HR and Corporate Services flunkies away.

(Those of us who have been around for a while will remember that the old Local Government Senior Officers’ Award allowed for the sharing of certain staff between councils. Described as “joint appointments” it saw things like a Chief Health and Building Surveyor appointed to both Muswellbrook and Murrurrundi, for example. Under the old grading structure of councils, an employee who was jointly appointed was paid one grade higher than the higher graded Council.

There were a good number of these arrangements in the bush but whereever they were, and whatever councils were involved, they all had one central ingredient - that if you worked for two councils, you end up satisfying neither. This should be a salutary reminder for those fiddling about with the concept of sharing.)

The LGMA wrote to the unions (for some reason they forgot about the LGEA and had to apologise and subsequently invite them as well) and invited us to participate. We’ve been caught in these traps before - invited by the Department of Planning, for example, to participate in something about accrediting Council staff, spending all about time opposing bad and/or stupid ideas but being marginalised, ignored or simply shouted down. Then, when the final report is published, despite our stead fast opposition, thanks everyone for participating and supporting the recommendations!

We didn’t want to get caught like that again.

In an ideal world, the three unions would have met and decided whether they were going to dignify these committees of non-industrial people dabbling in industrial relations issues. The USU leapt at the opportunity to participate (having already been significantly slighted by not being invited to sit on the Implementation Steering Committee and once the USU told the LGMA they would participate, the LGEA felt obliged to do so as well.

We have written and conveyed our view to the LGMA. We are reserving our rights. We don’t want to participate, we think the involvement of people who don’t know anything about industrial relations in industrial relations is trouble. We have reserved our rights to receive the information from the working parties and make strategic sorties when we need to.

The reality is that regardless of what these working parties decide (and many of them will be nothing more dignified than a running brawl between dilettantes, poseurs, sycophants, bosses’ stooges and the union representatives - interesting to see where PIA fits into that lot) with Many of the things they decide having to be incorporated in the State Award where, of course, only the LGSA and the three unions are parties.

Haven’t the DLG and LGMA cooperated before?

Sadly, yes. The DLG and the LGMA were responsible for the development of the standard contract for GMs and senior staff in 2005/2006. The LGSA was also involved and these consultative processes were confidential at the insistence of the DLG. The DLG took the conscious decision to exclude the unions - notwithstanding advice from within that group that it made sense to invite the organisations who have members to be employed on these contracts and who already give advice to them.

(As an aside, when they did succumb to the pressure and send us a copy of the draft, we sent them back eight pages of comments, half of which they say they adopted!)

The DLG insisted that payment for untaken sick leave was illegal under the Industrial Relations Act (not true) and the LGMA reps (who didn’t know anything about industrial relations because the LGMA President was only a general manager and was happy to take advice from people who knew even less) accepted that advice. That’s why the standard contracts prohibit payment for untaken sick leave even for those employees who have it as a condition of their employment at the Council which is actually offering them the contract as senior staff or general manager - opening up a running sore that has remained now for more than five years.

And, let’s not get started on cutting the unions out of developing the Model Code of Conduct, the need for the Minister for Local Government Kerry Hickey to establish a Ministerial Advisory Council in 2005 to involve the unions and to direct the DLG to consult us, how it took them more than six months to respond to our concerns about what appears to be a provision that allows a Council’s EEO management plan to override provisions of the Anti-Discrimination Act in 2010, the most recent proposed changes to the Model Code of Conduct recommending the importance of the political neutrality of staff (not a requirement of the Act at the moment and which if they were to proceed would be contrary to ILO conventions) and when we raise the issue, we don’t hear a peep from them.

Imagine this lot having a go at your employment arrangements!

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