By Alison Dellit
CANBERRA — The creation of a separate ACT public service is looking even more doubtful after a mass meeting on May 25 decided to carry out an industrial campaign if outstanding demands are not met.
The meeting followed an announcement by the government that the creation of a separate ACT service will proceed on July 1, despite the fact that many outstanding issues have not been resolved. Among these is the key issue of mobility, the rights of workers to maintain their accreditation and apply for jobs in other parts of the Australian Public Service.
Without this right, ACT government workers will have very little chance of obtaining employment outside what is a very small section of the public service.
Also key are retention of sick leave and preservation of conditions. At the meeting, attending by some 350 members, these and other concerns were raised and a motion was passed resolving "that the establishment of an ACT separate service not proceed until all outstanding issues have been resolved", and forming a working party to coordinate an industrial campaign.
While a meeting on the issue was planned, the May 25 meeting was called on the insistence of PSU national secretary Peter Robson, who had publicly and repeatedly raised doubts about the handling of ACT government priorities by the ACT branch.
A meeting of delegates the previous week had prepared proposals for the membership meeting. Robson then requested a further delegates' meeting for Monday, May 23, at which he hoped to overturn the delegates' proposals. In line with the current national officials' emphasis on agency bargaining deals with loss of jobs and conditions, Robson sought to downgrade the separate service campaign.
At the conclusion of a lengthy discussion in which Robson spent 45 minutes trying to convince the delegates they were wrong, the delegates unanimously decided to continue as they had planned. Several expressed outrage that the national leadership should try to interfere with a Canberra branch issue.
As a result of this, Robson was prevailed upon to change his stance, and a unified position was put at the mass meeting. Members of the union raised concerns about the apparent conflict, and about the public manner in which it was handled, both at the meeting and outside it. A guarantee was elicited from Robson that he would print a retraction of the comments made before the mass meeting.
Robson's intervention has occurred in the context of union national elections. It has been generally recognised as a manoeuvre to discredit the Canberra leadership. In opposition to the incumbent Wendy Caird and Peter Robson Team, ACT branch secretary Cath Garvan is part of the PSU National Challenge team. The alternative being put forward by National Challenge includes defence of jobs and conditions.
An inordinate amount of national officials' time has been spent in Canberra over the past few weeks, officially or unofficially campaigning for the incumbents. Many members in Canberra are worrying that the national officials' election posturing could undermine the union at a critical time.
The Robson interference and subsequent rebuff from ACT PSU members is an important warning as the PSU moves towards amalgamation with state public service unions on July 1. On the one hand it indicates that all promises of local independence and membership control will be overruled if the national leaders see a factional advantage in interfering. On the other hand, it puts on notice that when the national officials try such heavy-handed interference, they run a good chance of defeat at the hands of the members.