The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) condemned the federal government on April 9 for its decision to freeze pay rises for Commonwealth public servants for the next 12 months.
The government announced, somewhat confusingly, that any pay rise that was due to occur over the next 12 months will now happen six months later.
CPSU national secretary Melissa Donnelly said it does not make sense to freeze the wages of essential workers when the government is spending billions of dollars to stimulate the economy.
The pay freeze applies to all public servants, employees of other Commonwealth agencies and Australian Defence Force members.
“There is no doubt that our members are working longer and harder than ever before to try to meet this unprecedented surge in demand,” Donnelly said.
“All of Australia can see that Services Australia workers are slugging their guts out in the middle of a pandemic. The Australian Tax Office is helping small business accessing programs to keep their doors open and their employees paid. Across the country, our members are working to keep the nation moving.”
The CPSU is calling on the government to immediately reverse the decision.
In several departments, including those that took frontline roles in the bushfire emergency and now the COVID-19 crisis, CPSU members had chosen to forgo the difficult industrial bargaining process in favour of the government offer of a guaranteed 2% pay rise.
Workers in these departments, including Defence, Home Affairs and Services Australia, have been let down. These are the same public servants the Prime Minister has been praising on television and in parliament for their service to the community in fighting the fires.
But this is not just a problem for public servants. Pay rise deferrals run counter to the government’s stated need to stimulate the economy.
This doublespeak makes the government’s real motive clear: far from “sharing the burden” equally, this is about using every opportunity to weaken the public service.
If we accept a pay freeze for the public service, the bosses will seize on the same excuse to freeze and cut pay and conditions across the whole economy.
Meanwhile, the government is pressing ahead with plans to increase inequality by reducing the corporate tax rate first for “small” businesses earning less than $50 million a year, expanding to those earning more than $50 million the year after next.
The government is also reducing income tax for earners in the highest income tax bracket — its donor base.
This tax cut will gouge an estimated $132 billion hole in the federal budget. The wage freeze will save just over half of 1% of the annual federal budget, about $3 billion.
If it was not already clear, the last few weeks have shown that the government was never concerned about the budget, only the economy.
Frozen public service pay also means frozen superannuation payments, leaving workers worse off not just now, but also in retirement.
Although we have been told the wages freeze is for 12 months, there are sign that this will change.
Minister in charge Ben Morton said on April 9 that the government intends to return to “what has been a very successful public sector wages policy as soon as is possible” but that “we will continue to monitor the economic outlook and respond as necessary”.
This leaves the door open for further extensions of the freeze.
Perhaps the government will use the opportunity to keep pay frozen until the Australian Stock Exchange returns to pre-pandemic highs, or the budget is back in surplus.
As we have learnt over this past summer of bushfires, cyclones, droughts and disease, emergencies don’t wait for the mismanaged capitalist economy to recover.
If any emergency can be used to cut pay, soon every emergency will make a suitable excuse. We cannot let that happen.