Staff at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) have voted to reject a six-month deferral of a scheduled pay rise, despite sustained pressure from the Federal Government.
The proposal to defer scheduled salary increases for Australian Public Service (APS) staff and other federal public sector workers was announced in April following the initial outbreak of the coronavirus. The Government subsequently exercised powers under the Public Service Act to implement the pay freeze for all APS staff.
Non-APS agencies – such as the ABC and CSIRO – were advised by Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) boss Peter Woolcott that “the Government expects non-APS agencies to exercise all discretion to give effect to (the pay deferral) decision over the next 12 months.”
After the amendment of the APSC bargaining policy to incorporate the deferral for any future enterprise agreements (EA), CSIRO Executive supported implementation of the pay freeze in negotiations despite opposition from the Staff Association.
CSIRO Executive subsequently sought approval of the new CSIRO EA from the APSC. Consequently, the first pay rise arising from the new CSIRO EA will be delivered in May 2021; rather than November 2020, when the new agreement is due to commence.
However, for non-APS organisations with existing EAs – such as the ABC – the implementation of any proposed salary deferral requires a variation of the agreement via the Fair Work Commission (FWC) and must be supported by a majority of staff.
Importantly, once the new CSIRO EA is formally approved by the FWC, no pay rises or other CSIRO employment conditions can be changed, unless they are supported by the majority of staff through an EA variation vote; irrespective of APSC or Government policy.
ABC Boardroom deliberations
Similar to CSIRO, the ABC’s enabling legislation provides the organisation’s leadership – not the federal government – with ultimate responsibility for staff pay and conditions.
“The ABC Act guarantees the independence of the Corporation and that sole responsibility for setting the pay and conditions for staff rests with the ABC Board. The Act also requires the Board to consider advice on Government policy when it is requested to do so,” ABC Chair Ita Buttrose said in an email to staff.
Following a formal request in May from Communications Minister Paul Fletcher to implement the pay deferral policy, the ABC Board spent some months considering the issue before putting the proposal before staff for consideration in September.
“With our nation facing extremely challenging conditions it seems reasonable that we play our part and for Australia’s national broadcaster to make an important contribution to our nation’s wellbeing… that is why the Board decided to ask eligible ABC staff to vote on whether they will accept the deferral of the 2 per cent pay rise. The decision is yours,” Ms Buttrose said, while admitting that the decision would have no material impact on the corporation’s $41 million budget shortfall.
CPSU’s ABC Section Secretary Sinndy Ealy reiterated the union’s opposition to the pay freeze, seizing on Ms Buttrose’s comments and stating “it is clear from the ABC Chair’s email to staff… that freezing ABC wages will not save a single ABC job.”
“The CPSU does not support the Government’s decision to freeze the wages of its public servants… freezing wages will not help the budget line, but it will affect tens of thousands family budgets around the country, and the communities in which they spend.”
“ABC staff have the right to vote no to a pay freeze, indeed, staff in the Australian Securities and Investment Commission, another large non-APS agency, have already voted against a wage freeze,” Ms Ealy said.
The proposal to vary the EA and apply the pay freeze at the ABC was made available as part of a seven-day access period in mid-September ahead of an all staff vote. The ballot occurred over five days, closing on 25 September.
In an email to ABC staff on 30 September, Chief People Officer Rebekah Donaldson announced the defeat of the proposal.
“Thank you to all eligible employees who voted on the request from the Government to defer the 2 per cent pay rise which was agreed upon in last year’s three-year Enterprise Agreement.
“We now have the result of that process and staff have voted against deferring the 2 per cent increase for all eligible employees, an increase agreed and signed off by the Fair Work Commission last January.”
While the ABC remained coy regarding the ballot margin and refused to release the actual results, media reports suggest that up to eighty per cent of staff voted to reject the pay freeze proposal.
Minister Fletcher expressed disappointment at the outcome, citing both the implementation of the pay freeze across other parts of the federal public sector and job losses in the media industry and wider economy.
“We felt it would have been a fine gesture of solidarity with those across the media sector who have been doing it much tougher than the ABC,” Mr Fletcher said.
“It is evident from the results of (the) vote that ABC staff did not share this view.”
The assertion that staff were shying away from the suffering of others was rubbished by Ms Ealy, arguing that ABC workers deserved an on-time pay increase given their contribution throughout the twin crises of the summer bushfires and coronavirus pandemic.
“The fact is ABC staff had a three-month pay freeze last year and lost more than 1,100 jobs because of the cuts to the ABC budget – this month alone a further 220 ABC staff lost their jobs,” she said.
“So it’s simply false to say ABC staff are not sharing the pain,” Ms Ealy said.