Everyone celebrates the innocent verdict - except a bastard or two

Sack this council – there is nothing fair about Fairfield

Many members will know John Vuletich and Stephen Poulter. John is the Manager of the Building Control Branch and after 39 years working at Fairfield can properly be described as having given his life to the Council. Stephen is the Coordinator - Fire and Building Regulation and has been there 10 years.

Both are professionally well regarded across the industry, hard-working, supported by their workmates and colleagues, have never had an issue in their employment and they work in a toxic culture where there is no real control over councillors getting down and dirty in operational matters that are none of their responsibility.

Now, two reports, establish that they are innocent.

Fairfield has always taken the view that employees involved in development should do “whatever it takes” to assist applicants to get an application across the line and to ensure final compliance with the conditions of consent. This has been the culture since Fairfield had dirt roads. It’s notorious.

That culture has tolerated the inappropriate involvement of councillors in operational matters. Despite that being clearly prohibited since the 1993 Act - and prohibited even more so by a succession of Codes of Conduct prepared by the Division of Local Government. But the culture seemed to work okay until the politics got in the way and the politicians wanted to nail another politician, and if that meant collateral damage to employees, so be it. Even loyal and well respected employees like John and Stephen.

Both were suspended in May in a vindictive and harassing action with allegations of “gross incompetence”. Both were found innocent of the charges by the Council’s own independent Investigator but were suspended, all up, for 15 weeks.

The concept of an employer having an obligation to provide a relationship of “confidence and trust” to employees has developed recently in the UK and is now developing in Australia. A fabulous coincidence when we look at how employees sometimes get treated (and not just at Fairfield) and a precedent established by the full Court that will have significant ramifications for how employers behave.

depa is not the only union in the industry seeking advice from lawyers on the application of the principles of the judgment for councils, like Fairfield, where members have been treated in a way that doesn’t come within a bull’s-roar of a relationship founded on “confidence and trust”. It’s all going to be about confidence and trust now.

More later.

It’s fairly predictable that the increasing financial pressure on Councils, the likelihood of a serious shakeup leading to amalgamations and other arrangements, and even the appointment of new senior staff and general managers will provide a sharpened focus on making sure that people employed by councils are doing what they’re paid for.

There has been an increase in the performance management of our members over recent months, so it’s timely to say something about job security and how to avoid getting sacked.

It’s not very complicated. The assumption in the employment relationship is that the Council will employ people to do the job competently with reasonable expectations about how much work they do, and how well they do it.

Apart from general managers and other senior staff under the dreadful DLG Standard Contract, no-one ever gets sacked for doing the job properly. But employees can find themselves being performance managed for a variety of reasons and they can include being lethargic, hopeless managers of time and process, failing to accept their accountability and that some things are their responsibility, imprecise, slack on making sure documents are right, lazy and a whole range of other issues. We’ve had members asleep at their desks, habitually and chronically unpunctual, unreliable, bullying etc etc.

When a Council begins a performance management process they do so with the expectation that the employee’s performance improves. It’s easier for the Council to have employees performing competently than it is to keep performance managing people who are not. Existing employees have an advantage over an unknown replacement because they are familiar with the area, often have considerable corporate knowledge, understand the values of the organisation, and so on.

No one likes sacking people, even people who are hopeless. Sorry about that, but there are some. Clearly not our members, of course.

If He Wins You Lose

There have been times in Australian politics where people actually liked political leaders. Sometimes even loved them.

People loved Gough, thought Hawke could walk on water and even loved Keating, people liked Malcolm Fraser more after he got out of politics, as they did John Hewson who became a climate change warrior because he thought it was smart economically to move quickly to a low carbon economy, people didn’t really like John Howard and the extent of that dislike was clear when he became only the second Prime Minister to lose his own seat at the same time his government was defeated in an election but really, no one has liked anyone much from the major parties since.

At the same time that we struggled to find political leaders we liked, the intellectual level of political debate collapsed. Focus groups, cheap shots, fear mongering, a lack of vision, climate change is either “the greatest moral challenge of our generation” or its “crap”, it’s all very, very disappointing and depressing. We are a smart, multicultural and dynamic nation, we really deserve better. We’re even crap at sport now, so we don’t have international sporting success to distract us from the uninspiring political misery at home

But we know that a Coalition government is always going to be more hostile to employees and your rights at work. We know that WorkChoices, that creature of the Howard Government, opened the floodgates to individual contracts, and reduced rights to fight unfair dismissal and significantly reduce rights generally. In the current debate about industrial relations, the Coalition is quite open that they want to swing back the pendulum away from employee rights to increased rights from employers.

Increased rights for employers, means trouble for you.

The illustration in this article comes from UnionNSW’s election campaign, we are an affiliate, as are all New South Wales unions and it does sum up the difference between Labor and the Coalition on your rights at work.

Still, we are not a political organisation, we don’t favour either or any side as a matter of policy and we are clearly quite happy to attack planning ministers and Governments of either persuasion. But, when you make up your mind about what to do on the 7 September, if issues like climate change, economic management, refugee policy, or even gay marriage aren’t enough for you to decide, think about how it might affect you at work.

Planning and Infrastructure Director-General Sam Haddad last week conceded that the White Paper process has “gone further than the government intended” in reducing the community’s ability to fight bad decisions.

He also conceded that Department of Planning staff may have unintentionally spread “inaccurate or misleading information” about the changes.

What a mess. Originally easily characterised as dismantling the checks and balances of the current system to provide free kicks to developers, this most recent confession can only confirm the worst.

It seemed pretty obvious right from the start that the Government was trying fool the communities of New South Wales by hiding the slashing and burning behind a boast of a more consultative process which would allow greater input at the beginning - so that everyone had an opportunity to be involved in the process of what could be built and where.

But the dreaded page 57 of the White Paper gave it all away by providing an illustration that showed that applications that didn’t come within a bull’s roar of the locally arrived at development instrument, could still be assessed on a merit basis by a Council, or a planning committee or some other faceless people.

Why bother, unless all you’re trying to do is to hide that the real intention was to abandon historic protection of heritage areas; misrepresent that all planning would have biodiversity at its core, when it did no such thing; and quash effective and consultative town planning practices and set up a free for all where developers could build anything, anywhere they wanted?

While Councils (and many of you in developing these documents) have identified fundamental flaws in the overriding strategy as well as the details of the legislation, it fell to the Better Planning Network to squeeze the confessions from Director-General Sam Haddad. A voluntary organisation with a tiny core of activists, but more than 400 affiliated community groups, had nailed the Government on something when no one else had been able to land a blow.

But we know, because members tell us about their experience in discussing these things with officials of the Department of Planning (probably including those whom Sam agrees may have unintentionally spread inaccurate or misleading information) that local government concerns and observations about the effect of the White Paper have gone right over the heads of planning bureaucrats.

The BPN also nailed the Director-General on their claim that “ecologically sustainable development” was enshrined in the draft legislation when, Haddad subsequently agreed, these principles were not “expressly referred to” in the bill. The Sydney Morning Herald quotes Sam as describing an earlier departmental response to the contrary as “regrettable”. Regrettable has to be the biggest understatement. And similar allegations can be made about the way they have incorrectly responded on the protection of heritage and the role of the Heritage Council.

Well, it is a mess and the whole fiasco should be put on hold and they should start again.

We like the Better Planning Network. A tiny core of activists has blitzed the Government and the media and identified the fundamental flaws in a way that Councils couldn’t. After all, the Government already thinks the councils only respond to the White Paper to protect their own turf, so why would they listen to them?

Here is a link to Sam’s confession and here is a link to a general article about the fiasco in the Herald last weekend.

And everyone should remember that while you might be local government employees you are also citizens and residents and have an interest in making sure that some boofhead, money-hungry developer doesn’t build some monstrosity next door to you.

The Committee of Management resolved on Friday last week to forward to you all a link to the BPN petition. Here it is, print it, get it signed and get it in ASAP.

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