NSW Government to shut down Industrial Relations Commission

Two years ago the O’Farrell Government reviewed and consolidated a number of tribunals into an expanded NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal. At the time they contemplated the possibility of also folding in the Industrial Relations Commission but, in the face of united opposition by both employer organisations and unions, decided not to do so.

The IRC is currently a shadow of its former self. Understaffed, most awards now operating in the Fair Work Commission, Crown employees restricted by the 2.5% public sector pay policy, the unnecessary loss of good talent and a reduced and ageing workforce, the Commission has shrunk and the Government has been reluctant to make permanent appointments to replace them. Bit of a shame they got rid of that talent, looking back.

The Court of Arbitration was established in New South Wales by the Industrial Relations Act 1901, the Industrial Court was established by the Industrial Disputes Act of 1908 and the Court of Industrial Arbitration was established by the Industrial Arbitration Act 1912. These were the antecedents of our current Industrial Relations Commission and it has performed these roles continuously ever since.

Section 19 of the Industrial Relations Act requires the Commission to review all of its Awards to ensure that they are current and not old-fashioned or obsolete. On 14 October, 60 or so State Awards were listed for consideration to ensure that they were up-to-date. The Local Government State Award and the Sydney City Council Award, both made by the current President of the IRC Justice Walton last year, were also reviewed. So we were there, defending our turf.

It was standing room only in the Commission for the captive remnants of what had been the pre-eminent industrial tribunal nationally. But, with virtually all but Crown employees and local government now wrapped up in the Fair Work Commission, many of those present were conscious of the rumour, from multiple and varied sources, that the Government had already decided that the historic and esteemed Commission would be split in two - with its judicial role going off to the Supreme Court and the non-judicial functions being blended into NCAT.

And, conscious of the rumour, it was observed that this was a great housekeeping opportunity for the Commission to clean up before the move, to ensure before handing over that everything was up-to-date and modern and, similarly, it would be a good opportunity for the Government to announce that the move was going to happen, because all of the organisations involved in the NSW jurisdiction were present, in one form or another, in the proceedings and would be slow to march on Parliament house to complain.

But the Government sat quietly and it’s hard to know whether the handful of remaining members of the Commission (and in a month there will be only one judicial member left and that is the President) were even aware of the rumour themselves. After all, who would be game to ask them?

But a rumour from so many disparate sources, and reading between the lines, we’re pretty damn sure that later in the year this will be announced and the glorious venerable days of the NSW Commission will sadly be over.

The Supreme Court doesn’t handle industrial matters although there are couple of judges in New South Wales with industrial relations experience who could do so. But, if the Government goes ahead and does this, we're in trouble in local government - the awards and enterprise agreements of the industry have always been awards and agreements of the NSW IRC. The IRC has been (usually) the most user-friendly of the industrial tribunals and one not afraid to make precedents that have, in turn, flowed into the Federal system.

This will be a terrible day. And unless we are very much mistaken, that day will come by the end of the year.

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