We stop Government’s secret processes in merged councils

The Government, principally the Department of Premier and Cabinet, has an unsavoury history of keeping things confidential in the merging of councils that should be public, or at the very least, available to Council staff and their unions.

From a politically-motivated early proclamation to get the ball rolling (forced through Cabinet by the Premier in the face of others wanting to delay the amalgamations until after the Federal election) everyone was on the back foot and, despite the best endeavours of the unions, there were still those in Government committed to keeping all the important stuff secret. Particularly the Government’s performance measures for the newly merged entities, the reporting mechanisms that were being sent to each Council to ensure compliance with this dictated regime and process, and top secret “savings targets”.

In our June issue we announced the operations of the Employment Matters Working Party.  We thought, as did LGNSW and the other unions, that this was a positive development, reflecting an acknowledgement by the Government that the local government unions and employers knew what they were doing and had got it right for decades, and it made sense for the Government to consult and learn from those who knew what they were doing.

By the time we’d announced it, the Reference Group, as it was subsequently known, had met four times but there quickly emerged a reluctance by Government to tell us what was going on. Despite our helpful role at the first meeting back on 18 April to fix poorly drafted documents (not being specific, because the cloak of secrecy extends to the functioning of this mysterious secret group) with a turnaround of 24 hours.

We accepted that the politically-motivated announcement meant that neither DPC, nor OLG, were ready and were chasing their tails to catch up.

But despite the Terms of Reference of the Reference Group acknowledging that “the primary purpose of the Employment Matters Reference Group is to identify and advise on matters impacting on the statutory and policy framework governing employment by councils”, DPC representing Government was reluctant to commit in the same way that LGNSW and the three unions were committing to the functioning of the body. Yes yes yes, we’ll keep it all confidential but you people have to do something as well.

We found out more about what the Government was doing with timeframes and targets and cost savings by documents mysteriously appearing in our office, clearly marked “Confidential – Not for Distribution”, but having significant effects on employment in the industry. We asked, when we saw media about immediate cost savings already realised, how were those figures obtained? No response, so lucky for us that some kind person sent us the first document of the Governments KPIs and how each of the merged councils compared to them.

We helpfully forwarded that to the members of the Employment Matters Reference Group and now that document, prepared on a monthly basis from fortnightly data, was provided by DPC to all members of the Reference Group. But, when this became monthly reporting, the proposed template was not referred to anyone for input despite the employment issues contained within it and, no one knew anything at all about how “cost savings” had been identified for each merged Council, what those anticipated cost savings were, both immediately and over a longer term, and how those cost savings were proposed to be delivered. Again, some helpful person provided a copy of this to us, but it was still not raised with the Reference Group.

So, not being fond of governments committing to transparent processes and then not delivering on that commitment, nor governments establishing Reference Groups or consultative mechanisms, and neither referring things, nor consulting properly, we did something about it.

We wrote to the Minister for Local Government with twelve questions about the “cost savings” targets. Clearly if the Government labelled everything “Confidential - Not for Distribution”, then councils were being prevented from disclosing that information to people who should be told. In particular, because these proposed cost savings and activities had an impact on employment, and in a way that fitted within the definition of “significant effects” under clause 39 Workplace Change and Redundancy, then the Council was at risk of breaching their obligations under the Award.

Then we wrote to the 19 Interim General Managers giving them until midday Friday to agree to disclose to us the documentation they all possessed from the DPC containing their “cost savings” and how those cost savings were to be realised - invariably by reducing staff.

For us, this was setting up a win:win scenario - either the Government agreed the documents that were marked “Confidential – Not for Distribution” would have that confidentiality and embargo lifted, or we would file an industrial dispute pursuing the Councils for not disclosing things that were happening, which would have “significant effects” on employees and the councils were not advising the employees affected, nor the unions to which they belong, as they are obliged to do under clause 39.

And when we filed a dispute we would press the Commission to stick it up the Government for putting councils in this position. It was hard to choose which of these possibilities would be better. Or more fun.

So, on Wednesday 6 October, the day before the deadline on the 19 councils, DPC emailed all the interim general managers making reference to our requests and agreeing that the documents could be disclosed to whomever the Council wanted. Just what we wanted - although it’s hard not to be a bit disappointed that we couldn’t charge our way into the IRC, with the 19 merged councils gagged by the Government, and seek the Commission’s support to remove the gag. Not a good look for a Government and a Premier increasingly on the nose.

You can see our letter to the Minister and our pro forma to the IGMs here but the email exchanges between DPC, from Steve Orr, Executive Director, Local Government Reform, and depa make even more interesting reading. We are still not sure how much of that we can publish under the agreed Terms of Reference.  Why we honour those Terms and the Government doesn’t, does make you wonder …

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