The Ascension marks the death of the historic IRC

The Ascension

Well, sadly it has happened.  On 8 December, IRC President Michael Walton was sworn in to the Supreme Court.  The swearing-in, was part of the dismantling of the IRC that we have been forecasting accurately for more than 15 months - despite the reluctance of the Government and other significant players to admit they were about to kill off the venerable and century-old institution.

Not only were the rumours not killed off, on 3 August President Justice Michael Walton convened an audience with the parties to the State Award - LGNSW representing the employers, us, the USU and LGEA, to respond to concerns about changes within the IRC that had all of the indicators of confirming the rumours.  The courts and Registry in Wollongong would be closed, the registry in Newcastle would be closed, there was to be a common administrative system with all other courts within the Department of Justice and what had been a readily understandable maximum four number system for case references (for example, IRC 16/2016 etc) had morphed into a ludicrous ten number memory and intelligence test that everyone familiar with the old system failed.

While the President strenuously defended his good work protecting the continuation of the IRC by keeping it away from NCAT, he didn’t mention the other part of the equation - the Government’s plan was that he would be taking the Industrial Court under his arm and heading off to the Supreme Court, leaving the remnants of the IRC and their non-judicial roles to continue.   It could be that he didn’t know, or that he did know and couldn’t say …

So, when The Ascension occurred on 8 December, it had been preceded by advice from the Attorney-General, the Minister for Industrial Relations and the Department of Justice that the remaining Commissioners and the Industrial Registry from 9 January would open for business in 70 Goulburn Street.  That’s right, not folded into NCAT as we had predicted, but sharing a floor with NCAT where it can only be a matter of time before the final indignity will be inflicted upon the venerable and century-old tribunal.

And what a fiasco.  No consultation with the four Commissioners, all of whom were blind-sided by the announcement and none of whom had been invited for an inspection of the premises or consulted on the suitability of the Government’s proposals for the work that the remaining Commissioners would carry out.   The plan of the floor shared with NCAT provides for four small courts (when the Government has committed to there being five Commissioners, including a Chief Commissioner who has not yet been appointed) but these small rooms provide seating for a maximum of eight.  This is a completely impractical arrangement because on probably the majority of proceedings, there will be more than eight people looking for a seat.  In our industry, there can be more than eight people at an individual Council dispute when you consider that there could be upwards of four representatives of Management plus representatives of the three unions etc.  Everyone will have to fight it out and scramble for a seat when the music stops.

But it gets worse.  Clearly the Government neither understands, nor cares how the IRC works: the primary function of the IRC is to settle disputes between parties by conciliation but there are no conference rooms where one party can meet separately with the Commissioner, or wait while a Commissioner meets separately with the other side.  This happens every day in the IRC and the current accommodation, the beautiful Chief Secretary’s building in Bridge Street (which one day you may get to visit as an exclusive international hotel) can accommodate both sides, or separate sides when there are differences of opinion between the unions, or even multiple employers, in multiple conference rooms.

The rooms and the accommodation are not fit for purpose and this can only be described as a farce that could only have been worse if our observation that with a small group of Commissioners and electronic communication, they could all find themselves in a Tarago, looking for parking around the city, was something other than a joke. As we publish this issue of depaNews there is informal advice that the move is off until September, but we will hold off on this because we normally don’t give any credit to informal sources.

Leaving that aside, this is a tragedy of the worst kind.  The Commissioners are left to fend for themselves in substandard accommodation, inconsistent with their primary obligation to bring parties to a dispute together by conciliation and subsequent agreement, and in an arrangement that will, in time, simply get worse...

Everyone has seen the model that the Government is using - dodgy owners of heritage properties know this strategy only too well - they fail to maintain it, they let it rot and decay, and then all that can be done with it is demolition and redevelopment.  Shame. 

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