SMH: Supreme Court ruling curbs hopes for NSW public sector pay rises

The NSW Supreme Court has rejected a last-ditch bid from NSW unions to reverse a near pay freeze instigated by the Berejiklian government last year.

The court dismissed the challenge brought by two unions on all grounds, finding the NSW Industrial Commission made no errors when it decided that a 0.3 per cent pay rise was appropriate for public sector workers last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

It is a blow to the unions’ hopes for larger pay rises in the coming year, as public servants battle the government over its plan to cap 2021 pay rises at 1.5 per cent.

Before the pandemic public service pay rises had been capped at 2.5 per cent annually and were granted at that rate for almost a decade, but the Berejiklian government dropped that to zero last year.

Unions rejected that offer, which came with a guarantee of no job cuts and $1000 bonuses for frontline workers, resulting in a stalemate. The government then failed in its attempt to use Parliament to push through its plan.

That prompted the state’s unions, including the NSW Public Service Association and the Nurses and Midwives Association, to go to the NSW Industrial Commission to ask for it to restore the 2.5 per cent pay rise.

But the commission largely sided with the government, ruling there was no presumption workers were entitled to a 2.5 per cent increase and instead said a 0.3 per cent increase was appropriate because of the pandemic.

On Friday the Supreme Court rejected the unions’ complaints about the ruling, including that it was procedurally unfair, misconstrued the law and failed to consider relevant claims from the unions.

“There is nothing irrational or illogical,” the court said of the Commission’s approach.

Public Service Association general secretary Stewart Little said the union brought the case because it was concerned the commission’s decision set a precedent that made it harder to secure wage rises.

“This is economic vandalism, particularly given the ongoing uncertainty of the global pandemic,” Mr Little said.

Brett Holmes, general secretary of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, said his members were asking for a 4.7 per cent pay rise in 2021 to make up for last year’s meagre rise and recognise their work throughout the pandemic, despite Friday’s court ruling.

The government has offered 1.04 per cent, taking into account the 1.5 per cent cap and the legislated 0.5 per cent rise in superannuation contributions.

“In the spirit of industrial relations you used to be able to negotiate or get arbitration on a fair basis, the Supreme Court decision reconfirms that the Industrial Relations Commission has been constrained by government policy,” Mr Holmes said.

Public Service Minister Don Harwin’s office referred requests for comment to a spokesman for the Department of Premier and Cabinet, who said the decision provided certainty for the public service.

“[It] confirms the government’s view that the Industrial Relations Commission has broad powers to independently determine pay increases where agreement is unable to be reached,” the spokesman said.

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