What will be the big public sector issues in 2023?

WRITTEN BY John Wilson & Kieran Pender

‘Tis the season. A bumper year in Australian public life is winding down and many Canberrans (ourselves included) are looking forward to extended stints on the coast before we face up to 2023.

But before departing for the beach, we wanted to use our final column for the year to consider what might be in store for the Australian Public Service on the industrial relations and employment front in the 12 months ahead.

Just as we did 2020 and 2021, it is timely to ponder what to expect from government and departments in the new year.

Industrial relations reform

For employment lawyers, Christmas came early with the recent enactment of the most significant industrial relations reform since the Fair Work Act became law in 2009. The Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill offers much for practitioners to get our heads around: major bargaining reform; a ban on pay secrecy; expanded jurisdiction for the Fair Work Commission in sexual harassment cases; limits on the use of fixed-term contracts; improved flexible working rights for employees and more. Some of these changes will be felt in the public service in 2023, while others are largely focused on the private sector.

Whereas previously departments could be rigid and inflexible, they will now have to properly consider a request and provide reasons for refusal.”

Take flexible working. A public servant who qualifies under the Fair Work Act’s flexible working scheme – including parents, carers, people with disability and those experiencing family or domestic violence – now has stronger legal rights to seek alternative working arrangements.

Whereas previously departments could be rigid and inflexible, they will now have to properly consider a request and provide reasons for refusal. If a request is denied, an employee can go to the Fair Work Commission for conciliation and, if necessary, arbitration.

It is unlikely the new government will stop here. Many changes to the regulation of the gig economy and labour hire are expected in the first-half of 2023; as we have written previously, this may well impact the public service.

Other policy initiatives and amendments have been floated following the jobs summit. After a period of relative inactivity in industrial relations reform, 2023 looks set to be a continuation of the frenetic pace of recent months.

Pay and bargaining

In October, the Australian Public Service Commission announced an interim 3 per cent pay rise for all public servants. The increase was welcomed by many following a period of wage-level stagnation, but amounts to a real-wage cut given rampant inflation.

The new year will therefore see heightened scrutiny on pay negotiations across the APS – both as part of the commission’s commitment to developing a “comprehensive policy to facilitate service-wide bargaining for common core terms and conditions” and in department-specific enterprise agreement bargaining.

While most of the bargaining measures in the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill are directed at the private sector, it will be interesting to see how the government’s ideological position translates into the public sector.

The Finance Minister Senator Katy Gallagher described the prior government’s position as “a bit of a Hunger Games approach to bargaining” and promised to “fix the mess that exists across the public service in terms of agreements that are in place”.

Many public servants would welcome that – but given sustained budgetary pressures and concerns about inflation, it will be interesting to see the extent to which the government is willing to put its money where its mouth is.

Respect at work

In our past two end-of-year columns, we have reflected on the significant change occurring in workplaces across Australia to address inappropriate behaviour.

The Respect@Work report from Sex Discrimination Commission Kate Jenkins highlighted widespread sexual harassment in Australian workplaces; the vast majority of her recommendations have now been adopted, with law reform passing in the final sitting weeks.

Jenkins’ term expires early next year and the government has begun recruiting for a replacement to drive the next phase of this critical work. Law reform is significant, including a positive duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment. But the important task in 2023 will be translating these changes into action. The APS is not immune from the scourge of workplace harassment, as consecutive surveys have shown.

In the year ahead, government departments must lead by example in translating recent momentum to stop workplace harassment into practical outcomes.

There is no place for sexual harassment in our workplaces.

A pro-integrity culture

Finally, mid-2023 will see the launch of the long-awaited National Anti-Corruption Commission, and with it a renewed emphasis on integrity within the APS.

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is understood to be busily working away on the next steps in maintaining and improving the pro-integrity culture across the APS, driven by new head Professor Glyn Davis.

Reform to the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013, the federal law for public sector whistleblowing, is also expected next year, with the first tranche of changes already before Parliament.

These are just a few areas of anticipated movement next year; there will be many others.

But for now we want to wish our readers a safe and relaxing festive period. Thanks for reading this year and we will be back in 2023.

The above article was written for and published in the Canberra Times.

For all employment related queries or concerns, please contact our Employment Law & Investigations team at BAL Lawyers.

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