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A Chat with the Federal Secretary

KAREN Batt’s been at the helm of the CPSU SPSF Victoria for 20 years this July.

Last year she became the first female CPSU SPSF Group Federal Secretary – a tribute to her long career in the union movement and a great moment for all women in the union movement.

Visiting Hobart last week, Ms Batt talked about this new role, some of the most challenging years her Victorian union faced, as well as current issues our counterparts across Bass Strait are facing.

The CPSU caught up with her before the Federal Executive meeting in Hobart in mid-April.

On her Federal Secretary role, Ms Batt said the job wasn’t without its challenges.

“It’s an organisation of over 95,000 members across the country,” she said. “The ability to work with a diverse occupation base and a number of state governments of both political flavour and their approach to dealing with public services, but also our interface with the Commonwealth public service division of our union are all challenges I’ve take on and relished over the last four months.”

Her 20 years as Victorian General Secretary have been what Ms Batt describes as a “roller-coaster ride”.

 “We’ve seen off Jeff Kennett, Steve Bracks, John Brumby, Ted Baillieuand now we’ve got Denis Napthine, who now completes the circle, because he was in the government with Jeff Kennett back in the 1990s.”

The Jeff Kennett years were particularly difficult, where 25,000 jobs were cut in the Victorian public sector.

When asked how she got through the policies of the Kennett era as a union, Ms Batt said they needed to put their “hard hats” on and think laterally about how to deal with the attacks, many of which were very ideological.

“The union was denied its right of entry for government buildings. Not just the physical right of entry, it was at the time that the computer and emails systems were being set up, our domain was banned, and we couldn’t send emails or bulletins to our Members.

“We weren’t given the opportunity to negotiate enterprise agreements, the state commission was abolished. The Victorian Government in 1996 referred the powers to the Commonwealth, so it could offer individual contracts under the Howard Government legislation.

“We had to find a way to remain relevant to our Members and deal with these significant attacks that were occurring on the public service, but also the public service union. We also provided assistance to Members who were dealing with massive downsizing – we lost 25,000 jobs over seven years of the Kennett government. Our job was also to make sure we had terms and conditions that reflected a career public service that protected the integrity of service delivery in the state of Victoria”.

Now, Ms Batt said in both her union roles she’s seeing policies of this era creep in again.

“We’re seeing a re-badging of many policies of the Kennett-era coming out as if they were new policies but our view is there’s been nothing new thought up by the conservative governments for the last 20 years.

“They (the policies) are just a redressing or rebadging how privatisation and contracting out looks, we have an explosion of the use of labour hire in the Victorian public service and also in New South Wales. Instead of employing career public servants who have secure work and are able to offer frank and fearless advice to governments regardless of which way the political wind is blowing, we have labour hire. This means these workers are not public servants so they’re not covered by the codes of conduct, ethical behaviour and the managing of contracts. So what we have is there is no security of work and there’s an undermining of the terms and conditions which are so important for solid public service delivery for each of the states.”

Ms Batt said the main issues she’s seeing for our Commonwealth division almost replicates the time Kennett was in power as well. 

“An emergence of policy development and policy debate generated by organisations like the Institute for Public Affairs, who are now advocating publically that there needs to be a reduction of 23,000 public servants in the Commonwealth, that there can be better service delivery by the private sector.

“In Western Australia and Victoria there’s a review being done by the Former Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet under John Howard. It’s looking at setting up alternative funding models for the delivery of social services.

“This is being picked up, and the language is being used by the Commonwealth opposition about how they will deliver social services – they won’t employ people to deliver the social services, they’ll contract it out. They won’t call it contracting out, they’ll call it a social impact bond or public service mutual, which are soft and sound nice. The reality is these are privatisation or competitive tendering, which is what happened in the 1990s.”

Public Sector Industrial Relations in Victoria operate quite differently to Tasmania. “Victoria is unique, it has the public service referred to the Commonwealth, all of our Industrial Relations happens under Fair Work and under the Fair Work Act.”

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