Controversial Crikey contributor Hugo Kelly, a former political staffer
and Canberra bureau reporter for The Age, has locked horns with “Syd
the Staffer”, a lad in the employ of the Howard government, over the
question of staff pay levels and AWAs. It’s an interesting debate so
enjoy.

Howard’s staff pay rort

Hugo Kelly kicked it off:

Apart from “why is Peter Costello employing a Howard loyalist as
his senior advisor” (Crikey sealed section March 8) the other question
to ask about the appointment of David Gazard to the Treasurer’s office
of is: how much is he getting?

It’s likely to be a
poultice. The Herald Sun reported yesterday that John Howard is using
the magic of AWA’s to overpay staff of senior ministers by up to
$60,000 a year.

Leaked documents have uncovered Howard’s rorting of the Members of Parliamentary Staff Act, the official pay scale for staffers.

Howard
changed the rules on January 30 so his personal staff and senior
Cabinet advisers could be paid their handsome salaries. Under the Act,
the Government’s principal adviser and Secretary to Cabinet should be
the most highly paid staff member on a maximum of $170,000 a year.

But
a relatively junior adviser such as Warwick Bracken, the chief of staff
to Veterans Affairs Minister Danna Vale, receives $114,500, about
$12,000 more than he should under the Act – and hasn’t Vale’s office
covered itself in glory in its incompetent handling of the politically
sensitive changes to Veterans entitlements.

(Subscribers
will remember that Vale’s clumsy attempts to effectively cut war
veterans’ entitlements led to a backbench revolt – and the PM taking
the issue out of her hands.)

According to the Hun,
Another Crikey favorite, the PM’s spinner, Tony O’Leary gets $121,900 –
nearly ten grand above the ecommended maximum salary.

The
Hun quoted a spokesman for Erica Betz, the minister in charge of
politicians’ perks, as saying Howard had total discretion over what
staff should be paid.

“Should people coming from the public
service take a pay cut to become a ministerial adviser?” he asked. “I
know that in the past people have taken pay cuts to join a minister’s
office from the public service.”

Really! While AWA’s were
introduced by Howard as alternatives to union awards, giving employers
flexibility in negotiating salaries, it seems there is only upside for
senior government staffers.

And the government’s
preoccupation with those who take a “pay cut” to work in the top ranks
of the public service is quite touching. Wonder what employers in the
real world would make of this argument?

A staffer on
Capitol Hill tells Crikey: “Many of the Government, and some Opposition
staff, here are employed under AWAs rather than the MOPS Award. But
DOFA are not allowed, by law, to discuss their terms of employment,
disclose numbers of staff on AWAs, what conditions are negotiated away,
etc, etc.”.

“It’s outrageous that employees on AWAs –
which were presented as a cost savings for government – get paid more
in salary and receive more Travel Allowance per night.

“For
Canberra travel, AWA employees get about $10 to $15 per night more than
the MOPS staff; for interstate travel. For example, traveling to
Sydney, MOPS ministerial advisors/ shadow min advisors get about $220
per night. But if you’re on an AWA you get $285 night. Surely the
allowance is paid in recognition of costs incurred for travel to the
respective city – which would be the same for all of us regardless of
our salaries.

“Why should someone who earns more be
entitled to more in Travel Allowance? And because they are negotiated
individually its feasible that staff within one government ministerial
office are all employed under different salaries rates (through their
individual AWAs) and because of the law, have no idea what each other
is paid and no right to know.”

Hmmm. It seems that under
the Howard Government’s IR policies all animals are equal – but some
animals are more equal than others.

Check out the Hun’s report here.

===========================

Syd The Staffer hits back

Hugo
Kelly’s article is a salutory lesson that one should not rely on Robert
Ray’s Questions Without Notice or the crap Luke McIlveen writes in the
Hun, for accurate facts. Let’s just get the errors out of the way first.

Claim:
Leaked documents have uncovered Howard’s rorting of the Members of
Parliamentary Staff Act, the official pay scale for staffers.

Syd:
The MOPS Act doesn’t set pay scales, the pay scales are set by either
the Certified Agreement (for Adviser and below) or by the Prime
Minister (for others), the latter being usually within non-binding
guidelines.

Claim: Howard changed the
rules on January 30 so his personal staff and senior Cabinet advisers
could be paid their handsome salaries.

Syd:

The PM did not change any rules. He agreed to revised salary bands.
This had absolutely no effect whatsoever on any person’s salary. And
given that AWAs are in operation, the PM could agree to pay a staffer a
gazillion dollars without breaching any “rules”.

Claim: Howard had total discretion over what staff should be paid.

Syd: True.

Claim:
A staffer on Capitol Hill tells Crikey: “Many of the Government, and
some Opposition staff, here are employed under AWAs rather than the
MOPS Award. But DOFA are not allowed, by law, to discuss their terms of
employment, disclose numbers of staff on AWAs, what conditions are
negotiated away, etc, etc.”.

Syd: Yes. It’s a
little thing called ‘privacy’. And that law is in a little document
call the Privacy Act 1988. AWAs are personal documents that apply to a
particular individual. Nobody in the Public Service has their AWA
published – why should MOPS staff?

Claim:
“It’s outrageous that employees on AWAs – which were presented as a
cost savings for government – get paid more in salary and receive more
Travel Allowance per night … Surely the allowance is paid in
recognition of costs incurred for travel to the respective city – which
would be the same for all of us regardless of our salaries.

Syd:
Travel Allowance is paid in accordance with guidelines laid down by the
DEWR, and applicable to all Public Servants. This includes the
differential rates for Senior Executive Service (SES) and non-SES
staff. Of course, the only exception is the Canberra Travelling
Allowance rate, where MOPS staffers are paid about HALF of what public
servants get.

Now it is time for my bitch…

The
Opposition is well aware that the Prime Minister can approve salaries
above the relevant band where he considers it warranted to attract and
retain suitable staff. This is explicitly provided for in the
performance review framework.

In this regard, the
position is no different from the Secretary of a Department who can
approve salaries for his or her senior staff that may vary from
benchmarks. So there is no special deal for MOPS staff – we operate
under the same flexibility that is available to employ SES staff in the
public service.

What really happened was the Prime Minister
approved new bands for both Ministers and Opposition Office Holders
senior staff on AWAs on 30 January 2004. I’ll say that again: the
non-binding salary bands changed, not salaries themselves.

The
bands for senior ministerial staff had not changed since 26 July 2000
and the bands had not kept pace with salary movements. That is why so
many people ‘outside the bands’ – it was not a rort, it was simply that
the bands had not been reviewed annually, as they should have.

Before
determining the new bands, a review of the adequacy of the old bands
was undertaken. The remuneration of equivalent Australian Public
Service classifications was considered and the new bands are on a par
with the APS’ Executives.

But worst of all is Labor’s hypocrisy on this matter.

None
other than the former Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Simon Crean MP,
highlighted the need for a review of the salary bands.

In
a letter to Eric Abetz (who administers the MOPS Act on behalf of the
PM) on 28 November 2002, the then Leader of the Opposition, Simon Crean
described the upper limit of the salary band as an “artificial ceiling”.

Still
pushing the matter a year later, Crean again wrote to Abetz on 17
September 2003, requesting that the salary bands be revised as they had
been “static for some time” and the “band restrictions will create a
difficulty in next year’s performance review decisions”.

And
worst of all, the PM actually approved a salary ABOVE the band for a
senior staff member of the Opposition in 2002, and would have approved
two more above the printed salary bands – except that the bands were
moved upward by Howard!

So much for Labor’s complaints about the Liberals ‘rorting’ the ‘rules’ just to suit themselves!

Crean
not only requested three appointments outside the salary bands, he
twice called for the bands to be adjusted upwards. And when Howard
agrees, what does Labor do? They complain about the fact that Howard
has done what they asked him to do!

The simple fact is that
all office holders – Labor, Liberal, Democrat, whatever – can request
the Prime Minister approve a salary above the top of the band if they
feel the skills and responsibilities of the staff member warrant the
higher salary.

This is entirely consistent with Public
Sector salary setting practices. It is not a rort. It is accepted
practice throughout the senior ranks of the Australian Public Service.
Departmental Secretaries use benchmarks, and are not restricted to
strict salary bands, to determine the salaries of their senior
personnel. So do Ministers and other office-holders.

Here endeth the lesson.

===========================

And Hugo Kelly responds…

Whew! Good to see Howard Government staffers preoccupied with the important Affairs of State (ie: their salaries.)

While taking on board Syd’s passionate defence of the system, I
repeat the – unchallenged – thrust of my piece: “While AWA’s were
introduced by Howard as alternatives to union awards, giving employers
flexibility in negotiating salaries, it seems there is only upside for
senior government staffers.”

Invoking
Simon Crean in defending your argument may inevitably be
interpreted as waving the white flag. Especially given Simon’s record
on staffing matters: the first thing Latham did on taking over was
whittle down by a quarter the number of staff in the Opposition
Leader’s office and distribute them more equitably throughout the
frontbench.

It may be that some Howard staffers are underpaid. Personally, I
wouldn’t pay Tony O’Leary two bob to wash my windshield. But if
salaries are to be substantially boosted, at least let’s have some
public scrutiny. This little debate is a good start.

===========================

“If its war you want….”

Syd the Staffer isn’t done yet:

Hugo: Whew! Good to see Howard Government staffers preoccupied with the important Affairs of State (ie: their salaries.)
Syd: Hardly “preoccupied”, just a correction of a factually
inaccurate piece. I would have expected that Crikey strongly
supports the rapid provision of accurate information to correct errors.

Hugo: While taking on board Syd’s passionate defence of the
system, I repeat the – unchallenged – thrust of my piece: “While AWA’s
were introduced by Howard as alternatives to union awards, giving
employers flexibility in negotiating salaries, it seems there is only
upside for senior government staffers.”
Syd: Firstly, the AWA process for senior MOPS staff does not
work on devolved individual staffing budgets for Ministers or
Office-Holders, so it is a bit different from the way APS does
things. All staff salaries comes from an aggregated budget.
And if you wonder why MPs don’t have individual global budgetting for
staff salaries, then I will just say two words: “Andrew
Theophanous”. And I know that you know what I mean, Hugo – if
not, ask anyone from Labor Left who worked in the former MP’s Calwell
Office. Secondly, there is just such a process evisioned by Hugo, anyway, but
it does not involve setting salaries below the band. Instead, the
Prime Minister would grant the staffer a “personal classification” at
some point in the bands of a lower staff classification. For
example, you don’t make them a Senior Adviser with a salary below the
band, but an Adviser at a level within the ‘Adviser’ band. And
there are a number of “personal classifications” at lower levels in the
Government’s ranks.

Hugo: Invoking Simon Crean in defending your argument may
inevitably be interpreted as waving the white flag. Especially given
Simon’s record on staffing matters: the first thing Latham did on
taking over was the whittle down by a quarter the number of staff in
the Opposition Leader’s office and distribute them more equitably
throughout the frontbench.
Syd: The point is that Labor were massive hypocrites for raising
this in Senate Question time as a “rort” that only benefitted
Government staffers . What I was pointing out was that Labor not
only knew, not only were they complicit in, they were active agents
pushing for the revision of the non-binding salary bands. And
they were happy for their own staff to be paid outside those
non-binding salary bands.

Hugo: It may be that some Howard staffers are underpaid. Personally, I
wouldn’t pay Tony O’Leary two bob to wash my windshield.
Syd: Well,
opinions are like assholes – everybody’s got one. I like
O’Leary. I think he’s a funny guy and a good operative.

Hugo: But if salaries are to be substantially boosted…
Syd: But salaries weren’t boosted, that’s the whole frigging
point. The bands were amended to properly reflect the incremental
increases which took place in the broader public service – not MOPS
staff – over the past four years.

Hugo: … at least let’s have some public scrutiny.
Syd: There is the insurmountable obstacle of the Privacy Act
1988. And why should MOPS staff be treated differnetly to
APS employees? Or perhaps staff on AWAs should just forfeit their
civil rights, eh?

Hugo: This little debate is a good start.
Syd: The voice of dissent is the bell of freedom. So you see, we do agree on some things.