The Office of the Employment Advocate passed into history earlier this week, as a number of agencies were amalgamated into the newly rebadged Workplace Authority. Much has been written about the oodles of new staff the authority will need to hire to administer the fairness test.

But a significant staffing change in the government’s workplace regulation bureaucracy, first announced in late June, has passed with little fanfare.

The Employment Advocate himself, Peter McIlwain, is now second in charge at the new Authority, which has a new Director – Barbara Bennett.

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Sources with links to the federal bureaucracy have expressed surprise that McIlwain didn’t get the gig, and has effectively been demoted. In fact, it’s being suggested that McIlwain’s performance before Senate Estimates, where he was unconvincing in justifying both the secrecy surrounding the effects of AWAs and in rebutting evidence that the vast majority removed or modified conditions “protected by law”, is the reason for his eclipse.

Workplace Relations Minister Hockey has previously denied that McIlwain was pushed down: “He hasn’t been demoted at all, in fact because of the massive growth of the organisation, because of the fact that the organisation now has to administer a fairness test, and because of the fact that I think Barbara has the capacity to be a very public face of the Workplace Authority, Barbara will be an excellent director and Peter will be an excellent Deputy Director.”

When McIlwain was first appointed, the government made much of his previous credentials in the public service to assure the public that WorkChoices would not be administered in the interests of employers. Hockey has been making similar statements in press releases about the Workplace Authority and the Workplace Ombudsman, but beyond noting the appointment of Ms Bennett, nothing has been said about her experience, skills and qualifications.

Bennett is promising that the Workplace Authority will operate more transparently than its predecessor. The cynical might suggest that this indicates a shift in PR strategy from concealment to trumpeting the virtues of fairness tested AWAs in an election year.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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