The downright bizarre process adopted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics to cut 180 staff prior to the Budget has now been terminated and acknowledged by the head of the agency as “clearly inadequate”.

In March, the ABS initiated a process to remove 180 staff. The process, it is now clear, was not driven by impending Budget cuts, given the ABS received $15m in additional funding last Tuesday on top of a budgeted increase and its Budget papers actually indicate a rise of more than 100 staff in 2009-10. The ABS’s first step in its removal program was to tell 28 mid and senior-level staff to clear their desks because they didn’t have a role in the future ABS. The affected staff were given no chance to see or respond to the assessment on which these decisions had been made, and in some cases told to leave virtually immediately.

The ensuing industrial action, during which ABS head Dr Brian Pink accused the Community and Public Sector Union of “questioning my integrity and risking damage to the reputation of the ABS” culminated in a marathon Industrial Relations Commission hearing on Friday where the ABS lost game, set and match. The 28 staff were allowed to return to their jobs (although some decided to take voluntary redundancies) and the assessment process on which the ABS had based its terminations was ordered to be completely withdrawn. The ABS was ordered to consult with the CPSU, which it is required to do under the Workplace Relations Act.

Incredibly, the ABS had argued to the AIRC that it should not have to allow the return of the 28 staff because they “might now be disaffected and therefore do damage” to the organisation. The AIRC rejected the argument.

This morning Dr Brian Pink said uncle, telling staff “I have accepted the decision of the AIRC that the design of the assessment process was clearly inadequate in not allowing adversely affected staff an opportunity to respond to, and influence, our view of their capability and we have put in place actions to fully comply with these new orders.”

The whole process of targeting mid-level staff for removal has now been ended. However, it is understood that the ABS has hired Minter Ellison to advise them on workplace relations issues. This suggests either the ABS has realised, with a little help from the AIRC, just how ineptly it handled the initial process and how bad its initial legal advice was, or that its new process for removing staff is intended to be a little more watertight than the last one.

On another Public Service matter, Crikey understands from a couple of sources that two weeks ago Public Service Commissioner Lynelle Briggs criticised Crikey at the launch of a new APS Values campaign for misreporting in relation to the ABS. On 4 May Crikey ran a tip that the Australian Public Service Commission had a $900,000 deficit this year, was looking to make 30 staff redundant and was closing its regional offices.

Commissioner Briggs was correct — there was indeed misreporting by Crikey. According to the APSC Budget papers, “in 2008–09 the Commission expects to incur a loss of $2.5 million”, not $900,000, and the average staffing level will fall by 24, not 30. In relation to regional offices, there will be “portfolio savings measure of $0.3 million per annum through the introduction of alternative service arrangements and streamlining administrative support services for the Commission’s area offices”, which doesn’t sound at all like closing them.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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