The lot of a parliamentary staff member can be a tough one — opening doors for insufferable MPs, hanging around until the wee hours while the state’s finest minds debate arcane legislation and distracting nosy members of the media keen to get their mitts on embargoed Ombudsman’s reports.
This morning at Victoria’s Spring Street asylum about 80 staff are taking protected industrial action in support of their latest enterprise agreement. The Baillieu government is refusing to budge on its pitiful 2.5% pay offer, claiming that “productivity” increases would need to be achieved before a new deal can be green-lighted.
When this reporter worked in the Legislative Assembly in 2005 — producing a completely ignored (but academically rigorous and insightful) discussion paper for the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee on the introduction of an electronic petitioning system, the tension was palpable as under-resourced opposition MPs used staffers as a glorified secretarial service during sitting weeks.
Now, a range of amusing stunts — including the removal of jackets and ties, a refusal to open doors to the chambers, the donning of badges and a ban on after-midday emailing — have been ticked off by Fair Work Australia. Labor MPs, now on the opposite side of the chamber, have embraced the collective struggle against the Premier’s IR foot soldiers.
In Victoria parly staff work across three departments — the Legislative Assembly, (comprising the Clerk, LA committees and the Procedure Office), the Legislative Council (the upper house equivalent) and the Department of Parliamentary Services which includes Hansard and Strangers Corridor cafe staff. They all fall under the same enterprise agreement.
CPSU state secretary Karen Batt told Crikey that staff were “taking it at their own speed” inside the rarefied splendour of Victoria’s hallowed democratic crucible: “It’s quite significant for them to be wearing the badges in the chambers … actually to actually do anything in the chambers, like not wearing jackets and ties, is a big step.”
Opposition industrial relations spokesman Tim Pallas lined up in solidarity behind the parliamentary attendants this morning:
“There’s absolutely no question that we support the attendants and the work they’re doing they perform an outstanding job for the parliament, they work unreasonable hours and they perform an outstanding service to all Members and the Victorian community.
“I think it’s ironic that the attendants are refusing to open doors because it’s symbolic of the lack progress Victorians are experiencing under this do nothing government.”
Government negotiators are apparently keen to keep the parliamentary agreement on hold while the broader Victorian public service deal is arbitrated.
Besides pay, late night sittings and dodgy 4am cab rides continue to rankle. Pallas said that the issue of late sittings reflected a shemozzle plaguing the Baillieu government’s “arrogant” legislative agenda and that at other times there was basically nothing on its plate.
Under standing and sessional orders an adjournment debate usually commences in both the upper and lower houses at 10pm from Tuesday to Thursday. But a Minister can move to extend the sitting in perpetuity. During the Committee stage in the Legislative Council, MPs can ask as many questions as they like until they’re satisfied.
As you can see here, the 57th parliament has developed a nasty habit of stretching its debate into the wee hours, including this 4.35am shocker on August 31 during a back and forth over protective services officers on railway stations. Every time the chamber does this, it costs the taxpayer at least $25,000.
Some loyal parliamentary staff are required to clock back on at 8am or 9am the next day. But others like the late night sittings thanks to the overtime on offer — they get double time and accrued time in lieu of sleep if the break between shifts ends up being less than 10 hours.
The pressure on the Legislative Council has increased thanks to new committee sitting times on Wednesday nights which effectively reduce the time parliament sits, encouraging the government to pack its business into Tuesday night.
The union is also calling for more consistency on the legislative agenda — this year is marked by a one week on, one week off sitting weeks (instead of a two week stretch), which plays havoc with family life.
In 2008 the Victorian parliament famously sat until well into the next day on Thursday and Friday in what is now known ruefully among long-term employees as “abortion week”.
And other parliaments have also stretched into tomorrow — last June the NSW Greens and Labor filibustered Barry O’Farrell until 3am in the bearpit over his plans to freeze wages for public servants.