ABC chairman Jim Spigelman has publicly accused the government of interference in the internal affairs of the ABC, after Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd said the ABC’s recently passed enterprise bargaining agreement breached the guidelines set for government agencies on wage increases.

“The agreement provides wage outcomes and conditions that are outside, and in breach of, the Government’s Workplace Bargaining Policy 2015,” Lloyd said in a public statement last week, which also asserted that the ABC was subject to the government’s bargaining policy.

“Management of the ABC asserted that it was not subject to the Bargaining Policy. This is not the position of the Government or the Public Service Commissioner and it should be noted that other comparable Commonwealth bodies, such as SBS, have complied with the Policy.”

“Ministers and myself have conveyed to the ABC’s management our utmost concern at the position they have adopted in breaching the Policy.”

Lloyd is not alone in his concerns — both Communications Minister Mitch Fifield and Employment Minister Michaelia Cash have reportedly also written to Spigelman asking for explanations about the new agreement.

But the ABC’s chairman, in a letter sent to Lloyd and made public by the ABC today, says Lloyd’s comparison to SBS is “irrelevant” to the ABC.

“Under section 11 of the SBS Act, that organisation is subject to government policy direction, except with respect to content and scheduling of programmes. There is no equivalent … [in the] ABC Act.

“The statutory independence of the ABC cannot be compared with the position of SBS.”

Incidentally, SBS has sought independence similar to that enjoyed by the ABC in the past, to little success.

The ABC flatly rejects the claim that it is subject to the government’s policy on pay rises, quoting the ABC Act to justify its position. The act says:

“Except as provided by this section, or as expressly provided by a provision of another Act, the Corporation is not subject to direction by or on behalf of the Government of the Commonwealth.”

This makes Lloyd’s assertions a dangerous misunderstanding of the government’s control of the ABC, Spigelman says.

“Your assertion of authority to control the internal staffing policies of the ABC, potentially in any aspect of the wide-ranging powers conferred on you by the Public Service Act, is a fundamental challenge to the independence of the ABC from Government interference.”

The ABC’s enterprise bargaining agreement was the result of lengthy negotiation with its two staff unions. Both were lukewarm on the agreement, which was put to staff before their final approval (the unions didn’t tell members to vote against the agreement, but noted not all issues with the ABC had been settled). It includes a one-off $500 payment on top of 2% annual pay increases. It also includes provisions for seven days of domestic violence leave, and an extra week of parental leave.

The government’s workplace bargaining policy only contains one explicit exemption — it doesn’t apply to the Australian Defence Force. It requires enterprise bargaining agreements to be provided to the Commissioner for approval before being put to a staff vote, and limits annual wage increases to 2% including all “salary-related allowances”.

The policy has been highly controversial and has caused numerous workplace agreements to fail staff votes and bargaining to stall. The Senate’s Standing Commotion on Education and Employment last month announced an inquiry into the effects of the bargaining policy, which have left thousands of public servants without new agreements for years.

Lloyd was appointed by the Abbott government to the role of Public Service Commissioner in late 2014, after a previous role as Victoria’s “red tape commissioner'”. He is a former director of workplace relations and productivity at the libertarian Institute of Public Affairs. — Myriam Robin

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