2 Weeks in the Hall of Mirrors

The past couple of weeks have been interesting from many perspectives. It has been a time for reflection on many levels.

October 20 marked the International Day of the Controller. This date is recognised by ANSPs throughout the world and promoted by IFATCA and its member associations. This year it well worth reflecting that the chronic shortage of ATCs is not just a local phenomenon with the shortfall placed at some 3000 globally. With our estimated 100 short in Australia it would appear we are playing well above our weight.

The remaining event for this day was the first meeting of Civil Air’s reps, Peter McGuane, our Executive Secretary and I, with Minister Albanese and his staff. The purpose of the meeting was to brief the minister on our position in negotiations and the staffing crisis facing ATC in Australia. My letter to the minister is published on the website for those that wish to read it.

The CA meeting on the 22nd of October marked the tabling of Civil Air’s formal log of claims. Airservices has blamed Civil Air for stalling tactics. I would remind members that the date for commencement of negotiations was April 21. The first achievable meeting with Airservices was May 12. The negotiating teams have now met formally on 12 occasions. At the first meeting Civil Air tabled our Vision document in the format of a complete collective agreement. It was some time before this document was referred to by Airservices in negotiation. We advised from the outset that the Vision document was the basis for our formal claim but was not the actual claim.

The reason for not supplying the claim was simply one of administration. The Vision document contains content prohibited under Workchoices and we were waiting for clarification from government on the repeal process. Sadly, apart from the removal of AWAs as an employment instrument, the remainder of the repeal process awaits action.

At the same CA meeting, Airservices tabled its first offer. The content of this is published on the Civil Air website. This major point for this offer is that it is the first time where Airservices has identified a salary figure to offset its required productivity gains. Whilst I am grateful that we finally have something on the table I cannot help but wonder why it has been held back so long? At the time of tabling there remained only 60 days in the negotiating period. I will come back to this item shortly.

On the October 25th I was interviewed by Channel 7 Melbourne on the 70th anniversary of the loss of the Kyeema, a DC2 enroute Adelaide Melbourne 70 years ago. Tragically the flight ended with the aircraft crashing on Mt. Dandenong with the loss of all on board. This accident is often credited with being the catalyst for the formation of Air Traffic Control in Australia. It is also worth noting that this predates the formation of Civil Air by less than 10 years.

So 70 years on where is Air Traffic Control? There is no doubt that Australia enjoys an enviable safety record by world standards but the truth is that the pressures of modern commercialism have seen a shift in the focus. The phrase “affordable safety” is often attributed to Dick Smith and just as often refuted. Regardless of its origin it has become the unstated credo of many Australian safety based organisations. User pays systems, “As Low As Reasonably Practicable” risk management (there’s that word reasonable again), and efficient air traffic services have replaced the much loved “safe, orderly and expeditious” model phased out through the 80s and 90s. Keating referred to this as economic rationalism and clearly we can’t afford to ignore cost. However there is a demonstrable line that, once crossed, moves the balance sheet into the realms of not being able to afford not to do something properly. Are we better off as a nation? Undoubtedly so. Are we improving continuously? That’s somewhat harder to demonstrate. The Kyeema disaster happened, in part, because systems that offered important measures of protection to the flight were not in place. Today we face different hurdles but the results are just as important. I leave you to draw your conclusions on where we are now but note that in 70 years we’ve gone from no services to a model that is sufficiently stressed that no services are back, albeit on a short term basis as various parts of the system fail to cope.

On October 27 and 28 the Airservices board met in Brisbane and on the 28th they hosted a lunch for staff. The intent was an opportunity for staff to address the board directly. Some members were concerned that a forum might have been better but to be honest I suspect that that would have limited the impact. One board member responds to one staff member. All listen but it’s not the same as having the chairman of the board surrounded by people all putting their views, and this repeated across the room with each board member. I’m not sure that the event will cause a marked change in the opinions of the board or senior management but at least it gave you the opportunity to put your views unfiltered directly to those that make the decisions. The professionalism of those staff that spoke to the board was extremely apparent in their preparation for the event. The power of the staff members pressing a point face to face has significantly more impact than someone reporting third hand what Civil Air “thinks”. In particular the image of Jason Harfield in his white shirt and tie surrounded by 14 black shirted ATCs will stick with me for some time. Well done to all who attended and those that helped them prepare.

Lastly, for this missive, today (October 30) I attended the first of 4 CA briefings in Brisbane conducted by Ian Jamieson and Doug Scott. From the outset it was made abundantly clear that the briefing was not negotiation, it was a simple explanation of Airservices position. The format was a short delivery of what the Airservices package is followed by questions and answers.

There were no new revelations. Airservices confirmed their position that they believe that they are bound by the Australian Government Bargaining Framework and that they interpret this framework to mandate all remuneration increases must be funded by productivity. The balance sheet is padded with items that are either mandates by government (but must be funded by you) or are in effect no cost options.  The equation was quite simple "we want... (list) we give you this... (short list)". The end result was in their estimation list 1 minus list 2 must be budget neutral and comes out at 4% plus $2500 plus 1% etc. Productivity measures cannot be retrospective. The Airservices position is simply you must fund any increase. Civil Air does not support this. My personal opinion is that the offer falls a long way short. Civil Air will strive to achieve a fair outcome. You should not be expected in times of record profits to move backwards in real terms.

The model adopted by Airservices effectively means all staff should vigorously oppose any changes yielding productivity to the organisation unless they are directly and explicitly included in the productivity calculations associated with your employment conditions. If you allow anything else you are giving productivity measures away for free. For me, this is an untenable position for a business model but is the natural outcome of the basic premise. I believe that this model is at the heart of the adversarial approach to negotiation.

Airservices speaks regularly about the lack of goodwill. Clearly the corporate model of forcing reform through to achieve significant efficiencies and then at every negotiation stating that it all happened in the past and therefore cannot be considered is doing much to erode the support of the staff. We’re placed in the Catch 22 bind that past productivity can’t count and productivity that hasn’t happened yet can’t be planned (or paid) for. If I was planning this for Airservices I’d simply predict no change in the next agreement to minimise salary exposure, then announce a raft of change as soon as the ink’s dry.

On Wednesday the 5th we will be before the AIRC discussing clause 4.3.1 of the existing agreement and you can expect direct advice of the outcomes as soon as we know the result. Next week we also commence divisional meetings around the country to seek your direction on the offer to hand. It is important that you make your views known to your delegates so that we can effectively negotiate on your behalf. If you can’t attend please provide your proxy in writing to someone who can.

Next week I will be in Hong Kong for the IFATCA regional conference and Ian Stansfield will act capably as President in my absence.

Robert Mason
President, Civil Air
30 October, 2008