Facing once in a generation strikes across the public sector - from nurses to teachers, and core public servants - the Coalition Government has been consistently and confusingly sending a very mixed message. On the one hand, it evinces sympathy for and even empathy with their issues of concern, but on the other hand, says it has no more money to put on the table. Yet, as the first cab off the rank, the nurses have managed, not once but three times, to ratchet up the response to their claims, even though they are yet to reach a settlement. It is little wonder that other public servants like teachers and the core public sector are fancying their chances when their turn at the bargaining table comes.
What is going on here? Is the Coalition Government so naive to think it can lead the public sector on in this way and not expect a backlash when they fail to deliver? Do they really expect these workers whose claims of nine years of income neglect they profess to support, to now accept the jam tomorrow argument from this Government made up of their apparent friends, for whom many of them they actively campaigned and worked at election time? After all, they believed there was finally some light at the end of the tunnel when the National-led Government was ousted. Their fear must be that, given its shaky electoral position, this Government may not be around in two years time, and things will potentially be back to where they were. Or is there some other game in town?
It is certainly true that across many fields the Coalition Government is determined to paint the previous Government as one of neglect - from health and housing, to education and regional development, and now defence. The message is the same: they have nine years of under-investment has to overcome. By painting such a drastic picture they can then move deftly to say that the problems run so deep, they cannot be solved within one three year Parliamentary term, giving themselves a very convenient way out, and some flexibility.
To that extent, it is a tactic straight out of the Lange/Douglas playbook. In their case, it was the economic crisis that had brought the country to its knees. While a strongly performing economy at present denies this Government that opportunity, it has fixed upon an infrastructure and investment deficit instead. Indeed, the only thing missing from the Lange/Douglas game plan is an Opening of the Books and Economic Summit extravaganza, but greater Government financial transparency today makes that a little more difficult to stage manage effectively than in 1984.
It is within this framework that this Government has to juggle the public sector pay round negotiations. It has already spent large amounts on flagship policies to justify its narrative and meet the demands of its Coalition partners, and is now facing the reality that the cupboard is getting bare, at least in the short term. Hence the delicate balancing act it is now undertaking, trying to convince the public sector it really is on their side, while not meeting their specific demands. It is hoping to win their support on a "better your friends in government, than the other side, so just be patient and trust us" approach, and will throw out to them some other bones (like more union friendly industrial relations legislation) to keep them happy in the meantime. The aim is to keep teachers, nurses, and public servants on side and still populating their electorate committees and delivering their pamphlets. It is banking on the unions' leadership being able to carry the day with their memberships.
The strategy is risky, as we have already seen. It is clear that the nurses' "rank and file" is more resistant that their union leadership, and that while the deals reached to date may have satisfied the negotiators, they have failed to win the confidence of the membership at large. A similar outcome is likely when the traditionally more militant teachers get fully into their negotiating stride, and the response of core public servants in their rare industrial action this week indicates they may be of a like mind.
The Government's failure to manage effectively the situation to date suggests its whole flimsy public sector incomes policy edifice is not far from tumbling down altogether. The more the Government professes sympathy for the situation of its workforce, yet does nothing, the more it will embolden them. That is not difficult to understand.
What is more difficult to understand, though, is why this Government is continuing to send its mixed messages. It simply looks weak and inept, leaving open the possibility of a pretty grim and dour few months ahead, and a large of group of disillusioned supporters expecting appeasement before the next election.