The Federal Government appears to have opened a front in the culture wars in the midst of an election campaign by moving to force Commonwealth public servants to take three key national holidays on the observed date and not substitute them for another day off.
The move may provoke controversy as limiting the options of those who may not wish to mark these days for cultural or reasons of personal belief and flies in the face of workplace trends.
Public Service Minister Ben Morton wants APS staff to take Australia Day, Anzac Day and the Queen’s Birthday public holidays on the observed date and not substitute them for other days. An amendment to the Public Sector Workplace Relations Policy 2020 will ensure this is the case in any new enterprise agreement.
The direction to the Australian Public Service Commission was issued on 8 April, just before the election was called.
The APSC has now issued a new Circular to APS agencies and other Commonwealth employers notifying them of an amendment to the Public Sector Workplace Relations Policy 2020, saying it was a government expectation that people could only take the holidays on the recognised dates in their state or territory.
The APSC says that from now on, the amendment will be taken into account when considering new enterprise agreements.
The amendment won’t affect current arrangements, but all APS agencies, non-APS Australian Government entities and Members of Parliament staff will be required to implement it when making new enterprise agreements.
A government spokesperson did not say what had prompted the change.
“Our national days are incredibly important and should be recognised appropriately,” the spokesperson said.
“It’s appropriate and right that APS agencies recognise our national days.
“Australia Day is our very own national day and is a time for coming together to reflect, respect and celebrate the best of our nation.
“Anzac Day commemorates the lives of all Australians who served and died in all wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations and is a day of reflection that all Australians recognise and honour.
“It’s fitting to recognise the role of the Queen in our proud democracy, and as a mark of respect to Her Majesty’s life of public service, amendments to the Policy include the Queen’s Birthday public holiday.”
The APSC says it will work with Agencies on drafting relevant clauses for enterprise agreements as necessary.
Enterprise agreements contain clauses for public holidays to be substituted, and the APSC has said previously that some staff use them for cultural or religious reasons.
But sensitivities around Australia Day, in particular, may spark concern about the amendment from Indigenous staff and sympathisers who view the day as a tragic watershed in the history of First Nations people.
UNSW Canberra Associate Professor Sue Williamson from the Public Service Research Group said it appeared the Minister had chosen public holidays which were associated most strongly with Australian national identity.
“I can’t see what the logic is behind this or what the evidence base is for this,” Associate Professor Williamson said.
“We know that First Nations people, for example, might very well choose not to celebrate Australia Day and want to have their celebrations on a different day which doesn’t have so much trauma for them,” she said.
She said it went against the spirit of cultural diversity and workplace trends.
“We’ve seen in workplaces over the past decade that there has been an increase in days of significance for various communities and to not allow these particular ones to be transferred strikes me as curious,” she said.
She said the celebration of Australia Day itself was fraught and it was a bigger issue that needed to be looked at.
“I don’t think it sends a particularly good message to various diversity groups,” she said.