The federal workplace relations minister, Tony Burke, has blasted the New South Wales government’s handling of the long-running dispute with the state rail union, suggesting it may be “incompetent” and accusing ministers of playing “political games”.
Burke on Thursday lashed out at the state Coalition after his NSW counterpart, Damien Tudehope, urged the commonwealth to intervene in its protracted battle with the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU).
Burke turned down the request, and on Thursday accused the state Coalition of being “either naive or deliberately misleading” in urging him to step in.
The NSW government has been locked in a bitter dispute with the RTBU over a new enterprise bargaining agreement for more than 18 months.
Despite the matter repeatedly coming before the Fair Work Commission – and a series of dramatic escalations that included the wholesale shutdown of the state’s rail network – no agreement has been reached between the warring parties.
This week Tudehope wrote to Burke urging him to use his powers as federal minister to intervene in the “intractable” dispute by stripping the RTBU of the power to take protected industrial action.
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NSW has made two unsuccessful attempts to have industrial action halted in the commission, and urged the commonwealth to step in.
Burke had already indicated he did not intend to intervene during his address to the press club this week. On Thursday Tudehope seemed to blame the federal minister for a fresh round of industrial action set to take place next week.
“Use your powers to do it because this is going to inconvenience commuters this coming Monday,” he said on Sydney radio station 2GB.
Burke took exception to those comments, and lashed out at the Coalition’s handling of the rail dispute.
“I’m someone who catches a train in Sydney as well. We just want the trains to run and we expect the government to sort this out,” he said.
“I get tired of the games of blame shifting between state and federal.”
He said the powers Tudehope had asked him to make an unprecedented intervention and accused the Coalition of playing political games.
“They did this knowing I would say no … they did this as a political game instead of doing their jobs, presenting the arguments to the commission, or better, settling the dispute,” he said.
“The Fair Work Commission has to apply a very specific test. If that test is satisfied, then the action stops.
“Instead of using their power and going to the umpire, they decided to go directly to me to ask a minister to exercise a last-resort power which no minister, Labor or Liberal, has ever exercised in the history of the legislation.”
Burke said the state government should know about its own power and if it didn’t, “then they are incompetent”.
After a brief ceasefire, the chaos on Sydney’s rail network is set to resume next week after the RTBU rejected the government’s latest pay offer.
Next week workers will refuse to operate overseas-built trains, severely reducing the frequency of services.
The union said earlier this month that industrial action will continue to escalate, with members planning stopping work for up to four hours on 2 December, a step which could grind the entire network to a halt.