In Australia, police officers have long had access to a form of binding arbitration to settle collective bargaining disputes. The traditional conciliation and arbitration-based system of industrial dispute settlement in Australia has, however, been replaced in recent decades with a market-based enterprise bargaining system premised on a ‘right to strike’ (the Fair Work system). Yet, police officers, as essential services providers, are subject to considerable restraints (if not outright bans) on any entitlement to participate in industrial action. The problem is that with limited access to arbitration, and a limited right to industrial action, intractable disputes may continue indefinitely, without any impasse-breaking process to prevent the flow-on harms of long-running police disputes. This raises the essential question underpinning this research: what form of industrial dispute resolution system is appropriate to protect both the legitimate industrial interests of police officers and the community’s interest in the uninterrupted provision of essential policing services?
The aim of the study is to identify and extract workable designs for a new dispute resolution model for police within the current Fair Work bargaining framework. To achieve this, the study has three main goals:
• To examine and evaluate the effectiveness of dispute resolution models for police in longstanding police bargaining systems, in an attempt to identify best-practice solutions;
• To identify the most successful dispute resolution mechanisms against international experience and applicable international labour standards; and
• To make recommendations on when and how those methods can be adapted to Australia’s existing Fair Work framework.
The analysis is on established collective bargaining regimes with similar labour relations structures to Australia and strong police representation, focussing on two select case-studies: New Zealand and Canada (Ontario and British Columbia). Utilising in-depth interviews and data from the past 30 years, the success of different dispute resolution techniques in these systems is assessed with reference to: 1) the ability to ensure provision of police services, arguably the most important standard from the public’s standpoint; 2) whether the model promotes voluntary, mutually acceptable settlement of disputes without reliance on third parties; 3) how the parties perceive the system and each other after managing disputes, especially in terms of achieving outcomes that are sustainable; and 4) whether the system is efficient in terms of the time and cost of engaging with it.
The central recommendation of the thesis is that a North American-style mandatory interest arbitration model (adopting elements of the New Zealand Police model) should be applied to police officers within the current Fair Work bargaining framework. In particular, a mediation-arbitration model of interest arbitration — combined with a requirement for the parties to participate in ‘active’ mediation and a tripartite arbitration panel design — is recommended as the most suitable for adoption. As well as providing a guaranteed closure mechanism for intractable police bargaining disputes, this reform would give neutrals a better understanding of the underlying positions and needs of the parties in a law enforcement context; but also assist in the attainment of the Fair Work Act’s stated objective to encourage collective bargaining outcomes.