Department heads in firing line as unions warn of damaged relations

NSW election 2023

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Union bosses are privately pushing for the new Minns government to axe some of the state’s most senior bureaucrats amid ongoing tensions over industrial issues, particularly wages.

Amid pressure for wage negotiations for soon-to-expire awards to begin immediately, unions have concerns about their ability to mend bridges with some department heads, including the state’s top public servant Michael Coutts-Trotter.

Coutts-Trotter was appointed by former premier Dominic Perrottet and was previously head of the departments of finance and education.

NSW Premier Chris Minns toured the Blacktown maternity ward on Sunday after committing to an election promise to deliver scholarships to nursing students.

Dean Sewell

One senior union leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said relations between the director general of the Department of Premier and Cabinet and unions had “not been good for a long time” and had likely reached an impasse.

The NSW Teachers Federation have a long held policy that the education department should be led by an educator. However, the current boss Georgina Harrison does not have a teaching background.

The Rail, Tram and Bus Union has also had a protracted industrial dispute with department head Rob Sharp at the helm.

Any clear-out of the public sector will not happen until Premier Chris Minns announces his full cabinet on Wednesday, once the final count in Ryde is finalised.

Minns has told colleagues that changes will be “minimal” but it is expected cabinet will be smaller than Perrottet’s, which had 23 ministers at the election.

The newly elected Monaro MP Steve Whan is widely tipped to go straight into cabinet, given he is one of only two Labor MPs who have been a minister. Michael Daley is the other.

Minns reiterated on Sunday that he had not struck any deals with the three key independents who guaranteed him supply and confidence in order to form government in minority.

“It’s always been the case, at least for the last 15 years, that the NSW upper house has been controlled by the crossbench and that will be the situation in the lower house as well,” Minns said.

“So legislation will have to be navigated through those two parliaments but it’s not necessarily difficult or different from what’s been in place for the last two years.”

He said Alex Greenwich, Greg Piper and Joe McGirr had made it clear that they did not support Labor’s position on cashless gaming, which is to trial a card in 500 poker machines across the state.

“We intend to introduce that to the floor of the NSW parliament but I don’t want the voters of NSW to believe that the government has been sworn in on the promise of a quid pro quo or a deal that is not taking place,” Minns said.

Meanwhile, the Coalition is likely to remain without an opposition leader until after Easter because it is also awaiting the final recounts in some seats.

The three contenders for leader include former planning minister Anthony Roberts, ex-attorney-general Mark Speakman, and Alister Henskens, who held the sports portfolio.

One senior Liberal source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there was talk within the NSW branch of the party that former prime minister Scott Morrison could announce his retirement from politics as soon as Easter.

That could prompt Speakman, whose electorate of Cronulla overlaps Morrison’s seat of Cook, to rule himself out of the state leadership race to seek preselection for the federal seat, the source said.

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