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Connoley, R 2008, 'Public sector reform agendas and outcomes for trade unions: the case of local government reform in Victoria, 1992-1999', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Copyright R Connoley 2008


From the early 1980s, Western governments, led mainly by those in the United Kingdom, have pursued public choice ideas in managing their public sectors, often targeting the monopoly position of public sectors in delivering public goods and services and also the influence and position of public sector trade unions. This policy approach also underpinned the reforms to local government in Victoria, Australia that occurred between 1992 and 1999. The Victorian State Government pursued an agenda of reform aimed at reducing costs in local government, reducing the size and scope of local government in delivering public goods and services and also seeking to reduce the perceived high level of influence of trade unions. On the basis of a literature review of the experiences of public sector reform in the United Kingdom during the 1980s, this study sought to test two propositions about public sector reform agendas and trade unions, using the Victorian local government reform as the primary research context. This was an important research gap since trade unions were a major target of the reform agenda and little research information existed as to how the reform agenda impacted on local government trade unions. Although the Victorian State Government did not possess direct legislative power over trade union behaviour, a reform agenda similar to that imposed by the governments in the United Kingdom, could inflict negative outcomes through the consequential changes resulting from competition in the delivery of local council services. The first proposition was that public sector reform agendas underpinned by public choice ideas sought to inculcate competitive practices in the provision of local government services and consequently reduce trade union influence and position in local government. The second proposition was that the level of success achieved by governments on these dual objectives was determined in part by the responses taken by trade unions to the reform agenda and on the extent to which local councils adopted a competitive culture.

Five major research questions and a number of sub-questions were developed from the literature to test these two research propositions. In addition, models of effects on trade unions arising from public sector reform and on trade union responses were developed. The models were important for visually showing the areas of impact on trade unions and the level of impact caused by the reform and to identify the options available and responses undertaken by trade unions during this period. An analytical framework was also established and served as a template for organising and recording findings in this study. The analytical framework served to show the main causal links between the reform agenda and outcomes for trade unions. The study adopted features of both positivist and interpretive methodological approaches to address these research questions. A positivist approach was applied in the development of research protocols to ensure researcher independence. In addition, the information collected was matched to the models of union behaviour and to the relevant elements in the analytical framework. The study also adopted features of an interpretive approach in respect of using small samples and in gathering data through interviews with key informants from three case study organisations, one trade union and two local councils.

The information collected on the research questions enabled conclusions to be reached on the two research propositions. The findings supported the first proposition and confirmed previous research studies in the United Kingdom that showed how governments are able to target trade unions in indirect ways through the consequences of the promotion of competition in the delivery of local government goods and services. The study identified the negative effects arising for Victorian local government trade unions in areas of access and influence on government policy decision making, membership levels, bargaining outcomes and relations within and between trade unions. The findings gathered in this study also supported the second research proposition. The level of success by the Victorian State Government in achieving local government reform objectives was in part limited by the responses taken by trade unions and also by the extent to which local councils adopted competitive practices. These findings have contributed important insights into local government reform and trade unions, which had not previously been addressed by researchers. The study has also contributed models of union behaviour and an analytical framework for addressing contemporary public policy issues and trade unions. The amalgamation of local councils planned by the Queensland State Government provides a similar research context in which to further test the usefulness of the models of union behaviour and the analytical framework. In addition, the return of the Australian Labor Party to Federal Government, and their aim of dismantling the previous Liberal-National Party’s WorkChoices industrial relations legislation, provides a context for testing these models and framework under conditions where more direct legislative changes affecting union rights to organise and bargain are pursued.