By David Bates

Whenever I write an article about service failings at our national employment relations tribunal, the Fair Work Commission, I receive calls and emails containing tales of woe from others who’ve been similarly subjected to appallingly standards of service and accountability.

This week, I have good news for the thousands of angry and frustrated Australian employers and employees I’ve spoken to over the years who cannot believe how badly this agency treats them: Things at the Commission can’t possibly get any worse than they are right now.

Let me explain.

Last week, I was in email contact with a Commission employee regarding a matter currently before the Commission. In my email, I asked one simple question: When was an earlier email I had sent to the Commission forwarded on to the relevant Commissioner for their consideration?

I asked because there had been an unusual delay in our receipt of the Commission’s reply, and I was keen to accurately pinpoint where the delay occurred.

The reply I received helpfully confirmed my email to the Commissioner had been read.

While that was certainly reassuring, it didn’t answer the (very clear and straightforward) question I  asked. So I tried again: Please tell me ‘when’ my email was forwarded to the Commissioner.

This time, in breach of the Commission’s own rules which require correspondence regarding live matters to be ‘copied’ to all parties involved, the employee chose to call me. I missed their call, but returned it a short time later.

What followed can, at best, be described as a mockery of a farce. For five plus minutes, the Commission employee appeared to do their level best to avoid answering my specific question. At various times I was told:

  • The Commissioner had considered my email
  • The Commissioner had read my email, and:
  • The Commissioner had received my email

Finally, after asking my question for the seventh (yes, seventh time, I was finally informed my email had been forwarded to the Commissioner either on the day I had sent it or, at the very latest, on the following day.

Hooray! A simple answer to my (incredibly) simple question.

When I then asked why that answer couldn’t have been provided in a quick email reply the previous day, the Commission employee informed me: ‘I am no longer comfortable discussing this matter’. I was then referred to a supervisor.

I was subsequently advised by a supervisor that Commission employees who are engaged specifically to speak to members of the public (at the tax payer’s expense) are able to end conversations if they feel ‘uncomfortable’.

Imagine calling your bank with an account enquiry and being told by the customer service representative that they won’t answer your question because they’re uncomfortable. Imagine calling your health insurance provider with a question about your coverage only to be told they’re uncomfortable discussing your policy with you.

Yes. Ridiculous.

There is one last thing which makes this entire debacle even worse than it may already sound. The Commission voluntarily created its own ‘Service Charter’ which promises members of the public they will receive a service which is ‘informative’, ‘accurate’ and ‘helpful’. 

One word: fail.