Ten Fair Work offices retire months after qualifying for pension

Iain Ross, Fair Work President, during a Senate Committee hearing at Parliament House in Canberra on Monday 28 May 2012.Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Photo: Alex EllinghausenTen former Fair Work Commission members, including outspoken critic Graeme Watson, retired early within months of qualifying for a full pension at the age of 60, a parliamentary committee has heard.

Fair Work Commission president Iain Ross told the senate estimates hearing on Thursday night that the former vice-president Graeme Watson retired this year on a maximum pension of $272,544 per year.

When Mr Watson announced his resignation in January he declared the Fair Work Commission was “partisan, dysfunctional and divided”.

A former partner at law firm Freehills, Mr Watson was the last remaining Coalition appointee in a senior role at the commission and a strong dissenter in favour of business. The Coalition made three new appointments last week.

Mr Ross said 10 of 12 presidential members who had qualified for the maximum judicial officer’s pension had resigned before the retirement age of 65.

Those who retired early left within nine to 18 months of qualifying for the maximum judicial officer’s pension.

The recent resignations of vice-president Watson, senior deputy Peter Richards, senior deputy president Jenny Acton and senior deputy president Matthew O’Callaghan all occurred within three to six months of qualifying.

The estimates hearing on Thursday night heard Mr Watson, who will receive a full judicial officer’s pension of $272,544 per year, had made inquiries about the taxation of his pension.

Opposition spokesman for employment, Brendan O’Connor said the fact Mr Watson “wrote to the Government complaining about the tax treatment of his generous $272,544 per annum pension tells you everything you need to know about the former Commission member”.

“Mr Watson has long favoured cutting the rates of pay for workers, though it’s now clear he’ll do anything to ensure his pay packet remains untouched,” Mr O’Connor said.

Fairfax Media tried to contact Mr Watson for comment but the calls were not returned.

Mr Ross said that a maximum judicial officer’s pension was equivalent to 60 per cent of their former pay and received for the remainder of their life.

A former president would receive $291,162 per annum based on the most recent Remuneration Tribunal increase in January.

A former deputy president would receive $251,376 and a former senior deputy president, $264,606.

But it was not uncommon for presidential members, once having qualified for the maximum pension, “to comment that they are, in effect, ‘working for 40 per cent’ of their remuneration”.

“I also understand that former vice-president Watson wrote to the Minister in 2015 regarding concerns with taxation issues relating to the judicial officer’s pension payable to members, which could affect consideration as to the timing of their retirement,” Mr Ross said.

In recent weeks, Mr Watson has been arguing in favour of a cut to the national minimum pay for the lowest paid workers in the country saying this would help ease youth unemployment.

In his first public appearance since resigning last month, Mr Watson used a speech at the Centre for Independent Studies last week to criticise his former boss, Mr Ross.

Mr Watson suggested Mr Ross had presided over an administration that marginalised commissioners like himself with a business background in favour of others who, like Mr Ross, had a union background.

He said the entire safety net including minimum wages, allowances, leave entitlements and penalty rates needed review.

“We have a very high level of minimum wages. In addition to that we have higher minimums for skilled employees above the minimum rate, which is unusual by international standards,” he said.

“Then we have all sorts of add-ons, such as allowances and penalty rates, which are also unusual and leave entitlements.”

Mr Watson said the recent reduction in Sunday penalty rates were more “modest” than he and his former commissioner Michael Roberts had wanted.