NSW minister accused of trying to ‘blow up’ negotiations with rail union

The New South Wales government has threatened to terminate its industrial agreement with the state’s powerful rail union after long-running negotiations over a new enterprise agreement broke down on Thursday.

But the union has accused the state’s employee relations minister, Damien Tudehope, of attempting to “blow the whole thing up” after believing a deal had been reached on one of its key demands.

On Thursday, Tudehope held a press conference with the state’s treasurer, Matt Kean, in which he said the government had “drawn a line in the sand”, after weeks of negotiations, over the Rail, Tram and Bus Union’s refusal to operate the new $2bn inner-city fleet.

The trains, which have been in storage since they began arriving two years ago, are at the centre of the long-running standoff between the government and the union.

The union says the trains are not safe to operate because guards cannot peer out of them to check that train platforms are clear.

But the government has long dismissed that concern, saying the trains have been passed as safe to operate by regulators.

“The NIF [New Intercity Fleet] are safe, world-class trains that will enormously improve the experience for commuters,” Tudehope said.

“The refusal by union leadership to operate these trains is further evidence of their collusion with NSW Labor. The commuting public and rail workers are suffering as a result.”

On Thursday Kean labelled the unions claims “outrageous” and “a disgrace”, while Tudehope said he would recommend that the government not bend to the union’s demands.

He indicated the government could seek to terminate its current agreement with the union if it attempted to enforce a clause that he said could be “misconceived” as giving the union the power to refuse to operate the trains.

“[We would be] left in a position where we will need to seek the termination of the agreement with the union on the basis they are abusing the provisions of that clause to prevent a perfectly able train to run on our network, so that’s where we are,” Tudehope said.

The extraordinary intervention blindsided RTBU NSW secretary Alex Claassens, who just hours earlier had received a letter from the deputy secretary of Transport for NSW confirming the department would “continue discussions to collaboratively develop an interim approach” to operate the fleet.

He accused Tudehope of pulling “another stunt” after the February network shutdown.

“He’s trying to get us to be angry and react and take industrial action, and he’ll try and take us back to the Fair Work Commission and try and cancel our action, but unfortunately for him we’re going to be the adults in the room,” Claassens said.

“We’re going to be out there calling on all the cabinet members to come and talk to us. Listen to what we’ve got to say. I’ve got no doubt the sensible people in that room will understand.”

The union boss said he had spent five weeks negotiating in good faith and would be back at the table next week to continue the talks, while stopping short of completely ruling out further actions.

Classens said he still had a good working relationship with the transport minister, David Elliott, and confirmed that he contacted the premier, Dominic Perrottet, about the breakdown in relations immediately.

Elliott – who was not at the government’s snap Thursday press conference – was asked about the letter from Transport for NSW in parliament, to which he responded that he was “just a suburban dad trying to right some wrongs”.

Labor accused the government of attempting to “cause chaos” on the trains.

“That is grossly irresponsible behaviour from Matt Kean and Damien Tudehope,” the opposition’s transport spokesperson, Jo Haylen, said.

“It’s playing politics with our transport network and it is enflaming an industrial dispute which the government is meant to be solving through negotiations.”

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