A dispute between Perth’s Curtin University and its staff has taken an odd turn, with the industrial umpire rejecting a proposed ban on answering phone calls.

Union representatives had sought to include the ban on responding to calls and emails on a protected industrial action ballot to be put to members at Curtin.

But the Fair Work Commission ruled against the proposal and a series of other submitted questions, which it said were too ambiguous for academic staff to understand.

The National Tertiary Education Union, which is representing Curtin members in their bid to secure a pay rise and improved conditions, has appealed the decision, labelling it “a bizarre attack on attempted industrial action”.

University lawyers used a commission hearing to cross-examine staff about the definition of answering a phone call or emails.

In her decision, commission deputy president Melanie Binet said witnesses had differed on their understanding of the ban.

“Some understood the ban to be limited to physically picking up the phone or selecting the reply function on an email but understood the ban to permit responding to a message left on voicemail when the phone went unanswered or replying to an email in separate chain,” her decision stated.

Ms Binet, an industrial lawyer appointed by the former coalition government, ruled against eight questions submitted by the union.

They included proposed bans on participating in university events, attending campuses, working outside of usual hours and meeting with managers or executives.

The decision allowed two questions to be put to members, asking if they supported work stoppages of up to 24 hours and indefinite stoppages.

Union president Alison Barnes said almost identical wording had been allowed in 12 other protected ballots at Australian universities this year.

“For Curtin University to suggest our members – some of the most qualified people in the workforce – don’t understand the meaning of ‘a ban on answering the phone’ is bizarre,” she said.

“Curtin University is more interested in playing word games with the industrial umpire than constructively negotiating with members who are simply asking for a fair pay rise and decent working conditions.

“We need the federal government to remove ridiculous hurdles which stop workers deciding on whether to take industrial action – a fundamental freedom in any democracy.”

The university has flagged it will respond to the union’s appeal as the parties continue to negotiate on a new enterprise bargaining agreement.

“Negotiations between Curtin and the NTEU are continuing, and Curtin remains committed to conducting them in good faith with a view to reaching agreement in early November 2022,” a spokesperson said.