Victorian government moves to censor nurses’ use of social media fell flat.Facebook became the frontline in the Victorian nurses’ dispute when the State Government demanded that the ANF censor individual nurses’ Facebook posts.
The website www.facebook.com/RespectOurWork was established to allow communication and comment by Victorian nurses and members of the public about the ANF campaign.
With well over 15,000 “likes” the site had become a powerful tool in the campaign when Federal Court judge Richard Tracey ordered the nurses to cease industrial action.
When nurses continued with rolling stoppages at 15 hospitals, government solicitors argued that comments on the Facebook site were in open defiance of Justice Tracey’s directive that the union stop encouraging and assisting its members to strike.
The lawyers wrote to the ANF demanding it delete Facebook posts that “organise, advise or assist the taking of industrial action by ANF members or which aid, threaten or propose to engage in such conduct”.
The letter continued: “We also require that you confirm in writing that, once deletions have been effected, the ANF continue to maintain its social media websites to ensure that comments of a similar nature are immediately deleted.”
The union faced an unenviable choice: stop nurses talking about the dispute on their own Facebook site, or risk contempt of court proceedings and heavy fines.
So users of the site took to using code names to advertise and discuss stoppages and protests.
Instead of referring to walkouts and street protests, nurses developed an apparent fondness for “morning teas” “bake offs” and “barbecues”. Others, more athletically inclined, spruiked the virtues of “walking clubs” featuring photos of nurses in their bright red union t-shirts holding placards outside hospitals.
Meanwhile, the government could do nothing to stop nurses openly discussing the industrial action on their personal Facebook pages. Many changed their profile photos to the ANF’s “Respect our Work” poster or photos of themselves and other nurses holding placards and banners.
Here is a small sample (names deleted) from thousands of posts on the ANF Victorian branch Facebook page www.facebook.com/RespectOurWork: “Out and about shaking the tins. People were so generous today and very supportive. We got 4 cans filled. Thanks Port Fairy.”
“Still getting lots of support from the public as I drive around visiting my patients. 2 people stopped to chat about our campaign while I was having lunch. Waves and smiles as well. Makes me smile.”
“Where can I get a few Respect our Work ANF flags? I would like to fly them out the front of our house/car to show my support for the nurses’ campaign and the fantastic job you all do.”
“Damn stoopid postie woke me up after a night duty … Bet he got the shock of his life with me opening door in my very oversized red t-shirt and hair all over the place … Poor fellow … His comment was ‘sheesh you lot sure are passionate! keep up the hard fight we all appreciate what you are all doing for us’. Sleepily mumbled my appreciation and as he was going I heard his little bike give a toot toot … God bless him.”
“It’s Sunday, and I hope our wonderful negotiating team get to enjoy a day of rest. It’s also 993 days until the next state election (or 2 years, 8 months, 2 weeks and 4 days). That’s only another 141 weekends, and I know that come the 2nd half of 2014 I’ll be spending them door knocking in marginal seats.”
Comments on the site showed nurses realised the value of Facebook as an organising and publicity tool: “Together we are strong and through social media we can bypass the mainstream professional media to inform ALL VICTORIANS and indeed ALL AUSTRALIANS of true facts and information they have a right to know,” wrote one.
Another nurse wrote: “Facebook, despite the attack by the lawyers and the government, became the means by which nurses were able to express to the public the bloody minded attitude of VHIA [Victorian Hospitals Industrial Association] and the government. The second they tried to shut us down was the moment that the site exploded.”
And: “What this site did for our cause, which we never had before, was [give us] the ability to communicate with each other across the state in real time without the need for a large number of statewide meetings that only a proportion could get to or trying to have our organisers arrange local meetings that again, only a few could get to. Nurses have always prided themselves on their ability to effectively communicate with not only each other but with their patients in such a way that the issue at hand was easily understood. Such is the case with this page.”
Some nurses expressed regret that they might lose their Facebook page after the dispute: “When this whole thing is over are we going to have an ANF Party? I’m gonna miss this page.”
One nurse replied: “I am absolutely convinced that the dialogue and this site will never be allowed to wither away and will in turn, be used time and time again to promote those issues that crop up from time to time.”
The ANF Victorian State Secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick said it was outrageous that government ministers could take advantage of their positions and use the mainstream media to misrepresent nurses and midwives, while seeking to stop them and other members of the public talking about nursing issues on their own Facebook site.
“Why are (Premier) Mr Baillieu and (Health) Minister Davis prepared to waste more taxpayer money on lawyers to censor the internet and control and punish nurses and midwives when they should be working on finding a solution to end this dispute and get improvements happening in our hospitals?” she said.
“The Baillieu Government already tightly censors Victorians’ freedom of expression by blocking voters and deleting their comments from its own Facebook pages.
“Gagging nurses and midwives will not resolve this dispute.”
In an editorial, the managing editor of Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper Alan Armsden, criticised the government’s “heavy-handed attempts to shut down Facebook discussions between nurses – a tactic that would have done a totalitarian regime proud.”
Preferring to dictate rather than negotiate, Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu did not lift a finger to help settle his government’s dispute with nurses. The same could not be said of his 74-year-old cousin.
A photograph of former Liberal MP Marshall Baillieu raising his middle finger to a group of protesting nurses – “flipping the bird” as it’s known – appeared on the front page of The Age newspaper.
It was a gesture of contempt by a senior member of one of Melbourne’s wealthiest families – and a spectacular public relations setback for the Premier’s war on nurses.
Most callers to talkback radio and newspaper letter writers saw the Baillieu digit as typifying the government’s disdainful attitude to nurses and their working conditions.
The incident took place when Premier Baillieu, cousin Marshall and other family members were attending a book launch at Melbourne University.
As the Premier took the microphone inside, nurses began chanting outside, with one using a megaphone to condemn his handling of the dispute.
Shortly after, Marshall Baillieu was seen at the window directing a rude hand gesture at the nurses.
“He came and stuck two fingers up at us at the same time, he was giving us ‘the bird’ with two hands at a time,” Megan Hayes, the nurse with the megaphone told The Age.
“Then he put his hand up to his ear as if he couldn’t hear us, and was mouthing something at us, but I’m not a lip reader so I don’t know what he was saying,” she said.
“At that stage I said, ‘wow, that’s really mature’, but after he did it again, some of the other nurses were getting quite angry so I said to them, ‘just smile and wave’.”
When asked by The Age to explain his action, Marshall Baillieu, who is also chairman of the Baillieu financial firm Mutual Trust, said: “Family members and others attending found the behaviour of the nurses highly offensive.”
Not nearly as offensive as the sight of a privileged patriarch of the Melbourne establishment, giving the finger to a bunch of nurses trying to express a view.
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