Liberal’s nursing policy raises more questions than it answers – September 2006

State Liberals promise to keep nurses as crown employees … but this is to protect them from Federal Liberals` hostile IR laws

The NSW Liberal and National parties have released a policy paper ‘Bringing nurses back’, which raises many issues for consideration.

The NSWNA welcomes from any political party the recognition that nurses are the backbone of the health system and that improving their professional status is an imperative when addressing the nursing shortage.

At a micro level, the policy promises to improve nursing courses by increasing the amount of time spent in clinical practice and to improve retraining opportunities. There is a promise to fund 500 extra nursing positions and 50 extra clinical nurse educators. The opposition also say they will provide funds to individual hospitals to meet the particular needs at that workplace.

These are all laudable ideas. Unfortunately, the political context in which these ideas are proposed begs a lot of questions of the opposition that are left unanswered.

The big problem for the opposition’s policy unit, which they seem not to have noticed when putting this paper together, is John Howard’s federal IR changes.

The opposition leader has said the Liberals will leave public hospital nurses in the State industrial relations system. Yet, he makes no comment on the fact that the conversion of NSW public hospital nurses into crown employees, a political intervention by the Iemma government that keeps them within the state system, had to be done to protect nurses and other frontline employees from a vicious and unprecedented attack on their work conditions by Peter Debnam’s own federal colleagues.

If he was already the Premier, would Peter Debnam have taken this step to protect nurses from the federal Liberal Party’s industrial relations changes? Would he stand up to John Howard and say these changes are wrong and harmful to nurses and, for that matter, all other workers in NSW?

On the issue of nurses’ pay and conditions, the Federal Coalition’s track record is also less than glorious.

In June, Queensland Coalition Federal MP Peter Lindsay complained of ‘the Queensland Government’s offer to irresponsibly increase wage levels for public hospital nurses in Queensland.’

This followed on the heels of statements by Federal Minister for Ageing Santo Santoro, who complained that ‘recent nurse pay rises are continuing to make it difficult to operate nursing homes’ and ‘State Industrial Relations Commissions continued to approve large pay rises for nurses within a sector already struggling with staff shortages’.

There have been many other comments coming out of Canberra from the Coalition benches lashing the NSW State Government for the size of public sector wage increases.

It does beg the question: What will a State Liberal National Coalition be prepared to deliver for nurses’ wages when their Federal colleagues are railing against the current wages for nurses?

And it is not just an issue of money. Our Memorandum of Understanding with the state Labor Government last year delivered groundbreaking maternity leave, more union rights, a commitment to fund 10-hour night shifts and recognition of ENs.

These are the sort of conditions that WorkChoices was designed to strip out of awards, along with overtime and penalty rates.

Another problem in the Liberal Party policy is the vulnerability of nurses in aged care and private hospitals to the federal laws.

If the State Opposition recognises the need to protect frontline public servants from their own Federal colleagues’ laws, what about all the other hard-working NSW workers and their families including nurses in private hospitals and in aged care.

Are the State Liberals prepared to challenge the policies of the Howard Government on AWAs and aged care funding, on university places and the myriad other Federal responsibilities that impact on the rights and conditions of nurses working in these sectors?