The radical changes you did not vote for – August 2005

The Prime Minister has no mandate and no case for proposed changes that threaten the rights of nurses

Many nurses – along with millions of other Australians – voted to return the Howard government at the last federal election.

People voted for what they perceived as safety, security and a continuation of low interest rates. It was a vote for steady-as-she-goes government. A government that people thought they knew.

The government was not re-elected with a mandate to radically change Australian society – yet this is exactly what is now proposed.

Gaining control of the senate for the first time in nearly 30 years has allowed this government to push forward proposed changes that will – over time – impact on every employee and their family.

The government has failed to put forward a convincing case for these radical changes. Their arguments have been rubbished by a wide range of economists and labour market experts.

Strong voices of concern have been raised by many church and community leaders. Even at the highest ranks of the Liberal and National parties there have been many dissenting voices. The case for opposing these changes is very strong.

Australia is currently in its fourteenth consecutive year of economic growth. During those fourteen years the economy has grown by an average of 3.5% per year. We have low inflation, good productivity growth and low unemployment. In fact, employment has grown at 2% per year. Industrial disputes are at record lows. These are stunning figures.

Australia’s growth has outper-formed the US and OECD averages. Profits have soared, increasing by 136% since 1991 or by 70% in real terms.

Contrary to what John Howard says, the industrial relations system is not holding the economy back. It is critical that nurses inform themselves about John Howard’s proposed changes.

What are at risk are a raft of employment rights such as redundancy pay, overtime, shift work penalty rates, weekend and public holiday pay rates, work rosters, work and family rights, annual leave loading, casual loading, allowances, skill-based pay increases (incremental scales), and other award standards that could be removed from employees without compensation.

At the heart of the federal government’s strategy is a plan to weaken collective bargaining and create an industrial relations system where the predominant instrument is the individual contract.

Collective bargaining is an internationally recognised right. It provides a balance of power in the workplace and ensures fair treatment. It leads to a fairer share of profits and benefits from productivity going to employees. It is the mechanism by which we all get to share in the strong economy with improving living standards.

In a competitive commercial environment, employers will always try to drive down costs wherever they can. It only takes one rogue employer and the others have to follow to stay in business. For nurses in aged care and private hospitals this competitive business environment is a daily reality. John Howard’s plan of a dog-eat-dog world of work will pose serious risks to pay and conditions in these sectors. Professions such as nursing are vulnerable as individual nurses can be browbeaten about duty and patient care being more important than a decent living standard.

These new workplace laws are overwhelmingly biased towards employers. They reflect long-standing prejudices on the conservative side of politics.

We must ensure that the Howard government knows that the passage of laws that remove nurses’ and other workers’ rights will not be supported by the majority of working people. Passage of these proposed laws will spell political disaster for a government elected to govern for all, not just big business.