These attacks can be stopped

Editorialmar2012April 2012

The bad news is the O’Farrell Government has revealed its true character with an agenda to roll back public sector wages and conditions. The good news is our Victorian colleagues have shown that determined action by nurses is more than a match for any government that treats patient care with contempt.

Twelve months after its election in a landslide the O’Farrell Government’s honeymoon is well and truly over. It has had time to establish its own credentials and pursue programs that it was elected to undertake.

It can no longer rely on blaming its predecessor to distract attention from itself. The state is now its responsibility.

From the viewpoint of nurses, midwives and other public sector workers an assessment of the government’s record and intentions is not good.

Within 50 days of attaining office they had capped public sector wages at 2.5%, virtually embedding in law cuts in real wages into the future. They also gutted the independent umpire – the NSW Industrial Relations Commission – of its powers to arbitrate in wage negotiations. Nurses and Midwives know better than anyone else how important the Commission has been in establishing fair pay and conditions for our profession.

Now a second wave of attacks aims to severely punish workers who, via their unions, pursue the type of industrial action that would be recognised as legitimate in the rest of the country.

The massive increase in fines for taking industrial action (see page 12) is clearly intended to intimidate us from taking the kind of action that has won us fair pay rises in the past and the historic victory of nurse-to-patient ratios in 2011.

More worryingly, the government is now sitting on a Commission of Audit report that recommends the removal of nurse-to-patient ratios and other staffing measures from awards, such as ACORN and BirthRate Plus.

When asked to commit to reject such recommendations, the government is non-committal about the future beyond the current agreement.

This is unconscionable behavior. The nurse-to-patient ratios, as agreed to in the last Memorandum of Understanding, are now half way to being implemented. Where they have been implemented the feedback is that they are delivering what we always they said they would – a safer hospital environment and better patient care.

The government did not put these industrial relations policies before the electorate prior to the election. Jillian Skinner, Minister for Health, tells us they are reforms “to deliver a more productive, efficient, and responsive NSW public sector”. We have all heard these politicians’ words before and we all know what they are code for.

Dispiriting though it is for public health system nurses to see their state government – effectively their employer – advance such reactionary measures, that would take us back to the dark old days when staffing was determined by managerial whim, hope is at hand.

Victorian nurses had to defend their ratios from the moment they first won them in 2001 and then again and again through every subsequent pay and conditions campaign, no matter which political party was in office.

They have just done it again after a titanic nine-month struggle with a very well organised and determined Liberal-National state government.

Time and again Victorian nurses have put themselves on the line to defend what they know – through what is now long and established practice – that ratios are right for patient care.

If Victorian nurses can do it so can we.

We need to make it clear to every politician, especially from the Liberal and National parties but also those on the cross benches – the Shooters and Fishers Party and the Christian Democratic party – that the government’s agenda is unacceptable and damaging to safe patient care. We need to do it now.

I urge you to make your feelings known to your local MP.