Victorian nurses in fight to protect ratios

A petition of 40,000 signatures was presented to Minister David Davis, following a march on his office on 16 December.
A petition of 40,000 signatures was presented to Minister David Davis, following a march on his office on 16 December.

A battle royale is evolving in Victoria as nurses defend their hard-fought-for ratios from a well-organised attack by the Liberal government of Ted Baillieu.A major confrontation looms in the Victorian health system as the state’s nurses mobilise against the Baillieu Government’s push to abolish nurse/midwife ratios, replace nurses with health assistants and replace eight-hour shifts with split shifts and four-hour shifts.

After nearly 400 hours of fruitless negotiations in enterprise bargaining, as 2011 drew to a close the ANF (Vic) moved to industrial action and community rallies.

The government’s strategy has followed the script outlined in a secret plot signed off by health minister David Davis, in a Cabinet-in-Confidence document dated May last year, that was leaked to The Age newspaper in November.

According to The Age the Baillieu Government developed a secret plan to goad the state’s nurses into industrial action so it could force them into arbitration, cut nurse numbers and replace them at hospital bedsides with low-skilled ‘health assistants’.

The Victorian cabinet paper detailed a plan to:

  • cut the annual nursing budget by $104 million;
  • make nurse-to-patient ratios more ‘flexible’;
  • replace RNs with low-paid, low-skilled ‘health assistants’;
  • introduce shorter shifts and split shifts.

The government estimated these cuts would deliver 4% in savings. In return it ?would agree to a 3.5% pay rise. By comparison, Victorian police late last year received a 4.7% per annum pay rise.

Nurses won’t trade patients for pay

ANF (Vic) secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick says her members will never trade off patient safety for a pay rise.

‘Working with unlimited health assistants, as part of the existing nurse/patient ratios in acute care with seriously ill patients, is unacceptable. Nurses and midwives have serious concerns that the Baillieu Government fails to recognise that its push to replace nurses with health assistants, and cut their hours, ignores the strong evidence that shows lower qualified nursing numbers are linked to poorer patient outcomes,’ she said.

‘If patient care is compromised – or something goes seriously wrong – it will be the nurse or midwife, who has no control over staffing-level decisions, who must accept the legal responsibility and the legal consequences. It will be the nurse or midwife called before the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency and the courts.’

Provocation is government strategy

A key government tactic in the secret plot revealed by The Age was to force the ANF into ‘forced arbitration’ rather than ‘consent arbitration’ in Fair Work Australia.

Due to limitations on Fair Work Australia’s power under the Australian Constitution, forced arbitration can not include ratios. The dispute over ratios can only be resolved by genuine negotiation, or by reaching agreement on a process allowing a Fair Work

Australia member to decide through less formal ‘consent’ arbitration.

Lisa Fitzpatrick says both the Baillieu Government and the Victorian Hospitals Industrial Association have lacked good faith during talks and have dragged out the negotiations.

‘Government negotiators staged a ‘breakdown’ in negotiations to bait nurses and midwives into taking further industrial action that would pull the ‘forced arbitration’ trigger.

Industrial action would also trigger Federal Court proceedings against nurses and midwives and the ANF.’

Nurses walk a fine line

Despite the legal dangers presented by industrial action, Victorian nurses have been successful in maintaining pressure on the government.

Results of a secret ballot of 30,000 members (the largest protected action ballot in Australian history), conducted by the Australian Electoral Committee, were released on 4 November and showed 98% support for industrial action, including closing beds.

Protected industrial action began on 12 November. A mass meeting at Melbourne’s Festival Hall on 21 November moved to continue closing beds, implement bans on paperwork and for nurses to wear their campaign t-shirts at work.

Three days later, more than 10,000 ANF members, their families, friends and community supporters marched on Victoria’s Parliament House.

The ANF (Vic) had to change tack after Fair Work Australia suspended protected industrial action for 90 days, after the government argued that industrial action endangered or threatened to endanger the health, welfare or safety of the community. The ANF complied with the order and moved from industrial action to a series of community rallies across Victoria.

More than 30 community rallies were held outside Victorian metropolitan and regional hospitals during the last two weeks of December. A petition of 40,000 signatures was presented to Minister David Davis, Following a march on his office on 16 December. The same day, a statewide ANF members’ meeting moved to give individual consideration to resigning en masse from the Victorian public health system, in light of the risks to registration, duty of care and deterioration of employment conditions.

As The Lamp went to print, conciliation talks between ANF, the Victorian Hospitals Industrial Association and Baillieu Government were to resume in Fair Work Australia (FWA), with the assistance of a FWA commissioner.

What you can do to support Victorian nurses

Register your support and participate in online actions through their Respect Our Work campaign website:

Engage in the campaign and spread the word through the campaign’s Facebook page:

Donate to the Victorian nurses’ hardship fund. Many nurses and midwives have had their pay docked for participating in industrial action. The hardship fund has been set up to help nurses and midwives, who are found to be in need, to put food on their dinner tables and to meet urgent bills. forms/2011-vic-nurses-midwives-hardship- fund-donations/