The Guardian 14 March, 2007

Nurses highlight
risks of Liberal IR policies

NSW Nurses Association (NSWNA) members in Broken Hill stepped up their Nurses Rights at Work: Worth Fighting and Voting For campaign last week with a regional event depicting the impact of state and federal industrial relations laws on the nurse shortage.

Photos of many concerned nurses from across the Far West were assembled in a "Sea of Nurses Faces" at the action to show the community the human face of this important State election issue within their local area.

NSW public hospital nurses are currently protected from those laws by State legislation. The Nurses Rights at Work: Worth Fighting and Voting For campaign is being run in the lead-up to the NSW State election on March 24 to highlight the negative impact laws such as the federal Coalition Government’s new industrial relations laws would have on nurses and the public health system.

For the past few weeks the campaign has mainly consisted of radio and television advertisements advising the people of NSW that the Iemma Government had eased the situation regarding nurse shortages in public hospitals and warning of the negative consequences of a Liberal government replacing state legislation by the federal laws.

The regional events, which started last week, are being organised by local nurses and will depict the faces of many of the local nurses who would be negatively affected by such a policy.

Over the next two weeks similar regional events will be held in the Hunter, Illawarra, NSW South Coast, New England and the greater Murray region. These will culminate in a major event in Sydney later in the month.

NSWNA General Secretary, Brett Holmes, said more than 120 NSWNA branches have passed a resolution in the last few weeks strongly supporting the current State-based industrial relations system for public hospital nurses.

Nurses know that those state laws have played a big role in improving the wages and working conditions of public hospital nurses and protecting their rights at work.

In fact, the single biggest contribution to rebuilding the nursing workforce in recent years has come from the NSW Industrial Relations Commission. The pay rises it granted restored the relative value of the nursing profession and led to similar pay rises around the country, and a new workloads management clause was inserted in the NSW public-hospital-nurses state industrial award.

Subjecting public hospital nurses to industrial relations arrangements such as those the Coalition Government has put in place, would undermine the bargaining power of nurses, reduce their rights at work and have a detrimental impact on attempts to overcome the nurse shortage. It would cause more nurses to leave the profession. This point will be emphasised at the regional events and depicted in the visual displays.

So far Liberal leaders have said very little about keeping public hospital nurses in the State system. In fact, the exact and only wording the union has officially received from Debnam on this industrial relations issue is: "I have made it clear that public hospital nurses will remain in the State system, with pay and conditions not only maintained, but enhanced".

"Talk about a detail-free zone", said Brett Holmes. "Given the Liberal and National parties’ well-known and long-held views on industrial relations, nurses find it very hard to take such a loose commitment, on such an important issue for them and our health system, seriously. Especially as it is made ahead of an election and while the new federal industrial relations laws are causing the Howard Government so many problems."

Recent Liberal Party attacks on state-based pay rises for nurses give nurses even more reason to be sceptical. For example, the federal Liberal Health Minister, Tony Abbott, recently attacked excessive pay rises for public sector workers, including teachers and nurses, in a Sydney Morning Herald article (February 14). Those comments follow last year's attacks on state-based nurse pay rises by the federal Minister for Ageing, Santo Santoro, and federal Liberal backbenchers such as Peter Lindsay.

"Frankly, it is asking the nurses and people of NSW to suspend reason if you are asking them to believe that the Liberal and National parties would not eventually seek to introduce WorkChoices-style changes in public hospitals. A leopard doesn't change its spots", Mr Holmes said.

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