Why we need laws against cyber bullying

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The word ‘troll’ is often misused – I’ve had people on Twitter send me direct messages warning me that someone is a troll when what I saw was online disagreement (that sometimes, but not always devolved into insult on both sides), and that’s certainly the way a lot of those in politics and the media use it, so it’s not wonder there’s confusion, especially among those who aren’t high volume users of social media. And that’s influenced by the history of trolling which, as Whitney Phillips described in 2012, has its roots in disruptive, but not necessarily malicious, behaviour.
Internet-Troll
In addition, the word has connotations of fairy tale, fictionality, childhood, and a lumpish stupidity that makes it easy to dismiss ‘trolling’ as more benign than it is – which is why genuinely trolling behaviour has to be reframed.
When someone writes about, or to, another person with the intent of causing distress or provoking an emotional response, it’s bullying.  Cyber bullying is not trivial, it doesn’t just target the famous, and it’s not easy to prevent.
I’ve seen people say that victims should just block the perpetrator, or report them, but that’s far less easy than it sounds. While cyber bullying can, and does, occur on multiple platforms, the one I’m most familiar with is Twitter.
Twitter has a (widely criticised) reporting mechanism that suspends users, preventing them from posting. Users aren’t informed about why their account’s been suspendedhttps://tnipe.wordpress.com/wp-admin/admin.php?page=polls&iframe&TB_iframe=true (mine was, only days after I opened it, and though I contacted Twitter to find out what I’d done wrong, the only response I received was that I’d breached a Term of Service, but there was no information about which, or how), then unsuspended.
The reporting mechanism’s often used in retaliation, rather than just in response to genuinely offensive behaviour, and there are a number of people I know who have alternative accounts to use during suspensions – in some cases this is because they’re active in areas like #AusPol, the Australian Politics community, where partisan politics can get heated and nasty, quickly – it reminds me of the dumb way to die at the 15 second mark…
http://dumbwaystodie.com/
But I digress.
As a result of being attacked, I rarely post in #AusPol – not because I’m frightened, but because I don’t need the aggravation, and I’m unlikely to have a useful conversation there. I haven’t really been trolled – I’ve had people argue with me, often assuming things about me based on my profile (one recurrent theme is that I must be receiving some kind of public assistance), and I quite enjoying responding in a way that has the other person walk all the way to the end of a very thin branch, before cutting it off.
I have had one person whose response to my disagreement has told me on at least three occasions that I should go “neck” myself. After attempting to ignore her (she followed me, and responded to some of my posts), I blocking her, meaning she doesn’t see my posts and if she uses my Twitter handle I don’t see it. Like many people on Twitter, she has multiple accounts – though she’s left me alone, her other victims are less fortunate – each new account needs to be individually blocked, and to do that the target has to see attacking tweets.
I’m not her main target, and so far blocking’s worked. Also fortunate is that I’m not vulnerable and I can discount her abuse as the ranting of someone with a genuine problem. If, however, I were feeling less robust, with other stressors; if her abuse hit on something close to home or about which I was vulnerable; if I had less perspective, either always or temporarily; if the abuse was persistent and coming from multiple people; if I were in the public eye; if (as has been the case with another friend) it came from a former friend and was personal, targeted, and being posted to mutual friends; things could well be different.
And those are examples from friends. Some of it is truly horrendous – I have a friend who was trolled about her child who was stillborn at term, another who was sent awful tweets after the death or her father, and a friend whose Facebook page about the death of a (young) family member was repeatedly attacked by people posting vile words, pictures and links.
A friend I met through Twitter told me only this week about having to go to court to prevent a former friend posting long, hateful, and very personal screeds on their Facebook page, about her and her family, that were accessible by mutual friends. You don’t need to have an emotional or psychological vulnerability to find that distressing.
There are people who say ignore trolls. One of the most disturbing accounts of cyberbullying I’ve read is by Leo Traynor, who was the target of an increasingly personal and violent cyber bullying campaign for three years. Read this, and see if you think avoiding trolls is as easy as “just ignoring/blocking” them. Some bullies go away without a response – some bully harder.
The timing of this post is clearly related to the recent suicide of Charlotte Dawson – her death is the spur for three, inter-related posts, of which this is the first published, but not written – the other two are about mental health. I was originally going to write just one piece, but there were too many things to include – and while working on this I decided to share a petition (“Charlotte’s Law“) about cyber bullying; the few words I started writing to encourage friends to sign it became the beginning of this post, instead.
And there’s another petition, addressed to the Australian Senate – Chloe’s Law seeks to criminalise cyber bullying behaviour. Fifteen-year-old Chloe Fergusson commited suicide after eight years of physical and then both physical (including assault) and cyber bullying. And Chloe’s not alone.
Bullying isn’t new, and it’s always been hateful. Bullies are adept at identifying weakness, and at consolidating peers. Cyber bullying means there’s no escape, and that the number of bullies grows. The only advantage victims of cyber bullying have is that there’s an indelible record of their behaviour – but without strong laws and significant consequences, evidence is rarely enough to stop, let alone deter, bullies.
Finally: I saw a tweet a few days ago, regarding the coverage of Ms Dawson’s death, saying that posting help numbers whenever there’s mention of suicide creates a quick fix culture.
I disagree – I believe it recognises that suicidality can be contagious, that someone who’s already despairing can pushed a little further, and that providing Lifeline details (13 11 14) counters that by saying “there’s an alternative, here’s help” – it’s not a solution, it’s a start instead of an end.
And that’s where my next post will pick up.

343 days, and wherever we are, our fight is the same

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It doesn’t matter whether it’s Australia, the US, or the UK – conservative governments care first and foremost about cutting jobs, privatising services, and benefiting business, regardless of the cost.

In London, Mayor Boris Johnson has closed ten fire stations, in seven boroughs. over the objections of nine out of thirteen local councillors, and untold work by fire fighters and community activists protesting the closures.

As I’ve written previously, I had the privilege in September of supporting members of the London Fire Brigade Union as they protested the decision at a London Council meeting. London’s population is projected to increase by 1.5 million people in five years, and most of them will be living in high density housing, in under-served communities – where (shocking!) the greatest numbers of closures have occurred.

Kelly Macmillan’s the first fire fighter I met in London – she generously explained the issues, introduced me to her colleagues, and assisted me to enter the council meeting. Some twelve hours ago she posted this clip on Facebook, by a London taxi driver well-known for his YouTube-published opinions. His language is not safe for work, but it’s not a mile away from that used by emergency and essential service workers, and nurses, and it’s resonant of the frustration I know she, and I, share.

I wish this passion was more common – in the UK, and here. Some of the issues in Australia are different – our fire fighters have bush fires and ludicrous heat to fight, too. But the Tory attacks on essential services are no less vicious, or dangerous. What we’ve seen so far is only the beginning.

This isn’t a fight for our firies, or our paramedics, or the SES – it’s a fight that affects all of us. Any of us could need any (or many) or our emergency services, at any time. Going in to one of our worst fire seasons on record – for NSW the season’s already well underway – every Australian should know how important adequately funding emergency services are.

Last July paramedics saved my father’s life – by the time he hit the operating table he was, his surgeon told me, half an hour away from having bled to death. Almost every day of my professional life I care for people whose lives have been saved by the intelligent, educated, well-trained skills of Victoria’s paramedics. When I worked in burns, and road trauma, and emergency, I know those men and women worked in collaboration with CFA, SES, police officers and fire fighters. I know, on both professional and personal levels,  the real, priceless, irreplaceable value of the services they provide.

Maybe politicians don’t. Maybe for politicians, this really is about balance sheets.

But, as the man says, “ultimately it’s the public that allows this to happen.” We know politicians care about votes, especially in Victoria, where we’re only eleven months and change out from an election.

We can make a difference – and we have to. Be informed, be an activist, and be angry. Please.

Why the fight metaphor alienates some people with cancer

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While my blog posts are usually informed by my experiences, I don’t write about my personal life or my family. This post is an exception.

On October 6th my cousin Amanda Rynne wrote this on the National Breast Cancer Foundation’s Facebook page:

October is so hard. Even harder this year as I am, at 41, just 31 months after my ‘caught early’ diagnosis receiving palliative care. I read these posts and all I can do is cry – all this talk of fighting and winning and beating cancer. I’ve fought bloody hard – do people realize this is an unwinnable fight for anyone diagnosed with advanced disease? Do they realize this imagery and wording implies those who die weren’t up to the fight? That we are losers and failures? When will we focus on this as a hideous and fatal disease it is that still kills 7 Australians everyday instead of prettying it up with a pink ribbon?

Amanda1
I have cared for many patients with cancer, and from the beginning thought the metaphors of battle carry hidden messages of disempowerment – an admonition that people with cancer have an obligation to fight, whatever the cost, that succumbing to the disease means they didn’t fight hard enough, and that deciding to discontinue treatment means defeat.

It’s almost impossible for anyone to appreciate what the lived experience of cancer treatment is like – my knowledge is all close but secondhand, and though my role as a nurse has meant patients have confided in me things they protected their families from, I know I have only a dim and two-dimensional understanding of the technicolour impact. I know enough to know what I cannot know.

This is not confined to cancer – chronic diseases like end-stage renal failure have similar, though usually longer, trajectories; for most people the time comes when the burden of treatment (and associated accommodations, like dietary modification) is either too great, or futile. But they rarely face the emotional injunction to fight, battle, survive.

The pink message is pervasively associated with breast cancer, along with the notion of awareness.

Fuck awareness

Here’s some information you should be aware of:
- there are at least eight different kinds of breast cancer, and we’re only at the beginning of having an understanding of what interventions are most effective for each
- cancer is staged, depending on how invasive it is; the most advanced is stage IV
- with very few exceptions, people diagnosed at stage IV die from the disease
. Australia only started collecting information about women who were diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer in December 2011
- that means we don’t even know how long these women live
- we don’t even have information to compare the outcomes of different kinds of treatment
- women with stage IV breast cancer are almost invisible: they don’t appear in the literature, and have even been asked to leave support groups because ‘newly diagnosed women don’t need to hear about it’
- while the majority of people diagnosed with breast cancer are women, men are also susceptible, and are as invisible and excluded because of the ‘pink washing’ of breast cancer

Amanda2
Amanda died on October 10th. The size of her funeral attendance is eloquent testimony of the impact she had, and this was complemented by the vibrant, loving and positive speeches from significant people in her life, from her brother, and her friends, to her husband – who delivered his eulogy on the 21st anniversary of the day they met.

She planned every detail of her funeral, including a slide show, readings and music. And in addition to donations to the Breast Cancer Network Australia, Amanda had a final request, specified in her funeral notice:

Please wear bright colours, preferably red. It is Amanda’s express wish that the colour pink is not worn.

Amanda died before she saw the response from NBCF’s CEO, Carole Renouf, to her post. Of the many legacies this remarkable woman leaves, including three wonderful children, this may be the one with the widest reach.

Vale, Amanda Catherine Rynne – you are, and will continue to be, missed.

Australia’s aged care nurses under fire – a guest post by Tariq Osborne

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A couple of days ago I was contacted by the son of an aged care nurse, asking if I’d be happy to link to an article he’d written. I’ve been meaning for some time to write an entry about aged care in Australia, and Tariq has kindly done a wonderful job himself.

Australia’s aged care nurses under fire
Australia’s shortage of aged-care nurses doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Leading Age Services Australia projects a 66,000 shortfall in home care places by 2050 according to the Sydney Morning Herald, and 83,000 new nursing homes will be needed within the next decade.

Considering the difficulty that Aged care nurses are having meeting current demand, the newly-elected Prime Minister has devised an approach to this threat that is novel, to say the least.

He’s taking away their money.

In a move described as “mean-spirited” by Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) Federal Secretary Lee Thomas, Mr. Abbott plans to walk away from a $1.2 billion Labour-implemented scheme that would have granted much-needed pay rises to Australia’s 350,000 aged care workers. Instead, the funds will go into the aged care funding pool.

This has been tried before, and the result is entirely predictable.

According to Thomas, “Since 2002 there has been a range of Government funding initiatives directed at enhancing the capacity of aged care employers to offer competitive wages, including $211 million over four years in the 2002-03 Budget and a further $877.8 million over years from 2004.  Unfortunately, these additional amounts were not tied to bargaining and consequently hardly any nurses or assistants in nursing saw any benefit ”[italics added].

Nurses in aged care already receive between $168 and $300 a week less than their colleagues in public hospitals. What’s worse, while aged care workers are among the lowest-paid members of the health care community, the challenges they face are among the most difficult. Aged care introduces a host of new issues, the dementia epidemic is growing and dehydration and malnutrition become more difficult to diagnose.

Baby Boomers will overwhelm nursing homes over the next 20 years. Australia’s aging population is going to require some 20,000 more aged-care nurses. Labour’s plan was designed to help the aged care workforce almost triple in size by 2050.

Mr Abbott’s rollback will do the opposite, shrinking the number of aged care workers. The life of an aged-care worker is already a harried one. Their workloads can be unmanageable. The absence of nationally mandated nurse to patient ratios and the long hours (according to the ANMF, nearly one in four nurses works double-shifts), exacerbate the challenges of an already difficult profession.

A recent story on ABC’s Lateline highlighted the inability of many aged care facilities to perform such essential tasks as feeding, hydrating, and toileting their charges. The result of this, according to ANMF, is that 23 percent of nurses plan to leave the profession within the year.

Surely, Mr Abbott must realize that if these matters are not addressed as a matter of urgency, new nursing graduates will not choose aged care. In the face of a nursing shortage, the profession needs to become more, rather than less appealing.

Thus far, Mr Abbott has only offered stopgap solutions to these issues, like 457 visas, which Thomas rightly describe as a “band-aid” solution.

The solutions are obvious. In Thomas’s words

The only viable way of recruiting and retaining aged care nurses is to pay close the wages gap and pay them what they rightly deserve. This will ensure that there is a sustainable, skilled workforce is available in sufficient numbers.

Australians must not wait until it is too late to take action. Mr Abbott needs to know that placing the $1.2 billion specifically allocated for better wages into a general funding pool is the same as directly taking the money away from nurses and other care staff. For the sake of Australia’s most vulnerable, write to Mr Abbott himself, contact your local Member of Parliament, call talkback radio, get on to your social media platforms, or write to your newspaper of choice. – Tariq Osborne

Fire fighters under attack

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12 years ago today America suffered its worst terrorist attack; images from that day have become iconic, and many of those features fire fighters – 341 fire fighters died, along with two of FDNY’s paramedics, 60 police officers and 8 private paramedics and emergency medical technicians.

There’s no question that our emergency services workers risk their lives to save not only our lives but our property, assets, flora and fauna – my September 11 post last year recognised that, but it can’t be acknowledged enough. As I type NSW fire fighters are battling blazes around Sydney, as the bush fire season starts some two months early. It’s been a warm, dry winter – there’s more to come.

I’ve written before about the Liberal Premiers’ attacks on fire fighters (here and here in particular) – on funding, staffing, equipment, and on resources for volunteers in rural areas.

I was surprised and dismayed – more than I ought to have been, in retrospect – to discover that the same thing’s happening in London: a Tory politician (in this case London Mayor Boris Johnson) has decided London’s over-supplied with fire stations and, over the protests of a majority of Borough Councillors, is about to exert mayoral privilege to overrule them and close approximately ten per cent of London’s fire stations. You’ll be shocked to learn that many of these are in the least wealthy trusts (the British version of local counsel districts), even though they have the highest density of population.

I heard about a protest being organised by London fire fighters, who’ve spent the last twelve months campaigning against the closures, and decided to join them. I was fortunate enough to meet Kelly Macmillan, a fire fighter and member of the Fire Brigades Union – she was sitting in a truck blaring “Burning Ring Of Fire” and was very helpful in giving me some background.

There were many more FBU members present, but they wouldn't clump together in a conveniently snappable bunch

There were many more FBU members present, but they wouldn’t clump together in a conveniently snappable bunch

Perhaps fifty fire fighters attended the Mayor’s question time, along with members of the press, the public – and one Aussie nurse.Boris 2I apologise for any terms I get wrong – I don’t know as much as I ought to about my own local government, let alone Britain’s. The horseshoe is Borough Councillors; the desk at the top is the Mayor, Boris Johnson – a Conservative who vowed, when he ran for office in 2008, that he wouldn’t cut services. he says today that the closures would make the Brigade more efficient – a wonderful example of conservative arithmetic that I’ve seen at home: somehow fewer workes with fewer resources become more productive, irrespective of how much productivity’s already improved.

London Mayor Boris Johnson

London Mayor Boris Johnson

Unlike Parliamentary question time at home, the gallery interjected strenuously, and though there were requests they be quiet, nobody was evicted. Mayor Johnson became increasingly flustered during the proceedings, rumpling his hair, fiddling with his sleeves, and became increasingly short with those who disagreed with him – twice he expressed outrage at Councillors from his own party, who selfishly put the needs of their constituents ahead of party unity, and at one point he told an official to get stuffed. It’s not Paul Keating-worthy, I grant you, but he never seemed to insult from a position of pressure.

Major Johnson’s arguments will be familiar to us all – he says that regional areas are closing fire houses, that deaths from house fires are dropping, that there will be no forced redundancies, and that there isn’t inexhaustable funding. I like that last point – when was the golden age where financial decisions weren’t needed?

The FBU says deaths may be dropping overall but have increased in high risk areas, some of which are affected by the closures; that the population of London’s projected to increase by 1.5 million by 2018, with no plan to increase services; and that the FDNY, which services a city with roughly the same population in terms of numbers and density, has twice as many fire fighters as the London Fire Brigade. They also point out that Mayor Johnson reallocated funding that should have gone to the fire service to police.

My favourite point was made by a Councillor – in response to Mayor Johnson’s observation that regional centres are closing fire stations, he pointed out that they’re also cutting police numbers; would the major, who’s run strong campaigns on the need for a visible and significant police force, look at reducing their numbers and funding next year? The applause was loud and sustained. This,incidentally, is at a time when at lest one regional area’s recommending Police Chiefs run the fire brigade (link), and Scotland’s already decided to merge the two services.

Here’s what isn’t mentioned – those fire houses occupy valuable land. They’ll be sold, turned into housing – often high density – and when there’s a need to increase services it won’t be viable to purchase or built on land. We’ve seen it happen, in the UK and Australia, with schools – London now faces such a crisis in school places that there are suggestions for three day week programs, or split shifts – I can imagine the joy with which my colleagues in education would greet this, and suspect English teachers are no different.

I close with two observations, after comparing the UK and Australian situations at some length. First – the UK shows us the future, unless we’re very careful. The Tories have been dismantling the NHS by stealth, so that care is now markedly different depending where you live – that’s not universal health care. Wherever there’s a profit to be made, however short sighted and short term, whatever the cost borne by society, they’re for it if it boosts the bottom line. now that we, too, have a conservative government – led by a man who seems incapable of seeing to the end of some sentences, let alone a time frame past a year – we have to be more vigilant and united than ever before.

Which brings me to my second observation – I already knew this, but it’s always worth reinforcing, because it’s easy to lose sight of: whatever differences there are between us, more binds workers together. Whatever our industry, our nation, our skills and our unique issues (like ratios and skill mix for Victorian nurses and midwives), this is clear – we have to act together or fall apart. This holds in individual workplaces (a manager who bends or breaks conditions because she knows nobody will stand up), companies (the introduction of disadvantageous changes), in mass action (like EBA negotiations), and when we’re attacked en masse (like WorkChoices).

We have the power, we just have to recognise it, and use it. Though only 18% of Australian workers are union members, there are still more of us than them – and the more of us who are informed, involved and committed the better off we all are. If you’re not a union member there really has never been a better time to join than today; if you’re already a member of your union bravo! – now look at how you can contribute beyond just your membership fees.

As I’ll be writing about in a couple of days, your union isn’t a building in the city, it’s not elected officials, and it’s not the staff – a union is its members, and it’s only as strong as they, as we, are prepared to be.

Solidarity to my fire fighting colleagues, at home and abroad, and best of luck with your mission to protect your selves, your colleagues and the public.

I Do Not Like Thee, Mr Rudd

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When Kevin Rudd was elected as Prime Minister in 2007 I was pleased – not just because it meant the end of an era of industrial relations disaster and increasing xenophobia, but because he seemed like a nice guy – competent, and capable of leading Australia forward.

Though interested in politics, I wasn’t as involved as I’ve recently become. Even so, I started hearing about unrealistic expectations of staff, high turn over, trouble adjusting to the increased scope of leadership, micromanagement and an inability to delegate.

When the ALP caucus decided that three years was long enough, and decided to install Julia Gillard as PM – over her protestations – I was pleased. I (very) tangentially knew people who knew her, and I’d received an impression of competence, intelligence, big-picture thinking. Most of all, she seemed to be a superlative negotiator – adept at dealing with individuals, groups and issues.

I had also heard that she had previously been involved with two married men. I’m no fan of infidelity, but I do also think the greater moral onus is on the married party, for all that it’s almost always the woman who’s apportioned blame. Australian politicians, like politicians the world over, aren’t universally known for their fidelity, so why this aspect was so often trumpeted by her attackers I’m not sure. I do know that we have had, and it’s rumoured we continue to have, men in positions of political power who drape themselves with family, give speeches with their wives prominently at their sides, while having a long-term affair. This is well-known to the press gallery, and is not only given as a reason why they’re unfit for office but actively kept quiet.

A woman of integrity, PM Gillard took Australian to an election after she was installed as leader – and her party won*, but only because the minority parties and independents sided with her. Without a clear balance of power, delicate negotiations and compromise are needed to pass any legislation.

PM Gillard not only passed a record number of legislative changes, she managed two major reforms – the creation of a National Disability Insurance Scheme to allow Australians with disability, and their carers, greater opportunities, access and equity, and the most substantial overhaul and funding change to primary and secondary education since PM Whitlam introduced free tertiary education.

In addition PM Gillard introduced a carbon pricing scheme primarily intended to reduce fossil fuel use, through financial disincentive. Critics point to the small amount of revenue raised, conveniently overlooking the drop in power usage – it was they, not the ALP, who called it a tax.

And throughout it all, on almost every day of her Prime Ministership, Ms Gillard was subject to attack on three sides – as expected, from an opposition that was relentless and personal; surprisingly, from a press gallery that was myopic and often partisan; and, destructively, from an ousted PM who refused to put his ego and ambition on the back burner for the good of his party, his government, and his country.

And, after three years, two challenges, and an election date announcement, Mr Rudd was reinstated by caucus. After three years of criticism of PM Gillard, his supporters admonished us to be quiet in the name of unity, to pull together and save Australia from the threat of a very conservative opposition, poised to win. Forget their own continual sniping, forget the fuel they heaped on a bonfire of speculation – we need to be as one.

And I, like PM Gillard, did. I tweeted that I was disappointed, that I mourned the loss of a PM who was not only our first female leader but also – and more importantly – a superlative one, and I expressed concern that the reasons PM Rudd was ousted were unlikely to have changed. They were, after all, aspects of his personality.

I worked for a Labor win – I tweeted, posted, blogged and spoke with friends; I appeared on a YouTube ad, and (though I haven’t seen it) a nationally broadcast campaign ad in the last week of the campaign; I door knocked in a marginal seat; I letter dropped; I attended a workshop at Trades Hall in Melbourne; and I hung fliers about the risk Mr Abbott poses to workers.

Throughout it all I promoted the history of both parties, their traditional ideologies, and the perennial risk of the Liberal party to workers, the disenfranchised, and those who already have the least. I pointed out that Labor had trebled the tax-free threshold, and would raise superannuation contributions. But I couldn’t bring myself to say anything about PM Rudd, because the truth would be damaging, and I won’t lie.

So a silver lining of the ALP’s defeat – which is, despite media coverage, a small swing and nothing like a mandate – is that I no longer feel constrained.

I do not hate Kevin Rudd, but I am disappointed that we elected a small and petty man to an office that should be filled by people of scope and capacity. I wish he had lost his seat, and was thus no longer an internal force for fracture and disunity – though I suspect he’d then be on any commentary panel that would have him, exerting what influence he held. And I blame Kevin Rudd for the disintegration of a party who’s strayed from their ideals, and their base, but who had the potential to win this election, restore itself to glory, and serve the country that I love.

I hope that I, like many Labor supporters, can move on from the acrid recriminations that have beset us of late, and focus on what unites us. The Left needs to emulate the Right in one way – as George Lakoff points out in his superlative book Don’t Think Of An Elephant, the factions of the Right long ago tabled their differences to concentrate on their mutual goals, creating linguistic frames that are only reinforced when countered by the Left. It’s well past time we did the same – look to the future, fight the worst that the Liberal party has to throw at us, and begin campaigning for the next election.

My next posts will return to this blog’s original themes – the state of the state of Victoria under a Liberal Premier, and issues of health care, industrial relations, unions, and social justice.

*I say “her party won” because – contrary to the apparent beliefs of many Australians, this is not America – we vote for local representatives and their party. The only people who voted for Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott etc were those people in their electorates, which is how we (unlike the US) can have a change of leader without reference to the public.

5 days, 6 hours until we vote – are you still undecided?

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Australia’s in the final week of a significant election – the outcome’s close and the stakes are high. Though we have a number of minor parties, there’s no question that the real battle’s between two major parties – centre left Labor and Australia’s mainstream conservative party, the Liberals (who generally align with the National party, and are collectively known as the Coalition).

Last time they were in power, the Coalition introduced significant changes to workplace legislation, introducing an Act called WorkChoices. Among other things, the Act reduced the capacity for unions to represent members, made union officials’ right to enter workplaces more difficult, weakened the power of the dispute arbitration body, and made it far easier for employers to offer disadvantageous conditions to employees. The leader of the Liberal party, Tony Abbott, has denied that he will reintroduce WorkChoices – a legislative reform he calls then-Prime Minister John Howard’s “greatest achievement”. WorkChoices, says Mr Abbott, is “dead, buried, cremated”- except that he is open to a number of industrial relations reforms, many of which are eerily similar to those that were in the WorkChoices Act.

Rather than recreate a comprehensive list, here’s Robert Corr’s coverage of the ten reasons workers can’t trust Tony Abbott with industrial relations legislation.

As a nurse, a unionist, and a believer in fairness, equity and natural justice, I have significant concerns, and so this election I’ve been more than usually active – I’ve participated in two ads for the Labor party, and spent yesterday door knocking in a marginal seat. In addition, I’ve increased my level of political activity on social media – not that I’m ever particularly apolitical!

I know that, whatever their intentions, politicians break campaign promises – sometimes because circumstances change, sometimes because they had no intention of keeping them. So while what politicians say in the lead up to an election gives us an idea of what’s important to them, the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour – of an individual, and of the organisation of which they’re part.

PM Howard differentiated between core and non-core promises, though not until after he was elected. His party faithful, Mr Abbott, has similarly said that he doesn’t consider promises he makes to be real unless they’re “blood oaths”.

In Queensland Liberal Premier Campbell Newman, elected after promising to protect jobs, has already cut over 14,000 workers, including nurses, midwives, and funding for entire centres. There’s money for sports grounds, but not for health – including a bus transporting Indigenous people with renal failure to dialysis.

In New South Wales Liberal Premier Barry O’Farrell has weakened WorkCover legislation, making it harder for injured workers to be covered, seek compensation, and return to work.  The $1.7 billion he’s cut from education means over 15,000 jobs lost and – at least as importantly – significant reductions in the provision of education to the children on whom WA is reliant for a future. Premier O’Farrell’s cuts to fire brigade funding means that stations have closed over 860 times in under a year – over 10,000 fewer hours of coverage for NSW residents.

In Victoria Liberal Premiers Ted Baillieu and Denis Napthine have created the most prolonged EBA negotiations in our state’s history – with nurses and midwives, with teachers, with fire fighters, and with paramedics. Failure to invest in more nursing staff in emergency departments and retaining paramedics means we lose over 10,000 hours a month because ambulances are ramped outside hospitals instead of being available to respond to ever category one calls.

West Australian Liberal Premier Colin Barnett has privatised public hospitals and prisons, resulting in reduced access, fewer jobs, and reduced assets for the state.

That is the Liberal way – sell off public assets to bump up the bottom line, which is great in the short term. In the longer term, though, it means less oversight over how those assets are run and maintained, restricts service provision to the public whose taxes built the assets, and means profits aren’t returned to the community. Not to mention the fact that we’re running out of things to sell off.

While there’s no question some are struggling, as a whole Australians have never been better off – in contrast with the Liberal line about rising costs of living, we’re demonstrably better off than we were six years ago, and we have more disposable income than ever before – it’s just that our expectations of what we ought to be able to have has raised beyond avarice.

I don’t agree with every aspect of Labor policy – indeed, some actively distress me, including PM Rudd’s harsher stance on asylum seekers. And I make no secret of the fact that I would be happier with a Labor party headed by former PM Julia Gillard, who seemed adept at negotiation well beyond how much she’s been credited.

These concerns have been somewhat diminished after watching the ALP’s campaign launch today – Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was stirring, strong, direct and engaging, and PM Rudd was future-focused, clear, dynamic and uniting (his speech), though I’d rather the last section talked about the Labor party’s making a comeback rather than mr Rudd doing so.

However, whatever concerns I have about PM Rudd, or about the rightward drift of Labor, the fact remains that, while there are some aspects I have concerns about, every aspect of the Liberal party worries me – natural justice, industrial relations, economic management, protection of our least advantaged, investment in the future, capacity for long-term and big picture thinking, integrity, and trustworthiness. And on the matters of asylum seekers and the environment? However far Labor have fallen short of ideal, they beat the Liberal party by a country mile.

I’m overseas next Saturday, so I’ll be voting tomorrow. For the majority of Australians, though, election day in just over 120 hours away – and the last polling showed almost a quarter of voters are still undecided. If you’re one of them, spend a few minutes thinking about not just the media narrative but what you know of the history, policies and behaviour of the parties. THink not just about the short-term but about the future – about the services you and your families may need, about the kind of care you’d like to receive from health providers, about the future you want for your children’s education and job prospects, and about investment in infrastructure.

20 days to the Federal election – and I’m voting Labor

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The reason why I’m still a nurse is that I get to make a positive difference to my patients’ lives – I’ve not had a single shift in over twenty four years where that wasn’t the case.

But I have grave concerns about what will happen to my patients if Tony Abbott and the Coalition get into power – I’m worried about what they’ll cut, and how those cuts will affect my ability to care for my patients.

I work in one of Melbourne’s major public hospitals. The people I care for are some of the sickest in the state – they often have multiple medical issues, in addition to their admission issue. They need dialysis, they need transplants, or have life-threatening diseases like pneumonia.

Under Labor we have more support for patients to be supported and cared for at home. Elective surgical lists are shorter, which means people don’t have to wait as long, and are in better condition before they have surgery – that means less recovery time, and fewer complications.

I know what can happen when a Coalition government is in power. In Victoria< Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett didn’t cut fat – he cut health care to the bone.

We were expected to do more with less, and that meant taking unsafe shortcuts, or working unpaid overtime, and even then our patients weren’t cared for well. Nurses left the public system by the thousand, and that means those who stayed worked double shifts, which isn’t safe for staff or patents.

I’ve heard from liberal governments that front line services won’t be cut. Without cleaners the risk of disease rises; without kitchen staff patients are served the wrong meals, which can be serious for those fasting or on modified diets; without ward clerks nursing time is diverted by answering the phone and additional paperwork.

Seeing patients wait for care – for water, for blankets, for pain relief – was hard. And because I was so busy I would have to leave my dependent patients while I was feeding them, coming back to give them one mouthful then leaving again. That’s not dignified, it’s not respectful, and it didn’t make my patients feel like they were priorities.

But the worst thing was going home at the end of a lot of shifts knowing I hadn’t been able to care for patients the way they needed to be cared for. It was heartbreaking and frustrating but from that experience I’ve learned one thing.

We can’t let this happen all over again.

Tony Abbott recently praised Jeff Kennett, hailing him as a great Premier, and calling his reign a golden age. The same Jeff Kennett who closed 17 public hospitals, forced 10,000 health workers and 3,500 nurses into unemployment.
If Tony Abbott and the Coalition get into power, patients won’t be the priority. Services will be cut and it will be the patients that suffer.

Labor will always be there for working people and families. The Coalition? They’re not there for us, never have been and never will be.

I’m supporting Labor this election because I know they will give my patients the care and support they need. There is no other option if we are going to stop Tony Abbott’s cuts.

477 days, but the election day that counts is closer

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I’ve just left a briefing session at Victorian Trades Hall about the upcoming Federal election, and I’m far more alarmed about the future workers face under an Abbott-led government than I was an hour and a half ago. I knew that the Liberal party in general, and Mr Abbott in particular, are not and never have been friends of the worker.

I was a job rep during the WorkChoices era, and I remember protesting against the IR legislative changes that threatened working conditions of not just my profession but those in every industry. But though 2005/2006 fees like last week for me, there are a lot of people working in Australia now who weren’t affected, involved or otherwise aware of what it entailed, so here’s a brief (I promise!) overview.

WorkChoices was promoted as simplifying an over-regulated collection of IR legislation – instead of a number of Awards, and processes for renegotiating Awards once they expired, WorkChoices detailed a set of universally applicable minimum conditions, covering maximum ordinary hours, minimum wage, wage structure, and some leave provisions (minimum hours of annual, parental, and personal or carers’ leave) – everything else was up for negotiation.

The key pillars of WorkChoices were:

  • cutting penalty rates and other Award entitlements
  • the introduction of individual contracts instead of Awards
  • weakening Unfair Dismissal laws
  • reduction in the ability of unions to represent members
  • removing the “no general disadvantage” rule

While the signing of an individual workplace agreement was voluntary, unfair dismissal laws no longer applied to companies with fewer than 100 employees, and could be offered as a condition of employment to new hires.
The key phrase used by the Liberal party was “flexibility” – WorkChoices would allow employees greater flexibility of hours, and allow them more freedom to trade previously-protected conditions. That’s a word Victorian nurses and midwives heard a lot of during our 2011/2012 campaign – primarily about the idea of bringing in short and split shifts, so that we could have the ‘flexibility’ of working only during the busiest parts of the day (four hours from 7AM, for example, and then back in the evening, with an allegedly family friendly gap in the middle of the day), and the ‘flexibility’ to work on different wards or even different campuses of the same network, potentially on the same day.

When WorkChoices was implemented,

Hundreds of thousands of workers were pushed onto AWA individual contracts and:
• 70% lost shift loadings
• 68% lost annual leave loadings
• 65% lost penalty rates
• 49% lost overtime loadings and
• 25% no longer had public holidays [source]

Mr Abbott’s said that WorkChoices is “dead, buried, cremated” and his new policy is more neutral than big business would prefer, but on close examination his recently unveiled IR policy looks awfully familiar.

I’ll briefly expand on what this means for a couple of points. First, Individual Flexibility Agreements (IFA’s) will be a mandatory requirement of any new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, allowing an Agreement-covered employee to opt for individual conditions – a move they can reverse but only 13 weeks after giving written notice.

Under current Fair Work legislation, employers have to sit at the negotiating table in good faith – under proposed changes workers may have to sue uncooperative employers to even start the process.

Not that this will necessarily help. Mr Abbott’s said Greenfields Agreements (which are the business’s version) can be taken to Fair Work for approval if there’s no agreement after three months of negotiations – in essence allowing the employer to stall for thirteen weeks, then unilaterally negotiate conditions. For Victoria’s nurses and midwives that would have meant the death of ratios, the introduction of assistants, and the return (after over fifty years) of split shifts, with nothing we or our union could do about it.

And Mr Abbott’s said he’ll reintroduce the Australian Building and Construction Commission – ostensibly designed to provide oversight, last time around the ABCC served to reduce the effectiveness of the CFMEU, who are predominantly portrayed as a latter-day BLF filled with thugs and stand over men; the ABCC’s sole accomplishment was a sharp jump in the number of deaths in mining and on construction sites, which is unsurprising when you have one side seeing occupational health and safety as a tactic to allow union officials access, and the other side viewing OHS as a way of keeping workers safe. As we’ve recently seen in Melbourne, when OHS mechanisms are compromised (assessing the structural soundness fo a wall before adding a wind-catching load to it, for example) people can die.

But the biggest giveaway is that Mr Abbott intends to institute a Productivity Commission – tasked solely with questions of productivity, including during periods of negotiation, and not taking into account fairness, equity or the livability of conditions, the commission will make recommendations; unless Mr Abbott doesn’t intend to implement at least some of those recommendations (in which case the cost of the Commission is an enormous boondoggle), that means anything is potentially open to change regardless of pre-election promises. And Mr Abbott’s already said that his word isn’t necessarily his bond.

For a detailed, referenced guide to the Liberal party’s IR policy, check out Robert Corr’s concise but meticulous examination.

And though Mr Abbott’s trying to downplay the impact of his legislation, this collection of quotes from his colleagues (courtesy of This Working Life) rather gives the game away:

•    According to Liberal MP Russell Broadbent, “Australia desperately needs industrial relations reform…collective bargaining for small and medium-size employers is just not reasonable”.
•    Liberal MP Josh Fydenberg says, “Now is the opportunity for the Coalition to go on the front foot and put forward proposals that make unfair dismissal laws less of a burden on small business”.
•    Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi is on the record as describing unfair dismissal laws as “useless”.
•    Former Prime Minister John Howard offered the following advice to Tony Abbott: “There is no reason why this country should not go back to the workplace system we had between 1996 and 2005 where you had individual contracts”. Howard’s advice was then welcomed by Liberal MP Steven Ciobo.
•    Liberal frontbencher Eric Abetz MP wants to make it more difficult for workers to join unions by imposing new restrictions on the ability of unions to visit workplaces.
•    Liberal MP John Alexander has said he wants guaranteed penalty rates to be abolished.

In the words of Independent Australia writer Luke Williams

Abbott knows his IR policy is a litmus test for many swinging, somewhat egalitarian suburban voters on what kind of society the Coalition thinks we should live in — therefore radical change is likely; sneaky, incremental reform is a definite; and, despite the oft-repeated claims of the business lobby, arguably the pendulum has already swung.

Is he right? The pendulum may be swinging, but the election outcome’s still in the balance – current projections are an even split, with Independents holding the balance of power. There are 38 pivotal seats, three (Corangamite, Deakin and McEwen) in Victoria, where the outcome is down to a couple of thousand votes.

What can we do to protect workers’ rights? The biggest tool any of us has to effect change is discussion - talking with friends, family and colleagues about what an Abbott-led government would mean for them, their families, their colleagues and their futures. Face to face is best, but using social media platforms like Facebook to spread information is also effective.

And for those who want to do more, ACTU-affiliated unions are campaigning hard – you can visit their website, or contact your own union to ask about door knocking, manning an information stall, making calls to members, or otherwise getting out the word. And if you’re not currently a member of union? There has never been a better time to join – there really is nobody else who’s loooking out for the best interests of you and your industry or profession.

I know that this is a difficult election decision for many – internal friction has done the ALP no favours, and Mr Rudd’s asylum seeker policy has disenchanted many on the Left, and the Liberal’s continuous attacks on the strength of our economy, while inaccurate, have been convincing, if only by sheer repetition. We have a potentially unique case of two leaders who’re unpopular with much of the electorate in general, and with many of those traditionally aligned with their party. I know a number of people who are genuinely undecided, and several who intend not to cast a valid vote. To the latter I say this: in an election this close, a wasted vote is a vote for the Liberal party, and that means it’s a vote for IR inequity.

For undecided voters it’s a decision about what’s best for you, for your family, for your community and for your country, in whatever order of importance you have. Know that nowhere in the world has disadvantaging workers stimulated an economy – the less people have to spend, the less they spend, so business savings offsets of reduced employee wages and conditions are countered by the fact that those employed by businesses around you have less money for your goods and services. Know that the public services cut by conservative governments are those you will need (transport, hospitals, emergency services, maintenance, TAFEs), and they’re far more expensive to reinstate than to maintain. Know that conservative governments have and continue to privatise public assets, which gives coffers a short-lived boost in exchange for less oversight, no ongoing revenue, often poorer service, and almost always for a higher cost. And think about the kind of future you want our children to have – the education and training opportunities available to them, the safety supports if they develop mental and/or physical illnesses, their options if their employment’s unfair, and the safety of their workplaces.

When it comes down to it, the difference between my position and Mr Abbott’s on industrial relations is this – I start from a premise that many employers are fair, and committed to balancing their profit against the best interests of their employees, but we have to have inbuilt protections to safeguard against those who will jeopardise the wellbeing (financial, psychological, physical) of workers for their own gain; Mr Abbott believes that “Bad bosses, like bad fathers and husbands, should be tolerated because they do more good than harm.” Some bad fathers rape, abuse and kill their children – and we have laws in those cases to help protect the vulnerable and punish the guilty.

501 days, and Victoria’s ambulance service is in crisis

As I often do, last night I tweeted facts about ramping in Victoria, as posted on the Code Red Facebook campaign page. That night, among the many crews ramped at hospitals across the state, ten were ramped at the Northern.

I’ve written about the problem of ramping before. One of the things I didn’t say last November was that ramping significantly contributes to overtime and missed breaks – paramedics can’t leave their patients just because their shift is over, even if it will be another two hours before the hospital they’re ramped at can take the patient; though they’re paid for this time, the shift extensions contribute to fatigue (which increases risks of error and accidents, as well as long term health effects and increased rate of burn out), and intrude on personal time.

Ramping is only part of the problem facing Victoria’s paramedics, who are currently in EBA negotiations with the state government – though they’re the best trained paramedics in the country, with world-beating rescue times for cardiac patients, our paramedics are the nation’s worst paid. There are virtually no return-to-work programs for paramedics injured on the job, despite suggestion from their union that placing these professionals in emergency departments (where they wouldn’t have to lift stretchers, negotiate stairs, bend to the ground and other limiting actions) would both allow the industry to retain experienced staff while also freeing ramped crews. And there are inadequate support services for the men and women who witness horrendous injuries and are subject to the highest rate of occupational violence in Victoria – a combination that sees not only a high turn over rate and distressing levels of substance abuse, but a suicide rate six times the state average.

For Victoria’s paramedics – just as was the case for Victoria’s public sector nurses and midwives – this really is a campaign that’s about fair compensation but much more than just the money.

The reason why there’s an emphasis on ramping is that it’s the aspect of service provision that most affects the public, it’s visible, and it’s undeniable. It’s the single biggest reason for delays, and some of the examples posted by paramedics are truly astonishing – like the night a category 1 call (which merits urgent attendaance) in Tarneit was responded to by a crew from Prahran – because there were no available crews in the west or north of Melbourne.

There have already been cases were delays appear to have affected patient outcomes, and it seems inevitable that people will die. The Victorian government, though talking about commitment to health care, has failed to move with any swiftness, and the only way to put prssure on Premier Napthine and Health Minister Davis is through public attention – paramedics cannot reduce services, as we did.

Which is why I tweet about ramping – because the more the public understand about why this is important, what it means, and how we are all potentially affected,t he more able they are to support our paramedics. And make no mistake – this is an issue that can affect anyone who lives or visits Victoria, because you never know when the patient on that stretcher may be you or someone you love.

Which brings me back to Monday.

As I tweet, ten ambulance crews are ramped at the Northern hospital alone – we have a crisis, Premier Napthine: please help! #SpringSt

In reponse to my tweet, someone I didn’t know replied “they are… walk outside and have a look behind the temp fencing… new ED bays. #springst

We then proceeded to have a very frustrating discussion, where he insisted that the problem was “purely capacity” of emergency departments, and where I was informed that “general [inpatient units] can swing for maternity or surgical etc… ED bays are specialised” (and later “highly specialised”).

I agree that emergency medicine is a specialty – I certainly couldn’t practice with the same level of proficiency there as I do on my spcialist medical ward. The focus of ED is assessment, initial treatment, and flow – to outpatients, home, or specialist wards. Staff there deal with every conceivable condition, from splinters to myocardial infarction, from fractured toes to major traumas. They never know what’s coming thorough the door next, their patients are often drug and/or alcohol affected, they don’t conveniently arrive with a medical, psychiatric and social hiostory attached, and both the patients and their accompanying entourage of friends and family are often emotionally volatile.

I find the statement that inpatient units are not equally specialised both insulting and ill-informed. When I pointed out that my position was informed by almost a quarter of a century woking at a tertiary hospital (including some time in one fo the state’s busiest emergency departments, albeit some time ago), I was informed that his position “is informed by a decade of health conferences, design, user, construction meetings while building them..”

There’s a limit to how productive a discussion one can have on Twitter, particularly when it’s being approached from very different perspectives. We ended with his eiterating that some hospitals are having ED capacity added, and me tweeting “I appreciate that. My point is that ramping, and ambo issues in general, are about more than bed/ED capacity”

And then I had a little rant of Facebook. It was wel received there, so I’m reproducing a slightly expurgated version here.

Ambulance ramping is, indeed, a multifactorial problem. When I tweeted that there were ten ambulances ramped at the Northern, it was part of a number of tweets, over a number of weeks, about ramping across the state.

How awesome the Northern’s extending its ED. That doesn’t invalidate my point that’s that:
a) more nurses in ED would reduce ramping
b) the Vic govt declined that, as it would be a nursing budget cost but a paramedic productivity gain
c) we have too few paramedics
d) Vic paramedics are very highly educated, and appallingly paid
e) they have inadequate supports, almost no return-to-work systems, and woefully inadequate safety measures
f) your decade “attending health conferences, design, user, construction meetings while building them” is awesome, but doesn’t outweigh twenty-four years working on the damn floor, including ED
g) especially when you tweet that in-patient units aren’t specialised, and give the examples of them bring able to take surgical patients and MATERNITY!
h) then say ED is more specialised

If you think any area of nursing’s not specialised, it’s because you don’t know what you’re talking about – from mid to aged care, ICU to palliative care, plastics to orthopaedics, for the best outcome you want nurses, midwives, doctors, surgeons, pharmacists and allied health staff who know more about that area that anything else.

A renal-experienced pharmacist would have prevented an accidental overdose of one of our patients – prescribed by a doctor who didn’t know the condition or protocols, and missed by busy nurses, this is just one example of how specialised experience makes a difference.

Finally – I don’t know nothing ’bout birthin’ no babies – don’t tell me maternity’s not a specialty! Sure, we can care for patients in specialties other than our own, but we’re more likely to miss things. You wouldn’t see a paediatrician about a detached retina – don’t think a nurse is a nurse is a nurse!

I know this has turned into a rant about nursing, for which I won’t apologise, because it’s important and something too many people (including those who should know better) fail to recognise. But I will conclude where I began, with paramedics.

Please show your support of our over-worked, highly educated, life-saving paramedics: visit the AEA Facebook page, follow their parent union, @UnitedVoiceVic on Twitter, and please – sign their petition, and circulate it!

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