Australia Day commemorates the landing of the First Fleet in 1788. For many  Indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians it marks the beginning on an invasion that would (through a combination of deliberate action, neglect, and policies rooted in racism and superiority) see Indigenous populations and cultures decimated, thousands of children torn from their parents, way of life destroyed, and that still sees indefensible inequities – significantly poorer life expectancies, qualities of life, health outcomes and education; distressingly higher rates of alcohol and drug misuse, incarceration, poverty and “lifestyle” disease.

Writing in Hawthorn, Victoria, today I recognise the Kulin nation, particularly the Wurundjeri willam people. Discussing Indigenous issues is well beyond my bailiwick, and solutions have failed far wiser and more knowledgeable people than I, so instead I’ll discuss something I do no something about.

This time last year, clad in an ANF (Vic. branch) campaign shirt and with a Respect Our Work bandana wrapped about the crown of my straw hat, I left the Australian Open to join colleagues at Federation Square. I was leaving behind Claire Salmon, the wonderful Industrial Organiser who has played a significant role in my activism, and surprise attendee ANF (Vic. branch) Secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick, among others. I was apprehensive, because I’m quite introverted, and had only met my colleagues through Facebook. I was also a little reluctant to leave, because Lisa (for I am quite the ridiculous fan girl).

But I’d made a commitment.

Going meant that I missed Pat Cash stopping play to approach Lisa in the stands. I didn’t see them talking, I didn’t see an ANF member throw down a campaign shirt, and I didn’t see Mr Cash spend the rest of the game playing in it.

Framed - 10

But I did get a text from Claire: “Pat Cash is wearing our shirt!!” And I got to relay that news to the half-dozen remaining petition collectors in Federation Square – the latest in a self-organised rotation that had started at 8AM, who had been moved on by security – to a more high traffic area, who had found Heath Minster Davis coming out of a Fed Square restaurant and demanded answers (but received nothing), and who sold hundreds of shirts and collected many more petitions.

ANF (Vic. branch) Secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick, Assistant Secretary Paul Gilbert and Assistant Secreatry Pip Carew (not pictured) delivering thousands of petitions to Health Minister David Davis (centre) - December 16 2011

ANF (Vic. branch) Secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick, Assistant Secretary Paul Gilbert and Assistant Secreatry Pip Carew (not pictured) delivering thousands of petitions to Health Minister David Davis (centre) – December 16 2011

The petitions were important, and we handed them over to the Minister some weeks later. But more important was the opportunity to educate the public about the campaign – about what nurse/midwife: patient ratios mean for nurses and midwives, for the efficiency and smooth running of our public health system, about the improved patient outcomes and staff retention and job satisfaction.

The campaign came at not insignificant cost – money and energy and the genuine distress for nurses and midwives of making difficult decisions about resignation and strike action. But the greater cost was borne by the Baillieu government : they lost face, because our win was unequivocal – despite unhelpful critics our chief aims were met, without any loss of pay or conditions. They lost credibility, because they were shown to be duplicitous and have no intention of negotiating in good faith (search for “Cabinet-in-confidence” for more detail). They lost public support, because the work of nurses and midwives is respected and appreciated. I shudder to think how much the government’s intractability (from the fees of extravagant legal over-representation to the wholly embarrassing Victorian Hospitals Industry Association counter-ad that never aired) cost – and I would love to see a call for the Premier and his government to account for this.

There is no argument that the nurses, midwives and the public won. What ANF gained was incalculable. We demonstrated, again, that Victoria’s nurses and midwives won’t stand by and let our patients suffer at the hands of bureaucrats. Victorians finally understood that this wasn’t a pay claim, and understood how ratios work. And, as a result of the drawn-out, ever-nastier campaign we recruited more members, more job reps, and more activists than at any time during my association with the Federation.

I thought the time for fighting was done – at least until 2016.

I retired my shirts, popped my hat on a stand, and rolled my flags away.

Here we are, not even a year later from that historic members’ meeting on March 16th, and we’re back in the fray. ANF staff, Branch Council and Executive are used to strategy, long-term planning and negotiating with Machiavellian machinations, but this was all new to members.

This time we’re experienced. Victorias nurses and midwives aren’t tired from the fight that went before – we’re energised, we’re empowered, and we’re determined. We’ve seen that we can win, and we’ve never lost sight of the importance of our goals.

This is not an industrial fight. For me it is a fight rooted in ideology, fiscal responsibility and sustainability.

I believe that the public have a moral right to receive timely, quality care from our public health system – that health access should not be determined by your ability to pay, and that those who are already subject to health inequity (including the poor, the elderly, the mentally ill, Indigenous peoples, and the unemployed) ought not be further disadvantaged.

I believe that the short-term financial gain of closing theatres, beds and emergency departments costs us far more in the mid- and long-term. This is as true for sub-acute, psychiatric, community and preventative health services as it is for the headline effects on hospitals like the Royal Children’s, Peter Mac, the Royal Melbourne and the Alfred.

I believe that making health a less attractive option for students now means that our projected shortfall of nurses and midwives will transform 2020 from a crisis to a catastrophe.

And I believe that this is an issue that affects us all – anyone can end up needing public health care. Don’t wait until it’s you or someone you love discharged too early, or on one of those stretchers, or flown in on one of those helicopters, or waiting for ambulance attendance before you act.

Show your support for Victoria’s public health system:

Rally poster - Feb 3 2013

  • attend the rally next Sunday
  • write to The Age, the Herald-Sun, and your local paper
  • contact your State and Federal Members of Parliament (not sure who your Federal member is? Try here) – email’s good, face-to-face is better
  • be informed – new closures, staff downsizing and other measures are still being announced
  • and spread the word – information is power