Queensland Audit Commission – QNU response

The Queensland Nurses Union (QNU) has rejected the Peter Costello Audit Commission’s attack on Queensland’s increased health expenditure in recent years, and its implied attack on nurse and midwife wage and staffing levels, as muddle-headed and a repeat of the cost-cutting approach to public health services taken by Peter Costello when federal treasurer from 1996 to 2007.

Nurses and midwives reject targeting of health costs

The Queensland Nurses Union (QNU) has rejected the Peter Costello Audit Commission’s attack on Queensland’s increased health expenditure in recent years, and its implied attack on nurse and midwife wage and staffing levels, as muddle-headed and a repeat of the cost-cutting approach to public health services taken by Peter Costello when federal treasurer from 1996 to 2007.

The QNU was responding to the Queensland Commission of Audit’s interim report, which was released on Friday, after assessing the document over the weekend and yesterday.

QNU secretary, Beth Mohle, said the big increases in health expenditure, identified in the report, came after the Bundaberg Hospital Royal Commission, the associated Forster Review of Queensland Health’s performance and many years of QNU campaigning.

“These funding and wage changes represented a massive improvement in the way Queensland delivered health care and valued its nurses and midwives. The recent IT difficulties with the new payroll system notwithstanding, the post-2005 changes meant Queensland was no longer a wages and conditions backwater for nurses and midwives.

“The QNU made all this very clear, including in newspaper advertising, to all sides of politics prior to the March 24 State poll. Any attempt now to try and claw all this back, especially by catastrophising the State’s finances through this Audit Commission, will be strongly resisted by nurses and midwives.

“Repeatedly, and over many years prior to the Bundaberg Hospital Commission of Inquiry, the QNU made submissions to various State Government’s about the need to urgently address the significant, historical under-funding of the Queensland health system. We pointed out, on each occasion, the impact this under-funding was having on the quality of patient care and the recruitment and retention of nurses and midwives.

“This culminated in an unprecedented industrial dispute, with the then Labor government, during our EB5 campaign in 2002. The point is, nurses and midwives have campaigned long and hard for improvements to Queensland’s public health system and we have long memories. I want to make it very clear to the Premier, Mr Newman, and Health Minister, Mr Springborg, that we will not let Queensland go backwards without a fight.

“I also remind the Newman Government and Peter Costello that the QNU has a new enterprise agreement, EB8, with Queensland Health, which includes reasonable wage improvements and staffing protections. The State Government and Audit Commission should also note carefully that it includes a mechanism – a legally enforceable mechanism - for measuring and implementing reasonable workload arrangements. The QNU will be ensuring this is fully implemented and that the State Government meets its legal obligations under the agreement.

“The fact that staffing levels might have grown faster than hospital activity levels, in recent years, is actually part of that workloads management process. In the early part of the last decade Queensland and Australia faced a serious nurse shortage and this created staffing problems throughout the system. The industrial relations, aged care and health policies of the Howard-Costello Federal Government were a major contributor to the developing crisis. (See background attached.)

“For example, in the federally-funded aged care system, Peter Costello, as federal treasurer, presided over the biggest relative cut to nurse wages in living memory. Thankfully we largely avoided that scenario in the public and private hospital systems. (See background attached.)

“In fact, with improved wages and working conditions in the Queensland public hospital and healthcare systems, achieved through negotiations with previous State governments, we have partly repaired the nurse and midwife shortage problem. That means improved patient safety. However, there is still work to do and using this Audit Commission to again reduce nurse and midwifery staffing levels, and possibly even wages over time, is unacceptable.

“Nurses and midwives have the skills to do more for the hospital and wider healthcare system. They are prepared to help develop legitimate and safe efficiencies and productivity improvements, which better and more completely utilize their skills and experience.

“However, they will not tolerate an approach that is excessively budget driven and which undermines sound clinical practice and judgement.

“There are mechanisms within EB8 to look at different ways of doing some things. However, EB8 takes precedence over this Audit Commission and, as stated, we will ensure its wage and staffing principles are applied. We are prepared to campaign strongly and publicly to achieve that, if it is required. Safe staffing levels must always be provided.

“We will also be watching closely for any attempt to use this Audit Commission’s attack, on health funding and staffing, to influence the EB9 negotiations in a couple of years time. Queensland’s public sector nurses and midwives do not want Peter Costello’s low wage policies introduced here,” Ms Mohle said.

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