Croney Culture on the North Shore


This article was published
as comment upon facts which included: that the various parties mentioned in the
article were familiar to each other; the absence of union representations at the
North Shore Hospital; and the health issues concerning the hospital as reported
prior to October 2007. did not intend to convey any imputation that Mr Brett Holmes,
Secretary of the NSW Nurses Association, deliberately ignored the interests of
a section of the membership of the Association that he is elected to represent
because of his relationship with politicians and bureaucrats, or that he has
failed to protect a section of the membership of the Association because he is
protecting politicians and bureaucrats.

To the extent
that Mr Holmes believes these imputations have been conveyed by the article,
then apologises to him for any hurt caused by this article.

Incredibly, the NSW nurses’ union does not have a functioning branch at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital (RNSH) even though it employs more than 1000 nurses.

The union’s oversight is a damning sign of the corporatist harmony existing between the State Labor Government, the NSW Health Department and the NSW Nurses’ Association (NSWNA). The personalities in this political axis are: Premier Morris Iemma, who was the former Health Minister under Bob Carr; Robyn Kruk, the Director-General of the Premier’s Department who was the former Director-General of Health; Health Minister Reba Meagher, a fervent Iemma loyalist who helped scuttle Carl Scully’s bid for the premiership two years ago; Deborah Picone, the new Director-General of Health and former senior officer of the NSWNA who once stood unsuccessfully for the General Secretary’s job; and current nurses’ union General Secretary Brett Holmes.

All, in one way or another, are from the same political or industrial culture: they know each other, they have worked together and they are friends in a self-regarding comfort zone.

NSW Health Minister Reba Meagher

As recent front-page headlines have amply demonstrated, the once iconic Royal North Shore Hospital has become dysfunctional. Following the tragic and horrific revelation of the emergency patient miscarrying in a hospital toilet after being neglected by staff, Premier Iemma went into damage control, Health Minister Reba Meagher showed how tragically inept she is at handling the $12 billion-a-year health portfolio, and the nurses’ union said virtually nothing.

The union’s silence ended on 5 October with its first press release on the scandal and it was a doozey.

There was not one word of criticism of the Iemma Government or the Health Department or nursing management. It announced that the union had just (‘last night’) received a copy of ‘The Review of Workplace Culture and Allegations of Bullying and Harassment at Royal North Shore Hospital’ and announced that it was supporting the recommendation to ‘reactivate’ the hospital’s branch. The press release explained:

Prior to the branch folding, due to a lack of volunteers coming forward to form a branch executive, the NSWNA ran a major campaign last year (2006) over management, budget and patient flow issues at the RNSH. A NSWNA branch is now being re-established at RNSH.

The ‘reactivation’ of the branch is timely: three nurses are to face the official inquiry into the miscarriage in the toilet, and this week, Mary Dowling, head of the hospital’s new Professional Practice Unit, said there have been 40 additional complaints since that incident almost two weeks ago.

The nurses’ union leadership spent a small fortune running television and radio advertisements to secure the victory of the ALP in the State election on 24 March this year, with the advertising dollars provided by a voluntary levy on the 19,000-strong membership. It will spend more money on advertising to oppose the re-election of the Howard Government when the Federal election is called.

The union welcomed Labor’s fourth consecutive election victory in NSW with an editorial in its magazine, The Lamp, under the headline: ‘Nurses the Real Winners in this Election.’ Brett Holmes smugly told the membership:

The State election has been decided and we believe the outcome is in the best interests of nurses. The Association ran a very strong campaign in defence of nurses’ rights and I do not resile from the reasons for doing so.

He made no mention of the nurses at RNSH who, at that time, did not even have the protection of a branch to speak on their behalf to protect their interests and rights.

The pre-election editorial The Lamp, published in March, was headlined, ‘Nurses Must Be Heard,’ and said:

Your union has just launched a TV and radio advertising campaign leading up to the NSW State election in defence of nurses’ rights at work. We have done so because we identify a new, clear and present danger to nurses’ interests from a change in State government.

Once again, there was a whiff of hypocrisy in the air: the union’s bureaucracy appeared more concerned with Iemma’s re-election than with allowing the plight of the RNSH nurses to be heard.

There was more pro-Government guff and smugness in The Lamp‘s May editorial headlined: ‘I Thank You for Your Confidence The NSWNA Is in a Healthy State.’ With a string of hospital calamities starting to erupt in the media, Holmes thanked members for his unopposed re-election as General Secretary saying:

I am satisfied about the health of the union as we chart our way through these difficult political and industrial waters. Unlike many other unions, we continue to grow our membership. We have increased the number of staff to deal with the increased needs of our members arising from the Federal Government’s new laws. We have established a Nurse Power fund so we can run high profile campaigns in the interests of nurses. Our assets and finances remain robust. We have increased the number of branches and delegates.

Yes, everywhere except at Royal North Shore Hospital, one of the State’s major teaching hospitals, where the union had no functioning branch at all and the place was falling into dysfunctionality.

In his 5 October press release, Holmes was obliged to admit what nurses and medical staff were privately telling journalists:

There is no doubt anti-union activity is prevalent at the RNSH and that has made it very hard for nurses to speak out, even to their union officials, and led to a reluctance by nurses to volunteer for branch positions.

This is totally unacceptable and the NSWNA welcomes the public exposure of such behaviour and the difficulties its full-time officials and volunteer branch officials have faced at this hospital.

However, it is not the only facility where we face these difficulties and I am very concerned that the right of entry restrictions imposed on union officials by WorkChoices will see serious problems go unaddressed in the private hospital and aged care sectors.

To blame the Federal Government’s industrial relations policy, WorkChoices, for the intimidation of nurses in the NSW public hospital system is ludicrous. Responsibility clearly lies with the area boards handpicked by the ALP to keep the lid on hospital scandals and bury problems from the local and Statewide media. Indeed, some Right-wing union elements not necessarily Holmes have actively worked to erode strong union branches in the workplace because they ‘rock the boat’ and provide political headaches for the union leadership.

The NSW Nurses’ Association is not affiliated to any political Party, and that’s a very good thing. If nurses in under-funded, over-worked and morale-sapping frontlines are to be protected and not made scapegoats they need a strong, independent, courageous, campaigning union that will fearlessly protect them from careerist politicians in the Labor Government and careerist bureaucrats in the State public service.

‘Protecting the mates’ isn’t an option.

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