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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 1998 Week 7 Hansard (22 September) . . Page.. 2005 ..

Nurses Dispute

MR OSBORNE: My question is to the Minister for Health. I must say I am a little rattled to see him moving closer to the Chief Minister's chair, Mr Speaker, but I will try to get through this question. It scared me when he got to there and he is getting closer. Anyway, my question is about the nurses dispute. You will appreciate, Mr Moore, that I did not get involved during the dispute, but there is an issue that I think needs to be clarified. Several times during the past few weeks, Minister, you have made statements to the effect that the Canberra Hospital was not only adequately staffed with nurses but also - and on more than one occasion - the hospital was overstaffed by up to 80 nurses, while at the same time the Australian Nursing Federation was claiming they were up to 50 nurses short. In spite of your continual assurances that the hospital had more than enough nurses, on Monday last week Commissioner Deegan ruled that the management of the Canberra Hospital was to close any beds that were unable to be properly staffed. As a result, the next day the hospital chief executive, Brian Johnston, announced the closure of 17 beds, which have remained closed ever since. Minister, will you now admit that you have played down the shortage of nurses at the hospital over the past four months and that the nurses union have been right all along? I am sure you will not agree with that. What action is being taken to bring the number of nurses up to the level required to reopen the beds which have been closed? I think it is an important issue, Mr Speaker.

MR MOORE: Thank you, Mr Osborne, for the question. The short answer to "Will you admit that you were wrong?" is no. I do not think I have ever actually said - in fact, I know that I have not said - that the Canberra Hospital is 80 nurses overstaffed. What I have said is that the part of the Auditor-General's report which was prepared by Debbie Piccone suggested that it was 80 nurses overstaffed. That is one piece of information that I have. On the other hand, I have had the Nursing Federation saying that it is 50 nurses understaffed. So, clearly, there is a problem.

The question was: How do we resolve that problem? What I have been saying all the way along is that the best way to resolve these problems is for management and the union to sit down and negotiate, to talk about those things. Instead, it was the approach of the union to look at an industrial dispute and to go to Commissioner Deegan. Mr Speaker, I must say that I have not yet seen figures from the Nursing Federation that would indicate to me that the hospital is understaffed by 50 nurses. There is no question that through the winter and through the time following the VMO dispute, including the VMO dispute at Calvary, there was extra pressure on the hospital. I conceded that from the beginning. I said that that is a temporary problem that we need to get through.

I think that the understanding you have of the role of Commissioner Deegan is not quite accurate, Mr Osborne. What the commissioner did was simply verify a temporary agreement between the management at the hospital and the nurses union. The nurses union went into discussions saying, "We believe that you should cut 49 beds from the hospital" - at a time when we have increasing waiting times and increasing waiting lists. That seemed to me to be entirely inappropriate. However, I was not involved directly in the specific discussions.

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