Defending our right to speak and be heard
NSW nurses and midwives are respected and trusted by the community and should not be silenced for standing up for patients and our precious health system.
Our democratic right to campaign on behalf of our patients is under threat.
On two occasions over the last two years the Berejiklian government has attempted to muzzle our voice through legislation or regulation. The first time it was stymied by a High Court decision that deemed its law restricting our right to campaign as unconstitutional.
A Joint Standing Committee of the NSW parliament is now conducting an inquiry into the 2019 NSW state election. While such an inquiry is routine following an election, we feel compelled to challenge important restrictions on campaigning by third parties that the NSW government introduced by regulation prior to the election.
In May 2018 the state government brought in an electoral law that severely limited our capacity to campaign by:
- Reducing the expenditure cap to $500,000 for third party campaigners (read unions)
- broadening the definition of electoral expenditure so it even captured our everyday staff and travel costs as part of the cap and
- making it unlawful to act in concert to campaign on member issues with other unions and or civil society organisations to exceed the cap.
The NSWNMA with other unions challenged the constitutional validity of this legislation in the High Court.
In an important decision, the High Court agreed with us that the law was invalid because it burdened “the implied freedom of communication on governmental and political matters, contrary to the Commonwealth Constitution”.
The High Court also agreed with us that “it was clear what this law is doing but one does not know why it is doing that other than to shut down … protected speech”.
Its decision confirmed our right to keep the people of NSW informed about issues around patient safety in our public health system.
The NSW government subsequently circumvented this ruling by introducing a regulation just prior to the March state election that introduced an electoral funding cap of $1,288,500 and a stringent definition of election expenditure.
The regulation remains valid until 31 December this year.
A dangerous erosion of our democratic rights
These draconian measures are damaging for our democracy.
In a submission to the parliamentary inquiry we have argued that “as part of our democracy it is essential that in the lead up to elections our voices and those of other campaigners be heard in amongst those of political parties and powerful media organisations. The expenditure cap must be fair to enable us this opportunity to be heard and to participate in the public debate”.
This is all the more so because the state government has previously rolled back our industrial right of access to the NSW Industrial Relations Commission and restricted our bargaining rights through its wages policy.
The right to a voice in the public domain on issues that impact on our members and the community is now of critical importance.
The NSWNMA has been left with no option but to campaign on issues like ratios and patient safety during elections when political parties are more likely to listen to the voices of their constituents.
Our reasonable recommendations
In our submission to the parliamentary inquiry we have recommended an electoral expenditure cap of $2 million with annual indexation for third party campaigners. This would allow us to adequately campaign on our issues using television advertising.
We have opposed the restrictions that make it unlawful for us to campaign with other unions or civil society organisations and we have argued that electoral expenditure should not include expenses that are part of the day to day running of the union.
All we seek is a fair and democratic electoral system where our voices will be heard on the issues affecting healthcare in NSW.
If we are unable to have our voices heard then we may have no choice but to form a political party ourselves – a motion that was democratically endorsed by the 2019 Annual Conference.