Essential but not valued
The Berejiklian government plays a sly hand when it effusively praises nurses for their role in containing COVID-19 while effectively reducing their real wages.
Politicians have a habit of treating health as a sideshow somehow subservient to the main game of economics and the power that flows from that discipline.
This year has exposed the hubris of that worldview. The COVID-19 contagion has devastated economies around the world, including Australia’s, just as we were coming to grips with the consequences of climate change after a summer of apocalyptic bushfires.
The natural world has delivered a massive reality check in 2020 and posited with crystal clarity the centrality of health – of the human population and of the planet.
For nurses and midwives this year started with significant recognition as the World Health Organization declared 2020 the Year of the Nurse and Midwife.
This is a year in which we should be celebrating the nurses and midwives who dedicate their lives to the health of others.
Instead, it has turned into a time of mourning for the hundreds of nurses and other health workers who have fallen victim to the coronavirus across the world.
AsThe Lamp goes to print, the pandemic shows no signs of abating as infections accelerate worldwide, and with nearly 15,000,000 confirmed cases and more than 600,000 deaths.
Every day of this pandemic nurses have fronted up despite the risks and at great personal sacrifice. Each nurse that has caught COVID-19 is one too many and highlights the danger they face keeping the public safe.
In NSW it is easy to understand then their sadness and anger as their state government targets them to carry, not just the responsibility of saving people’s lives in the world’s worst pandemic since 1913, but also the economic burden in the aftermath of the epidemic.
It is morally disgraceful, callous, and it makes no economic sense.
Economists raise the alarm
Numerous economists have raised the alarm over the government’s public sector wage freeze. Even the Treasury has proffered advice that “reducing public sector wage growth in the short-run would deepen the recession”.
Dr Andrew Charlton, who was a key economic adviser for the Rudd government when it crafted its stimulus package in response to the Global Financial Crisis says the pay freeze is “precisely the opposite direction economic policy needs to be headed to achieve the government’s goal of supporting economic recovery.
This is damning criticism from a widely respected economist with a strong track record in charting recovery from an epic-level financial crisis.
The wage freeze also sits uneasily with the public. Since the freeze was announced our members have engaged tirelessly with their communities. Their message that the wage freeze will adversely impact local businesses and jobs has resonated especially strongly in rural and regional areas still recovering from the hammer blows of drought and fires.
The policy finds few friends in parliament outside of the Liberal Party. A regulation to impose the freeze was disallowed in the NSW Parliament. A majority of the NSW Upper House did not agree with a freeze to public sector wages.
The NSW government also finds itself alone in the Commonwealth with this financial folly.
Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania have all committed to wage increases for their nurses and midwives this year and for the following years. Queensland is to delay payment for this year but has promised two increases next year.
The truth is, in NSW, the wage freeze is not a one-off as a consequence of the coronavirus. It sits on a continuum of policy that has been implemented since 2011.
The Liberal government since its election 9 years ago, under several different leaders, has unilaterally capped the wages of nurses and midwives and obstructed improvements to ratios.
It loves to sing the praises of nurses and midwives when it suits it and has done so regularly during the COVID-19 outbreak. But what is clear is the government doesn’t really value their essential work.