‘No health workers want to stand with us’: the challenge for Victoria’s Coalition

As the major parties spar over health policies ahead of November’s election, Liberal MPs are questioning the Coalition’s strategy

When the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, announced his government would pay for the degrees of more than 10,000 nursing and midwifery students in August, dozens of frontline health workers joined him.

But there were no frontline health workers with the opposition leader, Matthew Guy, on Tuesday, when he unveiled his own $325m “future health workforce plan” that would see even more workers trained for free.

Within hours, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation’s Victorian branch backed Labor’s plan, and said the Coalition’s announcement and dollars “don’t add up”.

“Their plan lacks detail, has no timelines and it is silent on committing to legislated nurse/midwife patient ratios exposing a shallow understanding of what’s needed or how to support a workforce during a pandemic,” branch secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick says she met with the opposition’s health spokesperson, Georgie Crozier, in early July and “election commitments were not discussed”.

“I’ve only met Mr Guy once, in the parliamentary dining room when I introduced myself prior to the 2018 election when he was opposition leader. I’ve not heard from him since,” Fitzpatrick says.

It’s to be expected that the union – representing more than 97,000 workers – would back Labor.

What’s more surprising is the opposition’s relentless pursuit of an election fought on health, despite little support from those on the frontline and the party’s reputation for cutting staff and services, which dates back decades.

Since June, the Coalition has pledged to build or upgrade 15 hospitals, including $900m for Melton hospital, $900m for a new 275-bed Werribee Royal Children’s hospital, $550m to rebuild Caulfield hospital, $400m for a new infectious disease hospital and $400m to upgrade Maroondah hospital. (The day after the Coalition’s Maroondah hospital announcement, the government said it would instead rebuild the hospital for $1bn).

Several unions, policy experts and medical professionals have raised questions about how the facilities will be staffed and built, given worker shortages and supply chain problems.

Fitzpatrick says it’s hard to trust the Coalition, pointing to their commitment while in opposition at the 2010 election to retain the state’s nurse-to-patient ratios. Once in government, cabinet-in-confidence documents outlined a plan to oppose the ratios while also cutting nurse numbers at hospitals and replacing them with cheaper health assistants, saving about $473.7m over four years.

In addition, the proposal also suggested the introduction of four-hour shifts and split shifts.

It prompted 121 days of industrial action by union members, including 14 days of rolling work stoppages at 15 public hospitals across Victoria.

“The Coalition has never taken ownership of its strategy to cut nurses and midwives, nor the impact it would have had on our pandemic response had they been successful,” Fitzpatrick says.

Two years later, a pay dispute occurred with paramedics, who went on to campaign for Andrews at the 2014 election, emblazoning their ambulances with slogans such as “kick out the Liberals”.

There’s also the legacy of former Liberal premier Jeff Kennett, who privatised essential services, cut more than 45,000 jobs from the state’s bureaucracy, slashed hospital funding, and closed more than 300 government schools in his time in office in the 1990s.

Andrews is particularly fond of returning to the theme of “cuts and closures” under a Coalition government. Making an aged care announcement on Wednesday, the second paragraph of his press release mentions “$75m of cuts to aged care when the Coalition was last in government”.

Two Liberal sources, who are not authorised to speak publicly, have also questioned the health focus, given the historical context. One says that “no health workers want to stand with us” at press conferences. MPs, however, say it’s an issue voters continue to raise with them.

“Triple zero delays, ambulance ramping, the mental health crisis,” one MP says.

“The fact we were the most ill-prepared state when it came down to the pandemic, having almost the least amount of ICU beds available in the country, the 4,000 beds that were promised but never came.

“Labor have dropped the ball big time and it’s costing lives.”

Recent polling by SEC Newgate shows healthcare is among the top four issues for voters – as well as cost of living, housing and climate change. (The majority of those surveyed said the government was doing a better job tackling the issue than the Coalition).

However, amid the health bidding war, the other three issues risk becoming neglected by the major parties.

The only major announcements on housing have come from the Greens, who are campaigning on a plan to build 200,000 social and affordable homes. The policy also includes a requirement that 30% of homes in large developments are set aside for first-homeowners, which is likely to attract the influential youth vote.

According to Labor’s draft election platform, obtained by the Age, the party could soon be proposing a four-day work week trial, reinstating the Workers Family Picnic Day and making Christmas Eve after 6pm a public holiday.

It’s easy to see these policies garnering support.

With less than six weeks until the election, the Coalition must announce their own. There’s more than one issue to campaign on, after all.


Benita Kolovos

The GuardianTramp

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