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Australian Medical Association slams Industrial Relations Commission over nurses union threat

The head of the peak medical organisation representing doctors in WA has described a threat to deregister the Australian Nursing Federation as a "Thatcher-like overreach".

It comes after nurses and midwives took statewide strike action last Friday in defiance of Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) orders as a bitter dispute over pay and conditions with the state government continued.

The IRC wrote to the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) yesterday warning it was considering summoning the union to "show cause why its registration should not be suspended".

ANF state secretary Janet Reah and head of legal services Belinda Burke have been "invited" to consult with IRC senior commissioner Rachel Cosentino tomorrow morning.

'Affront to workers': AMA

The latest move by the IRC has sparked criticism from the Australian Medical Association (AMA).

"This is the sort of thing that I suspect happened with Margaret Thatcher with the coal mines," AMA WA president Mark Duncan-Smith said.

"This is where you ultimately get a right-wing approach to industrial relations policy and then you get suppression of the freedom of speech.

"I think this is an affront to the workers of Western Australia, I think that if the government isn't behind this they should step in and stop it from happening."

A spokesman for Industrial Relations Minister Bill Johnston said the government had played no part in the notice issued by the IRC.

"We have made no application to the Industrial Relations Commission, nor asked the Commission to take these steps. It is a matter between the Commission and the ANF. We respect the independent umpire," he said.

But Dr Duncan-Smith joined the ANF in questioning the independence of the IRC.

"The IRC is an independent body that is funded by the government and with government appointments, and yes it is meant to be independent, but it does seem strange that essentially if a union disagrees with the McGowan government enough, they get threatened with deregistration," he said.

The surgeon, who was appointed head of the AMA in WA in June last year, said the deregistration of a union was something he thought was reserved for thugs and thieves.

"To see the ANF be threatened with deregistration on the basis that they are just disagreeing with the McGowan government, I just think that is an assault on democracy and the union movement in Western Australia," he said.

"And what is absolutely unbelievable in this scenario is this is an assault on the union movement by a supposedly reportedly Labor government."

Action 'way over the top': ANF

The AMA has supported the ANF campaign for improved conditions, and Dr Duncan-Smith said doctors would continue to support nurses and midwives in WA.

"The nurses are fundamentally sick and tired for having to apologise for the crowded wards, for the hospitals that are bulging at the sides, the delays in treatment that occur because there's not enough staff," he said.

"And they're sick and tired of this sort of environment that they're working in. This is about them having a safe work environment as well as the patients having a safe place to get health care."

Janet Reah told the ABC she was gobsmacked to receive the notice threatening de-registration.

"All we did was make our views known. The nurses weren't happy with the offer, they've had a rough few years to say the least, and the one moment they go out to make their feelings known this is how the government treats us. It's like smashing a walnut with a sledgehammer, it's just way over the top," she said. 

"New South Wales' ANF have had four strikes now and they got a $25,000 fine. We've had one strike, and by the government's own figures not even 500 nurses [went on strike] that day, and they're trying to deregister the entire union, 39,000 members. It's absolutely disgusting.

"I think it's an appalling precedent to set, I'm very fearful for the future of all of our unions and all the members of those unions.

"The unions are there to fight for the members' rights, they're there to protect the members against their employers if they happen to do the wrong thing, or even if they've done the right thing and the wrong thing happens, and I think it's a terrible day for industrial relations."

The ANF has been calling for at least a 5 per cent per annum pay rise and enforceable nurse-to-patient ratios.

The government said it had met the union's key demand for ratios but could not afford to change its wages offer of a 3 per cent per year increase.

Dr Duncan-Smith said the situation called for both sides to return to the negotiating table, not for the deregistration of the state's largest union.

"I don't know what's driving this, there's no evidence that any patients were put in danger with the strike that happened last Friday," he said.

"It is just a situation whereby the union quite simply didn't roll over to the McGowan government and the McGowan government is pretty angry."

The IRC has said the ANF's actions were in breach of the Industrial Relations Act 1979.

Health Minister blasts nurses union

The WA Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson has accused the ANF of lying to the public and its members after the IRC's threat. 

The ANF lashed out at the government, claiming it was orchestrating the potential suspension.

However, the health minister has rejected the accusation, saying the fight is a matter between the union and the industrial umpire.

"This is a significant campaign and pattern of behaviour of spreading misinformation to the media, to the Commission, and more concerningly to the membership," Ms Sanderson said.

"At no point has the government sought to deregister the ANF." 

"It is insulting to the independent umpire that somehow they are being directed by the government. It is absolutely not true."

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