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Australian Nursing Federation's WA branch agrees to pay potential $350,000 fine over strike at parliament house

Thousands of nurses and midwives rallied outside WA's parliament on November 25, 2022.

WA's nurses' union has agreed to accept a potential $350,000 fine for a major strike at parliament house last year, although the final figure still needs to be approved by the Industrial Relations Commission.

The rally drew a crowd of thousands of nurses, including some who had left work to attend, demanding a five per cent pay rise.

The government has maintained its current offer of between three and 4.5 per cent in the months since but has promised to pay it to nurses and midwives despite no full agreement being reached.

The strike was held in defiance of orders from the WA Industrial Relations Commission (WAIRC), which its registrar has been seeking to enforce in a two-day hearing.

Both parties agree to fine 

The commission was told this morning that both sides had agreed to an overall penalty of $350,000 — far short of the potential maximum of nearly $36 million for 3,590 alleged breaches put forward by the registrar.

Union secretary Janet Reah also agreed to pay a $10,000 fine for failing to appear before the commission on the day of the strike.

Janet Reah ignored both an order from the commission to call off the strike, and to appear before the commission on the day it was held. (ABC News: Keane Bourke)

Despite the agreement, the commission could decide to impose a different penalty and is yet to indicate what it might decide.

In the course of this morning's hearing, Chief Commissioner Stephen Kenner said the ANF's conduct "borders on contempt in the face of the commission".

He also indicated the commission's desire for the ANF to promise to follow the law into the future, although the union would only commit at the hearing to abide by the commission's orders for the duration of the current pay and conditions dispute.

ANF lawyer Tim Hammond said that was still an important undertaking, given there was still "significant life to run" in pay and conditions negotiations.

He said there were other avenues available to address any future breaches, but that an event like the parliament rally was "not going to happen again". 

Fine 'appropriate, not oppressive': IRC lawyer

In presenting the agreement to the court, the lawyer for the commission's registrar, Maria Saraceni, described the $350,000 figure as "appropriate" but "not enough to be oppressive".

She told the commission the union had seen the cost of breaching the orders as "part and parcel" of their industrial campaign, and a cost of doing business — an attitude that needed to be deterred with the imposition of a high penalty.

"Otherwise the system will break down," she said.

Commissioner Timothy Kucera said that issue would be considered in the final penalty handed down, especially given Ms Reah yesterday told reporters she had "no regrets" over the strike.

He also pointed out that while Ms Reah had been upset when Ms Saraceni yesterday compared the union's actions to those of Hitler — a statement she later withdrew — the union secretary had previously said "what kind of a fascist state are we in?" when the IRC threatened to summons bus companies, so it could order them not to transport nurses to the rally.

Union 'had not been brought to heel'

Ms Saraceni told the commission that while the ANF had not previously been penalised by the IRC, it was "not correct to say that this union has been a good corporate citizen," referencing previous breaches of the commission's orders in 2013.

She said the union had "not been brought to heel, and we have what we have today".

Ms Saraceni said while the ANF's actions amount to "blatant, flagrant disregard" of the commission's orders, the registrar was not seeking a "crushing" penalty, nor for the fine to have "negative impact" on members.

Mr Hammond acknowledged the fine reflected conduct "well and truly at the upper end of the range".

He said the amount was "unprecedented by a multiple of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands", given the maximum fine was recently lifted from $2,000 per breach to $10,000.

Union secretary taking matter 'very seriously'

Ms Reah did not take questions from the media after Wednesday's hearing, instead issuing a statement mid-afternoon.

"Whatever the outcome of the current proceedings before the full bench of the WAIRC, the ANF will continue to campaign and advocate vigorously for nurses and midwives and the patients in our care across Western Australia, and we will do so within the law," she said.

"The progress made at the WAIRC today has been positive but there is still work to be done before a final decision is made by the full bench.

"In the coming days, the ANF will make further submissions to the WAIRC in order to help bring this matter to a close.

"I take this matter very seriously and I am respectfully waiting for the final determination from the full bench."

Time to move on: minister

Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson said any penalty was a matter for the commission and the union to negotiate, and that her focus was on finalising EBA negotiations with nurses and midwives.

Amber-Jade Sanderson said "inexperienced leadership" may be behind the union's decision to breach the commission's orders. (ABC News: James Carmody)

"I do think it's important that all parties in bargaining do adhere to the independent umpire," she said.

"They are there for a reason and the independent umpire is entirely independent of government and cannot be directed.

"Inexperienced leadership may have led them down this path. I hope that that is the end of this period and this episode, and that we can move on and finalise this agreement for nurses and midwives."

Liberal leader and health spokesperson Libby Mettam shared a similar view.

"We look forward to hearing the final decision," she said.

"What we need to see is a more collaborative approach when it comes to the McGowan government and our vital health workforce."

The commission has reserved its decision until at least the end of the month, asking both sides to make further submissions about the penalties, any undertakings, and how any fines would be divided between the potentially thousands of charges.

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