Western Australia's industrial umpire has ordered the state's nurses to call off planned industrial action – an instruction that will almost certainly be ignored.
At a hearing in WA's Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) yesterday, the Australian Nursing Federation's (ANF) WA branch also revealed the only sticking point left in its long-running and chaotic negotiations for a new pay and conditions deal was base wages.
After changing its position a number of times, the union's latest demand is a 5 per cent pay rise each year.
In a bid to force the government's hand, the union earlier this week announced plans for a statewide strike on Friday, a move that was met with swift and sharp criticism from the government yesterday.
In ordering Friday's strike be called off, the IRC described the union's plans as "hastily organised without proper planning or consideration of the protection of the Western Australian community".
It noted the Health Department had told the IRC it could not consider the request for a 5 per cent pay rise before the strike, and asked the union to call it off.
Senior commissioner Rachel Cosentino said there was a "serious and significant risk the planned industrial action will compromise public health and safety", because the department had not been given enough time to mitigate against possible impacts having been given details just 42 hours before the strike was planned to begin.
It followed Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson yesterday announcing that all category two and three surgeries planned for Thursday and Friday would be postponed.
"This action is unpredictable and it's unacceptable," Health Department director-general David Russell-Weisz said alongside the minister yesterday.
Speaking outside the IRC yesterday afternoon, ANF WA secretary Janet Reah said patients would "of course" be looked after.
"Nurses do not want to strike. They want to be paid fairly, they want reasonable workloads," she said.
"And this government keeps annoying the nurses and escalating things further.
"I'm sorry, Mr McGowan and your cabinet, we've had enough and we are rallying Friday and we are striking. Bring it on."
Union fails to convince IRC
But Ms Cosentino was not convinced by the union's arguments inside the IRC.
"Little weight can be given to the ANF's claim that employees will voluntarily refrain from striking, or will voluntarily work to ensure patient safety, while the ANF also asserts that its membership is unified and determined to take industrial action," she wrote.
"The very point of the industrial action is for it to have impacts."
The proposed strike has the backing of the doctors' union, the Australian Medical Association (AMA).
AMA WA branch president Mark Duncan-Smith said it was "unfortunate that it's had to come to this," but said he supported in the ANF.
"I think the cancellation of elective surgery from a public perspective should be looked at as a short-term pain for long-term gain," he said.
"The long-term gain is actually to have a hospital system that is attractive to healthcare professions, where the McGowan government is a preferred employer, which currently it is not.
"There's not much point having a hospital system if we have no nurses in it, and that will mean there'll be no surgery in the future, unless they have a deal where they feel valued."
Transport providers under microscope
At the end of her decision, Commissioner Cosentino noted the ANF's indications it would contravene her orders to call off the strike.
She said she would "consider summonsing any transport provider to a conference at the commission" to order that those companies do not aid the ANF in contravening its instructions.
"Whether such step is necessary will depend on whether the ANF complies with these orders," the decision read.
A visibly frustrated Ms Reah yesterday told reporters she was "disgusted" because "the conference ended with the government wanting to get details of a private bus company" hired to take nurses to a planned rally at Parliament House.
It is unclear whether the state government specifically asked for the details of the company.
Regional workers to rally
Ms Reah told ABC Regional Drive on Thursday afternoon nurses would rally at Geraldton, Albany, Bunbury and Broome hospitals.
She said regional nurses were motivated by the government's failure to provide safe living and working conditions, just as much as salary and wages.
She was unable to predict the exact impact to services at regional hospitals – but said any disruption was down to the government's cuts to staff and services.
"Country health service numbers will be reduced because they are already in a world of pain," Ms Reah said.
"[They] cannot get agency or senior staff for the day, and they have the largest deficits in the state: much larger than metropolitan hospitals."
She said nurses had chosen to take action during the day to ensure adequate levels of non-nursing staff were in place across all hospitals, accusing the government of scaremongering over the potential impact on regional patients.
"The government is putting tremendous pressure on the nurses and midwives; there's been a few guilt-tripping emails sent out … it's not good enough," Ms Reah said.
"They're over proclaiming the danger to patients – it's quite irritating to be honest."
"We're not asking for that much, it's two per cent more than they're offering.
"Let's work this out; otherwise we're on the path to arbitration, we'll see what happens."