Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Finger

The nurses of Victoria had been waiting a long time for a break. Finally, two days ago, they got one.

If you're not from Victoria, or are but are a kind of shut in with no television, internet or friends, that's a picture of the Premier's cousin, Marshall Baillieu, giving the finger to a handful of protesting nurses. The Baillieu's, Big Ted was inside as well but out of sight, were at the Baillieu library at the University of Melbourne, where the Premier was launching a biography of his late relative William Baillieu, millionaire businessman and 21 year veteran of Vicotrian State politics. The previous sentence indicating exactly how entrenched the Baillieu's are in public life in this state. A half dozen nurses showed up to heckle the Premier through a megaphone, as part of an ongoing campaign of industrial action relating to their new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.

For 120-odd days now, the Australian Nurses Federation has been wrangling with the Liberal Government, trying to obtain a reasonable EBA for their members. The Government has offered only a 2.5% annual pay increase, less than the current rate of inflation and so effectively a pay cut, and has stated repeatedly that they will not budge from this without 'productivity offsets,' code for 'job losses.' Having recently offered teachers and, particularly, police much more generous deals, the Government has decided to play hardball with nurses and has stuck rigidly to this position. The ANF, for their part, want an 18% increase over three years, and a pledge that 'nurse-patient ratios' will stay the same, code for 'no job losses.' With the Government offering no compromises and the union unwilling to accept a plainly inadequate offer, the two sides have gone round in circles, no nearer to an agreement despite months of dialogue.

Big Ted was on ABC radio on Monday morning, summing up the Government's position. Sounding bored and distracted, like he often does, like he was watching something going on through the window, our Premier offhandedly gave us the contradiction that lies at the heart of the Government's offer. 'Everyone is all for the nurses,' Big Ted said, 'but we have a budgetary responsibility to make sure pay rises are affordable.'

In other words, 'We're frightened of the cops and I made some rash promises to the teachers so we're going to give you a kicking to pay for their pay rises. Now kindly go away.'

Enter Marshall Baillieu.

As a furore developed around images of a brummy, spoilt, toffy nosed old git insulting some of the states hardest working people, the wheels of the Government suddenly started to turn. David Davis, state Minister for Health, was immediately made available to meet with ANF secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick, who eagerly accepted the opportunity. Spruiking this meeting on Jon Faine's breakfast radio show on Wednesday, the host asked Davis why it had taken him four months to decide to pick up the phone, to which the minister couldn't provide an answer.

Which is to say, he offered many answers, none of which addressed the question:

FAINE: So why has it taken so long for you to arrange a meeting with the union?

DAVIS: Jon! Jon! Jon! Let me just say that this meeting is important and it is of
the utmost importance that it take place.

FAINE: Right... But why has it taken so long to arrange?

DAVIS: Jon! Jon! Jon! Ok, all right, let me just say that this meeting, this very
important meeting, has been scheduled and it is of the utmost importance that
it be achieved and scheduled and I am committed to making sure that it is
achieved. And scheduled.

FAINE: Right... But why did it take you so long to do it?

DAVIS: Jon, the Government has a very clear agenda in this case. We've always been
clear about our intentions, and our agenda is a matter of public record. Your
listeners should have no doubt about the clarity of our agenda.

FAINE: Yes, but I'm asking you why it took you so long to arrange this meeting?

DAVIS: We won't respond to ratbaggery Jon. The government won't be held to account by
lunatic fringe elements and people wearing hats. If I can impress on you one
point only then let it be this; the day of the lunatic hat wearer is over!

Which is not the real transcript, but the real one would probably make you want to smash something.

But the nurses have a break and a meeting with the Health Minister, and their chances of getting some sort of acceptable pay offer appear to be much higher than they were at the start of the week. Which is the good news.

Less good is the real lesson that we can draw from this. Which is; regardless of the justness of your cause and the integrity of your protest, to get any sort of action in Australian politics you really just need some old bugger to give you The Finger.

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