The New South Wales Nurses and Midwives Association (NSWNMA) leadership election in October will be the first to be openly contested since 2003.
Brett Holmes, who was elected general secretary in August 2002, retired in August. A day before his retirement, Holmes announced the NSWNMA Council had elected assistant general secretary Shaye Candish his successor.
Michael Whaites, director of strategy, projects and transformation, was elected by the council as the new assistant general secretary.
The new leadership appointed a non-nurse as the new director of strategy and transformation.
The NSWNMA did not notify its 75,000 members that nominations had opened from September 1 and delegates were only informed of the election 48 hours before nominations closed.
The process is similar to what transpired in the Western Australian branch of the Australian Nursing Federation (WA ANF). Mark Olson, WA ANF secretary for the past 24 years, announced his retirement earlier this year and Janet Reah, a state councillor, was parachuted into the newly-constructed assistant secretary position.
A progressive ticket, titled A Smarter Union, has formed to contest the NSW election. It is fielding NSWNMA member John-Paul Marx for assistant general secretary and Rachel Hughes, Amit Gupta and Thuy-An Le for councillor positions.
Marx said: “This election should be a wake-up call for NSW nurses and midwives to examine how our union could foster inclusivity, openness, collaboration, diversity, democracy, transparency and accountability.” A Smarter Union team is campaigning for a cap on the maximum number of sequential terms in office that union leaders can serve.
Last year, the NSWNMA created two director positions, costing more than $320,000 a year. A Smarter Union said that if it wins it will devote resources to better support members when they need help. “We will change our expensive corporate-like structures and spend that money on our membership services instead.”
The team is also campaigning to establish a “solidarity fund” to provide support to members during industrial action to win safe staffing ratios and fair pay.
Meanwhile, after NSW Labor abruptly dumped its 2019 election commitment to mandated nurse-to-patient ratios, it announced its revised health policy for the NSW election on September 21.
The NSWNMA leadership stood behind Labor leader Chris Minns as he said Labor’s policy was for minimum and enforceable safe staffing levels in public hospitals, with an initial focus on emergency departments.
The union’s support for Minns’ policy was not discussed with the wider union membership or its Committee of Delegates that had convened the previous night.
The NSW Labor policy does not cover paediatric and mental health critical care, paediatrics, neo-natal intensive care, perioperative services, community mental health, short stay wards, drug and alcohol, outpatient clinics or Specials and Clinical Nurse and Midwifery Educators.
Comments on the NSWNMA Facebook page a week later indicate that members are yet to be fully briefed on Labor’s policy. As one nurse wrote: “What’s the difference between NSW ALP’s “safe staffing commitment” and “legislated ratios?”
Marx told Green Left that improved staffing was a step in the right direction but that “it is not mandated ratios”. He added that nurse-to-patient ratios has been a “long-running campaign” and that Labor’s new policy is “a backward step” for nurses and midwives and the public health sector.
[Niko Leka was a long-time member of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Union.]