Unions to fight hospital privatisation

January 26, 2000

Unions to fight hospital privatisation

By Troy Saxby

NEWCASTLE — The Newcastle Trades Hall Council voted unanimously on January 18 to launch a campaign against the privatisation of any part of the Mater Hospital.

The Sisters of Mercy, who run the hospital, have labelled conditions at the hospital as among the worst in NSW. The Mater Hospital is notorious in Newcastle for poor maintenance and shortages of medication. The cost of bringing the hospital up to standard is believed to be close to $80 million, and rumours of the hospital's closure have been circulating for years.

Since dramatic cuts to federal health funding, hospital management has sought interest from the private sector, hoping to privatise sections of the hospital's operations. One option being considered is a co-located private/public facility.

This proposal has met significant public opposition — in the last five years, one hospital in Newcastle has been closed and Newcastle Hospital has had its budget and operations slashed, pending probable closure.

In a city with rising unemployment and below-average income, few residents have private health insurance and the privatisation of the Mater would leave Newcastle with only one fully operational public hospital.

The Newcastle Herald is campaigning against the privatisation, warning the government that, if the privatisation goes ahead, Trades Hall would ensure that "widespread strikes will hit vital industries in a matter of weeks". The 30 unions affiliated to Trades Hall have stated their total opposition, even to discussions about privatisation, and demanded that the state government provide $1.5 million immediately to keep the Mater operating.

The union campaign will begin with a public meeting at 7pm on February 2 at the Newcastle Workers Club. A stop-work rally is expected to follow within two weeks. Health unions will be the first to strike. The Mater Nurses Association has called on their Sydney counterparts to lend support.

The day after Trades Hall's announcement, NSW health minister Craig Knowles issued a statement that the government was freezing the privatisation proceedings for the "time being". However, he made no comment on how the hospital will be funded.

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