As nurses strike, WA’s Industrial Relation Commission faces its biggest challenge in years

Home Politics As nurses strike, WA’s Industrial Relation Commission faces its biggest challenge in years
As nurses strike, WA’s Industrial Relation Commission faces its biggest challenge in years

Western Australia’s nurses have begun industrial action, striking across the state as their bitter pay dispute with the state government has reached a dead end.

The nurses and their union, the Australian Nurses Federation (ANF), have defied the orders of WA’s Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) in starting the strike, a move that poses serious challenges for the body.

The IRC – a ‘toothless tiger’?

The IRC is an independent, quasi-judicial tribunal established under WA’s Industrial Relations Act, that deals with industrial matters. Its main objective is to prevent and settle industrial or employment disputes.

ANF WA secretary Janet Reah ignored an order to appear before the IRC on Friday morning as the strike began, in open defiance of the Commission – a decision political analyst Peter Kennedy said placed it under pressure.

Political commentator Peter Kennedy analyses WA's tumultuous weekend in politics
Political analyst Peter Kennedy says the IRC has not been tested in quite a while.(News Video)

“If no one from the union appears, that is a direct snub to the Industrial Relations Commission, and does invite a strong response as far as penalties are concerned,” he said.

“Has the Commission got the gumption to assert its authority? 

“In the past, the Industrial Relations Commission has had very strong leadership, and it has exerted the powers that it has been given by legislation.

“But it hasn’t been tested for years now, because of the sort of fairly benign industrial relations atmosphere.

“The challenge for the Commission is whether it’s up to the test to exert the authority that it can, or just sort of let the nursing federation roll over it.”

A woman in a cream dress in front of a sea of people
Janet Reah addresses the crowd of nurses and midwives who walked off the job against the pay dispute.(ABC News: Nic Perpitch)

Mr Kennedy said allowing the ANF to openly ignore directions was something the Commission could not afford.

In the past, the IRC has imposed fines on unions that didn’t follow directions, and has the power to de-register unions.

“All of this is a big test for the Industrial Relations Commission. The test is whether the commission is a toothless tiger, or whether it does have some power,” Mr Kennedy said”

Nurses gather outside a hospital waving signs
Nurses rally in Kalgoorlie over pay and conditions on Friday. (ABC Goldfields: Giulia Bertoglio)

How the IRC handles the ANF will be closely watched by other unions which are considering industrial action.

Shadows of the past loom large for McGowan

This is not the first time the ANF has put a Labor Government in a difficult position, after it threatened to strike three days before the 2005 state election.

That action didn’t eventuate, and Labor was re-elected, with an agreement eventually being struck.

While the political climate is different now, considering the enormous majority the government holds, how McGowan and Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson handle this pay dispute will likely have knock-on effects.

A woman in a red dress speaks at a press conference while a man in a suit watches on.
WA Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson has urged the union to call off strike action.(ABC News: Keane Bourke)

“The government is playing hardball here, because the health industry is a very labour-intensive industry,” Mr Kennedy said.

“Any increase over the norm for the nurses would make a dent on the budget, and it would be watched very closely by other government workers. They’d want the same, they’d talk about comparative wage justice.

ANF a ‘wild card’

“The government is awash with money at the moment but there’s nothing to say that in 12 months’ time, things won’t change very significantly.

“A big pay rise today is locked in to the government’s recurrent expenditure forever and a day. And that’s what they’re very keen to avoid.”

A wide shot of a newspaper advertisement taken out by the WA government about a strike by nurses.
The WA government placed a full-page advertisement in The West Australian newspaper warning about the strike.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

Mr Kennedy said the independence of the ANF is another difficulty for the government, because it cannot be influenced politically, unlike other unions which are closely linked to the Labor Party.

“That’s why it’s a bit of a wild card,” he said.

“The ANF is not affiliated with the Labor Party, unlike the United Workers Union, which covers the lower paid workers in hospitals.

“Because the ANF is not affiliated politically, it can work more freely with both sides of politics, and neither side of politics can afford to ignore it.”

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Thousands of nurses rally outside WA parliament following a failed pay negotiation

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