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Thursday, 5 December 1985
Page: 3026


Senator VIGOR —My question of the Minister representing the Minister for Health relates to the Government's refusal to accede to Commissioner Caesar's request that he be allowed to examine staffing levels in the Australian Capital Territory health system. On what grounds did the Government last night refuse to agree to a review by the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission of the circumstances-in particular, nurse staffing levels-which gave rise to the present nurses dispute in the Australian Capital Territory? Given that apparently no extra funds will be available in 1985-86, and that hence no extra nurses will be employed, can the Minister provide details of the nature and extent of the reduction in health services to the residents of the Australian Capital Territory in the second half of 1985-86?


Senator GRIMES —The Minister for Health has in fact agreed to set up an independent inquiry to deal with the issues arising out of the current industrial dispute involving members of the Royal Australian Nursing Federation and to implement recommendations on the issue of nurses' work loads immediately that inquiry reports. The second term of reference of the inquiry relates to nursing staff resources. The Minister agreed some days ago to place these recommendations before the Government in the context of the development of the 1986-87 Budget. I do not think that he can do otherwise.

Yesterday Commissioner Caesar offered to undertake this inquiry if all the parties to the dispute would agree to abide by his recommendations. The Minister for Health sensibly welcomes the involvement of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission in the area of its jurisdiction. However, Dr Blewett pointed out that, as Commissioner Caesar noted in his statement of 26 November, the jurisdiction of the Commission is with industrial matters. The Minister said that he would not be able to make a commitment for extra resources without first taking such a recommendation to the Government, and that would be possible only within the context of the 1986-87 Budget. The Government has funded the Australian Capital Territory Health Authority to a level that enables it to maintain its services in 1985-86 at the same level as last year. We do not believe that there is any case for an increase in funding beyond that level in this financial year, so that is the reason why Dr Blewett could not make that commitment. No government could make the sort of commitment for which Commissioner Caesar asked. Days before that we had agreed to set up an independent inquiry of the type that Senator Vigor and Commissioner Caesar obviously think is needed.

We certainly wish this ongoing dispute to be settled. The difficulty for nurses at the moment is that more and more nurses are returning to work. My understanding is that yesterday more nurses were at work at the Royal Canberra Hospital than work could be found for. That is the situation of the dispute at the moment. I will seek further information from the Minister if Senator Vigor needs it.


Senator VIGOR —I have a supplementary question. Following the Minister's answer, I would like to know when the Parliament can expect accurate information on the recent reported daily imbalances between nursing needs and nursing staff hours available in the Australian Capital Territory?


Senator GRIMES —I will seek that information from the Minister for Health, as I said, and provide it for Senator Vigor. We do not want to have a situation where half of the staff of the Australian Capital Territory Health Authority are providing information for answers to Senator Vigor's questions in the way that he apparently thinks other departments can.