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Call for calm as Queensland contracts dispute enters dangerous territory

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The AMA has called for an immediate moratorium on the controversial Senior Medical Officer contracts being rolled out by Queensland Health as President Dr Steve Hambleton urged the resumption of negotiations to resolve the dispute.

In an unexpected escalation of the dispute, Queensland Health late last week sought a Federal Court injunction to stop the AMA, the Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation and Together Queensland providing their members with what it said was inaccurate and misleading information regarding to proposed contracts.

Dr Hambleton said the legal action was disappointing, and denied the AMA had been misleading its members.

“I’ve been attempting to be very careful about presenting the facts to the doctors to make sure they’ve got a fair opportunity to make a fair decision,” the AMA President said.  

After signs of progress, the contract dispute descended into acrimony late last month when a mass meeting of public hospital doctors at the Brisbane Convention Centre rejected an offer by Health Minister Lawrence Springborg, prompting a belligerent response by Premier Campbell Newman in Parliament.

In comments that inflamed the dispute, Mr Newman accused the doctors of being motivated by money, and warned the Government would recruit doctors from overseas to replace any who resigned from the public hospital system.

“It is about money and remuneration, it is about pay and conditions, it is about collective bargaining, and not about patients,” the Premier said, adding that the doctors involved were not “lowly workers on a factory floor [but people who were] highly trained [and] well remunerated”.

“If people do choose to resign, we will have in place arrangements to replace those people, and if we have to recruit people from interstate or overseas, we shall,” Mr Newman said. “Do not doubt the Government’s resolve. Do not doubt that we will see this thing through.”

Dr Hambleton said that the breakdown in goodwill on both sides meant the dispute had entered dangerous and uncertain territory, and called for cooler heads to prevail to get negotiations back on track and avoid serious and long-lasting damage to the State’s health system.

“It is not time to put petrol on the fire,” the AMA President said. “There is a very real possibility of mass resignations by highly-qualified and dedicated senior doctors who have lost trust in the process to date.”

Dr Hambleton said that, contrary to the views of some, any doctors who did resign would not be easily or quickly replaced, and it was time for all involved to take a step back and proceed more calmly.

The pressure of short timeframes for detailed discussions and an unrealistic deadline for an agreement brought things to a head,” he said. “There was no time for the doctors to absorb the complexity of the changes being offered by the Government.

“We have now had sufficient time for everybody to vent their emotions and frustrations, and let their cool heads and clear thinking prevail.

“The right thing for the Queensland people is for a return to the negotiations to re-establish the goodwill and momentum that was producing genuine progress.”

Prior to the breakdown in talks, Mr Springborg had offered to issue a directive removing the ability of the Queensland Health Director-General to unilaterally alter employment conditions, and to introduce an addendum to the contracts to establish binding dispute resolution procedures, to ban transfers without consultation and to provide for unfair dismissal processes.

In addition, Queensland Health Director-General Ian Maynard said the changes would be backed variations to the Hospital and Helath Boards Act 2011, and the implementation of the contracts would be subject to an independent review after 12 months.

Dr Hambleton said the AMA and senior doctors were not opposed to contracts, but they must be fair and equitable.

He called for a suspension of the roll-out of the contracts to allow for negotiations in good faith.

The Government has demanded that doctors sign the contracts, which are due to come into effect on 1 July, by the end of April or risk forgoing up to 30 per cent of their pay.

The AMA President warned it could be “catastrophic” if the dispute was not settled by the end of the month.

“I really think we have to pull out all stops. The consequences of not getting it resolved are just unthinkable,” he said. “It took two years to fix Caboolture Hospital when we couldn’t get doctors to attend in that location, and if that happened in more than one location, it would be catastrophic. So it has to be fixed.”

Adrian Rollins

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