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Qld dispute escalates as resolute doctors warn of mass exodus

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Queensland public hospitals could be crippled by mass resignations of senior medical staff unless the Newman Government renegotiates employment contracts rejected as intolerable by mass meetings of doctors held at workplaces across the State.

Federal AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton, who has attended numerous meetings of hospital doctors on the issue in recent weeks, said feelings were running high, and many Senior Medical Officers were actively contemplating leaving the public hospital system or the State because of the contracts.

Dr Hambleton warned Queensland Health Minister Lawrence Springborg that the State’s public hospitals would be hit by a mass exodus of specialists unless he changed course.

“The current path the Minister is taking is inevitably going to result in a significant loss of doctors out of the Queensland Health system,” the Federal AMA President said. “I am absolutely confident there’ll be large numbers of resignations.”

The AMA is working closely with the Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation (ASMOF) to galvanise support across the country amid concerns the Queensland contracts could set a very bad precedent for hospital medical staff nationwide.

“The AMA considers this dispute a potential national threat to the medical profession,” Dr Hambleton said. “The underlying motivation for these inferior contracts, and the bullying tactics to get them signed in a hurry, are a threat to all hospital doctors in Australia.”

“We need to win this battle to prevent other governments from trying to impose similar one-sided arrangements on doctors in other states and territories.”

Mass meetings of hospital doctors across Queensland have unanimously rejected the contracts, specialists in Cairns and Townsville have warned they will leave unless there is a change, and a Prince Charles Hospital memo obtained by the Courier-Mail indicates 80 per cent of senior emergency department specialists will resign or cut their hours if the contracts go ahead.

Dr Hambleton said specialists in Cairns were having their homes valued and assessing alternative schools in preparation for a possible walkout.

So far, Minister Springborg has not wavered from his take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to SMOs to sign the contracts.

The AMA is working with ASMOF on the details of an application seeking bargaining orders from the Fair Work Commission, potentially bringing SMOs within the jurisdiction of the Federal industrial relations system and shielding them from the State’s contracts.

Dr Hambleton has also offered to hold talks with Queensland Premier Campbell Newman.

A joint AMA-AMAQ-ASMOF “Keep Our Doctors” campaign has been established, backed by a website (http://keepourdoctors.com.au/) and Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/keepourdoctors), and the AMA has so far had more than 1000 responses to a survey of the attitude of members outside Queensland to the contracts being offered by Queensland Health.

The resolve of doctors to force changes has been stiffened by legal advice obtained by AMA Queensland showing the contracts in the present form were “draconian”, unfair, and stripped doctors of basic workplace rights and protections.

In his advice, prominent Queensland barrister Dan O’Gorman SC said the contracts offered SMOs inferior terms and conditions to those they already had, including accrued days off, public holidays, rosters for working extended hours, and overtime and on-call allowances.

In addition, SMOs could be arbitrarily dismissed, with no recourse to unfair dismissal procedures, they could be subject to arbitrary and unilateral changes to rosters, shifts, hours of work, remuneration and performance review, and face the possibility of being redeployed at short notice without consultation.

Dr Hambleton said the contracts were an attack on the basic workplace rights and conditions of hospital doctors, and accused Mr Springborg of treating them with the “utmost contempt”.

He warned the dispute had unsettled the entire Queensland medical workforce.

AMA Queensland President-elect Dr Shaun Rudd, who has assumed full responsibility for leading the campaign on behalf of AMAQ, has written to Hospital Health Services (HHS) across the State warning that the contracts in their present form posed “a very real threat to the viability of your HHS”.

“Recent surveys show an overwhelming majority of SMOs are so concerned about the contracts they plan to reduce their hours, resign or take some other action,” Dr Rudd wrote. “It is vitally important that your HHS Board considers if it is prepared to impose these unfair contracts and suffer the consequences for recruitment, retention, training, research and clinical services.”

A spokesman for the Senior Medical Staff Association of the Cairns and Hinterland Health Service, anaesthetist Dr Sean McManus, told the ABC up to a 1000 SMOs working in Queensland Health may resign if forced to sign the contracts in their present form.

ASMOF President Dr Tony Sara said such a mass exodus of doctors would cause chaos in the public hospital system.

Dr Sara told the Courier-Mail that although patients in need of emergency treatment would continue to receive timely treatment, “elective surgery would grind to a halt”.

The Australasian Society for Emergency Medicine is the latest medical group advising its members not to take up offers to work in the Queensland public hospital system unless the contracts are renegotiated.

In a notice to members, the Society said the State Government’s current offer was “deeply flawed, denies natural justice and leave individual doctors in a perilous position…there will be significant adverse effects on staff retention”.

The notice follows similar advice from other medical groups across Australia and internationally warning doctors to steer clear of Queensland unless or until employment contracts are revised.

Prominent Federal MP Bob Katter, the Member for Mount Isa, has joined the fray, writing to Mr Springborg to warn him of a likely mass exodus of senior public hospital doctors, consultants and specialists because of the contracts.

“I’ve had 85 emails from senior doctors throughout Queensland over the last week or so, and every single one of them said they would seriously consider leaving Queensland Health unless the Government makes an effort to re-negotiate these contracts,” Mr Katter said. “This is not about money; it’s about senior doctors being coerced into signing a contract that appears to be manifestly unfair and removes any enterprise bargaining and other employment rights.”

“No wonder doctors have sought legal advice, and no wonder the advice is, ‘Don’t sign’.”

Mr Katter said he was particularly concerned about the effect on Mount Isa Hospital, which he said was especially vulnerable if senior doctors left and sought work elsewhere.

Adrian Rollins