The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation will be holding its 13th Biennial National Conference in Hobart next month. What does the conference entail and why is it important to nurses and midwives across the country? Natalie Dragon investigates.
Angela Manion says she was awestruck at her first ANMF Biennial National Conference in Adelaide in 2001.
“I had just been employed as an organiser and went as an observer to get more of an idea of the running of biennials and what they entail.
“It was a real eye-opener. There were these really strong-minded informative people who were very passionate. I was a clinical hands-on nurse who had no prior exposure to these nurse leaders who were so impressive. I really enjoyed the whole experience.”
The national forum is a great opportunity to network with others and discuss the issues, says Ms Manion, an ANMF Tasmanian Branch workplace representative and former Branch Councillor. “Considering every state and territory is different in the workplace there are often the same issues and it’s encouraging and informative to discuss these with like-minded people.”
“I have seen resolutions put forward and debated – some contentious with people getting their views across in discussions and amendments taken very seriously - which then guide the federal activities for a while.”
Delegates are encouraged to go to gain information but also to have a voice, she says. “Some of the issues do not necessarily affect us but they may in the future. Our Branch Secretary says ‘We don’t go with no opinion’. Even if we know nothing or relatively little about an issue we are encouraged to find out.
“At the national dels’ conference in Brisbane there was a resolution on immunisation. Whether three vaccines should be given together or separated out – I don’t work in that area and didn’t know. There are environmental issues that I’m not all over, such as fracking. You really have to find out and go with your opinion – not to abstain.”
Ms Manion is passionate about workloads and safe staffing. “In my 18 years of nursing it has improved 100% but it still needs to be addressed. People are thrown into the deep end. People are still put into situations which are not particularly safe for anybody. In our hospital we have had grievances about workloads.
“Other professions do not have to miss their breaks or go home half an hour later than they should. Yes, it happens on shifts but it shouldn’t be the standard.
“It’s something I am passionate about – making sure people get what they are entitled to, what their rights are and to have a good experience as a nurse. I had a really great experience early on in my career, it was busy but I was around positive, inspiring nurses. I want everyone to have that experience.”
The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) is Australia’s largest union with over 259,000 nurses who are members of the union in one of the
eight Branches established in each state and territory.
The ANMF Biennial National Conference brings together nominated delegates from each Branch in a forum for consideration and debate on matters of national policy, ANMF Federal Secretary Lee Thomas says.
“It helps to inspire and create enthusiasm amongst members. Whilst it’s not a policy making body as such, it does help set the future direction for the ANMF Federal Executive on the issues that matter to members the most.”
Similar to state and territory ANMF Branch conferences, delegates present, discuss and debate resolutions on industrial, professional, political and social justice issues. The motions usually relate to national matters but can be state based, particularly if a Branch is seeking national support on an issue.
“We are generally all on the same page at the biennial national,” says ANMF Federal President and QNMU President Sally-Anne Jones. “The biennial national feels different than the state dels’. It’s more of the vision of the ANMF as a whole - uniting branches and the whole country on federal issues.
“It’s not so much about pay entitlements but the plight of workers in aged care and the community care sectors. Not so much about our night shift penalty rates but getting nurses to the bedside in aged care.”
It’s a “magical opportunity” every two years, says Ms Jones. “Nurses and midwives need to be inspired, away from the day to day drudgery and the challenges of doing union work which are not clear when you are having a bad day on the ward. Nurses and midwives need those messages that give them goosebumps – something that inspires.
“I think it gives Branch officials the opportunity to get together – the true rank and file nurses who are councillors, frontline nurses and midwives who get a chance to get together in their elected positions.”
It’s the only opportunity where workplace delegates get together nationally to discuss things of importance to them and to represent their state and territory branches, ANMF Senior Federal Industrial Officer Nick Blake says.
“Industrially I think the bulk of the delegates work in hospitals but the issues are consistent across the whole of the profession – staffing levels, workloads, precarious employment and issues that arise from gender. It’s a good opportunity to get together and debate and discuss those type of issues.
“While the delegates’ conference is not a policy-binding forum it provides clear direction to the Branches and the federation about what the priorities the delegates see for the next two years.
“I don’t think there has been a resolution passed that has been knocked back from Federal Executive. If there are contentious issues, they are usually sorted out on the floor.”
Acting ANMF Tasmanian Branch President James Lloyd considers the resolutions the highlight at the Biennial National Conference.
“It really inspires me – the level of passion and debate. It is quite refreshing; it’s really democratic. People agreeing and disagreeing and reaching common ground.
I found it really empowering. It made me see there is a united movement in nursing around Australia.”
Mr Lloyd says he gets inspiration from other states. “How they are doing it, how things are worse or how things are better - even how they have done their campaigning, such as how they have done their posters. I am always inspired by posters.
“Queensland had a poster of a nurse in a traditional white uniform with her back turned saying: ‘nurses are worth it’.”
Mr Lloyd says his passion locally is safe staffing and graduate nurses – making sure hospitals are correctly and adequately staffed.
“We are trying to get nurse to patient ratios in Tasmania. In our last EBA we got the government to agree to nurse patient ratios and we are still working through final details. But in principle government has agreed.”
He says the Biennial National Conference enables nurses and midwives to have a voice and to influence the direction of nursing. “I found it could really give me a voice, a lift up and really inspired me.
It’s good to go and have your voice heard and hear the other voices and see that we are a lot of people having the same problems.”
Mr Lloyd has been on the ANMF Tasmanian Branch Council for the past six years.
“I was at the stage in my life where I wanted to have a voice and wanted to start to affect change in my profession. Someone on Branch Council tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘Branch Council will give you the voice that you want’.
“I think Branch Council does give me a voice and allows me to affect change in nursing in Tasmania. I cannot do that individually. I want to advocate for change for those at the coalface - what the the reality is like for nurses at the bedside.”
ANMF Federal Vice President Lori-anne Sharp says the Biennial National Conference is an opportunity to vet with interstate colleagues. “It’s fantastic to learn about other issues and challenges for our state
and territory comrades – from remote Australia to Tasmania. We get to share our experiences and knowledge – we get to reflect on our practices and problem-solving.
“As a Victorian nurse and member of the ANMF Victorian Branch Executive with a high density membership, it’s important to be mindful of the issues of smaller Branches and the struggles they have in their workplaces.”
As a team coordinator at the RDNS Homeless Program, Ms Sharp is passionate about social justice. “Equity in healthcare and that everyone has access to universal healthcare regardless of their circumstances – that everyone has the same lot.”
Victoria’s proposed Choices in Assisted Dying legislation will be topical at the national biennial with debate scheduled in state Parliament, says Ms Sharp. Open and supportive, she considers there are clear and concise guidelines to the legislation.
“I think it is a well-considered report with plenty of safeguards and targets those in extreme suffering with less than 12 months prognosis. I think when people are given a choice it empowers them and gives them the right to self-determination.
“It allows for nurses and doctors to have a conscientious objection if they do not want to partake. I think as nurses potentially we could be the leaders in this area.”
Member of the ANMF SA Branch Executive Lynn Croft says there are always top quality speakers at the Biennial National Conference.
“Really interesting speakers. You leave feeling re-energised and go back to work inspired talking to colleagues about local and national issues.
“There are often international speakers where we get to benchmark against where we are nationally. At the Biennial National Conference it’s a national agenda and it’s always nice to throw a politician in there and get them on the spot – to talk about what their beliefs are and their political platform – all in good humour.”
ANMF SA Branch Councillor and Executive Member Janice Clifford says the Biennial National Conference is a forum that inspires nurses and midwives to action in various campaigns.
“My passion is about nurse safety in the workplace together with safe staffing and skills mix on all shifts and we continue to fight for these goals.
“We all wanted to get on board the ‘Strike Train’ when Brett Holmes told us of their EB campaign – such a powerful and well organised event.”
Members had enthusiastically participated in events at Biennial National Conference, says Ms Clifford. “Such as the rally in Brisbane to protest about unheralded staff cuts, the ‘Because We Care’ campaign in Sydney in our t-shirts we greeted the Minister for Ageing, and Adelaide last biennial where we stood behind a banner about asylum seekers saying we shall not be silenced.”
Power of the movement
Vice-President of the ANMF ACT Branch and former workplace delegate Shane Carter says the last national biennial in 2015 was particularly memorable with the plight of refugees and asylum seekers exposed. The gag orders on healthcare workers who cared for those on Christmas and Manus Islands were highlighted by international human rights lawyers.
“The gag orders just went against everything I stand for as a nurse. There are mandatory reporting requirements for neglect that we are required to report yet the federal government’s gag orders on reporting abuses on Manus Island flew in the face of that.
“It really highlighted for me what nursing is all about. Not too many nurses were not prepared to go to jail for it. It shows a movement can overturn government policy.”
Mr Carter says he believes strongly in the union movement and workplace safety.
“I am a mental health nurse and unfortunately it is part of the job and it shouldn’t be. There is exposure to occupational violence and aggression on a daily basis. Unfortunately it’s across the board in nursing and nationwide the levels of assault on nurses is very high.
“I have been off work three times injured and seen some of my co-workers never come back. The bottom line is I don’t like seeing my friends getting hurt – that upsets me.”
Zero tolerance to violence, staffing ratios, and insecure work are all key issues for the profession, he says.
“The nurse to patient ratios campaign ‘ratios save lives’ is important. We know the statistics – the more patients we look after going over a certain ratio, the greater the chances of increased adverse events and it costs more than to put on an extra nurse.”
This year’s hot issue will be what’s happening in the aged care space, says ANMF Federal President Sally-Anne Jones.
“For me it’s getting that third level of worker registered. In light of what’s happening in the community and home care front, and sub-contracting of services to the lowest bidder. It does not guarantee quality; it’s selling off who can provide services at the cheapest price.”
It affects the profession as a whole, argues Ms Jones. “Not registering that third level worker undermines what they do which is nurse people. That’s what they do – they feed people, dress them and care for them with the particular skill set of nursing.”
The consequences of successive federal Budgets had been inadequate funding for aged care, she says.
“The ANMF is launching a massive campaign in the lead up to the federal election. I think many of the resolutions at this year’s biennial national will support the ANMF in lobbying government. It will give power to the ANMF – ‘look at what our members are saying’.”
ANMF Assistant Federal Secretary Annie Butler anticipates Federal Executive will get clear direction this year from members on aged care.
“One of the key issues is safe staffing which means safe staffing for everyone – nurses and midwives, AINs, carers, patients and residents in aged care facilities.”
A key priority is that every vulnerable older person in Australia has access to safe quality care, says Ms Butler.
“We are getting more and more concerned with the lack of safe quality care in residential aged care particularly. We have been talking to delegates going around conferences, building a body of research looking at all aspects of what’s needed to provide proper safe staffing to get quality care.”
This year’s biennial national includes a guest speaker, a demographer. “We are going to be looking at the Census last June 2016. We know the ageing population is an issue. The mantra is that we are getting older, living longer but longer with more disability. We want to know how we sit in Australia compared with other countries,” says Ms Butler.
“We are going to put to a panel of federal politicians and ask them what they think is the answer to ensure safe and quality care in aged care.”
ANMF Federal Vice President Lori-anne Sharp says nurses and midwives need to ensure aged care stays on the forefront of people’s minds.
“We have heard some horrific stories in aged care. It often gets lost when people feel powerless. Give people roles – if they have a relative in aged care ask them to speak or write to their local MP, or ring up the radio station – get them to expose it and get it out there.
“If it’s not in your micro-world you won’t think about it. If one in 10 people get active that will have an impact. Talk about it in incidental conversations with people in the supermarket.”
Bringing about change requires leadership and action, says Ms Sharp. “I think as nurses we are natural leaders, well respected in the community, compassionate and hard-working.
“It’s around finding that confidence to step up into those leadership roles. It’s going to these forums where everyone is a nurse or midwife and where there are those leaders, and pushing yourself a little bit further each time.”
It’s about engaging with others and stepping up to put their resolutions forward, Ms Sharp says.
“Everyone’s voice is encouraged and supported. The national delegates’ fosters an environment for new nurses and gives them an opportunity to see ‘I can do this’ and potentially be mentored by people who have been in the movement a bit longer to then move up and into those roles.”
Victorian ANMF workplace representative Natalie Davis has been a job rep for just over 15 months. She signed up at an ANMF Victorian EBA statewide members meeting at Moonee Valley.
“In my hospital the ballot [to take protected action] was unsuccessful. I really thought that as a collective we could have done more. The person sitting next to me said ‘you should be a job rep’. So I signed up not knowing what to expect.
“The last 15 months I have had training, been to the state dels’ conference and now I am going to the national dels’.”
“I am eager to see how people put forward resolutions and learn what the process is and how to do it. I am going to embrace this opportunity to become the best job rep I can be.”
“I have always been one to stand up and have my say. I am very passionate if something’s not right and in supporting others in my workplace.”
Together with a co-job rep and the ANMF, Natalie has dealt with OHS issues, and signed up people as members.
“Together with my co-job rep we recruited another two job reps and we have worked together to resolve eight of nine OHS issues in our workplace. Our ANMF membership is not 100%. Already myself and another job rep are looking at areas [in the workplace] where there are no job reps and looking at where we might recruit in those areas. We need to have more job reps to be really proactive in our workplace.”
ANMF Tasmanian workplace rep Angela Manion says nurses and midwives should definitely get involved with their union.
“You get information that you do not know you need, until you need it. And the more you understand what your rights are. I get asked something every day about what we are entitled to and how to go about it. I know about the award, the State Services Act, meetings and procedures.”
“Actively we are like a drop in the ocean by ourselves,” says ANMF ACT Branch Vice President Shane Carter.
“To have a voice and be able to use it is so important. It’s really important to join the union, for us to grow in strength and I think that’s happening.”
To read more articles from ANMJ, view the full journal online at https://issuu.com/australiannursingfederation/docs/anmj_september_17_book_issuu