“I’m exhausted”, declared West Australian Premier Mark McGowan, announcing his resignation at a press conference on 29 May. So too are the state’s 40,000 nurses, who, under McGowan’s government, have confronted daily staff shortages, declining real wages and attacks on their union.
McGowan follows in the footsteps of a long line of WA premiers who have loyally served the interests of the state’s resource industry capitalists. He leaves behind a legacy of suppressing state public sector wages, a crisis-ridden health system and a juvenile “justice” system that tortures Aboriginal youth.
McGowan’s popularity soared when, during the first two years of the COVID pandemic, he implemented strict border control measures and swift lockdowns to prevent the spread of the virus. These measures put McGowan in conflict with then Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Qantas chairman Alan Joyce and Queensland mining magnate Clive Palmer.
In August 2021, Morrison likened West Australians to cave people, unwilling to venture out from the darkness. Joyce likened the state to North Korea, while Palmer took the government to the High Court in a bid to overturn the border closure. When his case collapsed, Palmer followed with an unsuccessful defamation case against the premier.
But the state’s hard border was popular. In March 2021, Labor romped home with a stunning electoral victory: winning 53 of the state’s 59 lower house seats, the greatest election win of any political party in Australian history.
The hard border was also popular with the state’s mining bosses, whose fly-in fly-out workforce continued to work Pilbara mines around the clock. Following McGowan’s surprise resignation, Hancock Prospecting’s Gina Rinehart, BHP’s Brandon Craig, Mining Resources’ Chris Ellison and Woodside’s Meg O’Neill all lauded McGowan’s role in keeping the state safe for mining investment. All four companies made handsome profits during the pandemic.
Since McGowan became premier in the 2017 election, royalties from the Pilbara mining boom have filled state coffers. In 2021 and 2022, state budget surpluses edged close to $6 billion. McGowan’s latest budget (the premier is also the state treasurer) predicted a $4.2 billion surplus this year.
Yet, amid the commodities-price boom, many West Australians are doing it tough. Last year, Perth’s average household rent increased by 15 percent, the largest increase of any state capital. Decades of under-investment in public housing have fuelled a housing affordability and homelessness crisis.
During the first term of the McGowan government, the state’s public housing stock declined by more than 1,000 dwellings. An investment of $450 million in the latest budget to deliver an 700 additional homes will do little to meet the needs of 19,195 households (34,201 people) on the social housing waiting list.
Showing contempt for public housing residents, McGowan recently defended the lack of housing investment, telling the Budget Estimates Committee that Perth suburban apartment blocks were “ghettos” that gave rise to crime, dysfunction and “huge amounts of drugs and other things”.
McGowan’s comments came just two weeks after he accused rioting children in Perth’s notorious Banksia Hill juvenile detention centre of engaging in a “form of terrorism”. Their protest was the latest in a succession of riots and protests in response to what the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services has described as a series of “cruel, inhumane, and degrading” treatments in the facility’s Intensive Support Unit.
McGowan’s “solution” has been to rebuke “activists” calling for reform, and to transfer “troublemakers” as young as 10 to Unit 18 at Casuarina Prison, a maximum-security adult prison for serious offenders.
First Nations people in WA are sixteen times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous people. At Banksia Hill, three-quarters of the inmates are Indigenous. The state government has refused to disclose how many of the children in Banksia Hill are in its care. However, you don’t have to be a genius to make the connection between high Indigenous incarceration rates, child removal and homelessness.
In March, the West Australian reported that a freedom of information request to the Department of Communities revealed that, over five years to June 2022, at least 1,034 families with 2,262 children were evicted from state housing properties. At least half of the evictees were Indigenous, and Indigenous tenants are more than twice as likely to be evicted as non-Indigenous tenants.
The state government has attempted to defend its record, claiming that families whose tenancy agreements were terminated due to court orders were not being evicted, but were rather leaving “voluntarily”. Whatever the reason for their eviction, housing overcrowding and homelessness are the logical consequence. And these in turn contribute to disproportionately high numbers of Aboriginal children being removed from their families, placed in state care and, all too often, ending up in detention.
Housing advocate Betsy Buchanan describes the state government’s housing policies as a “pipeline to prison”. With its record of evictions, “the current Labor government has only compounded the problem”, she wrote in the West.
McGowan’s legacy is also one of an ailing health system plagued by staff shortages. The state’s health crisis was brought into the spotlight following the tragic death of 7-year-old Aishwarya Aswath after a two-hour wait for treatment at Perth Children’s Hospital emergency department in April 2021.
Despite the hospital’s internal review revealing that staff shortages may have had a role in Aishwarya’s death, hospital management referred two junior nurses and one junior doctor to the health registration body. One nurse was stood down.
As Red Flag reported at the time, “The messaging from executives could not have been clearer: blame the staff and don’t ask questions about the state of the healthcare system”.
In February this year, following a coronial inquest into Aishwarya’s death, which laid bare chronic understaffing in the Children’s Hospital emergency department, the deputy state coroner backed the Australian Nursing Federation’s demand for early implementation of nurse/midwife-patient ratios across all of the state’s public hospitals.
The ANF has consistently argued that bringing hospital staffing levels up to scratch requires raising nurses’ wages. Last November, the ANF defied a gag order by the Industrial Relations Commission and proceeded with a ballot of its members to take strike action.
Public hospital nurses struck throughout the state. Four thousand rallied in front of state parliament, while hundreds more rallied in Albany, Broome, Bunbury, Geraldton and Karratha. Showing his anti-union colours, McGowan rebuked nurses members for allegedly “engaging in unlawful and criminal activities”.
Intimidation from the Industrial Relations Commission soon brought ANF secretary Janet Reah to heel. Following the strike, no further industrial action has eventuated. Yet Reah’s retreat hasn’t stopped the commission from fining the ANF an unprecedented $350,000.
On 26 May, the IRC chief commissioner, Stephen Kenner, labelled the union’s communications with its members as “staggering”, “belligerent noncompliance” and “dripping with contempt”.
The fine and slander by the commission and state politicians are an unprecedented attack on the Australian Nursing Federation, one of few public sector unions prepared to challenge the state government’s below-inflation wages policy. McGowan and health minister Amber Jade Sanderson will long be regarded with contempt by WA nurses.
Indeed, McGowan should be held in contempt by us all.
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