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Letter From Elsewhere: Bang, Bang, You’re Dead

Letter From Elsewhere by Anne Else

Bang, Bang, You’re Dead

I’ve just heard a Pentagon spokeswoman say something extraordinary. She was talking about a US missile strike on what was initially claimed to be a group of Al-Qaeda members in the pile of rubble formerly known as Afghanistan.

“We’re convinced it was an appropriate target,” she said. “We’re just not sure yet what it was.”

Brilliant. At one stroke, she summed up most of US foreign policy. In fact, she neatly encapsulated the essence of New Right policy generally.

I’m sure the people who so enthusiastically put the National Government’s health reforms into practice were convinced they had appropriate targets in their sights, too. If you pressed them, they would rave on for hours about Waste, and Provider Capture, and Over Staffing. It never seemed to occur to them that real live doctors and nurses were every bit as scarce and precious a resource as, say, Air New Zealand directors.

What was going through their minds, when they wrecked the nursing career structure, ruined working conditions, tore up award rates and drove even senior nursing salaries down to around the same levels as Southern Cross call centre staff? I can tell you exactly what they were thinking.

“Nurses are women”, they thought. “Being nurses is what women are for. Women don’t mind training for years at vast personal expense, then doing all that hard, responsible work for next to nothing. It comes naturally to them. Florence Nightingale probably never got paid at all. Nurses don’t need career structures and decent salaries. They love looking after people. Hey, if we were really clever, we could probably get them to pay us for the privilege of doing it.”

So what did they achieve? Well, nurses are leaving the country in droves – close to 1900 last year. That’s just slightly fewer than the current hospital shortage of around 2000 nurses. The ones who haven’t left, yet, are doing unheard of things like going on strike.

I don’t know when it’s going to sink in that there is no longer an endless, uncomplaining, self-sacrificing supply of intelligent young women to top up our hospital wards. Schools are feeling the pinch, too, but some of the reasons are different. The primary teachers’ union, the NZEI, won an amazing victory under the National Government, managing to get the same rate for teachers with the same qualifications, regardless of how old their pupils were.* Teachers also hung on to national awards, avoiding the ludicrous situation nurses are now in, where what you get paid depends on which board you work for.

Incredibly, the New Right die-hards are still calling for tax cuts. When it comes to health care, I reckon most people would be happy to pay a bit more tax, not less, if they knew their money was going where it was most needed, and the care would be there when they needed it. A dedicated health tax would probably win wide support. It would be far cheaper than private health insurance.

Yes, just like the Pentagon, the New Right definitely hit something. They’re just not quite sure what it was. Unfortunately the New Left doesn’t seem too sure either. They’ve sent out a few search parties, and fired off a few more rounds of restructuring, just to be on the safe side. But the piles of rubble where there was once a health system seem to be getting higher by the day.

* For an incredibly gripping, well written account of this campaign (well, I would say that, wouldn’t I) read A Question of Shoe Size, by Harvey McQueen (with Anne Else), published in 2001 by NZEI.

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