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Campbell: Young Doctors Cause Cunliffe Headache

Gordon Campbell: Young Doctors Cause Cunliffe Headache

So far, Health Minister David Cunliffe has talked so tough on the young doctors’ pay dispute that any subsequent concession will now look like capitulation. Thankfully, there is major daylight between the two offers : 4 % in each of the next two years is on the table, whereas the claim is for 10 % in each of the next three years – and so plenty of room to move exists on both sides. A government that was so recently willing to boost the pay packets of senior doctors to the tune of a 13.3 % rise over the next three years and throw them a $10,000 ‘ retention’ bonus to boot, clearly must have a compromise figure in mind this time as well.

Cunliffe, after all, chose to be the white knight who crashed the party and signed the cheque for the senior doctors. This time, he has kept out of the negotiations and talked tough from the sidelines. Bring it on, he effectively told the young doctors. “It does not matter whether this strike lasts 2 days or 2 months; this Government is not going to fold,” he told the House on April 17. And then blamed Deborah Powell, the young doctors’ negotiator, for the entire situation.

Why, in his view, young doctors seem to be living the life of Riley. “ I am advised that the average first-year house surgeon earns $88,000 in his or her first year, plus 6 percent superannuation, 6 weeks’ holiday, 2 weeks’ study leave, and free meals. Many workers would consider that a reasonable package for a first-year graduate. “

Not even the Timaru Herald has bought that line. “It is hard to argue against the claims of the doctors – senior or junior,” the paper opined, “Their work is life-saving; the hours often long and antisocial and their skills well above average. “ The Herald did the math : the most junior doctor gets $70,000, MP $126,000, judge $260,000. At the senior level, a doctor can get $250,000, a Cabinet Minister $233,000, a High Court judge $345,000…”

Cunliffe’s decision to talk tough has been driven, of course, by his prior intervention. Once he, as Minister, intervened so dramatically in the DHB management responsibilities concerning the senior doctors, this could hardly fail to embolden the young doctors. True, Cunliffe could claim a certain level of consistency in his approach – the 4-5 % annual percentages plus bonus for the senior doctors is only a bit more than what the DHB negotiator, David Meates is still offering the young doctors.

Even so, having cast aside the usual conventions and crossed the borderline between ministerial governance and the operational processes of the DHB, Cunliffe now has little option but to follow through, and to resolve this situation himself. His prior intervention has framed this dispute. Moreover, the work conditions of young doctors do not demand exactly the same settlement level as senior doctors – that is merely a bureaucratic fiction - and there is plenty of ground on which to pitch a compromise offer.

By hanging tough, Cunliffe may well be hoping the inevitable, eventual deal will land a lot closer to the 4% than the 10%, but his current rhetoric is actually making it less – not more - likely that this will eventuate.


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