Ian McPhee’s cardiac arrest was another crisis point in years of struggle. Photo: Paul HarrisAt 6 o’clock one Friday night last year, Ian McPhee was given five minutes to live.
Dr McPhee, an anaesthetist, had suffered a cardiac arrest after a medical procedure went catastrophically wrong, leaving his heart with no blood to pump.
“They said only five more minutes,” he recalls a doctor at the Royal Melbourne Hospital telling his distraught wife Kath, who is a nurse, that night in August. “That’s it. If he’s not resuscitated in five minutes, that’s it”.
It was another crisis point in years of struggle for Dr McPhee with Sezary syndrome – a skin-based cancer that affects only two or three ns each year.
The disease has burdened him with rounds of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant that required the prior “destruction” of his immune system.
That led to the emergence of three major viruses and later, multiple organ failure. A subsequent liver biopsy led to the “five minutes” crisis.
Devastatingly, the bone marrow transplant failed. Weeks later Dr McPhee endured the irradiation of his skin “from the soles of my feet to the tip of my head” in a bid to eradicate tumours.
Briefly in remission, today Dr McPhee’s prognosis is uncertain. “It would seem to have recurred,” he says of the cancer.
He is still facing death, only now it is very much on his terms.
In March, the 62-year-old, from Tweed on the NSW far north coast, contacted Melbourne-based physician Rodney Syme, who after an initial assessment has “provisionally” agreed to provide a drug, Nembutal, to Dr McPhee to use if he decides to end his life.
Provision of the drug is a legal grey area and Dr McPhee’s wife and four adult children, who support his decision, may face police questioning in the aftermath.
In three weeks, Dr McPhee and his family will travel to Melbourne to make final arrangements with Dr Syme. The drug will not be handed over, but the pair will remain in touch until such time as he decides to take the option.
Making the arrangements will not be a difficult process, he says. Rather, “there will be great comfort”.
Dr McPhee knows there is a chance he might never need to use the drug, but says the comfort is derived from knowing it is there should the moment arrive.
“If I’m in a position such as the one I was in last year of overwhelming, unrelenting discomfort, either physical or existential, with no hope of a way out of that, then that is the moment,” he says.
Dr McPhee is an advocate for voluntary assisted dying legislation.
The NSW Legislative Council is due to consider a bill this month. If passed into law, it would allow terminally ill NSW residents aged at least 25 to end their own lives with medical assistance.
A patient must be likely to die of their illness within 12 months, the decision signed off by two medical practitioners and the patient assessed by an independent psychiatrist or psychologist.
Dr Ian McPhee with wife Kath and their dog Jack at their home in northern NSW. Photo: Paul Harris
MPs from the major parties will be granted a conscience vote. While advocates are hopeful it will pass the upper house, they acknowledge the numbers are tight.
The bill, conceived by a cross-party working group of state MPs, has prompted fierce debate and lobbying from both sides.
As part of its campaign in support of the legislation, the group Dying with Dignity NSW has filmed a video with Dr McPhee.
The Catholic Church has mobilised a grassroots campaign against voluntary assisted dying laws in NSW, with parishioners, school staff and parents urged to petition MPs.
The anti-euthanasia organisation HOPE is also active, arguing that such laws “would pose a very real threat to the disabled, the elderly, those with mental health issues and those ns, including young people, struggling with suicidal ideation.”
Dr Ian McPhee says making the arrangements to end his life would not be a difficult process. Photo: Paul Harris
The medical profession has been forced to take a position.
Last December the n Medical Association updated its policy to one which “maintains the position that doctors should not be involved in interventions that have as their primary intention the ending of a person’s life”.
But it adds: “The AMA acknowledges that laws in relation to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are ultimately a matter for society and government”.
Should governments decide to change the law, the AMA policy states doctors “must be involved in development of the relevant legislation, regulations and guidelines”.
The NSW AMA, however, has taken a firm position against voluntary euthanasia, putting Dr McPhee – for the time being at least – at odds with the professional association.
The division’s council is due to consider in detail the NSW assisted dying legislation at a meeting next week.
“We feel that in the majority of cases palliative care is the appropriate way to manage death and dying, accepting that it’s not perfect,” says NSW AMA president Brad Frankum.
Professor Brad Frankum, NSW president of the AMA, has taken a firm position against voluntary euthanasia. Photo: Hayden Brotchie Photography
However, as a physician, Dr McPhee feels voluntary assisted dying is consistent with the medical principle of “first, do no harm”.
While he believes it “remains absolutely critical” that palliative care is supported, he says not all pain and suffering can be managed successfully that way.
He points out that for the past 20 years he has also run an acute pain service.
“So you could argue that one of the tasks I have had in medicine is to relieve pain to alleviate suffering,” Dr McPhee says. “And I see this as no different”.
Dr Syme, who is vice-president of Dying With Dignity Victoria, tells Fairfax Media he assessed Dr McPhee as a suitable patient because “he faces an appalling death”.
It has never been tested in court, but he disagrees that what he does is illegal.
This, he believes, was borne out in his successful appeal last December in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal which overturned the Medical Board of decision to prohibit him from providing advice to terminally ill patients.
Dr Syme says the aim with all of his patients “is to try and help them to go as far with their lives as they possibly can”.
Physician Rodney Syme says his intention is to improve patients’ quality of life.
Providing them with the knowledge they can access a life-ending drug relieves the intense psychological distress suffered by many patients, he says.
“Whether a person takes the medication I might give them is their intention, not mine,” he says.
“I argue that it is not my intention ever to persuade somebody to end their own life. My intention is to improve the quality of their life, to give them control. So I argue that I am not breaking the law”.
Ultimately, Dr McPhee said, the difference that passage of the NSW bill into law would make is significant for someone in his situation, including that he would not need to travel to be a patient of Dr Syme’s.
He would have the option of engaging with his local GP and dying at the time of his choice in the community he has lived in for 25 years.
In the meantime he is secure in the knowledge his plan will be in place.
“The time when I had multiple organ failure was hell; it was as awful as I can imagine any end of life,” he says. “I know I don’t want that again.”
Beneath an enormous sperm whale skeleton suspended in the n Museum’s Wild Planet Gallery, politicians and corporate bosses mingled over canapes, discussing sea level rises.
They had come to the March soiree for an “exclusive” parliamentary screening of Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate change documentary, Before the Flood.
Organiser Kristina Photios pulled quite the crowd.
Photios, a former business strategist, had made headlines three months before when she quit the Liberal Party in despair over federal climate policy.
But there were Liberals aplenty at the museum, such as state Attorney General Mark Speakman and Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton, who gave a speech. Party elder Philip Ruddock attended, as did former premier Nick Greiner, the soon-to-be federal Liberal Party president.
And in the throng stood Photios’ husband Michael, the long-time factional controller of the party’s left, which had helped install a premier and a prime minister in the preceding 18 months.
The success of that night, Kristina said, encouraged her to found an organisation advocating “centre-right” solutions to existential environmental problems: Conservatives for Conservation.
Now, with Ruddock and Greiner as ambassadors, the not-for-profit group is pushing for more renewable energy just as the issue threatens to rend the federal Coalition apart.
Kristina is known for her passion for the environment, describing it to Fairfax Media as “the cause I have dedicated my life to pursuing”.
Conservatives for Conservation has also served as a platform for powerful companies that have recently paid Kristina and Michael as professional lobbyists. That includes the energy generator and retailer AGL, ‘s largest emitter, now pivoting from coal toward solar and wind farms.
A month after the museum event, Kristina told Facebook followers she was working for Clean Energy Strategies, her new lobbying firm specialising in renewable energy and climate policy. Around the same time she rejoined the Liberal Party, in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s local electorate.
Chief scientist Alan Finkel called in June for an increase in renewable energy driven by a “clean energy target”. And Kristina’s clients stand to make a lot of money from the introduction of a target, which could secure hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment in the sector.
But it is a divisive policy for the federal government. Turnbull is mulling how he might introduce a target without enraging elements of his party’s hard right, for whom wind farms are about as popular as Kristina’s left-faction husband.
Two months after the release of Finkel’s review, Kristina’s Conservatives for Conservation brought 90 corporate and political guests together for a “Finkel Report Brief” in a theatre in NSW parliament house.
The event’s host, upper house Liberal member Shayne Mallard would go on to tell parliament of the stimulating debate among the the “fantastic”, “diverse” panel.
Three senior businessmen sat on the four-person panel, representing AGL, the multinational technology company Siemens and the law firm Norton Rose Fullbright.
AGL has pushed for the n government to adopt a clean energy target as the company moves toward non-coal energy investments worth billions.
Siemens is another heavy investor in new energy technology while Norton Rose Fulbright describes itself as a “powerhouse” of energy advice.
What the audience paying $65 a head for the Finkel briefing was not told was that all three businesses were registered clients of the Photios’ lobbying firms.
AGL and Siemens were registered to Kristina’s Clean Energy Strategies while Norton Rose Fulbright was listed against one of Michael’s companies.
Kristina told Fairfax Media there was nothing to disclose.
“There is no commercial connection between Conservatives for Conservation and Clean Energy Strategies,” she said, ruling out any “cross promotion”.
Asked how the companies came to appear on her panel, she said “Conservatives for Conservation, in its infancy, identified leading experts within its network in the energy sector.”
AGL and Siemens distanced themselves from Clean Energy Strategies, claiming they had no commercial relationship with the firm, despite the register disclosures.
AGL said its involvement finished before the Finkel brief, while Siemens said its contract was with Michael’s sister firm. Norton Rose Fulbright said the invitation to attend came from Kristina, not her husband.
Michael, a former minister who quit NSW parliament in 1999, stepped down in February from from his role as leader of the NSW moderates.
But he still wields considerable influence within the party.
And through a series of lobbying firms he and his business partners represent some of the nation’s biggest companies, including large coal interests such as Coal Energy and the miner Glencore.
The Clean Energy Strategies website promotes Michael as a “managing partner” offering “contemporary and extensive government networks”.
“Michael from time to time provides strategic advice to clients of Clean Energy Strategies,” Kristina said.
But Michael told Fairfax Media he had stepped back from his role.
“I’ve until recently been a partner in the business and over the last few weeks the company has been in transition and Kristina has taken full ownership and responsibility for the company,” he said.
Despite having listed himself as a Clean Energy Strategies lobbyist as a “precaution”, he said “I have not been actively engaged in lobbying on behalf of clients of the company.”
A third Clean Energy Strategies lobbyist, Ian Hancock, also works for Michael’s firm Capital Hill, which represents coal interests, while sitting on the Conservatives for Conservation committee.
Kristina said possible conflicts of interest were managed under a strict policy.
While she is now her firm’s sole shareholder, taking over from Michael and his business partners, Clean Energy Strategies remains close to the other firms, sharing a floor in Sydney’s MLC building.
When Fairfax Media called Clean Energy Strategies’ office, a voice answered “Capital Hill?”
The new outfit was still waiting for its own line.
05.08.17 The AgeEssendonBooking 142697Photo shows Margaret Tighe from Right to Life at her home in Essendon.Photo: Scott McNaughton . 3rd APRIL 2012- NEWS- STORY EWA KRETOWICZ – THE CANBERRA TIMES- PHOTO BY MELISSA ADAMS.Archbishop Mark Coleridge appointed Archbishop of Brisbane.
The Catholic Church in is fighting on three fronts – same-sex marriage, euthanasia and education funding – that will test its influence both inside and outside the church, with the people in the pews and the politicians and powerbrokers.
Legalised same-sex marriage seems inevitable, euthanasia is back on the legislative agenda in Victoria and NSW, and the federal government has calculated that it can get away with an attack on funding for Catholic schools.
The church’s prospects seem precarious in all three – two moral issues and one about money – and there are even deeper challenges in declining Mass attendance, especially by young people, and the catastrophic damage done by the sexual abuse scandals.
Some hostile observers have speculated gleefully that the bishops have become detached from their flocks, the church is losing its social influence and its vaunted political clout is on the wane. Arguments can be made for each claim, but with an organisation as vast and complex as the Catholic Church one should be wary of simplistic conclusions.
Same-sex marriage is certainly not a crisis for the church as a whole. A few bishops have invested heavily in opposing it, but a poll published in Fairfax Media shows that they have failed to convince most of ‘s 5 million Catholics, with two thirds planning to vote in favour if the plebiscite is held. Meanwhile, two prestigious Catholic schools (St Ignatius College in Sydney and Xavier College in Melbourne) have cautiously endorsed the Yes vote.
Catholics see euthanasia as a far more important issue, and n society is more divided. Its greater weight is evident in the way the campaigns have been run, according to Paul Russell, executive director of anti-euthanasia group Hope.
The church’s same-sex opposition has been led from the top down, with the bishops leading the fight, while euthanasia opposition has come from the bottom up. Bottom-up is always more effective, Russell says, and the importance of this approach was evident when his group was instrumental in halting a euthanasia bill in South that was eventually defeated only by the Speaker’s casting vote.
“If euthanasia is passed today, people will die tomorrow,” Russell says. “My organisation is mobilising the grass roots, including other churches, and getting them to lobby MPs. It’s really important that MPs hear from their constituents. In these debates everything is local, except for public care specialists and doctors – there’s universality in what they say.”
Father Joe Parkinson, director of the L.J. Goody Bioethics Centre in Perth, says same-sex marriage is about family, children, personal happiness, fulfilment and hope – it’s positive. “Euthanasia is about dying, the end of life, what do we do when there seems to be no hope, when the future becomes dark? The real issue isn’t about pain and suffering, death in the clinical sense. We’ve over-medicalised the dying process, and euthanasia is the ultimate medicalisation of dying,” he says.
“What worries me and a lot of people, if we medicalise that moment of mystery that we all have to negotiate, [is] what do we medicalise next? In the process we lose our humanity.”
Parkinson observes that same-sex advocates have run a highly engineered, well-resourced debate over years. “Even on a good day, the bishops would be hard put to respond to same-sex marriage in a way that improved their standing. But euthanasia advocates are much less well-resourced and organised, and have nothing new from 10 years ago.”
On the question of funding for Catholic schools, church strategists know they are in for a fight, but – as with euthanasia – believe they can win. Catholic schools, like Catholic hospitals and welfare agencies, have not suffered the loss of moral authority that the religious leaders have, and are a key tool by which the church wields influence.
Paradoxically, the church hierarchy has probably maintained a stronger influence in the political arena than in the pews.
In a television interview around 2005, Cardinal George Pell was asked: if he picked up the phone and rang John Howard, would the prime minister take his call? A somewhat embarrassed Pell eventually conceded that the answer was yes. Then Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen privately confided at the time that he too preferred to work behind the scenes, and had good access to political leaders.
So would Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull take a call from Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, ‘s senior Catholic as president of the bishops’ conference? “I think he would, and Bill Shorten too,” says veteran commentator and broadcaster Geraldine Doogue.
“I think politicians are still listening to the church. The business of Simon Birmingham and Catholic schools suggests the church has not lost its clout. But the Catholic Church has always known how to play power politics, and that’s not over yet.”
It has also had allies inside parliaments, particularly Tony Abbott in the Coalition government. It’s not that he takes instructions from the church, as some have alleged, but that he shares their values and vision of what a flourishing society looks like. And Abbott and other Catholic MPs are far more skilful in dealing with the media than are the bishops.
Even so, the church’s influence behind the scenes is something of a myth, according to Parkinson. He says that never in his lifetime has a Catholic bishop been able to direct people how to vote.
“It’s never been true that the church could impose its beliefs on n society. Its influence inevitably has changed, but I would expect that, much as the influence of government has shifted. If you compare Menzies’ day to Turnbull – are we even on the same planet?”
Among Catholics, same-sex marriage is just the latest issue in which large numbers are unconvinced by the bishops’ orthodoxy. The gap opened with the reforming 1960s Vatican Council that told Catholics to honour their conscience, and widened with the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, which banned contraception. Vast numbers of otherwise faithful Catholics rebelled, explicitly defying the Pope – a habit that, once begun, seemed easier with practice. Today many, if not most, are at odds with church teaching not just on contraception but divorce, premarital sex, same-sex marriage and even abortion.
Paul Collins, the historian and former Catholic priest, blames the church’s malaise chiefly on Pope John Paul II, however. “I hold him completely responsible for all of this because of the type of bishop he appointed. Most n bishops are good administrators, bureaucrats, but they don’t have any leadership qualities. It’s the same in our political life.”
Doogue agrees that the bishops’ strengths are not those prized in the modern world. “Their job description is changing before their eyes, and they have no idea how to fill it. I don’t think they know how to speak to the modern world. If you look at big secular institutions going through trauma – the Commonwealth Bank, for example – you see that they’ve heard the criticisms. It’s extremely difficult to get that sense from the church.”
It may be evidence of a waning self-confidence among the Catholic hierarchy that Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher and Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge all refused to talk to Fairfax Media for this article (Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe??? is overseas). Hart, in particular, has courageously faced the media in some unpalatable situations and the public on talkback radio, making this reticence surprising.
But it is not surprising if 5 million ns don’t think exactly the same about anything. Dr Bob Dixon, who recently retired as the church’s national research director, says Catholics have always disagreed about important social questions.
“There seems to be a common view that Catholics are like coins from the mint, all required to be identical – or like soldiers in an army who respond unquestionably to the general’s orders. But Catholics, like everyone else, are all different, formed in their opinions by their upbringing, social environment, education, experiences and personality.”
Further, the Second Vatican Council dropped the idea of blind obedience to the church, and instead encouraged Catholics to develop an informed conscience. All that the church has asked since then is that Catholics “must pay careful attention” to the teaching of the church, Dixon says.
Is this in fact what Catholics do? In the 2011 National Church Life Survey, a national random sample of 4219 church-attending Catholics from 217 parishes around were asked how they decided about moral issues, Dixon says. “Twenty-seven per cent of respondents said ‘I always follow the teachings of the church’ and 5 per cent said ‘the teachings of the church do not influence my decisions about moral issues’. But 68 per cent chose the option that most closely reflects the teaching of Vatican II; that is, ‘I look to the teaching of the church for guidance, but then I follow my own conscience’.”
This shift to personal responsibility, he says, has been accompanied by another in the basis of morality, where traditional Catholic natural law is being displaced by a contemporary rights-based morality. “This is particularly evident among younger people, and particularly pertinent in relation to an issue like same-sex marriage.”
According to a senior lay leader who does not want to be named, sexual abuse scandals have so eroded the church’s moral authority that people have stopped listening. But this doesn’t apply on euthanasia, where the church has far more credibility because its wide, no-strings attached healthcare services – including being perhaps the largest palliative care provider in – give it real authority.
The church must also dispel the notion that its arguments are “only” religious. “The idea that any objection is purely religious has been a construct for many debates, including IVF in the 1980s and stem cells in the 1990s. It’s a strategy to put the opposing view as biased, though the other side is not valueless either. But in politics, defining your opponent is a very important skill.”
Veteran campaigner Margaret Tighe, 85, the president of Right to Life, is adamant that the church cannot hide behind the sexual abuse crisis to avoid its moral responsibilities.
“As soon as the church speaks on moral issues, people say, ‘How can you talk?’ But that’s not an excuse to be silent on moral issues. It’s difficult times we live in. Sadly, we’ve lost on the abortion issue, but that’s no reason to give up. I’m sure that by our existence we’ve saved lives.”
Perhaps the first challenge for the leadership, if the Catholic Church is to retain its social influence, is to reconnect with the grassroots.
According to Doogue, the biggest issue facing many Catholics, including herself, is a sort of personal crisis of conscience. “I am personally struggling a lot ethically with how one balances the extraordinary amount of good work and fine displays of love and charity against the much smaller egregious examples. It’s a real conundrum, and it’s preoccupying people in the pews.”
She is also discouraged by the rush to judgment by outsiders, especially young people who are generally anti-institution. “There’s a mood about, make institutions bleed. I find some of it extremely self-righteous and counter-productive. The church, under good leadership, can come back.”
Clearly it is a difficult time to be a devout Catholic. If same-sex marriage passes, it will be a crisis only for a few bishops and a small percentage of Catholics. If euthanasia is legalised, that will mark a shift in societal values that disturbs many Catholics. If they lose on education funding, that will show a serious decline in political clout.
Barney Zwartz, a senior fellow for the Centre for Public Christianity, was religion editor of The Age from 2002 to 2013.
On Sunday we celebrate the 30th anniversary of my book Making Money Made Simple, which was launched in 1987, and has sold over 2 million copies around the world. It’s fascinating to look back 30 years and think about what was like at that time.
Inflation was running at 8 per cent, the cash rate was 11 per cent, and the standard variable rate on a housing loan was 15.5 per cent. That sounds astronomical today, but remember in 1987 the average Brisbane house cost $62,000, which was 2.6 times the average income of $24,000 a year. Today, at $500,000, the average house is equivalent to approximately six times the average full-time income of $80,000 a year.
The 1987 edition of the book had an example of a couple on the average wage who bought the average house and, using one wage to pay off the mortgage, were free of debt in five years. It’s an indicator of the escalating cost of home ownership that, using the same figures today, the average couple after 10 years have just reduced their mortgage to a level where it could be serviced on one income. And yet interest rates in 1987 were three times what they are now.
It does make me extremely concerned when I hear reports in the media that mortgage stress is the worst it has been. If that is the case when interest rates are at historic lows, imagine the chaos if there were substantial rises.
In the book I pointed out that both shares and property, if carefully chosen, had potential for good capital gain: that certainly proved to be correct. Thirty years ago the n All Ordinaries Index was 1765 – despite a series of crashes since then the index has increased three-fold today to almost 6000. But that does not take income into account. If you had invested $50,000 in January 1987 in a fund which matched that index, and reinvested dividends, your portfolio would now be worth $625,000, a return of 9 per cent a year compounded.
But a major theme of the book was fundamental principles, and they have not changed. In the latest edition, just like in the first one, I point out major handicaps to financial independence, such as confusing a good current income with financial independence, the absence of goals, and the “must have now mentality”, which leads people into debt because they borrow for items instead of saving up for them. I also explain that a major difference between financial winners and financial losers is that winners borrow at low rates of interest (tax deductible) to acquire assets like property and shares that tend to rise in value – the losers borrow at high rates of interest (non-tax deductible) for items such as cars and furniture that fall in value.
And, as longtime readers would know, I continually stress the importance of understanding compound interest. To put it simply, how much you have at the end of the investment period depends on both the rate of return, and the length of time the investment program must be in place.
In 1987, I illustrated this with a riddle about a lily in a pond. If the lily starts as a tiny speck, and doubles every day, how long would it take to go from filling a quarter of the pool to filling it all? The answer is two days. It would go from a quarter to a half on the ninth day, and from half to completely filling the pool on the 10th day. Imagine if that lily was your savings program and you had to stop on the eighth day because you retired. You would have lost three quarters of what you could have achieved if the time was just 20 per cent longer.
Yes, 30 years have passed, and economic conditions are dramatically different. Nobody knows what they might be in another 30 years – what we do know is that fundamental principles never change. As always, follow the fundamentals, and success is virtually assured.
Noel Whittaker is the author of Making Money Made Simple and numerous other books on personal finance. His advice is general in nature and readers should seek their own professional advice before making any financial decisions. Email: [email protected]苏州夜网.au
Melbourne. Melbourne University open day – Melbourne Age. news. Photo by Angela Wylie. August 19 2007. SPECIALX MELBOURN n Financial Review Education Summit. KEYNOTE MINISTERIAL ADDRESS | ??????s position in higher education and key updatesSenator the Hon Simon Birmingham, Minister for EducationWednesday 30th August 2017 AFR photo Louie Douvis .
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – FEBRUARY 13: Aurizon CEO Andrew Harding for half yearly profits report on February 13, 2017 in Sydney, . (Photo by Ben Rushton/Fairfax Media)
Sally McManus , Secretary of the ACTU. Photo Nick Moir 30 March 2017
NEWS: Sydney UNI + Video. Story by Anna Patty. Joellen Riley, the Dean of Law at Sydney University. Photograph by edwina Pickles. Taken on 17th May 2016.
Aspiring students, many with their mums and dads in tow, had travelled from as far away as Dubbo to the University of Sydney Open Day to make some big decisions about the future.
But when they arrived last weekend, they found that many of the lecturers they were relying on for advice had abandoned information booths to join picket lines in protest against the latest university pay offer.
The withdrawal of labour on the biggest day of the university calendar, which attracts more than 30,000 visitors, was part of the traditional argy-bargy of enterprise bargaining.
But the tone of that bargaining shifted dramatically across universities around the country this week after Murdoch University in West gave up on routine industrial tactics of negotiation and bargaining. It took the “nuclear” option.
It applied for – and won – the right to terminate the university’s enterprise agreement with staff. It was a landmark decision for a public institution, and the Fair Work Commission’s judgement has shocked university staff around the country. It is also expected to fuel greater militancy on the part of unions and employers.
Until now, the hardline industrial tactic had been reserved as a last resort within the private sector by businesses including transport company Aurizon, power company AGL and mining companies Peabody Energy and Griffin Coal.
The WA decision has strengthened the bargaining power of university management overnight, something federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham was quick to promote.
He is urging university leaders to follow Murdoch University’s example to modernise work practices and save money while his government cuts their teaching budgets by 4.9 per cent in 2018 and 2019.
The WA decision has opened the way for up to 30 universities across the country to remove union control on management decisions, fixed-term contracts and staff discipline rules.
Birmingham thinks there is scope to lower rates of funding growth for universities based on their ability to absorb costs through more modern and efficient staffing structures. But while he is pushing for open slather, Labor wants new laws to restrict employers from terminating enterprise agreements so easily.
If an enterprise agreement is terminated, workers fall back onto award wages which are often much lower and conditions, won over many years of collective bargaining, can be lost. And Labor and the unions are worried about an increasing number of enterprise agreements which have been terminated in the last two years.
“It can put employees and unions in the position of having to start again and mount arguments for previously hard-fought improvements to their pay and conditions,” Labor’s workplace spokesman Brendan O’Connor says.
“Labor is concerned it has become too easy for employers to undercut wages and conditions through various loopholes in the Fair Work Act, particularly at a time when we are facing record low wages growth.”
Labor says bargaining power is tilted in favour of bosses, and wants to change fair work laws to limit the ability of employers to terminate agreements.
n Council of Trade Unions Secretary Sally McManus says companies need to be stopped from bypassing the normal bargaining process and reaching for the “nuclear option”.
“I think it is a crisis for enterprise bargaining,” she says. “You can no longer bargain fairly.”
“If it’s the case now … that employers can just apply to have agreements cancelled, we are in serious trouble.”
According to the unions, workers could see their pay packets cut by 30 per cent if they are forced onto lower paying awards, despite decades of bargaining for better wages and conditions.
McManus accuses lawyers of hawking the enterprise agreement termination model to employers and accuses Murdoch University of inappropriately spending up to $2.8 million in public money to “get its own way in bargaining”.
Former ACTU assistant secretary Tim Lyons, who now works for think tank Per Capita, says he was shocked to see hardline IR tactics now being used in the public sector.
“This is migration of a tactic from the mining industry which has always been the reservoir of the worst in n industrial relations,” he says.
Lyons believes the Fair Work Commission has set the bar too low in satisfying the legal test set out in section 226 of the Fair Work Act, which says an agreement must be terminated if it is not contrary to the public interest and it is appropriate taking into account all the views and circumstances of employees, unions and employers.
“It’s not really the way enterprise bargaining was supposed to work that essentially the employer can go to a tribunal and wipe out potentially 20 years of the outcomes of collective bargaining. It’s pretty outrageous really,” Lyons says.
But with companies and now universities armed with the “nuclear option”, Lyons says unions need to lift their game in the skills of negotiation and bargaining.
Innes Willox, chief executive of employers’ organisation n Industry Group, says the Fair Work Act provisions that enable the termination of an expired enterprise agreement contain substantial protections, and strike the right balance between the interests of all parties. “It is important that the provisions remain in place,” he says. ‘Old rituals’
Academics at the University of Sydney were divided when it came to supporting the National Tertiary Education Union’s decision to strike on Open Day. One left-wing academic was critical of the union “falling back on old rituals”, including strike action. The academic believes the union would have been better off “handing out leaflets on a day when students are making big decisions about their future”.
The University’s Law School dean, Joellen Riley, who publicly resigned her membership of the NTEU in 2013 over its industrial militancy, is now on the university’s side of the enterprise bargaining table. She describes negotiations over the past six months as constructive and collegial.
“So I was deeply disappointed to see that the NTEU picketed the university on its most important day of the year for showing potential students all the benefits of a Sydney university education,” says Professor Riley, an expert in workplace relations law.
The university’s offer retains conditions in the current agreement, including 50 days of personal leave each year. It also proposes to introduce 22 weeks of paid parental leave for fathers and same-sex partners. The university is offering a 2.1 per cent pay rise, but the union is insisting on 2.4 per cent and plans further strike action next month in its push to get it.
The union’s NSW state secretary Michael Thomson says 2.4 per cent is in line with NSW public sector rates. Union members have also been pointing out that university vice chancellor Michael Spence received a $1.4 million salary package last year including a $200,000 bonus.
While there are some disagreements about the union’s industrial tactics, there is no suggestion so far that Sydney or any other university will follow the Murdoch example. A University of Sydney spokeswoman confirmed the termination option was not being considered.
“It is difficult to say at this point in time, the university will need to read the decision to fully understand the applicability of it to our circumstances,” she says. “Although we are disappointed that industrial action is being taken by the NTEU, it is important to note the effort that all parties have put into the enterprise bargaining process over many months.”
The union’s national president Jeannie Rea says most universities around the country were negotiating enterprise agreements without resorting to Murdoch’s tactics. She says it was “pretty strange for Murdoch to take the step it did” when three other West n universities were close to reaching agreements.
But Murdoch’s decision will give comfort to employers who want a better enterprise agreement. “The significance of this decision is that hopefully it gives employers the courage to push for enterprise agreements that are best practice and not put up with agreements that are outdated,” says Minter Ellison partner Kathy Reid.
Reid, who represented Murdoch University, said most employers were not likely to want to take the drastic step of terminating an enterprise agreement. She rejects union claims that the case has undermined enterprise bargaining.
In Murdoch’s case, she says, the outdated enterprise agreement was holding it back from realising a bright future. “The judgement was recognising that with an outdated enterprise agreement, Murdoch is not going to be able to realise its new strategy and to do all the great things it wants to do.”
The Fair Work Commission agreed to free Murdoch University of the “constraints and impediments” in its enterprise agreement to allow it to be more agile in transforming to meet new challenges in a “changing globally competitive education landscape”.
The university wants to be more flexible in determining the way academic staff split their time between teaching and research among other staff management issues. It is operating at a deficit, putting it under great financial strain.
But contrary to the university’s argument, Commissioner Bruce Williams says in his judgement that termination of the agreement would make it harder for the union and management to reach a future agreement.
“Given the recalcitrance of the university to date, it is likely that termination will simply embolden the university to dig in further and continue to demand acceptance of its clauses without compromise,” he said in his judgement.
The NTEU branch president at Western Sydney University, David Burchell, says enterprise bargaining has been tougher this year than in years gone by. University management has seemed more aggressive and organised at the outset.
“The overall mood in the sector has been different,” he says. “A number of university managements were taking a more aggressive posture.”