Autralian Nurse’s Mission: Equality for Nurses re: Honours from Governer General’s Office

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Recently connected by Twitter, I was intrigued about an Australian Registered Nurse, John Hibberd, who is fighting to end the exclusion of nurses from receiving Honours level recognition in his country. The details of his mission, as you will see, are specific to Australia, yet there is an underlying concept embodying the value of nurses’ work that will resonate with nurses and patients all over the world.  We can help by sharing the story, especially with Australian Nurses!   Here’s more about the story and some inspiring examples of nurses who SHOULD get medals!

1). Tell us a little bit about the history of nursing in Australia. 4591dcf4c0b9b70846e551b6bfbd6e72_bigger

Nursing in Australia has probably followed a similar path to that of Nursing in the US.
Military nursing was, and still is highly esteemed.  Military Nursing today is honoured with a Nursing Service Cross, which is considered a very prestigious award.  Bringing civilian nursing into equality of honour and recognition with our military “sisters” is at the centre of my current crusade.

Even though Nursing was, and always will be a “Female Profession”,  Australian Nursing has always had a small company of men, almost all of whom, until recent days, were employed in Psychiatric Nursing., where there was no assumed consent from the patient, and where there was usually a criminal or medical legal order being enforced.

When I started, it was a Nightingale trade using an apprenticeship system of training.  Hospitals were State Government run, and Nurse Education was conducted in schools set up within each hospital.  The State Health Dept. used to run an annual cycle of four State wide exams we had to pass to get State Registration.

Coinciding with the rise of the Women’s Movement of the 70’s and 80’s, Nursing also undertook a wave of self growth, moving up from a trade, up to a profession with a Bachelor of Science entry qualification.   This closed the hospital schools and opened university faculties.  This wasn’t a Women’s Movement initiative as such, but both the Nursing leadership of the day and its rank and file energy base were drinking out of both cups.

As Nursing evolved, a lot more males started joining the ranks.  They mostly invaded the medical and surgical wards that had remained almost exclusively female staffed until then.  This was a part of a wider Gender Equality movement across the State public service that also saw women joining the previously male occupations as police, fire and ambulance services.

120px-Australian_Flag_Flying_animatedAustralian women have always been among the world leaders in the Women’s Movement.  They got the vote second, with only New Zealand ahead of them, and decades before women in England, North America or Europe; so the Equal Rights battle has mostly been won here in Australia.  At the same time Nursing has, by the vision and labour of its members, taken its place alongside the other Professions.  When I joined the New South Wales Nurses Association, I was joining a trade union in every way parallel with the Electrical Trades Union.  When I retired, I resigned from a Professional Association.

(I want into Nursing back in the late 1960’s because, having just left the navy, I thought it would be a great way to meet girls.  I was right.  I was married with 18 months, and still am, to the same one!)

2). Currently, you are committed to obtaining full and equal recognition for nurses in Australia. Please tell us about the program that honours public servants but excludes nurses.

Until 1975, Australia issued English Imperial decorations to its citizens.  The English system had two divisions, military decorations, and Royal Honours that started with an MBE, (Member of the British Empire)  and worked its way up to a knighthood and beyond.  Whether because of English culture or because of that early century, it was a misogynist, male dominated system.

As it applied in Australia, the Governor General awarded military decorations, and the State Governors awarded complementary medals to the State level uniformed hazardous and emergency services of police, prisons, fire, ambulance and nursing.  They received long service, distinguished service, bravery and other medals in a system inspired by, and parallel to the military decorations.

When we switched to our own system, Royal Honours were replaced by a set of four awards under the title of the Order of Australia.  At this time the State Governors agreed to surrender their right to issue decorations and this right was consolidated into the Governor General’s office.  A new set of military and hazardous service medals were struck.

Two things happened at that time, one good and one bad.  The good one was that the volunteer services, Surf Life-Savers, Bush Fire Fighters and State Emergency Services, who go around with chain-saws and tarpaulins after major storms, do rescues in floods and other wonderful things were included to receive medals; and the bad thing was that Nursing was completely left out.  Therefore, my mission is to see Nursing put back in.  We are still the front-line service for epidemic emergencies in addition to our other life-saving roles, so there is no possible justification for our exclusion.

3). Can you share a few thoughts about women and status in your country?

In addition to above historical information, we have a female Governor General and Prime Minister, Supreme Court Judges, business CEO’s of global corporations [Qantas], you name it.  Women lead as news-readers; the Labor Party has a Minister or Shadow Minister for the Status of Women in every Commonwealth, State and Territory parliament.  The particular exclusion of Nurses from the Honours System that I am looking at is a one off exception to that general rule.  It was implanted back in the Vietnam Era, and has been a sleeper issue.

4). Do you have some examples of nurses that you believe should receive such an honour?

A. About thirty or so years ago, a concrete, four lane road bridge over a railway line collapsed, crushing a couple of carriages of a crowded commuter train going into Sydney from the Blue Mountains, just to the west of the city.  Eighty odd people were killed and I don’t remember how many were injured. [A lot.]   Police, fire, ambulance and surgical triage nurses all attended the scene.  The police, fire and ambulance officers were earning their right to the hazardous service and long service medal, and some of them would have been eligible for bravery and distinguished service decorations as a result of their service at this disaster scene as well.  The nurses at the scene endured the same danger, the same horror, yet they were not entitled to anything.62852_widenative-408x264

B. Air ambulance nurses make hazardous landings and take-offs from primitive bush landing strips with little or no air safety equipment, and child-flight and neonatal retrievals of critically ill babies often see nurses flying in poor weather conditions.  In 2010 we lost a neonatal retrieval nurse, (Kathy Sheppard)  in a plane crash.  I certainly think she should be entitled to a fairly big one. 

C. I put forward an equal work for equal pay argument when I pointed out that I swapped clients with the armed police and prison services officers.  Same clients, same danger, so I should therefore be entitled to the same recognition.

D. The American military issues an “injured in service” medal, the Purple Heart.  The Australian system doesn’t.  Both in Australia and America, there should be a Nursing equivalent.  How many nurses die each year from Hep. C, HIV, TB, and other lethal diseases assorted that we caught from patient’s they were caring for?  Our battle casualties should receive equal honour with military battle casualties.

E. In every hospital there are dedicated, long servicing nurses who’s service is worthy of recognition. It doesn’t have to be hazardous, only caring.  It might be long service, and she probably will demonstrate superior skill, leadership and dedication.  Every one of us knows a nurse who’s service is worthy beyond the reward of her wages.



5). Is there anything that nurses, healthcare professionals, and consumers from other countries can do to help?

I am looking for Australian nurses because they are the one being discriminated against, and equally the ones who will benefit if I am successful; so the first line of help would be to help spread the word to Oz nurses.   (Social sharing and/or email contact information to John: rhibberd@bigpond.net.au)

Beyond that, I am thinking that it might be helpful to launch an email campaign to help motivate reluctant politicians, and beyond that again, it might also be strengthening for the Oz Nurse’s associations if they were to understand that they have international support for actively pursuing this cause.

With that in mind, emails to the following in support of the issue with a cc to me:  rhibberd@bigpond.net.au would be most appreciated:

Australian Nursing Federation: Federal Office – anfcanberra@anf.org.au

Nurses and Midwives’ Association (NSW) – gensec@nswnurses.asn.au

Tanya Plibersek Federal Minister for Health, – Tanya.Plibersek.MP@aph.gov.au

Currently, we have a female Health Minister and a female Prime Minister from the right political party, but we may not have that favourable circumstance this time next year.  There is an election due at the end of this year so speed is an issue.

6). What else would you like us to know about your mission?

If Australian nurses are successful, this would create a justification for a review of entitlements of other nurses worldwide.  A quick check of Wiki shows that the USA does recognise its Health workers, but whether this is the best that can be achieved is a matter to US nursing discussion.  The questions are whether they are giving them to the right people, for the right reasons, in the right numbers, and who is missing out unfairly.

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What are your thoughts?