Ambo union says trust ‘trashed’ between it and Libs

UPDATED: The head of the SA ambulance union is refusing to meet with the state Opposition, saying trust between paramedics and the Liberal Party is a casualty of a state election in which ramping was front and centre of Labor’s winning campaign.

Feb 22, 2023, updated Feb 22, 2023
A chalked ambulance as part of the ambulance union's campaign ahead of the March 2022 state election. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

A chalked ambulance as part of the ambulance union's campaign ahead of the March 2022 state election. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

SA Ambulance Employees Association general secretary Leah Watkins outlined the rift during a discussion with Opposition health spokesperson Ashton Hurn on ABC Radio Adelaide this morning.

“The trust between our members and the Liberal Party is trashed,” Watkins said.

Watkins and Hurn were discussing a new Liberal Party advertisement which criticises the number of hours ambulances are spending stuck on ramps outside of hospitals – commonly referred to as ramping.

The ad, which is being rolled out today, replicates a campaign video launched by Labor ahead of the March 2022 state election, which showed paramedic Ashleigh Frier warning of increasing ramping under the former Marshall Liberal Government.

The Liberal Party ad shows a woman speaking directly to camera claiming ambulance ramping has “almost doubled” since the election.

“It could be you or a loved one who needs an ambulance and the simple fact is that you might not get one in time,” she says.

Hurn told ABC Radio this morning that the woman was “representative of many South Australians”.

“I think it’s really unfortunate that we do need to bring this message to the people of South Australia because the reality is that compared to this time last year, ramping is more than doubled and lives are at risk,” she said.

“Emergency departments have frankly never been under more strain and that is providing extraordinary concern to the people of South Australia.”

But Watkins labelled the ad “disingenuous” and denied that ambulance ramping hours were almost double what they were at this time last year.

“From October (20)21 and in March (20)22, the ramping figures were about 2900 and 2700, (hours)” she said.

“Currently they are at 3000 hours. It did have a massive increase over the last year and has come back down to 3000 hours, but to say they are double is ridiculous.”

Ahead of the March election, the SA Ambulance Employees Association ran a $400,000 media campaign against the former Marshall Liberal Government, with the union repeatedly highlighting ambulance ramping, callout delays and patient deaths in the lead up to the March 2022 poll.

Labor’s sustained focus on the health system is widely considered to have been a pivotal factor in the huge swing against the Liberals on election night, with ongoing news of overnight patient deaths marring the final days of the former premier Steven Marshall’s campaign.

Since the election, the Ambulance Employees Association has significantly toned down its advocacy, despite government data showing the number of hours ambulances spent stuck on hospital ramps increased from 2138 in November 2021, to 3516 in November 2022.

The number of hours ambulances spent stuck on hospital ramps in January was down 16 per cent compared to December – the lowest number since last April.

Hurn, who is a first-term MP but worked as a staffer under the former Marshall Government, this morning said she had extended “multiple” invitations to meet with Watkins since the election, but had not been able to secure a meeting.

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“I just extend the invitation again from the Opposition to sit down with Leah Watkins and have a conversation because we do want to have a productive relationship with the union,” she said.

Opposition health spokesperson Ashton Hurn. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Asked if she would meet with the Liberal Party, Watkins said: “No meeting”.

She said that ahead of the election, union officials met with former Premier Steven Marshall to discuss the issue of increasing ambulance ramping, but the union was not satisfied with his response.

“We met with everyone we possibly could, including the Premier Steven Marshall, leading up to the worst response times we had ever faced – I’m talking priority ones and twos only 30 per cent of the time we were getting there on time,” Watkins said.

“He (Marshall) did meet with us, the response from the Liberal Party the entire way through was, there was no problem, no issue, that was just a surge.

“I think the results have spoken for themselves. It took us four years to get to that point.”

Opposition leader David Speirs said when he was elected Liberal leader in April last year, he called Watkins and had a “pleasant conversation” with her.

“She was the first head of a peak body, first head of a union representative body that I called upon becoming leader,” he said.

“I did that because I wanted to put that line in the sand, I wanted to establish a productive working relationship with the organisation which represents paramedics in South Australia.

“It was a relationship that I didn’t just want to repair, but I wanted to flourish.”

Speirs said Watkins made it clear that she didn’t feel the “time was right to have a relationship with the Opposition or the leader of the Liberal Party in this state, nor the Shadow Health Minister Ashton Hurn”.

“At the end of the day, it’s a completely new leadership, a new focus, and I would urge the Ambulance Employees Association to step up, work with us and hold the government to account on this ramping crisis.”

Latest government data shows ambulance ramping hours dropped to 3018 hours last month compared to 3583 in December, 3516 in November, 3330 in October and a record-high of 3855 in June.

Premier Peter Malinauskas told parliament yesterday that it would take “the full four years” of this parliamentary term to fixing the ramping crisis.

“It is one of our major commitments and we’re ensuring we’re delivering on it as best we can,” he said.

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