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Platitudes aren't enough for nurses this election year: New Zealand politicians need to learn from the experience of Britain's conservative prime minister that they disrespect nurses at their peril.

Seven weeks out from the general election and "meet the candidates" community meetings are well under way.

So far, I am far from convinced that local candidates have much idea about primary health care, and they know even less about nursing.

They know of hospitals and district health boards and general practice, but little or nothing about primary health care (PHC), the major role that nursing plays or, more importantly, the major role nurses should be playing if we are to repair our flagging health system.

Platitudes emerge: "We respect nurses, they do a great job, we can't do without them. "

As each general election looms, we suffer this ignorance, swallow it, get on with our work and wait until the next round. I think this time it could be very different.

I have noticed fewer nurses are sure about who to vote for this year. Noticeably, more nurses are talking about voting solely on the health issues that affect them, rather than for a particular party. And an ever-increasing number of overseas nurses, who are usually non-vocal, are now wanting to say how it really is.

Nurses--with, collectively many years of experience and many general elections behind them--are demanding that candidates demonstrate they understand and can give them credible answers about PHC and current working conditions.

All this is shaping up to look like the overseas election debacles. Politicians and candidates would be wise to take note of what has happened, particularly in the United Kingdom (UK). And be afraid, be very afraid.

Nurses in the UK recently told their precarious-looking Prime Minister (PM) Theresa May that losing respect for nurses lost her many votes.

They made the point that if the PM was feeling pretty stressed out and uncertain about her future right now, and worrying about having the resources to do a good job, this would hopefully give her some insight into how most nurses felt about their jobs every single day of their working week. (1)

According to the Nursing Times, when a British nurse asked in an episode of the BBC's Question Time why her pay had not risen in eight years, the PM responded patronisingly, "There is no magic money tree." In other words: "You are certainly not a priority and feeding your families has little to do with not paying you enough."

Parallels between NZ and UK

There is no doubt there are huge parallels here with New Zealand nurses, and it's worth noting that British nurses gave clear notice of their intentions via their pre-snap election comments:

"I will not be voting Conservative because I despair on a daily basis at the demise of the National Health Service, and see hardworking doctors, nurses and health-care professionals pushed to the very limit by front-line cuts."

"I will not be voting Conservative because I don't think it's fair that some nurses have to rely on food banks to feed their children."

"Have you had a one per cent pay rise, Prime Minister, like we have? Of course not, so how do you have the gall to think you understand about having to rely on food banks?" (2)

The chronic shortage of nurses in both New Zealand and the UK is the result of years of short-term planning, without a sustainable, long-term approach to the nursing workforce, and a constant disregard for the issues that affect deeply dedicated nurses.

Platitudes from candidates and politicians must be replaced with a genuine acknowledgment that they have failed nursing in many ways, and a genuine desire to repair the damage.

Candidates have to stop toeing party lines that have done little to gain nursing confidence. Instead, they need to ask nurses what needs to be done and listen honestly to what they have to say. Otherwise, the discontent will show itself at the ballot box in seven weeks' time.

Health at the top of the list

A recent Massey University election survey showed, unsurprisingly, that health was top of the list of issues likely to influence voters. The majority were opting for a complete change of government. (3)

Other governments are being dealt harsh lessons, with chaos and uncertainty and a surge in younger voters. Even with an ageing workforce of nearly 50,000 nurses in New Zealand, younger nurses could well affect the election result here, if they all vote.

NZNO has also taken a stand by releasing an open letter saying, "It's getting harder to do the work that we trained for". The letter asks New Zealanders--not just nurses--to think of the health system when they cast their vote in September. It makes clear NZNO's position that health funding for primary health, for iwi and Maori providers and for secondary services is not adequate and is now having a "negative ripple effect" on patients. (4)

The message to election candidates and politicians is clear and cannot be ignored. The current situation is unpalatable for nurses and if governments are not going to support them in their jobs, nurses are unlikely to support political candidates in theirs.

* This article was originally published by NZ Doctor and has been reprinted with permission.

Barbara Docherty, RN, MN(hons), PGDipHealthSci(primary health care), is a former practice nurse, an honorary clinical lecturer at the University of Auckland, an author and regular blogger for NZ Doctor. She now leads the Training and Development Services (TADS) behavioural health training programme.


(1) Middleton, J. (2017). Losing respect for nurses has lost you votes, Ms May. Nursing Times, June 9. Retrieved from losing-respect-fornurses-has-lost-you-votes-ms-may/7018633.article

(2) Nurses' quotes from UK media received by B. Docherty via private correspondence.

(3) Duncan, G. (2017). Election surveys show widespread discontent. Massey University. Retrieved from

(4) New Zealand Nurses Organisation. (2017). An open letter to New Zealand voters. Retrieved from

Caption: Barbara Docherty--politicians should take note of what has happened overseas.
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Title Annotation:election focus
Author:Docherty, Barbara
Publication:Kai Tiaki: Nursing New Zealand
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 1, 2017
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