Unions representing emergency services and public transport workers in Victoria have been pushing for stricter sentencing in a bid to address safety concerns of members exposed to violence while on duty.
The Victorian Labor government introduced legislation in late June to impose tougher sentencing for assaults on emergency services workers. Under the legislation, assault causing injury to an emergency worker carrying out their duties will be in the same offence category as murder.
Laws introduced by the former Napthine Liberal government in 2014 already impose a mandatory 6-month jail sentence. However, the current Labor government came under pressure in May after a high-profile court ruling saw two women who assaulted paramedic Paul Judd avoid jail terms.
The ruling took into account ‘special circumstances’ because of the women’s struggles with addiction and mental health problems, sparking a backlash in the media and from emergency services worker unions. Under Labor’s changes, mandatory sentencing will need to be imposed in almost all cases, even if ‘special circumstances’ apply.
But while increased sentences may respond to the effects, it does not address the causes of increasing levels of violence against health and public transport workers. Nor is there any evidence that mandatory sentencing can reduce assaults.
Undoubtedly Labor are well aware of this, which explains why Premier Daniel Andrews’ major claim is that the change will ensure perpetrators “get what they deserve.” But Labor sang a different tune when in opposition, when Napthine’s mandatory sentencing laws were introduced in 2014. Then – while supporting the laws – they also pointed out that “millions of dollars of Liberal cuts to our hospitals and emergency services… have put workers at risk.”
In reality, Labor are as much to blame as the Liberals for decades of cuts and underfunding at all levels of government. Essential services are crumbling from lack of investment while big business hoards vast reserves of wealth in profits. Workers’ wages are increasingly absorbed by disproportionate taxes and rising living costs.
Mental health services have been gutted, emergency departments have long waits and public transport is often inefficient, congested and costly. All of this can push people with mental health issues or drug addiction to the brink.
Workers at emergency departments and train stations end up in the firing line because this is where people in crisis find themselves. This is made worse because employers fail to invest in adequate training and maintain bare minimum staffing levels, to increase profits. For example, most Metro Trains stations are unstaffed and many have only one staff member working alone.
Emergency services unions had long been pushing for tougher sentencing, then in May the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) launched a safety campaign demanding the tougher penalties be extended for assaults on public transport workers.
Ambulance Victoria estimates a paramedic is verbally or physically assaulted once every 50 hours, while the RTBU estimates there were 150 assaults on public transport workers in the last two years. The real figures are likely to be higher because on-the-job pressures often lead to cases going unreported. For example, RTBU delegates often hear of for-profit public transport operators pressuring workers not to officially report incidents.
Speaking in favour of Labor’s changes, Ambulance Employees Association secretary Steve McGhie admitted “I don’t think it will quite fix the problem but it’ll certainly go a long way to sending a strong message”.
Emergency services and public transport workers undoubtedly support moves to make their workplaces safer. Union members in these industries have long complained of chronic under-staffing.
It is extremely positive that in June the RTBU leaders responded to members concerns, calling on Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan to boost staff across the network so no staff member is left to work alone. The challenge now is to raise demands that also address the causes of anti-social violence.
A bold campaign calling for things like increased taxes on the super-profits of big business to massively boost funding for health services, public housing, and the expansion of the public transport system could easily attract wide support.
At a time when capitalism confronts young people with lower standards of living than their parents’ generation, winning these kinds of demands would not only make society safer but would set people’s sights on a better future, encouraging more workers to join and become active in their unions.
By an RTBU Delegate