Friday, November 25, 2011

The Thin Blue Picket Line

Compensation for police officers injured in the line of duty is an inevitably difficult issue for a government.

Police work is physically dangerous.  It always has been - you can do all the OH&S assessments you like, but criminals will still shoot at police and police will still need drive at 200+km/h to catch drivers who don't stop.

Of course, physical injuries are just part of the danger.  There can be no doubt that policing can and does cause not mental distress and mental injury.

For those reasons, it is unsurprising that police have high numbers of officers on stress leave, sick leave and disability leave. And yes, it costs an absolute fortune to pay all these officers who are on leave for work related injuries.

That's part of the price we pay to have a police force.  They will suffer mental and physical injuries. They need to know that if they are injured they will be (financially) protected - or else they simply won't do the job.

Having said all of that, the government needs to find the funds to pay for this.  And when budgets are tight (not that I couldn't suggest a few places to find the cash) the government may find it difficult to justify the cost.

Moreover, the government's arguments about getting officers back to work do make sense.  As I understand it, there is presently a tendency for officers to receive a large lump sum payout once they are assessed as being permanently incapacitated.  This article claims that these payouts are collequially known as "mortgage busters" - and having worked in public service myself I don't find that hard to believe.
Police Minister Mike Gallagher looking upset about something.  From here
It may well be that there should be a shift in attitudes so that officers who are injured (mentally and physically) are encouraged to get back to work once they are able, rather than been sent out to pasture.  That said, this fact sheet put together by the police union suggests that there are also significant changes to not only the timing but also the quantum of compensation, meaning that officers may be financial devastated if they are injured.

What's the solution?  Well, for once, I'm not going to smug and tell the government what it's doing wrong.  They are either going to upset the police, who have a tremendous amount of bargaining power given the nature of police strike action, or they are going to create a budget headache.

Rightly or wrongly, the role of police in the community gives the force a disproportionate ability to cause chaos with their strikes. This means that if you want to take something away from police, you need to be certain that you will win the public relations argument.
Striking police earlier this week.  Photo from here
I can't see how the O'Farrell government can do that.  Of course, given the recent poll results they may take a "devil may care" approach,  but if they want to avoid a protracted and ugly campaign they will have to give something away.

Of course, the inevitable problem for a Liberal government is that once they start giving into strike action, they can essentially make a rod for their own backs.  If unions know that the O'Farrell is willing to give in if pushed hard enough, they may be all the more likely to take action.

The solution may well be for the Liberals to cave on some apects of the plan and find a middle ground.  If a middle can be charted (perhaps where officers forced onto payments rather than a payout are not financially penalised) then the Liberals may achieve their goal of giving police a motivation to go back to work.

But if the government digs its feet in - let's just say that this could be one strike that really does do some damage.

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