Why Victoria’s public sector dentists aren’t happy

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Victoria's public sector dentists wages and conditions
Photo: adragan8 – 123RF

Victoria’s public sector dentists have long had to endure poorer pay and conditions than their counterparts in other states. But hopefully that’s about to change as the government prepares to negotiate their new employment agreement. By Kathy Graham

For all the important work they do, servicing our most vulnerable patients, public sector dentists in Victoria get a very raw deal. They are paid on average 22 per cent less than their counterparts interstate, but with larger gaps for new graduate dentists—28 per cent less than South Australia, 30 per cent less than Queensland, and 33 per cent less than Tasmania.

“Certainly, Victoria’s public sector dentists are the most poorly paid of any public dentists around Australia,” says ADAVB CEO Associate Professor Matt Hopcraft. The association is representing public sector dentists in the ongoing enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) negotiations with the Victorian Government, and Hopcraft is all too familiar with the dismal statistics. “It’s terrible,” he continues. “The starting salary in Victoria is so low, it’d take a dentist something like four years, working in Victoria, to get to the starting salary of a new dentist in NSW. They’d have to work for five years to get to the starting salary of a new graduate in QLD, or SA or WA, and six years before they got to the same starting salary that a new graduate in Tasmania gets.” 

A/Prof Hopcraft says the Victorian public dental system is in a state of decay, with average waiting times increasing to 26.7 months in June 2022, before dropping to 16.5 months in December 2022 after a one-off injection of funds, continuing the longer-term trend that has prevailed since 2015 when the waiting time was 11.8 months “because [the sector] is struggling to get staff. And in part it’s being driven by the fact that public sector dentists are not paid as much as they are in other states”.

The starting salary in Victoria is so low, it’d take a dentist something like four years, working in Victoria, to get to the starting salary of a new dentist in NSW. They’d have to work for five years to get to the starting salary of a new graduate in QLD, or SA or WA, and six years before they got to the same starting salary that a new graduate in Tasmania gets.

A/Prof Matt Hopcraft, CEO, ADAVB

Such a large discrepancy in pay between states indicates “the Victorian Government doesn’t value and appreciate dentistry”, adds A/Prof Hopcraft who attributes this to several factors. One is that unlike in other states where public sectors dentists are state employees so the “governments there have a slightly different view of them as employees”, in Victoria they’re employed directly by community health agencies funded by the state rather than being government employees. “Maybe that’s been part of the problem,” he suggests. “I think one of the other things that probably happened maybe 20 years ago was states like Queensland which were experiencing shortages started to really increase their salaries to attract people from other states to work in their public health sectors. I think there was a bit of an ‘arms race’ with some of the public sectors, but not the Victorians. So the other states have jumped far ahead and Victoria has languished behind. And that’s made it difficult now because if you say, ‘We’re 30 per cent behind, give us a 30 per cent pay rise’, the government is very clearly going to say, ‘No’.”

And that’s been precisely the case ever since the four-year EBA for Victorian public sector dentists expired last June. Ideally, a new agreement—negotiations typically begin six months before expiry—is in place or close enough to being so by 1 July, so employees get the salary increase and other benefits newly negotiated. 

But last year’s negotiations hit a wall. And yet the government did give public sector dentists—when they fell even more behind at 40 per cent—a 19.2 per cent increase over four years when negotiating their 2018 agreement. But that was before the pandemic, the soaring cost of living, and the government’s subsequent changes to its public sector wages policy, specifically its decision—in response to debt and rising costs—to cap public sector worker wage increases from June 2022 at 1.5 per cent, and additional changes to allowances or other conditions at 0.5 per cent.

“Now two or three years ago, that might’ve seemed like a responsible thing for the government to be doing but we know what’s happening now with inflation; it’s running at around seven per cent. These increases are actually pushing people backwards,” says Hopcraft, adding that the sector’s log of claims—apart from the wage increase—also includes “things like an additional week of leave, increasing the professional services allowance; and a mobility allowance to cover travel costs associated with the school dental program. All would’ve clearly added up to more than 0.5 per cent. So our total claim sat outside of the government’s wages policy and they just said, ‘No, you’re not going to get any of that’.”

If the new policy caps wage increases at three per cent or 3.5 per cent a year—12 to 15 per cent over four years—that doesn’t even halve the gap between the other states. We’d still be keen to negotiate and ask for more, but who knows how firmly the government will adhere to its wages policy.

A/Prof Matt Hopcraft, CEO, ADAVB

Then last October, ADAVB with Professionals Australia signed off on an ‘interim administrative’ arrangement with the Victorian Department of Health. As well as a $2000 professional support allowance and a single $5000 scholarship for specialist dentists in training, this includes a two per cent wage increase for this financial year (2022/23) back paid to 1 July 2022. Hopcraft explains this was preferable to signing the EBA with its 1.5 per cent (six per cent over four years) pay rise because it meant after the state election, “the government would have a new wages policy in the first part of 2023, and we would be able to renegotiate something better for our members”.

With the Labor government re-elected last November, A/Prof Hopcraft is confident this will be a better policy than its predecessor. “Because it applies to all their public sector agreements, a lot of the really big unions will be pressuring the government, especially in light of increasing inflation and cost of living pressures. If the government comes back with a wages policy that’s 1.5 or two per cent, those other big unions will probably say, ‘This is completely unacceptable.’

“Of course, if the new policy caps wage increases at three per cent or 3.5 per cent a year—12 to 15 per cent over four years—that doesn’t even halve the gap between the other states. We’d still be keen to negotiate and ask for more, but who knows how firmly the government will adhere to its wages policy, which wasn’t a problem we had in the last negotiation. There wasn’t an upper limit number that we were told we were never going to exceed.”  

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