Code Red: Saving Victoria's Ambulance Service

In 2012, when Victorian paramedics first began negotiations with the State Government, Victoria’s ambulance service was in crisis.

Years of underfunding and mismanagement had seen emergency response times get worse and worse. Meanwhile morale among paramedics, who were Australia’s highest trained and lowest paid ambos, was poor and deteriorating.

At the time we certainly did not think it would take more than two years to resolve, but we knew this was a battle we must win if Victorians were to once again have an ambulance service we could depend on and be proud of.

Victorian paramedics were paid up to 30 per cent less than ambos in other states.

And ambulance union members soon realised that Victoria's Coalition government was not interested in closing the gap, but instead thought they could play a game of divide and conquer.

So, in March 2013 we launched our Code Red campaign – aimed at building community and political pressure on the government to fix Victoria’s ambulance crisis. 

Liberal Party politicians underestimated the unity and resolve of paramedics. They played hardball so 98% of us voted for industrial action. Straightaway, we started several different bans, including our most effective and well known action of writing on ambulances with coloured chalk pens. Paramedic and delegate, David Tull, who worked out of Seaford, came up with this idea.

It didn’t always go smoothly – at one point Ambulance Victoria claimed paramedics were in breach of the Graffiti Act and threatened legal action. But the writing became an incredibly potent way to get our message out to the public. It even spread to the radio, with 3AW’s Breakfast Show featuring the ambulance message of the day.

Soon, ambos across the state were covering their vehicles with hard-hitting and heartbreaking facts and observations about Victoria’s ambulance crisis.

Our campaign wasn’t just about pay. We were also campaigning for better management of Ambulance Victoria. People were waiting so long for emergency ambulances they were dying, and when ambos spoke out about it they were vilified by ministers and public servants.

Coalition Health Minister David Davis spent $1.25million of taxpayers’ money on newspaper ads full of falsehoods about paramedics and our union.

But the public knew better. Support from our local communities was enormous. When delegates and members spoke out on Facebook about our campaign, the response was remarkable. 24,000 people signed an online petition in support of our campaign and our Code Red Facebook page peaked at over 27,000 supporters!

As our campaign escalated we inched closer to agreement on some issues. But the government stubbornly refused to support fair pay for paramedics.

When 2014 arrived it was clear it would be a pivotal year.

Paramedics kept negotiating right up until the election, while the government tried to use legal action to shut down our campaign. Despite this, ambulance union members refused to be silenced. We held many rallies and actions.

We organised free CPR training in the community (in case you had to wait hours for an ambulance), door-knocked voters in marginal seats, and handed out leaflets about the ambulance crisis at train stations and on busy streets.

Thousands of paramedics, our families and supporters marched through the streets proudly wearing our Code Red t-shirts to make sure politicians understood this issue would not go away, and the public was right behind us.

A week before the election, ambulance union representatives met the then opposition leader, Daniel Andrews. He made a commitment to paramedics that, if elected, he would end the ambulance crisis. And on 29 November 2014, when he was elected to office as the Premier of Victoria, he pledged in his acceptance speech to “end the war” on ambos.

This commitment showed respect for the work of paramedics, and the incredible effort union members put in to have our voices heard.

Campaigning for fairness and respect from government can take a very long time, but none of us had experienced anything like this before. Still, this huge effort has delivered significant change, without any cuts to our existing conditions and professional standards:

  • Better pay for paramedics
  • A Paramedic Work Value Case
  • An ambulance minister in the Victorian Government
  • A consultative committee where ambos have direct access to Health Minister/Ambulance Minister
  • Increased rest breaks
  • Better flexible working arrangements
  • Fairer leave rules
  • And much more – read our agreement in full here.

Paramedics won the Code Red campaign by staying strong and standing together in our union – we couldn’t have done it any other way. This is why it’s so important to join and get active.