AGED CARE WORKERS DESERVE OUR RESPECT
REMARKS TO THE AGED CARE DELEGATES AT THE HSU CONFERENCE
MONDAY, 15 JULY 2019
I acknowledge the traditional land owners, I pay respects to elders past, present and emerging. I speak to you with humility on these lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation – this is a land stolen, never ceded.
Congratulations for being here, for being union, for standing up for your rights, for your solidarity, for your courage.
Unions are the essential component of a decent working life. And delegates are the engine room of any union. Gerard can only do so much! Without you, the union is so much weaker.
As you would know I began my life as a nurse, I became active in my union as a delegate, volunteering on council, becoming president and ultimately secretary of the federal union.
People used to say to me being a nurse meant you couldn’t be political, you had to be impartial. But I am sorry; being a nurse, like working in aged care or the community sector, makes you political by the very nature of your work.
Because politics of the day has a massive impact on your working lives and those you care for.
Being in a union is a political statement in itself and being a delegate – well you are up to your eyeballs in politics!
And if you ask me, people who come to politics through life experiences like you make the best politicians.
Being in the caring industry, as you are, makes you special people. You do one of the most important jobs in the world.
Your experience with people at the most vulnerable time of their lives means you are trusted, you are dedicated, you are hardworking, you are loved and you are relied on for so much by so many.
I came to this job via your pathway, from the caring industry and the union movement. And I am so glad and proud that I did.
Now who’d have thunk it? I’m Shadow Assistant Minister for Aged Care, working with Julie Collins, the Shadow Minister, and I represent all of you in Parliament.
Your fights for better pay and conditions, your fight for quality aged care and importantly your demand for respect. They are now my fights.
Why the demonisation of aged care workers is wrong
The Royal Commission into Aged Care and the subsequent media attention has been tough for you – I know that.
I was the head of the union movement during the Trade Union Royal Commission!
We’ve seen too much blame placed on aged care staff for what are systemic, long-term issues, mainly caused by funding cuts, poor management with lack of transparency and accountability, and a lack of willingness by the Liberal government to tackle real reform.
So I want to say – thank you.
Thank you for everything. For hanging in there and for speaking up. Your campaign ‘It’s our turn to care’ is incredibly important.
I know how hard it is to care for people – especially at the end of their lives.
You provide your residents with dignity and respect but I know it’s getting harder and harder to deliver your work with the care and quality it deserves.
One my angriest moments in my (still short) political career was when former Prime Minister Turnbull said last year that aged care workers could always aspire to "a better job".
I was livid. I leapt to my feet in Parliament to defend the workers and their unions – the HSU, the ANMF, UV and the other health workers’ unions. I said:
Mr Deputy Speaker, do you know what those workers' aspirations are? Their aspirations are to be able to give better care to the elderly, the people whose lives have been entrusted to them. They hope for better staffing, better resources and better pay, but not one of the people who came to me said they wanted a better job. They love their jobs. They are dedicated. They get intrinsic rewards from ensuring dignity and quality of life. They aspire to make their residents' lives as comfortable and meaningful as possible, and they aspire to ensure that their residents have, at the end of their lives, a dignified death. That is the type of aspiration that the Member for Wentworth and his colleagues perhaps do not understand.
Aged care workers and their unions have been screaming out for reform and resources – a call that has been completely ignored by the Liberal-National Coalition.
Resources they need so they can continue to do the best job they can for their patients and their residents.
I know what funding cuts mean, I know what it’s like to be a carer or a nurse and not be able to deliver the care that you want because there aren’t the resources allowing you to do your job, because there is limited access to training and skills acquisition, because the workloads are impossible.
And I know the anger focused on the industry because waiting lists are ridiculous for community care.
This will be a key focus of mine in my new portfolio – ensuring your message is heard.
Aged care workers deserve respect not berating.
We must work together to deliver the reforms the sector needs – which unfortunately means another three years of holding the Liberals to account.
The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety
Which leads us to the Royal Commission.
I know there was a view that a Royal Commission wasn’t needed. There have been so many reports which defined the issues – funding cuts, workforce issues and a growing discrepancy between ‘winner and loser’ aged care providers.
But I believe the Royal Commission has been a good thing because it has shown that the vast majority of workers in the industry want to be able to do the right thing.
Of course, there have been a few bad apples, but the Royal Commission has uncovered workers struggling under a system which does not provide them the time and resources to do their jobs properly. It also highlights your call for a properly administered worker registration system that can keep the bad apples out for good.
And this has not just ‘happened’. The Liberals have failed to drive reform across the aged care sector for the past six years. You don’t need me to tell you but:
- The only thing Turnbull did was scrap Labor's $1.5 billion workforce compact. That was a Labor policy that was working to deliver higher wages, improve career structures for aged care workers, enhance training and education opportunities and improve care.
- The Liberals cut almost $2 billion from residential aged care.
- The Liberals sat on dozens of reports, reviews and inquiries about how to improve aged care but instead called a Royal Commission.
- In 2017 the Liberals froze the Aged Care Funding Instrument and in 2018 the indexation of funding for patients with complex care was cut by 50 per cent. Patients with complex care are the hardest patients and the most vulnerable patients that carers need to look after.
- I think perhaps the cruellest hoax in last year’s budget was the announcement of 14,000 home care packages which came at the expense of slashing residential care to try and fix the home care package crisis.
- There was no new money in last year’s budget at all for the funding of home care and residential aged care. None!
- The Coalition government have let 128,000 older Australians languish whilst waiting for their approved level of home care package.
All of this of course affects your day to day work. It determines how much time you can spend with your residents, how many staff you have rostered on, the quality and accessibility of equipment. The Government owes it to you to deliver better funding and strong reforms so you have the correct resources to do the job you love.
Key themes from Royal Commission
I’m keen to hear your views on this but I think there are few key issues that come up time and time again at the Royal Commission and will undoubtedly be a part of its recommendations:
Staffing numbers, skills mix, staff training/qualifications, and experience are key concerns which negatively impact upon the ability of staff to provide safe, quality care for all residents. I believe both mandated minimum staffing levels and skills ratios will be considered by the Royal Commission.
We’ve heard time and time again that staff want more time to care.
The impetus to get this right is huge.
In order to meet ever increasing demand for aged care services and support, the workforce will need to more than triple by 2050. By 2050 we will need to have more than one million Australians working in aged care.
This represents a workforce growth rate of about two per cent annually in order to meet future demand, at a time when the overall employment-to-population ratio will be declining.
We must have a quality workforce which sees aged care workers getting the respect and dignity they deserve.
Of course pay and conditions for workers are crucial to this.
Funding that is fit for purpose:
The Government must ensure funding is adequate to meet the needs of our ageing population – that means proper residential care, home care packages and adequate funding for rural and residential aged care facilities who are struggling to stay afloat and coping with the growing demand for complex care parents.
There is currently a review of the funding instrument which I will be following closely.
Greater accountability for the delivery and use of aged care funding by providers and governments:
This will be vital to ensure safe, quality care for residents. If a for-profit provider is making millions out of publicly funded beds yet not paying its staff decent wages nor delivering quality care – that must be addressed.
Where to from here:
So how can you, as the lead union delegates, campaign with a Labor opposition to get the reforms the sector needs?
Well I’m going to fall back on an old organising motto which your union knows only too well. ‘Anger, Hope, Action’.
People are angry. Aged care has become an issue keenly felt by so many that public attention must be used to effectively deliver reforms that you know are so necessary.
Hope: We must leverage the Royal Commission report – I think it will be impossible for the Royal Commission not to make strong recommendations in the areas of workforce, funding, accountability and transparency.
Every ounce of pressure must be applied to the Coalition Government to deliver on it – it is their Royal Commission and they must be held accountable for any failings to deliver on its recommendations.
Action: You must work together with other unions and even the providers to get your ask consistent. We will only be successful if the union movement can speak with one voice when it comes to political lobbying and if possible, we even get some providers on board.
So tell your colleagues to be more political.
You as delegates are already political, as I said at the beginning of this speech.
Aged care needs you to stay political, and my goodness politics needs you!!