SPEECH: Politics Needs Nurses (Address to Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation)

19 October 2019

Speech to the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation Conference on why politics needs nurses. 

What an honour it is be here today. This union, the biggest in the country, feels like family.

I am proud to be a nurse, proud to be a member of the ANMF, proud to be here as former President and Federal Secretary of the ANMF.

I used to hear some nurses say oh I try to stay out of politics.

Well I’m sorry. Being a nurse is political, being a union member is a political statement in itself and being a union delegate – well you’re up to your eyeballs in politics then!

And here’s me, a nurse who has become a politician!

When I think about the role of a successful MP, the more I realise it is much like the role of a nurse, only without the clinical stuff of course.

The two aspects that are the same are advocacy and that of a change agent.

Nurses advocate for their patients every day. We advocate for the health system, for our hospitals, for our communities. And we make changes – changes that save people’s lives, improve the health system and our hospitals and that hold our communities together.

As an MP, I do a great deal of advocacy for my constituents, for the broader community, for organisations and for the things I value in our society.  And often the point of that advocacy is to create change for the better through legislation and social change.

Being a nurse set me up beautifully for this.

Being a nurse taught me to be political. It taught me to listen carefully, it taught me that unless you speak up things don’t change, in fact they can get worse, and it taught me that sometimes you gotta do more than speak up – you have to launch into a battle.

It was one such battle that led to me being an activist in the union.  At the Austin Hospital during the first ever EBA back in 1996, we lost our Additional Day Offs (ADOs).

Imagine trying to run a ward on a 38 hour week. It meant two nurses per shift had to work 6 hours.

Yeah right! Who will walk out and leave some other nurse to care for your six patients for two hours.

Leaving the ward short was simply not an option on the busy ward I worked on. It was mayhem.

We decided to have a union meeting. We got nearly a hundred nurses there. We decided we wanted our ADOs back.

Trouble was we didn’t actually notify the union! Belinda Morrison was the secretary at the time and she was a bit pissed off. I didn’t realise that I just couldn’t call a meeting and pass resolutions!! So we had to do it all over again only with Belinda there.

She told me I had a lot to say and recruited me as a delegate on the spot.

It all seemed perfectly normal to me. As a union delegate I got to advocate for my fellow nurses as workers as well as my patients as well as the health system and all that entailed.

I became very involved in the campaign to save the Austin from privatisation under Jeff Kennett, working closely with Jenny Macklin the local federal member. At the same time we were organising industrial action for the next EBA and trying to make sure Jeff Kennett was ousted from state government at the next election.

I loved being a nurse. I was a good nurse.

I love being an MP. I guess it remains to be seen if I am good at it.

The skills I learned in nursing and the union movement are absolutely invaluable in this role.

And in my view a good politician is one who has had life experience outside the political bubble.

And what better life experience is there than that being a nurse?

Think of the challenges you face, the satisfactions you draw strength from, the sheer intimacy of your interactions with patients that prepare you for anything in a way that nobody else can claim.

Nothing in my view gives you a bigger insight into the characters and the complexities of life like nursing does, and importantly the understanding of the difference you can make to those lives.

I am just as prepared to talk to the President of the United States as I am talking to the grade 6s at the local primary school.

Because as a nurse you don’t differentiate with patients - they all get the same care.

You are nurses. The most loved and trusted people on the planet.

I went from being a nurse to working for the biggest union in the country.

I was President here in Victoria when we started the fight for ratios and was Federal Secretary when we ran the ‘Because We Care’ campaign which increased aged care membership by 30%.

I was ACTU President when I started the campaign against insecure work and the fight for domestic violence leave. I learned so much about consensus, about bringing people of all persuasions with you, of juggling competing interests to find common causes.

I found allies and supports and always a path through.

Then I was asked to run for Batman - now Cooper.

Labor was against the odds.

I ran my campaign like a nurse.

I listened, I empathised, and I kept it intimate.

I kept it real. I responded by reflecting back what I heard and promising change. Real change.

I gathered strength from my experience as a nurse and being head of the ACTU.

When I faced the hardest of hard situations in the election campaign, I would tell myself, no one died today.

And I won the by-election.

But I then had to maintain the confidence of my electorate to deliver on what I had promised.

Environmental policy, a more humane approach to refugees, campaigning for decent work, for an education and healthcare system that works for us all.

I drew on every ounce of my abilities and experience to get changes in these areas.

When we voted to support the medevac bill - I cried.

Now I am a Shadow Assistant Minister. For Skills and Aged Care!

I want to thank Anthony Albanese for appointing me in these roles. It’s an honour and he is a wonderful leader.

And I do want to talk about aged care for a moment as that is what I’ve been focused on.

Firstly I want to say to all the nurses’ rest assured, I have heard you concerns - I know them intimately!

I cannot promise to deliver exactly what you are asking for but I will be a very strong voice in the party room.

I will use all my nursing abilities to find the best outcomes.

The Royal Commission, while hard, has been important.

We’ve seen too much blame place 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 to tackle real reform.

So I want to say – thank you.

Thank you for everything. For hanging in there and for speaking up

I know how hard it is to care for people – especially at the end of their life.

You provide your residents with dignity and respect but I know it’s getting harder and harder to deliver your work with the quality it deserves.

Aged care nurses and their unions have been screaming out for reform and resources – a call that has been completely ignored by the Liberals.

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 in aged care and not be able to deliver the care that you want to your patients 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.

So if you’ll permit me, I want to offer this government a little bit of advice on how they start to fix aged care NOW.

First it is nonsense to say that more nurses and more carers won’t make a difference.

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 minimum staffing levels and skills will be considered by the Royal Commission and the government must be ready to respond to this.

Aged care needs more staff, better trained and better paid.

Secondly, funding must be accountable and transparent – and is must be tied to care.

All funding should come with tighter regulations to ensure that providers do not siphon off the extra money to bolster their bottom lines.

Providers should have to transparently report on their use of publicly funded subsidies.

A few weeks ago ABC reported that more than half of the nursing homes run by Australia's largest private provider Bupa are failing basic standards of care and 30 per cent are putting the health and safety of the elderly at "serious risk".

I’m sorry but how does a provider which receives nearly half a billions in tax payers subsidies get away with this?

Funding should be tied to care. It is a simple premise.

If a for-profit provider is making millions out of publicly funded beds yet not providing enough staff nor delivering quality care – that must be addressed.
We know it’s the workers who are holding the system together.

So – you keep telling us where change has to be made.

You are telling us clearly.

So - get political. Politics needs nurses.