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Balance of power: the nurses representing you in Canberra

Few nurses have served in the Australian Federal Parliament in recent memory. There was Judith Adams, elected in 2004, who represented WA in the senate until her death from cancer in 2012. And until Ged Kearney came along in 2018, closely followed by Helen Haines in 2019, one of the most common occupations in the land was grossly underrepresented in Australian politics.

According to an ABC workforce survey, comparing the former jobs of Australian pollies and the population at large, nurses account for one in 50 jobs or 2.1 per cent in the general population, but only make up 0.88 per cent of parliamentarians.

“Nurses make, in my view, very good politicians. Nurses have a breadth of experience that I don't think any other politician can ever claim to have really,” Ged Kearney tells Nursing Review.

“[It's about] what you see at a grassroots community level, at a family level. You work with people who are drug and alcohol addicted, you work with mums and older people, younger people. You have a grasp on the community and the community's needs like, I believe, nobody else.”

Kearney has spent a career listening to these needs and fighting for others: first as an RN for twenty odd years, before climbing the ranks of the union movement. Campaigning and listening to her constituents is something she genuinely enjoys.

Ged Kearney. Photo: Supplied.

“It is hard going, but I get energy from the community. It actually gives me the impetus when I could go to my leadership and say, ‘I know that almost my entire electorate will support this policy. This is really popular and really good.’ And I know that because I talk to them and they say to me, ‘Fight hard, Ged.’ They give me the energy and that sounds a bit, I don't know, wanky maybe. But it's true. They really do buoy me up.

“I'm sitting here looking at a hand-drawn poster from the J S Grey Kindergarten kids saying, ‘We matter. Please look after us.' It’s just beautiful, so, it really does give you the energy to keep going,” she says.

As the former federal secretary of the ANMF and now member for Cooper, Kearney has gravitated to the health issues in parliament. She was appointed the Shadow Assistant Minister for Skills and the Shadow Assistant Minister for Aged Care and is glad that aged care is finally on top of the list of the many “explosions” that occur in Canberra politics every day.

“Because I had been so closely linked to aged care in my nursing life, ran big campaigns to improve care and conditions for nurses in aged care, and carers, I sadly haven't been surprised by the revelations of the royal commission. I know this is going to sound a bit weird, but it's been a bit of a relief for me that finally it's getting the attention that it deserves,” she says.

Her job now, she says, is to keep the pressure on and eventually make sure the government adhere to any recommendations made by the royal commission, whose interim report is released this week.

For Dr Helen Haines – a former nurse, midwife and academic – parliamentary life can be hard as an independent MP for her home electorate of Indi.

“It's time consuming and it takes a lot of discipline and effort to do that. But it's also rather liberating, because it means on every piece of legislation that comes before the House, I can apply, in my case, a rural lens across it, to say, ‘What's the impact of this bill on rural and regional Australia?’” she says.

Like Kearney, Haines is well versed on health issues and as former director of the Rural Health Academic Network (RHAN) and executive director of the Education and Research Unit at Northeast Health Wangaratta, she is uniquely placed to work for people from country Australia.

Haines believes that economic prosperity is paramount to achieving high level education and creating good jobs in the regions, and that will lead to better health outcomes.

“I reckon there's an appetite to listen,” she says of her working relationship with the Liberal and National MPs in government. “The key bit, though, is to get some outcomes, and I tell you what, I would be absolutely thrilled if I could get some outcomes in regard to uncapping university places for regional universities, most particularly in the health careers.

Helen Haines. Photo: Supplied

“[If] there was an opportunity for kids who grow up in regional Australia to go to a regional university to undertake a degree in a health-related discipline and ultimately to work in rural and regional Australia, that'd be a great step, because workforce is one of our biggest challenges.”

Away from the bureaucracy and day to day politicking, Haines also enjoys the interaction with members of her electorate, which she describes as a “great joy and an enormous privilege”. However, the academic in her enjoys another specific perk of the job too.

“One of the great aspects of the job is the people I actually can access if I need expertise. So, it's fabulous to have the resources of the parliamentary library, with over 120 researchers working there, that my office can pick up the phone and ask for some research to be undertaken on a particular matter that we're concerned about. That's just fantastic. And as an academic myself, to know that I can call on that level of expertise, I love that. I find that fabulous,” she says.

For both women, their past experiences have informed their work in parliament. They share similar aims; both want to tackle climate change and inequality, and both want to better the treatment of asylum seekers and to close the skills gap in healthcare.

“I’m really pleased that I have my nursing background and I know Helen is too because it gets you a completely different perspective,” Kearney says.

“It's not just dollars, it's not just legal barriers and problems that people look at all the time. You're actually able to speak from the heart and say, ‘Well hang on, we've got to find a way through. We've got to find the money. You've got to make the laws change because this is what people need.’ And it's really lovely to be able to stand up and say, ‘And I know why people need this. Because when I was a nurse, I did this…’ you know?”

Haines agrees that nurses need greater representation in parliament, but points to the growing number of other healthcare professionals gaining seats in parliament as a positive development.

“There's a bit of a smattering now of health professionals, in addition to medical practitioners. As an Independent, it's easier for me to have a louder voice, because I'm free to use it. But I have no doubt that behind the scenes those other health professionals will certainly have a view about how things are going.

“From my perspective, it's about finding the people that I think I can align with to improve policy, and that's what I'm attempting to do.”


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