“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,” Federal Member for Cooper Ged Kearney tells Aged Care Insite.
We are talking to discuss her time in parliament – Kearney was elected for the first time in 2018 as an ALP candidate in a section 44 by-election – and as she spent 20 years as a nurse, we inevitably talk about the royal commission.
“Although, the other thing I must say from Canberra is that Canberra is an explosive place. There are explosions every day of different issues. So, one day it’s all about aged care, another day it’s all about cuts to vets, another day it’s all about, I don’t know, some scandal in the Liberal Party.
“And so, attention spans are kind of short in a way. I realised that my job in Canberra is to keep those bursts alive when they come, to keep bringing it up in committees and keep making speeches about it and keep doing media about it, so that it stays up there as one of the things that we have to worry about and becomes a priority.”
Due to her clinical experience – as well as her time in the union movement – Kearney has moved up quick within the Labor ranks and currently serves jointly as Shadow Assistant Minister for Skills and Aged Care.
She has long campaigned for workers and has often spoken about the skills gaps and pressure aged care workers in particular face. She has also spoken about staff-to-patient ratios in aged care in the past, but what does she think about the line Labor took on aged care pay into the last election? Then leader Bill Shorten refused to commit to any pay increases, or action period, until the end of the royal commission, something which frontline workers were unhappy about at the time.
“He was looking at low-paid workers and there was broad support for wage rises for childcare. From the industrial relations perspective, there was a very strong focus on low-paid female-dominated workforces, which of course, nursing and aged care [are]… So, from my perspective, I was certainly hoping that we would be elected so that we could actually run a decent campaign for wage rises for aged care,” she says.
“But I think one of the main reasons was the childcare stuff is pretty straightforward. The childcare industry have had ratios set up, they’ve had some wholesale reforms to the way it’s funded, and really the last piece of that puzzle was to make sure that the carers got a pay raise.
“With aged care, I’m not sure it’s that straightforward. We don’t have minimum staffing levels, people aren’t accredited so they don’t have standard qualifications across the industry; there’s no transparency and accountability about where the money is spent. And that is very much clearer in childcare.”
“Aged care is a bit of a mess and it needs wholesale reform across the board before we can actually commit to any one little bit of it,” she says.
Kearney argues that it might be time to re-think how we view residential aged care in general. She believes that more often people are going into care when they have dementia or for reasons which makes staying at home impossible, meaning stays are shorter and more acute. Investment in primary healthcare and preventive care in the future will be just as important to the sector to keep people out of hospitals and aged care and at home for longer.
However, with the current government, Kearney believes any bipartisan attempts to tackle the tough subjects, like aged care, are more difficult than ever.
“The Scott Morrison government does not want to do that. And they are actually using partisan politics as a political tool. And it’s very worrying, if you ask me. And that’s why the crossbench is now so important [because] we don’t have numbers in the House, even with the crossbench anymore. But more and more you see people like Helen becoming important.”
Helen is of course fellow nurse, academic and independent member for Indi, Dr Helen Haines.
Her view of the general engagement in the aged care debate in parliament is one of surprise.
“Well, I reckon what is surprising me a bit is that, in question time, that there’s been no push from the opposition, or very little push around aged care,” she told Aged Care Insite.
“Some of these things I don’t know any more [about] than you, to be honest, even though I’m inside. I suspect that at the moment, everyone is waiting for the royal commission to play out.
“We’re hearing people say we can’t wait for the findings of the royal commission to act here. But in terms of hardcore questioning on the floor of the House, there’s not much being said at the moment. I might have to take this one on notice why that’s not happening.”
Both women agree that the current government could be doing more on health and aged care, but as they fight for the health system from different seats in the Canberra political machine, both will be going about their business in their own way.
“Me as an independent, I’m committed to working with the government for good policy wherever I can, but most certainly, calling out the government when I think they’re not doing enough. And I would say, right now, not doing enough for healthcare in rural and regional Australia,” Haines says.
Kearney says her next priority is the release of the interim report from the royal commission this week.
“My job is to make sure that if we are lucky enough to be elected at the next election, in 2022, that we have a very robust and excellent policy to take to the election for aged care.”Do you have an idea for a story?
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