Speech – Address to Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation – Melbourne – Friday, 18 October 2019
A MATTER OF RESPECT
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I am honoured to speak with you.
Not just because it’s my first time here as Labor Leader.
But also because it is the first time you have given a Labor Leader the privilege of addressing this gathering.
And it is very much a privilege.
I deeply admire the nursing profession, and have for all of my life.
As many of you here will know, I grew up in public housing, raised by a single mother who was on the invalid pension due to her chronic rheumatoid arthritis.
We were a good team, Mum and I. But Mum did it tough. She was sick a lot of the time.
What happened during Mum’s many stays in hospital was that I got to see nurses in action.
And what I saw was dedication, empathy, energy and professionalism.
I saw some of the finest instincts a human being can have, put selflessly to work in the care of a fellow human being.
Those nurses looked after Mum.
There were so many of them over the years, and they all surrounded her, protected her and did everything they could to make her life more comfortable.
Mum was my family and, when I was a kid, she was my world.
As I watched with a child’s eyes, seeing what those nurses did was more than just an education.
It was the beginning of an appreciation that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
And that’s just the experience of one family.
It is an experience you’ll find replicated to different degrees right across this country.
You are the hardworking backbone of the health system.
And you are joined together in the biggest union in the country.
It would pay for political parties to look to the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation and learn, because you are clearly doing something right.
Your membership has been expanding, and expanding consistently for 20 years.
Like any union should be, your union – when it comes down to it – is a community.
And it is a community with strong, clearheaded leadership and a deeply democratic approach.
But the strength of your community – your union – is so much about the strength of your membership.
And that’s a strength that ultimately flows from the nature of the job you have chosen to do.
THE NATURE OF THE JOB
Nursing and midwifery isn’t just another job.
The rest of us would do well to pause once in a while and contemplate just what it is that nurses and midwives see in the course of a regular working day.
If anyone has a true sense of perspective on the human condition, it is you.
What you see is nothing short of the full spectrum of us as a species.
You see life as it begins.
You see life as it draws to an end.
You see our capabilities and our limitations.
You see hopes realised, you see hopes dashed.
You see the highs and the lows.
And you are the sudden support network for the family, relatives and friends who make up the circle of love that surrounds the patient in your care.
To say your role in our society is fundamental is an understatement that doesn’t do it justice.
Your status should match that.
But we know that isn’t the case and that nurses and midwives can be a bit like oxygen – essential, but invisible and taken for granted.
One of the things about human beings is we need to be reminded of the obvious once in a while. Thankfully, the reminders are coming thick and fast.
We are approaching the final year of Nursing Now – a three-year campaign to raise the profile of nurses and empower them.
It supports nurses to “lead, learn and build a global movement”.
It is based on the principle that strengthening nursing will improve health, promote gender equality, and support economic development.
FLORENCE AND FAITH
The World Health Organisation has also declared next year the Year of the Midwife and Nurse, which will coincide with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale.
Florence was the dawn of a new era.
She went into the darkness, carrying the glow of her lamp and the light of her mind, and she began slamming shut so many of the doors that had been left open to death.
She turned nursing into a profession. And along the way, she changed the world.
It is fitting that it was a nurse who was one of the greatest turning points in health.
Next year will unite in our minds Florence and the profession she began to shape.
The spirit of Florence lives on in nursing, that spirit of changing things for the better. That spirit of making a difference for others.
Think of Faith Thomas. Not only was she one of the first indigenous women to graduate as a nurse and midwife from Queen Victoria Hospital, she was the first to run a hospital.
As if that wasn’t enough, she was also the first Aboriginal person to represent Australia in cricket, or indeed in any sport.
She grew up with a training Don Bradman would have recognised, making good use of the rocks at her disposal.
And when she finally swapped stone for leather, she would race towards the pitch, her opponent waiting poised at the crease, and she would bowl with a magic arm.
But Faith had an unwavering sense of perspective about her own achievements and which of her deliveries mattered the most.
As she contemplated her time in health, Faith put it this way:
“That’s the part of my life I feel really proud about. Cricket is just a sport, but I have looked after a lot of Aboriginal people. It’s really special.”
Indeed, she delivered so many babies at Alice Springs hospital that parents began naming their daughters after her.
GED AND ANNIE
I consider myself very fortunate to have a former nurse on my team – the great Ged Kearney, who will be talking with you shortly.
Ged began on the path to economics when she felt her true calling and became a nurse and a nurse educator.
And she went on to serve this union in so many capacities – Victorian Branch President, Assistant Federal Secretary, Federal President and Federal Secretary.
When you have a union as well-organised and successful as yours, the selfless thing to do, of course, is to share the success.
And that’s what you’ve done, first by sending Ged to lead the ACTU, and then eventually to Parliament, where she is now improving the health of our political system as part of our Labor team as the federal member for Cooper.
You have a history of good leaders. It is a fine tradition you are upholding.
And we should all consider ourselves lucky that you have Annie Butler as your general secretary.
I value my relationship with Annie, as a direct link to you, the hundreds of thousands of nurses and midwives in our country.
And Annie shows the strength you need in a leader.
Even more so when we have a Health Minister who would even contemplate leaving nurses and midwives off his Preventive Health Strategy Expert Steering Committee.
That Committee was the least that could be done to undo some of the damage caused by the Coalition’s disastrous de-funding of the Australian National Preventive Health Agency in the 2014 Budget.
But even as we welcomed the Committee, Labor protested the Morrison Government’s exclusion of nurses.
That Greg Hunt could have overlooked the very people at the coalface of preventive health was extraordinary.
All the more so when you consider that Minister Hunt is always ready to remind anyone who’s listening that both his mother and wife have worked as nurses.
Nurses and midwives make up more than half of the health workforce.
It should go without saying that the more expert voices there are involved, the better.
Not least when we have a Government that is again flirting openly with the idea of Americanising our health system.
There is so much to admire in America, but their approach to healthcare isn’t one of them.
Our own approach, it must be said, sometimes falls short of our own ideals. Not least when it comes to older Australians.
Once again, we turn to you.
I think of all the nurses whose courage has made the difference at the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety.
It’s more than a year since the Royal Commission was announced.
You’ve all heard some of the stories that have been told there so far.
Stories that have come to light thanks to the courage of nurses who took it upon themselves to come forward and speak up.
It’s not an easy thing to be a whistleblower.
We have seen time and time again what happens when people speak up about wrongdoing in the workplace and how they end up suffering the consequences of their bravery.
Despite all the cautionary examples laid out for them, these nurses have come forward.
They have spoken out, they have shone an unflinching light on what is going on.
It’s pleasing that their courage has been recognised.
It’s encouraging that the ultimate consequence of their actions will be not blowback or ostracism, but change for the better in the aged-care sector.
That at least is the hope shared by all of us here today.
Change has to happen.
The stories are horrific. They are the consequence of a sector being let down.
I recently shared some of these in Parliament House.
I spoke of “Nancy” Santoro, who was found with maggots infesting her untreated wounds.
I spoke of Sarah Holland-Batt’s father, who was left for days in unchanged incontinence pads. Sarah was so powerful when she appeared on Q&A recently. I am pleased she is here with us today.
I spoke of John Callaghan, who was already struggling with cancer but was found with maggots in his ear.
I spoke of Lisa Corcoran – who is just 43 but has been one of the many younger Australians in a nursing home since an accident when she was 37.
Lisa has battled loneliness, isolated from her own generation. And she has had to fight for the basic right to be showered more than once a week.
I spoke of an 85-year-old artist with Alzheimer’s and bone fractures in an understaffed nursing home, left to lie unattended in his own faeces.
I spoke of a man who died after no one checked on him during a gastro outbreak.
As a society, we are now facing the consequences of letting the aged-care sector run down. We have left the warnings unheeded.
There are more than 100,000 older Australians waiting for aged care packages.
These are our mums, our dads, our neighbours.
And for most of us, it is the future.
Time’s arrow flies in one direction and it’s taking us all along with it.
Happily we are living longer lives, but we do need to prepare for it.
And the simple, unavoidable demographic truth is that the number of us who will require care is growing.
I want the Government to act on the recommendations of the Royal Commission when they are finally handed down in November next year.
But we need to start acting before then.
Part of that process is acknowledging that it is the courage of nurses that has made the beginning of change possible.
We must do all that is possible to further empower nurses to step up and speak out.
You are telling us where change has to be made.
You are telling us clearly.
We know it’s the workers who are holding the system together.
We know you’re stressed by the lack of resources that keeps from delivering the level of care you know is required.
Labor, I regret to say, is not in power.
It is the Government that is in the position to make change happen. And it can make a start immediately.
My Shadow Minister for Ageing, Julie Collins, spelled it out during her recent Q&A appearance.
The Government doesn’t have to wait for the Royal Commission before it takes action.
There already plenty of reports with plenty of recommendations that can be followed now.
Aged care needs more staff, better trained and better paid.
Facilities need a nurse on site 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Personal care attendants should be expected to have a minimum qualification of Certificate 3.
And we need greater transparency of how public money is spent in aged care.
Or, if the Government needs the message to be shorter, Ged Kearney has put it in this handy nutshell:
“The aged care sector needs funding accountability and transparency – funding must be tied to care and a proper workforce strategy.”
It is the job of Government to show leadership, to use the power that is there at its fingertips, and to act.
There are so many issues crying out to be addressed. Now is not the time for the sort of inertia we’re seeing from a Government that seems surprised to find itself still in power.
We have a great if imperfect health system, and one of its flaws is the difficulty many Australians experience trying to access it.
Not least in rural and remote areas, where more than 70,000 of your members work.
The work you do is crucial. What you do is nothing short of keeping communities viable.
The challenge for policymakers is to attract greater numbers of midwives and nurses to rural and regional areas.
Access to proper healthcare must never be something that depends on your postcode.
As part of its core role of governing for all Australians, the Government must do all it can to improve the health outcomes for Australians in rural, regional and remote areas.
The Government should be seeking voices of experience, wisdom and expertise – and they have that on tap from the nation’s nurses and midwives.
You are on the frontline of Indigenous health. You see through the platitudes on Closing the Gap.
You can tell us that gap is so often a chasm and that so many of our fellow Australians are still being left to fall into it.
You are on the frontline with the mentally ill and you see the myriad cracks we have so carelessly left for them in the system.
You are on the frontline with the homeless. You see up close all the terrible consequences of leaving Newstart to stagnate.
I can take a guess at what your reaction was when Luke Howarth – the Assistant Minister for Homelessness – suggested that what homelessness really needed was a bit of positive spin.
Or when Social Services Minister Anne Ruston suggested that the only effect of raising Newstart would be to put more money in the pockets of drug-dealers.
I’d like to hope that isn’t quite what Scott Morrison meant when he talked about compassionate conservatism.
Perhaps compassionate conservatism is a work in progress, and Scott Morrison is still tweaking it.
If he needs any help on the compassion front, I urge him to turn to you.
You are the true experts when it comes to the health challenges among refugees and asylum-seekers.
You are fully across the reality of Medevac.
I believe you can be strong on borders without being harsh on humanity. The Medevac legislation is an acknowledgment of that.
It is an acknowledgment that we are, above all, human beings.
And it is a reminder to ourselves that, despite everything, we still strive as Australians to remain the same people we like to see ourselves as – humane, big-hearted, and ready to give others a fair go.
Medevac does not represent a weakening of our borders. It is a strengthening of our humanity.
But of course Medevac has been politicised and turned into a football.
And of course it has been turned into an Us and Them scenario by a Government whose main intention is to divide us into different sides, and then demand to know which one we were on.
You are all Florence Nightingale’s lamp pushing back the darkness.
Labor wants to push alongside you.
I know for now you have to contend with a Health Minister who flip-flops on nurses and midwives, and an Aged Care Minister who is the second most invisible Tasmanian after the thylacine.
But I hope that after the next election, we will form Government – a Government that stands with you.
We are not standing still in the meantime, though.
I want to spend time meeting you in your workplaces and hearing just how it is.
And just as I want to come see you, I want you to come see me.
My door is always open.
Because if it isn’t, I’ll have Ged to answer to.