Thursday, 18 March 2021
This week in parliament I had the absolute pleasure of meeting and talking with some amazing people who work in our aged-care system. They came to Canberra via their trade unions—the United Workers Union and the ANMF—and during the previous sittings I met with HSU members. Their message to me was clear: aged care is in crisis. Those workers didn't need a royal commission to learn this truth, they live it everyday. Zelda, from my state of South Australia, lamented that she doesn't have time to sit with residents who crave a chat or any interaction beyond the strict tasks of institutional care. Others told me they are often so understaffed they're not able to clean in a timely manner residents who have soiled themselves, even during meal times. From our discussions with Zelda and Donna from South Australia, Ross and Amanda from Queensland, and Jude and Jirianti from WA, it's clear that, at a paltry $22 per hour, these workers are overworked and underpaid. They simply don't have enough time to care.
Emma is a young registered nurse I met with yesterday along with the ANMF, her union. She was only three years into the long career she wanted to spend in aged care but the poor wages and conditions forced her to move to another part of the health sector, where she earns $10 an hour more than she did caring for many, many more people in an aged-care setting. Other nurses described the residents they care for as 'family'. Jocelyn said: 'This is their last journey. We owe them dignity.'
These workers desperately want to know when they can tell residents in their care that they will have the time to care for them properly and safely. Their dedication to their work, and the love they feel for their residents, is just so powerful. Despite the low wages, inadequate staffing levels and strenuous working environment, they still turn up for work every day to perform some of our society's most important work. Importantly, they did that during the COVID pandemic, when so many of the rest of us were able to work from home.
The time for bandaids, the time for relying on the 'above and beyond' ethic and the dedication of aged-care staff, is over. We have had a royal commission and the jury is in. The Morrison government must respond because the Australian community is watching. Zelda and her colleagues are watching. Jocelyn and her colleagues are all watching as well. It's time for real action, not more flashy announcements and platitudes. The problem is clear, the challenge is clear. It's time to fix it.