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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Q&A: Greens Senator Janet Rice talks an end of for-profit aged care, workers’ pay boost and more

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A caring society, a fair economy and a clean environment are the top priorities for Greens Party Senator Janet Rice’s vision for Australia. A climate scientist by training, the Footscray local was a founding member of the Greens Party in 1992. She has been an elected member of the Senate since 2014, and currently sits on the Administration of Sports Grants committee and the Senate Standing: Scrutiny of Bills committee. She is also co-convenor of the Parliamentary Friendship Group for LGBTIQ Australians, the Amnesty International Parliamentary Group and the Parliamentary Friends of Women’s Australian Rules Football. Aged Care News journalist BIANCA ROBERTS sat down with Senator Rice at her Brunswick East office to discuss the Greens’ policy priorities for ensuring reforms to quality of care for older Australians, as well as a fair, equitable living for aged care nurses and personal care assistants.

Thank you Senator Rice for welcoming Aged Care News into your office today. Firstly, I’m curious to hear how your last Senate sitting went, in particular in relation to the Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment (Royal Commission Response No. 2) Bill 2021– are you satisfied with the outcomes?

“I’m very pleased that the amendment for registered nurses 24/7 ended up passing, but I’m not surprised that the Government then didn’t pass it through the house, so it’s basically sitting there.

The Government have been telling us that they were desperate to get this through… but they chose not to put it through the House.

On the legislation, as it stood, it’s very much a piecemeal bit of legislation: it’s cherry picking some of the easy-to-achieve royal commission recommendations, but not addressing the big picture stuff and not having a coherent approach to aged care, which is what’s needed.

We need a complete overhaul of the legislation very much taking on a rights-based approach aged care — overhauling it completely.

And the Government hasn’t done that yet.”

So would you like to see the 1997 Aged Care Act basically torn up and restructured from the ground up?

“Absolutely, yes, and so that’s certainly one of the things that I’m hoping for if we have a change of government … but you’ll get a much better Labor government, if you have the greens in balance of power to actually push Labor to deliver on some things.

For example, our platform explicitly says we support the 25 per cent increase in wages to aged care workers; Labor haven’t come out explicitly with that.

They’ve said, ‘we’ll support whatever the Fair Work Commission says’, which is fair enough, but they could have actually said that if the ruling comes out with a 25 per cent increase in wages, that they’ll support that, definitely.

We know that registered nurses in aged care get paid less than if they work in a hospital …  and so it’s no surprise that if you are a registered nurse, and you’re asking yourself ‘do I go and work in a hospital? Or do I go and work where I’m going to be completely overwhelmed, completely overworked and get paid less working in an aged care home?’

Even if they would prefer to work in aged care, they still think ‘well, for the sake of paying the rent, if there’s a job going in the hospital, that’s where I’ll go’.”

What’s your take on the rebuttal from the Government at the moment, suggesting that while the aim should be 24/7 nurses, it’s just not feasible at the moment with staff shortages?

“I had this very conversation with Greg Hunt actually, when he was lobbying us to not support that amendment.

And I said, ‘well, you can easily make that commitment, and you could have a carve-out’, so that if a provider has gone to market and they literally and genuinely cannot find them, there could be a short-term exemption until those nurses were available.

And critically, I mean, it comes down to the pay and conditions for the workforce, that if you offer Registered Nurses a decent enough pay and decent enough conditions, they will come.

It then comes down to, in the longer term, the Greens policy of free tertiary education. So by getting rid of fees, you then encourage people to take up the training.

If you’ve got a good career path, you’ve got decent wages and conditions, people can say, ‘right, OK, it’s worth me going off to uni to train to be a nurse. I know there’s going to be a good job at the end of it’.

I went to uni when it was fee-free … we could afford it then in the ’80s; we can afford it now.”

How do we go about fully-subsidising fees these days, when the universities are continuously hiking up their prices?

“Essentially, what it means is that the universities need to get more public funding.

So we’re not scared of saying taxes are good. Taxes mean that we can afford to pay for the services that we need.

And in particularly, we need to be increasing the taxes on the really wealthy in our society.

So for example, our billionaires tax, because during the pandemic, billionaires [globally] increase their wealth by a third. Reinhardt and Clive Palmer, they doubled their wealth.

And, similarly, a super-profits tax on the corporations … and that brings in the money so that you can afford to pay for the aged care services, the education services, affordable housing, all of these things.”

I’m curious about the part of your platform that states that aged care should be run solely on a not-for-profit basis. How could we feasibly reverse almost 25 years of privatisation? I don’t suppose the providers would easily give their businesses up?

“No, because the providers are making money out of it and that’s half the problem.

The royal commission showed that the poorest quality aged care was coming out of the for-profit providers.

So, look, our policy says it would be a shift to that and it would obviously be about working with the sector to work out how to make that happen, whilst supporting and encouraging the not-for-profit providers.

And a lot of it, actually, is about transparency and accountability.

So if you make all of the providers actually be upfront about where their money’s going, what their profits are, I think you would find that those for-profit providers would realise they couldn’t get away with doing all of the skimming off the top and making the big profits.

And they wouldn’t be as interested in running it, if they know that they’ve got to be putting more of their money into actually providing the service.

But …  if we had the influence and the leverage to, say, convince an incoming Labor government to take this on as a policy, you wouldn’t want to suddenly say it has to happen by tomorrow, because it would cause a massive upset.

So it would be something that would be implemented over time.”

You’re looking to universalise dental and mental health care? Why is this expansion of Medicare important, especially in the context of older Australians?

“When we last had the balance of power in government, which was the 2010 Gillard Government, we got dental care for children included under Medicare, which we’re very proud of. And that’s one of the things that survived the ravages of the conservative government since then.

But we know that it’s just absolutely illogical that dental health is not included under Medicare, and we know that there’s an awful lot of illness that is caused by people having poor quality teeth.

I certainly know, personally, many people who have really suffered a lot in their health because they can’t afford to go to the dentist.

The only reason we haven’t done it is because it does would increase the cost of providing Medicare to people, and the only reason we haven’t done it is because it would increase the cost of providing Medicare to people.”

That wouldn’t mean an increase to the Medicare levy for low-middle income Australians, would it?

“No… and we’re completely against the stage-three tax cuts [which will not benefit low income workers such as aged care workers], which Labor have also supported, because they’re going to cost the budget bottom line $180 billion over the next 10 years.

And that’s $180 billion that could be being spent on dental care and mental health into Medicare.”

You’ve proposed amendment to the current pension scheme, including rolling back the pension age to 65, as it stood before amendments by the Rudd Government in 2009. Can you tell us a little about the rationale behind that?

“The argument for putting it up to 67 years old was ‘we’re all living longer, and we’re all healthier, so we can afford to continue working’.

For the people who can and who want to work, that’s fine. If they’re healthy enough, and well enough to work, that’s good.

But for people who have been working in manual labour or hard labour, working in aged care, for example, doing lots of heavy lifting, by the time you get to 60, let alone 65, let alone 67: your body just can’t do it anymore.

We find that a lot of people working in those often very low paid jobs, heavy labour jobs, they’re actually not able to find work because they can no longer do some of the heavy labour and so they’re unemployed. They’re basically living on Jobseeker [payments], which is massively below the poverty line.

And it’s just unfair. They’ve worked hard all their life and they deserve to be able to retire at 65.

And so the cost of that is only $5.6 billion — that estimate is tiny. It’s half the price of what we pay out in subsidies to the burning of coal and gas and oil … fossil fuel subsidies totalled almost $12 billion this financial year.

And it just leads to such an inequitable society, and you have people suffering — and we know what’s happening. It’s because the companies that run these, the big coal, oil and gas companies, are very influential.

They give donations to both the Labor and Liberal Party … and it just means that we’ve got a government that is making decisions in the interests of those big corporations, rather than in people who are struggling in aged care facilities and not getting the care that they need.

But the other part of it is actually increasing the rate of the pension, along with all other income support to $88 a day, which is above the poverty line.

And that’s got a pretty hefty price tag on it but, again, we’d say ‘look, if you tax the very wealthy companies, the companies that are making big profits, you tax the billionaires, you stop the fossil fuel subsidies’. We can afford to do that.”

Are there any other policies that you believe the two major parties have thus far failed to address this election campaign?

“They are quite a long way from aged care, but just in terms of having a healthy future for us all, we need action on climate change and stopping the burning of — and export of — coal, gas and oil.

I think on a lot of things, from education, through to aged care, through to child care, Labor have gone some way, but not as far as what’s needed, because they aren’t willing to say that the very wealthy and these big corporations should be paying more tax.

For us, we’ll say ‘no, we can afford it as a wealthy country to have free childcare, to be having free education, to be building a million affordable homes, for example — and that certainly would be just as relevant for older Australians as for younger Australians.

[By increasing Jobseeker to $88 per day], people aren’t going to be living in luxury: it’s $33,000 a year.

It’s not luxury at all, but it does mean that you can afford to live and it then gives people the opportunity to be able to live productive lives, whether it’s then being able to look for work or, if you’re an older person, it means that you’re not just worried sick about how you’re going to be surviving.

You can afford to stay healthy; you can afford to go out and have a coffee occasionally with your friends; you can probably afford to catch the train to go do some volunteering somewhere… you can be a fulfilled and thriving member of society.

[This is] particularly for older people on low incomes who often have worked really hard, and I really can understand that they feel that they’ve been forgotten by society, and just sort of left on the scrap heap —  and that shouldn’t be the case.

In a wealthy country like Australia, it’s a political choice that’s being made to be treating them badly when we can make the choice to say ‘no, we’re going to raise the money so that people in their retirement can afford to be living a decent life’.”

Were there any final points you would like to make?

“In terms of my own personal perspective and experience of caring for my mum, who’s living at home at 89: the whole home-care system is really in massive need of reform.

And I mean, a lot of it is down to wages and conditions for workers.

You’ve got wonderful people who are doing the best they can, but their wages are really poor; their conditions are poor.

It’s such a casualised workforce, and just the churn of workers —  for Mum… there’ll be somebody that will be there, maybe for a month, and then they move on.

And when you’re 89 and living at home, it’s a big thing to have a new person coming into your house every month, and then trying to find out what Mum’s needs are.

So fundamentally, we’re needing to have good quality training, good quality career paths, good wages, so people will want to go into a career of care for older people.

And then to also provide those really good-quality, wrap-around services for older people to keep them living at home… enabling them to be much happier, much more independent, than living in an aged care facility.

But we need to be doing more than what we’re currently doing.”

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