Transcript: Interview with Stephanie Nitschke, ABC Riverland - 22 February 2024


Interview with Stephanie Nitschke, ABC Riverland

22 February 2024

Topics: Labor’s hidden aged care sustainability taskforce report, workforce shortages, Government’s failure to attend important Riverland wine growers meeting


STEPHANIE NITSCHKE: With an ageing population, Australia has a few challenges to overcome to provide a sustainable aged care system. Last year, the Federal Government created a taskforce to find a long-term solution to aged care funding. A report was delivered in December and Shadow Minister for Health and Aged Care, Senator Anne Ruston, is calling for the Government to release its findings. Good morning to you, Senator.

ANNE RUSTON: Good morning.

STEPHANIE NITSCHKE: So, are you supportive of the taskforce itself? Is this something that needed to happen?

ANNE RUSTON: Look, absolutely. We've known for a long time that we had a growing population of people who were getting older - the boomers, as they call them - who have some really quite different needs and diverse needs when it comes to aged care and their ageing process. And so, we were very welcoming of the Taskforce to look at how we can deliver aged care services to older Australians the way they want. But this decision by the Federal Government to not release this report - a report they promised to release before Christmas - is really concerning, because we need to take Australians on the journey with us about what they want for their future. This idea that the Government and the bureaucracy can hide it is, you know, I think it just shows real contempt that we're not having the conversation with older Australians about what they want.

STEPHANIE NITSCHKE: And, as you said, we are an ageing population here in Australia and aged care will be a very important investment in the next few decades, so important to really, sort of, attack these challenges head on.

ANNE RUSTON: Look, one hundred percent. I think that one of the things that that we've got to stop doing in Canberra, and even in Adelaide when it comes to state issues, is thinking that the bureaucrats know best or the people in Canberra know best. The people who know best about policy development are the people who are impacted by the policy. And so, I think the Government has been very foolish in not getting their ideas out there, letting older Australians and their families have their say about it, because that's how we will get the best policy, that's how we'll get an aged care sector or a healthcare sector or a disability sector, or whatever it happens to be, that is actually reflective of what Australians want. So, I would say to the Government, it is really stupid, get this report out, let Australians have their say, and let's get on with building policy that older Australians want - because we're all going to be older Australians one day we hope - and I'd like to think that we have built a system that is going to be something that I'd want to be part of, and certainly I think every Australian would think the same way.

STEPHANIE NITSCHKE: So, what are you hoping to see in this taskforce report?

ANNE RUSTON: What I think we need to do is see greater flexibility about responses. We know that in rural, regional and remote communities, sometimes with shallow workforce - and we know we've got a workforce challenge - or just, you know, the particular conditions that exist because you've got smaller towns, they have to have flexibility about how you deliver our aged care services, and let the community be flexible about what they want. So, I would be very keen to see that there's not a one-size-fits-all model, which is something Canberra's very good at doing. You know, something that might work in Sydney is not necessarily going to work in Renmark. So, I'd like to see that. I'd like to see much more flexibility in choice for people. So, if people want to stay in their own homes, how do they want to stay in their own homes? Do they want to stay in the family home? Do they want to downsize into something that's a bit more fit-for-purpose but still maintain their independence? There needs to be flexibility across the whole scope of options that are given to people, so they've got choice and control about what they want to do. So, I would be very hopeful that's the case. But we also have to have a system that is sustainable into the future, that's affordable for both the taxpayer and the people that are - I mean, obviously - the contributions that are made by the older Australians and their families. So, we need to look at all of these things and have an open and honest conversation about it.

STEPHANIE NITSCHKE: I'm speaking with Senator Anne Ruston. She's the Shadow Minister for Health and Aged Care. And you did touch on it there, some of the challenges we face in the regions are, you know, are sort of special compared to, yeah, maybe metropolitan aged care providers. So, you know, are there any that come to mind?

ANNE RUSTON: Well, the first thing that comes to mind that we've seen - The Government has brought forward a requirement of the Royal Commission for 24/7 nurses and mandated care minutes, and we know right now in regional areas we're struggling to find registered nurses. In fact, we know that in the three months since we last spoke to the Government in Budget Estimates, apparently only 44 new nurses out of the 6,000 they need have joined the aged care sector. So, I hate the fact that we are seeing aged care homes closed, and many of these are in rural and regional areas, simply because they can't meet these mandated care minutes and 24/7. And of course we want to see older Australians get the care that they need - don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting we should be cutting corners with care - but if you can't find a registered nurse, they shouldn't be so rigid in their requirements. You know, enrolled nurses provide great support. We could look at other allied health. We can look at using the local hospital to provide that additional assistance. But this government has been so rigid in their application of these new rules that we're seeing nursing homes close and, as you know, in rural and regional areas, there's only probably one nursing home in town. So that means older Australians are kicked out of their homes and often have to move hundreds of miles away, out of their community and away from their families. So, I'd like to see greater flexibility around how rural and regional communities are able to deliver the care. As long as they're providing good quality care that older Australians want, I think I'd like to see a little bit less rigid flexibility and a little bit more recognition about those unique challenges that we know occur in our communities.

STEPHANIE NITSCHKE: And Senator Ruston, you know, just changing tack slightly. Last night, 175 grape growers met, had a crisis meeting with industry leaders. There was some discussion of some government support for growers who've been offered prices well below the cost of production and, you know, just trying to find a way forward. Your thoughts on that?

ANNE RUSTON: Well look, obviously, we know that the wine industry is doing it pretty tough at the moment, and a lot of the reason for that is not necessarily, you know, it certainly is well out of the control of growers. So we know also that there are many growers that have got many different objectives. You know, some want to get out because they are getting close to retirement age, some want just a bit of help to stay in, and others want to transition to different crops. It was a fantastic opportunity last night to hear, you know, over 150 growers put their issues on the table. You don't get many opportunities where you've got that many people in the same place at the same time, so where was the Government? You know, neither the State Government nor the Federal Government Ministers were there, as far as I am aware. I spoke to Tim Whetstone late last night after he'd been to the meeting, because I couldn't make it because I'm in Mount Gambier. And I think it's really disappointing that the Government ignored such an important group of people who really need their governments to be listening to them. So what I will be taking back to Canberra, and I know Tim will be taking back to Adelaide, is to say to our respective governments, this simply isn't good enough. You need to get out there and listen to growers. I've got a meeting with David Littleproud, who is the Shadow Agriculture Minister in Canberra, in a couple of weeks where he's meeting industry representatives, some of whom were there last night because he wants to know firsthand what issues are on the ground and how we can form policies to help. But we're not in government right now, and these growers need help now, not in a year's time when hopefully we'll be back in government. They need help now. Because, you know, if we don't do something, we not only will destroy the lives and livelihoods of these growers, but of our river communities. Because you take the wine industry out of the Riverland, and you've got some serious structural challenges to try and deal with. So I think the government needs to get out of bed and get in their car and drive outside of Metropolitan Adelaide.

STEPHANIE NITSCHKE: Senator Ruston, thanks so much for your time.

ANNE RUSTON: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.


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