Monday, 6 March 2023
Subjects: Aged care 24/7 nurses requirement, workforce shortages, Labor's superannuation changes, the Voice machinery bill
GREG JENNETT: Anne Ruston, welcome back to the studio. The clock is ticking towards what would have been, and what we assume still is the start date for the Government's promise on nurses in aged care facilities 24/7. And yet, against that backdrop, we've seen some figures out now showing 25,000 extra staff may be needed over a couple of years. Did that number shock you when it came out through Freedom of Information?
SENATOR ANNE RUSTON: Well, sadly, it didn't, because we have been saying for quite some time that we believe that these were the kind of numbers that would be needed in terms of nurses and personal care workers to meet the requirements that were being mandated by this legislation. But the thing that's probably of more concern is that there doesn't seem to be any flexibility in the response that we've seen from the Government, about how they're going to address the fact that we have massive workforce shortages at the same time as they are going to be requiring aged care facilities across the whole of Australia to meet requirements that they've legislated that aren't possibly able to be delivered.
JENNETT: But wouldn't they counter with two fronts - I'm not trying to run their arguments for them - but as I understand it, they would point to the fact that that gap may already have closed a little by virtue of forthcoming pay rises that will attract more nurses into the profession.
SENATOR RUSTON: Well, first of all, we've got to see whether the pay rise that has been put forward by the Fair Work Commission, due to be put in place by the 1st of July, actually has the impact that they're saying that it will. But when you consider 25,000 - we're not talking about a few hundred or a thousand nurses here, we're talking 25,000 care workers to meet these requirements - it would be a mammoth task for anybody to be able to meet them in the timeframes that are required. I mean, these things come into effect, the 24/7 nurses on the 1st of July and the 200 care minutes as well as 40 minutes of registered nurse care on the 1st of October. We don't have very long, and the aged care sector have got no idea what the consequences or implications, even though with the best of intent and the best of efforts, they've tried to get access to this workforce, they fail. What happens? Are they going to be closed down? Are they going to be sanctioned? Are they going to have penalties apply? They just don't know.
JENNETT: Or another possibility - Some, and I think regionals are leading this, can apply for an exemption. Do you know what the grounds are for applying for or receiving an exemption, which I think delays the implementation for a small number by about 12 months?
SENATOR RUSTON: The only aged care facilities that will be eligible for an exemption, according to the guidelines have been published by the Government, are nursing homes with less than 30 residents and in a Modified Monash area of 5 to 7, so that means pretty remote areas. So it's a very, very small number. It doesn't take into account the challenges in different markets. It's a very blunt way of doing it. And there is absolutely, categorically stated in their guidelines that the care minutes requirements - no exemptions will be allowed at all.
JENNETT: And did you look, in government, at the feasible sources for any number of nurses, even if it's not 25,000, through immigration and onshore training here in Australia? What's the maximum capacity that you think might be available from those two sources to get anywhere near these sort of shortfalls?
SENATOR RUSTON: Well, I mean, obviously, when it comes to migration, it's going to be very dependent on the levers that get pulled there, whether the Government is prepared to streamline migration for these particular workers. And when it comes to domestic supply, I mean, there are areas that could be looked at, but there is no way I can see, even on the best of modelling, that the Government is going to come anywhere near these sorts of numbers in the timeframes that they have mandated that these aged care facilities have to meet.
JENNETT: Are you saying this was a mistake, a promise that should never have been made in the first place? I mean, it was clearly made in good faith after the Royal Commission.
SENATOR RUSTON: Well, I think when the decision was made, particularly in relation to 24/7 and care minutes, there were timeframes that were laid down by the Royal Commission, including that the 24/7 nurse requirement not be required until a year later [than 1 July 2023]. But at that time, the workforce shortages that had been created by COVID had not occurred. So, you know, we've got a situation where this government has brought forward, to tick and flick an election commitment, a requirement for 24/7 nurses, and it has not taken into account the changing circumstances because of the fact that we've had COVID and we didn't have any immigration. So, I think every Australian wants to see older Australians get the kind of care and support that they need, but the last thing we need to see is, because of the absolute sort of obsession with ticking and flicking an election commitment, we'll see nursing homes closed and older Australians have to move hundreds of miles away from where their family and loved ones are, just so that they can meet these requirements.
JENNETT: We'll be keen as anyone to hear what Anika Wills has to say on that. Just a couple of other matters, Anne Ruston, as a senior member of the Coalition team. Polling out today, Newspoll in fact, shows 64%, two thirds approval of the superannuation cap that this government's putting in place. You're on the losing end of this argument in the court of public opinion, aren't you?
SENATOR RUSTON: Well, I think the real issue here is the fact that you can't go to the election and make a promise and then a few minutes later change that. So, all this says to the Australian public is what this government's said in order to get themselves elected, they don't actually care about, they're quite happy to go back on it. So what's next? And we saw last week that, you know, Jim Chalmers refused to rule out a tax on the family home and then I think the Prime Minister -
JENNETT: And then the Prime Minister did.
SENATOR RUSTON: You know, we're talking about unrealised capital gains now is the subject. Today in Question Time, we asked questions of the Finance Minister about what happens if one member of a couple dies, what's the impact on the other person? We don't know what's going to happen to primary producers who often have their farm in their superannuation accounts. It is just that huge uncertainty and the broken promises that I think will eventually start coming out, and realising that this policy has been ill conceived and there is not enough detail and nobody's really thought it through.
JENNETT: Alright. Anne, a quick one that's probably come up in your meetings. The Voice machinery bill, is that something the Coalition will be voting for or against in the Senate in particular?
SENATOR RUSTON: Well, of course we've put forward a proposal that says there should be three components of a referendum. One is a brochure that provides yes and no. The second is that there should be a yes and no organisation, to make sure that there's a place that you can park things, when it comes to assessing donations, foreign interference, because it's a very important part of the integrity of a referendum. And the third one is you should always fund both your yes and no cases equitably. If the Government was prepared to actually do that, because this is how referendums have always been run, and this piece of legislation will mean that referendums into the future will be changed. So we think it's really important the integrity of the referendum process is engaged, and that's what this bill is about. It's not just about the Voice, it's about making sure that referendums in Australia are fairly treated going forward.
JENNETT: We may yet see a little bit more movement by the Government on at least some of those, if not all of them. Anne Ruston, thanks for covering a bit of ground with us today. Great to catch up.
SENATOR RUSTON: Thanks so much.