JO LAVERTY, ABC RADIO DARWIN HOST: If there's one thing we've learned from the pandemic, other than the right way to wash our hands, is how valuable aged care sector workers are. Valuable and sadly very vulnerable as well. So, it looks like good news for staff in particular, that in the Federal budget there's a promise of a 15 per cent pay rise for workers in the sector. But of course, if you live in the Northern Territory you know that it can be very difficult to get an aged care bed. In fact, we've heard reports of people who are having to spend a lot of time in hospital because there aren't enough aged care beds. Anika Wells is the Federal Minister for Aged Care and for Sport and is in Darwin. Good morning, Minister.
ANIKA WELLS, MINISTER FOR AGED CARE AND SPORT: Good morning, Jo.
LAVERTY: This is your first visit to Darwin. Is it first time ever to Darwin or just first time as Minister?
WELLS: No, Jo. I actually lived in Alice Springs between ages two and five but definitely first time as Minister for Aged Care and Sport.
LAVERTY: Basically, a local. So, as you've been getting around what are people telling you?
WELLS: Well people are lovely here. It has been so welcoming. Out of the kind of fractious and icy week in Canberra we had for Budget week last week to come up and to see you all in the Top End. I got to go and see some of the aged care workers in Palmerston yesterday. Some of those people have been working in those jobs for more than 32 years. I met a lady name Josie, whose been there for 32 years and they love the work. They speak so warmly about the importance of the humanity in the work that they do, so I was very pleased to be able to convey to them like you said, there's $11.3 billion in the Federal budget to give them a 15 per cent pay rise above the award.
LAVERTY: In fact, we had the had the Nursing and Midwifery Awards just last week, and some of the stories of people who've been working in aged care are really moving and for them it is a vocation. It is not a job that they do for the money, and I feel like and perhaps you can contribute to this, Minister, sometimes when people do jobs for the love they are the ones that tend to get left behind. They're not the ones earning the big bucks because you know they're not going anywhere. They've got to keep doing the job anyway.
WELLS: Exactly, Jo. Obviously 15 per cent pay rise is really important in a cost of living crisis but I think what's been so moving is that this also rights a wrong, that we have undervalued our care economy and all the people that hold up the sky for us in our care economy in Australia for decades and so not only will be giving people somewhere between $140 and $200 a week pay rise but we’re saying to them we not only see you, we value and we thank you, and we think your work's important.
LAVERTY: When does that pay rise kick in?
WELLS: From 1 July.
LAVERTY: OK. And what about in the Northern Territory specifically, we have unique problems that probably are faced in some parts of Australia, but we really feel quite keenly but distances the small population. So, what are some of the hurdles that we must overcome here in the Northern Territory?
WELLS: Well, I think the aged care crisis has been particularly acute for people in rural and remote areas over the past few years and I got to meet some of the people who work in ARRCS yesterday and they have some really innovative solutions, where I met Brian, he's their regional chef, that means that he goes from place to place from Nhulunbuy, Alice Springs to Darwin to help set up good menus and meal plans to make sure that everyone's getting a nutritious assessment, and that’s fantastic, we love Brian, we thank Brian but I guess that is born of necessity that there just isn't capacity to have dieticians in every facility for every resident at the moment.
So, we've got to tackle the workforce shortages, that's the number one issue in aged care. Particularly in rural and remote areas and we've got a number of initiatives that we are pulling the levers on and we're just hoping now that with things like the pay rise in the Budget… There's more than $32 billion for aged care in the budget, it’s a huge injection of money. It's unprecedented injection of money but now we've got to make it work.
LAVERTY: So, staffing is an issue and you’ve just talked about dietary requirements. There are some places in the Territory it is incredibly difficult to even get a bag of greens. So recently there was a fundraiser, I think it was in Nhulunbuy, and the fundraiser raised a lot of money because the person who was raising the money brought home a salad bag from the supermarket in Darwin and auctioned it off and it went for the big bucks because it is really hard to get salad greens, so you know we talk about having a good diet, but it's nigh on impossible in some of these places. Are these things insurmountable here in the Northern Territory do you think, or is it just what we have to put up with?
WELLS: I think they are surmountable and someone like Brian, Brian’s really getting star billing in this interview this morning, but he was explaining the logistics and forethought required around navigating when the barge comes in and what degree of freshness of produce you can get around that system compared to Darwin for example where those things you can access from the shops around the corner are complex, but I don't think we should accept a lower standard of care for residents.
We had a Royal Commission into aged care. If now is not the moment for us all to seize that to make bigger reform as possible with as much money injected as possible unprecedented amounts of money that issue $32 billion then when will we do it? So, I'm going to keep pushing forward, but it is, I must say very heartening to meet on the ground, people that have been doing this work for years, decades, without any kind of recognition or respect from the Federal Government and feel like we are turning a corner.
LAVERTY: One of the nurses that I met ahead of the Nurses and Midwifery Awards, who had been working for decades in aged care was talking about working, I think she was in Katherine, if I recall correctly but having people who come from remote communities and they get to a stage where their family can't really look after them anymore in their homelands and so they are brought into Katherine. They're in a big city, compared to where they've come from, the language isn't really there, it's foreign, you have the confusion that sometimes comes with getting to that stage of life and on country care is much, much better, much more preferred by people, Territorians. How much of that it factors into your planning as aged care Minister for the federal government?
WELLS: I had a great meeting with your regular Tuesday guest, the Chief Minister, yesterday as well about a number of issues bed blocking being one of them, but also First Nation’s facilities being another and we talked about the federal government funding and building some of those facilities. And so we talked about when I get out there with her to see how that looks on the ground to talk to residents and workers about how that experience is what I can do to improve it.
There is money in the budget for capital works, where they are deemed necessary and absolutely the Albanese Government believes that First Nation elders and doing more for them is a priority. We actually had to fix up some funding in the Budget where that first elder care wasn't being funded at the same indexation rate as other places. We have fixed it. But we will continue to put tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars more in to solving this.
LAVERTY: So, you asked when could you go and have a look, what was the answer?
WELLS: I don't want to alarm our diary managers by announcing it, but we have plans to get there as quickly as possible. I have hopes of returning, winter.
LAVERTY: Of course, do it then. Don’t come during the build-up. It’s coming up to 20 to nine on ABC Radio Darwin. You’re hearing from Anika Wells, the Minister for Aged Care and for Sport.
LAVERTY: Now I referenced earlier about people who really need a proper home to go to, but instead they’re in beds in Royal Darwin Hospital. This is Michael Low, the Head of Geriatrics at Northern Territory Health explaining just in March how many dementia patients are staying at RDH.
Michael Low, Head of Geriatrics at Northern Territory Health: I think it varies from day-to-day it's something like 50 or so, but it's not just the hospital. I saw someone this week who had been waiting for 3 years for a nursing home bed in the community and the family is only just hanging on, hanging in there. So those people, if we can't support them well enough in the community, they're going to end up in the hospital as well.
LAVERTY: So how long do you think it's going to take to see these changes that people are asking for?
WELLS: I guess in some instances we'll see changes for individuals quite quickly. I've got pilot programs at the moment running into parts of the country where we are assisting people with high complex needs, like the ones that you're speaking of here to get into an appropriate bed, in a facility where they live. So, once we get those pilots, once we get the results, we can kind of assess how we move forward from there. But I also spoke with the Chief Minister about where it is. The bed blocking is most acute here. She already has some ideas that she has been progressing with her colleagues and with stakeholders, I guess up here and she was seeking my assistance to try and roll that out across different levels of government and I think we had a great meeting. I feel hopeful that we’ll be able to produce something hopeful for you.
LAVERTY: Any of those ideas particularly strike you, Anika?
WELLS: …they were in confidence…
LAVERTY: Ah, nearly got you there. What about the 15 per cent wage increase. That’s going to apply in the Northern Territory, isn’t it?
LAVERTY: Not just a down south type thing.
LAVERTY: Just quickly let’s move onto your other portfolio. Territorians love their sport.
WELLS: Me too.
LAVERTY: I’m sure you’ve noticed that coming through. AFL, NRL, basketball. We don’t often get the same love for sporting facilities in the Northern Territory as other parts of Australia. In Tennant Creek for example they don’t have a cricket net and even Steve Waugh has said ‘come on, in a community like Tennant Creek where they love cricket, how hard is it to get a cricket net going?’ So are you hearing these little problems in the Northern Territory that are so easy and so affordable to fix as the sports minister?
WELLS: Sometimes I hear about them. As the sports minister, through the national sporting organisations. So, I deal with Cricket Australia, for example. I think Catherine King the infrastructure Minister who basically holds carriage of sporting infrastructure builds gets the most direct incomings about bids for the actual budget process but like I said, I had a great meeting with the Chief Minister. I really like her and I think we will be able to work together on things that involve collaboration in both Federal and State governments. I’m sure there are elements of state government in that issue that I’m happy to try and solve when I’m back in Canberra next week.
LAVERTY: I’m sure it’s very good having a birds of a feather Labor party Territory government and Labor party in the Federal government so hopefully things will happen that are good for the Northern Territory. Why are you here by the way? There’s a special program. I mean, I know we we are having a nice time but you’re not just here hanging out with me, you’re here in the Northern Territory for a special reason.
WELLS: I am. I’m here to celebrate the 15 millionth student who has participated in our sporting school’s program across the country and today we welcome our 15 millionth student. I’m going to Driver State School to do that next.
LAVERTY: So, is that one child in particular? So, they’ve got to go, its Sammy Smith!
WELLS: I hope so.
LAVERTY: Sammy Smith is going to be the one.
WELLS: Yep, get some Balloons… actually we don’t like balloons anymore, do we?
LAVERTY: We don’t. Absolutely not. It is really wonderful to speak with you. Thank you for making time to speak to us today.
WELLS: Such a pleasure, Jo.
LAVERTY: Anika Wells, the Minister for Aged Care and Sports on ABC Radio Darwin.