Aged care providers and unions have said the Federal Government cannot evade its responsibility in developing an aged care workforce strategy, given its role as primary funder and regulator of the sector.
The Federal Government last week confirmed its position that aged care providers were ultimately responsible for meeting the sector’s workforce challenges and industry would take the lead in developing a workforce development plan.
Minister for Rural Health Fiona Nash told a Senate estimates hearing that while government was committed to working with industry, providers were “ultimately responsible for workforce.”
Bureaucrats from the Department of Health also told the hearing that many of the levers for workforce growth “reside with employers.”
But aged care providers and unions have challenged that view, saying that government was the primary funder and regulator of the sector and set policy in areas impacting workforce such as immigration and skills training.
They also said the issue was not about government or industry taking sole responsibility, but rather all stakeholders – which includes the Commonwealth – working together on the development of a strategy.
Leading Age Services Australia (LASA) chief executive officer Patrick Reid said providers did not expect nor want government to dictate a workforce strategy rather it must come from industry and be developed through a co-design approach involving all relevant stakeholders.
The Federal Government had an “arsenal of levers” it could pull to help providers attract and retain staff – ranging from education subsidies to tax breaks, and the ability to expand current skilled migration requirements, he said.
“Government has a critical role to play in enacting appropriate policies and legislation to facilitate the implementation of a workforce strategy and its ongoing viability. It cannot be a passive observer to this process of ensuring that we have sufficient resources and people who are available, inspired, skilled and valued to meet growing demand for age services,” said Mr Reid.
Similarly, Aged and Community Services Australia (ACSA) CEO John Kelly said that stakeholders had been calling for government to partner with the sector in developing a strategy, not for government to take sole responsibility.
Adjunct Professor Kelly said the Commonwealth was a “key player” in many of the issues raised by workforce planning and it could not evade its responsibility in the area.
The Commonwealth regulated the supply of aged care places and income from consumers, it funded university education, regulated immigration and jointly oversaw the training sector with the states, while staff pay was ultimately linked to government funding, he said.
“Given this level of regulation, it is disingenuous, at best, to say that industry controls the levers when it comes to workforce,” said Adjunct Professor Kelly.
Unions representing nurses and care workers in aged care also criticised the government’s position.
The Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation (ANMF) federal secretary Lee Thomas said that as the major funding provider to aged care there was an obligation on the Commonwealth, as there was on all stakeholders, to come together to ensure the sector had a competent and safe workforce to provide care now and in the future.
“Any stakeholder’s abrogation of responsibility around that is frankly unacceptable,” Ms Thomas told Australian Ageing Agenda.
United Voice national secretary Jo-anne Schofield said the Turnbull Government appeared to have reneged on former minister Mitch Fifield’s commitment to the aged care workforce, which was “bitterly disappointing for the workers.”
Stakeholders working together
Mr Reid, who chairs the Aged Care Sector Committee Workforce Advisory Group, said the workforce audit conducted last year found there was “strong agreement on many of the polemic issues at play.”
Adjunct Professor Kelly said that given the government’s desire not to take the lead on a workforce strategy, it was essential the Commonwealth support industry to develop a strategy. This had to include a willingness to share data and resources, and to support stakeholder engagement, he said.
“Government will need to be open to regulatory reform, as workforce is not just about finances,” he said, pointing to areas such as regulation of training and immigration.
Ms Schofield said the best forum to develop a sector strategy was one facilitated by government and included unions, providers and consumers as well as other relevant stakeholders. “The aged care sector had demonstrated in the past it can work effectively together to achieve reform,” she added.
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