As CEO of Baptistcare, a major not-for-profit provider of aged, disability and mental health services in Western Australia, Dr Lucy Morris has a wide view of modern Australian society and, as she tells Darragh O’Keeffe, she’s disturbed by the current public discourse.
I’m listening to Dr Lucy Morris, in her reassuringly warm and soft voice, discuss human cruelty and vindictiveness.
It’s almost paradoxical.
We’re talking about asylum seekers, and I can tell Dr Morris is searching for the words to sufficiently convey her disappointment.
For her, the asylum seeker debate in Australia reflects a new low.
She recalls a talk she recently attended by the human rights lawyer Julian Burnside in which he questioned at what point Australia became harsh and intolerant. “He said it happened around the late 1990s and early 2000s, when he saw a shift in society.”
Dr Morris lays the blame squarely with our civic leaders, for their successful politicisation of what is a humanitarian issue. “To the point where people are made to feel frightened of ‘the other’, the people who are different, who don’t look like us, behave like us, think like us, practice their religion like us. Often when I look around our society, the differences between people and communities are being exacerbated in order to control people, to control the community.”
You don’t have to dig deep to discover why Dr Morris is so disappointed with the asylum seeker debate. For her, it’s reminiscent of Britain in the mid-1980s, where she saw first-hand the impact of the Thatcher government’s policies on the community.
“It was a dark, hard world to live in, it really was; it wasn’t a happy time for people,” she says of the period.
“Thatcher was famous for saying there is no such thing as society, but that was certainly the experience of people. People were felt to have failed; it was their own fault if they fell out of work or were sacked. Business shrunk and society shrunk; communities were devastated, absolutely devastated.”
It was a tough time for her too, she says. Having finished university in her mid-20s, with a degree in theology and a masters in philosophy, she soon found her ideals were getting “blown out of the water.”
Communities were turning inwards and crumbling, she says. And she was in the thick of it. After a year working as a reporter on a local newspaper, she went to work for the National Health Service to head up a drug and alcohol service on the outskirts of Liverpool. Drugs and alcoholism were rife, and it was when the AIDS epidemic was identified.
“We were one of the first agencies to start doing needle exchange, handing out condoms, providing methadone, working innovatively and doing all sorts of interesting things. We were able to track quite clearly the impact on the local economy, with a decline in a lot of the illegal activity and the black market around Runcorn and Widnes. It was good.”
Despite this success, Dr Morris says she and her colleagues experienced great difficulty in providing these pioneering, but controversial, services.
“There was very strong resistance, very strong. Drug addicts, gays and lesbians were blamed for the AIDS epidemic and were seen as the dregs of society, it was dreadful.”
Such a view fed in to the overarching mentality of the time that people had to be self-reliant: “You couldn’t count on other people; it wasn’t seen as society’s role to provide you with a safety net. Everyone lauded those who were successful, whereas other people were discarded.”
She recalls Rowan Williams, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, who “strongly disagreed with society’s belief that there are disposable people who are of no account.”
“I agree with Rowan Williams. There are no disposable people in our world, but somehow our society accepts this view. I was seeing that coming through in the 1980s and, to be honest, I see it here now in this country,” she says, bringing us back to the asylum seeker issue.
Her disappointment with the current debate is compounded by the fact that Australia’s “fairer sense of society” was what enticed her to emigrate here with her husband and two young sons in the late 1980s. That coupled with what she saw as a “greater opportunity to make a difference and influence,” obviously appealing to her passion for social justice.
In a post on her blog in August, Dr Morris wrote: “At Baptistcare we support the end to detention of asylum seekers. As I look across our nation at the plight of vulnerable people, this group deserves as much attention and support as do our elderly and disabled.”
I ask if she sees any similarities between the asylum seeker debate and how we view and talk about ageing.
“Yes. I do. Our society is fixated on image, and older people are dismissed because of their age. They’re seen as ‘the other’, useless and a cost to society. All the impacts [of the ageing population] are viewed in a negative light. Society is not set up to value and engage productively with older people and their experiences and opinions. Our society is diminished because of it.”
She says while community discussion is focussed on the negatives, “we miss the opportunity to look at innovative ways we could respond to the demands of the ageing population.”
Road to reform
Will the unfolding reforms in aged care lead us towards some of those innovative ways? Dr Morris thinks not. In fact, while she says reform was absolutely necessary (“the sector could not continue as it was before”) she is critical of its current form and how it was developed.
“The demand that has been put on providers has been unconscionable, in terms of the speed and the lack of capacity to engage, comment and critique. It is a debate that has been captured and controlled by a few, simply because the resources and the time have not allowed for a much broader way of thinking and engagement. It’s the best that our sector can manage at this time but it does feel deliberate,” she says.
She expressed similar views at the Senate inquiry into the Living Longer Living Better legislation last year, when she said West Australian providers had been disadvantaged in the consultation process.
When I ask about these comments, Dr Morris says that providers based in the Kimberley, for example, must undertake a three-day round trip in order to attend a meeting on the east coast.
What’s more problematic is that those who do make the journey often find they aren’t welcome, she says. “Because the voices that are raised in dissent or in critique report feeling excluded and ignored. The meetings aren’t set up in a way that allows different voices to be heard; we end up with the same voices that are frequently heard.”
With regards to the content of the reform, Dr Morris has concerns that many providers will struggle to undertake the massive system overhaul that consumer directed care will require.
“I’m talking to providers, particularly the smaller ones who do not have the flexibility, governance arrangements and capacity to turn their back-end systems upside down.”
Consumer directed care is brilliant in principle, but flawed in practice, she says. “There’s a gap in the rhetoric. People don’t understand that you can’t have whatever you want, whenever you want it, however you want it. I see this not just in aged care but in all community services … From a provider perspective the implications are enormous.”
She warns the current all or nothing timeframe will “kill some organisations.” Government has a duty to provide the necessary policy settings that facilitate a broader capacity for different models and not just one size fits all, she adds.
Room for debate
Beyond greater nuance in our policies, Dr Morris also wants to see greater nuance in our public discourse. She laments the community’s aversion to discussion of complex issues and considerations, preferring instead simplistic positions and arguments; the proverbial sound bite.
“The capacity for people like me to critique and advocate is diminished; we’re marginalised and disparaged and the room for debate is really narrow. We look for things on the surface.”
She believes people have lost the art of listening and conversing. “We head for our position; we go down into the bunkers and stop listening, rather than being open to influence and hearing other views.”
She longs for discussion where we “accept the ambiguity and the shades of grey,” because rarely are important social issues, be it asylum seekers or aged care, black and white.
“Often it comes down to relationships and how we view the ‘other’. Our willingness to listen to the stories so we understand their uniqueness and the contribution that they make, is critical” she says.
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Dr Morris on:
Her early career in journalism: “I went straight into journalism after I graduated, working on a local community newspaper. It was vigorous, exciting and interesting. I was a reporter at the time Margaret Thatcher was PM and she was taking on the print unions and the journalism establishment. It was in that transition time between computers coming in and the old ways of producing a newspaper. We had a young family; two babies at that point. My husband pointed out to me that the money I was bringing in wasn’t covering the childcare costs; it was sending us broke! I was there for just over a year, and I had a ball, to be honest.”
What ageing learns from disability: “The conversations between the two sectors should have happened sooner. Moving ageing into the Department of Social Services [alongside disability] has been an interesting development. It could be positive, if it gives everybody a jolt to look at ageing as something that happens to social human beings rather than predominantly being seen as a medical condition. Getting older is not solely about health, getting older is a human condition. It’s offering a different way of thinking about people and how we provide services.”
Her faith, having being recently ordained a Deacon in the Anglican Church: “I deliberately chose to work in a faith-based organisation. I want to be able to have conversations about the uniqueness and preciousness of individual human beings created in the image of God. I want to work in the space and have policies and service models that go that extra mile; that are about inclusion, diversity, and not going down the profit line for the sake of the profit. I want to show it is possible to lead an organisation where you can make decisions based on values that come out of our faith. It’s a really interesting struggle; and I don’t always get it right.”