Sandra Hills

In the words of John Safran, comedian, provocateur and patron of the recent The Grand Plan campaign, “I’ve been a-thinking”. Thinking about what the aged care sector can take from the recent federal election and the resulting constitutional debates, negotiations, seductions and partnerships that took place.

All of this thinking has led me to wonder what the aged care sector can learn from this unique time in our country’s political history – in particular I want to ask: Are there things we can do better?

For instance, does our sector have an agreed and universal vision for the future we want to create for older people? And do we have a united voice?

The Grand Plan, coordinated by the Campaign for the Care of Older Australians (CCOA), is a shining example of what we can do when we do work together. Our coalition of industry associations, church peak bodies and providers worked together for over 12 months to initially focus on the federal election campaign and, now it’s over we are focusing on the long term reform of aged care. The campaign clearly articulates three areas of priority and uses a multi-faceted approach including a community awareness and political awareness campaign.

No choice on united voice
An evaluation of the success of The Grand Plan campaign (so far) has been completed, and as you would expect there were strengths of the campaign and learnings as well. One of the key strengths of the campaign was that our sector spoke with a united voice. To me this presents us with a major ongoing challenge in the next 12 months – as a sector we must continue to speak with a united voice. In my opinion we have no choice.

Why? Well, our new Minister for Ageing, Mark Butler, has already asked us to be united. A good reason on its own. And if, like me, you’ve been thinking about our recent federal election campaign, then you’ll agree it provides even more evidence why having a united voice as a sector is necessary.

We knew the election would have a tight finish and then it became clear that to achieve the magic 76 seats, it would be critical to secure support from the independents and minor parties. Suddenly this unusual situation provided the small player with a louder voice and greatly increased their power. David and Goliath revisited you might say.

So how does this apply to the aged care sector having a united voice? My experience has been that large agencies have primarily expanded and grown to fill an unmet need and to survive. But what about the smaller providers and agencies, particularly those from rural and regional areas? How does our sector support and engage with these agencies and – as occurred for the minor parties and independents – provide them with greater power and louder voices?

Not just the mainstream
Even more important in my mind is how do we respond to older people from small minority groups such as those with special needs, those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (CALD), or those who are at risk of homelessness or who are financially and socially disadvantaged?

Are peak bodies, the government and providers at risk of only dealing with the mainstream and sidelining the voice and concerns of the minority groups?

Much has already been achieved in these areas – many of you will recall a few years ago the category of homeless older people was made a special needs group under the Aged Care Act as a consequence of the tireless efforts of Bryan Lipmann and others. However one area for immediate attention is the development of a national strategic direction for CALD services for older people. The directions identified by the government some decade ago have long passed their used by date and urgently needs refreshing.

Taking care of business
So what can we learn from the election and the recent activities in our federal parliament? What happens now that it’s time to get down to business?

If you’re part of the aged care workforce, just like members of our federal parliament, you are part of a bigger entity. It is now critical that all members of the aged care industry work together and listen to one another, while keeping in mind the people we are charged with representing and supporting. We have to act in the national interest, because everyone is going to grow old as we know.

I firmly believe that our sector needs to continue to work together (and improve at it) to present a shared vision to achieve our vision, as was so clearly articulated in The Grand Plan campaign: choice, access and sustainability. We have to shout out our vision loudly and clearly from now until the Productivity Commission tables its report on the Inquiry into Care of Older Australians next April.

This means listening to all players equally (big and small) in the industry and valuing and learning from their contribution. We must demonstrate respect to one another. We must do what we say we will do, when we say we will do it. Perhaps most importantly, we must offer our new minister our ideas and solutions that will improve aged care outcomes for older people and ensure we’re all singing of the same song sheet when we do.

No room for egos
And I need to add here a brief word about ‘personalities’. We must leave our egos at the door! It seems to me that the only way our current federal parliament will work is if MPs of all colours are true to the spirit of their oath of office and put petty party politics, past grudges, thwarted aspirations and disappointments aside. They must focus on achieving the policy initiatives that are required to build Australia into an even better, more inclusive nation for older people.

For the aged care sector the message is the same. Can we do better in the way we deal with our differences at an individual, state or national level? Can we improve our dealings with government and our work with each other? Do we have our egos in check? Are we ensuring that we are inclusive and supportive? Do we provide constructive feedback and offer solutions to problems instead of just complaining about the way things are? Do we resist the challenge to go it alone, even though this maybe our preferred option or style?

The next 12 months will be an interesting time as we watch how the Gillard government and our new minister perform. I am confident that the aged care sector’s report card for the same period will show we can lead by example. By actively engaging the participation of all older Australians, their families, our staff and our volunteers in our work, we have a powerful voice. Let’s use it. There’s too much at stake if we don’t speak up.

Sandra Hills is the CEO of Benetas.

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