Community campaign saves nursing home

Government backs down on Wallsend privatisation

A community campaign driven by nurses has forced the State Government to scrap plans to privatise the Wallsend Aged Care Facility near Newcastle.

‘To say we are very happy with the outcome is an understatement – we are ecstatic,’ said Louise Howell, RN and NSWNA delegate, at the nursing home.

‘This victory should give hope to other people in similar situations because it shows the community can make a difference if people believe in what they’re doing and don’t give up.’

The Government announced it would keep the specialist care facility in public ownership just before Christmas. It is still considering plans to privatise nine other homes.

Health Minister Carmel Tebbutt said NSW Health had decided the Wallsend facility, and the Murrumburrah-Harden nursing home in southern NSW, ‘did not meet all the evaluation criteria’ necessary for privatisation.

However, Wallsend MP Sonia Hornery, who broke the news to nurses and other campaigners, said: ‘It’s because of your assertiveness that the Government has listened to your concerns. You all deserve to give yourselves a big pat on the back and I’m very proud to make this statement.’

Louise Howell praised Ms Hornery for putting her political career on the line with her ‘unbelievably strong’ support for the community campaign (see box).

Friends of Wallsend Aged Care Facility spokeswoman Janet Sutherland estimated that more than 20,000 people had supported the campaign in one way or another.

A Newcastle resident and a former union leader, Janet is a veteran of a campaign to stop the closure of Wallsend Hospital in the early ’90s.

Though the hospital eventually closed, the site was kept for health services and the aged care centre was established, with a Hunter Area Health promise that the site would stay publicly owned and operated.

Janet said the hospital was built on land donated by Newcastle Wallsend Mining Company with money raised by miners.

‘People feel very strongly about that Wallsend site because it belongs to us. It’s not something to be given away to a private provider,’ she said.

NSWNA General Secretary Brett Holmes said the Union’s branch at the nursing home had done a great job harnessing community support.

‘Residents of the facility need the high care that comes from the staffing ratios, breadth of staffing expertise and numbers that only a public operation can guarantee. There is currently no legislation that makes private providers have these safer staffing ratios and numbers,’ Brett said.

‘Wallsend residents have very special needs, including more than 20 young people with disabilities who need very individual and high-care services and care. There are elderly people too, with multi-faceted needs. There is also a psycho-dementia wing.

‘The current services are flexible and adapted to these special needs. They are also free of charge to all residents. Most of the residents would have great difficulty finding a place in a private facility, let alone one that could provide the specialised quality care they need.’

How the campaign unfolded

The Newcastle Herald described the campaign to stop the sale of Wallsend Aged Care Facility as ‘one of the Hunter’s most prolific and passionate’.

NSWNA delegate at the facility, Louise Howell, RN, said: ‘The fact we had a really strong union base was vital – we couldn’t have done it without the Union’s strength, experience and connections. Special thanks to all the Union officials who helped, especially Brett Holmes, Ronelle Kiernan, Rita Martin and Nola Scilinato.

’It became a huge campaign at a community level as well as a political level but it didn’t just happen overnight. The main thing is to make sure you have a core group of people to share the workload who believe that what they are doing is right.

‘We formed an alliance with “A Fair Go for the Hunter” – a coalition of five other community-based causes. That gave us a louder voice without losing our identity.

‘Once we made contact with one organisation we found they could put us in touch with plenty of others.

‘Once we gained momentum some of the radio stations came on board and were plugging us every other day. It was a domino effect.’

Louise said the need to keep the community informed was a key lesson from the campaign.

Campaigners organised three community meetings, which took suggestions from the floor and gathered contact details of hundreds of people willing to assist.

‘We set out tasks and goals based on community input and ideas and drew up action plans, stating what needed to be done, when, and by who,’ she said.

‘People were organised to drop flyers in letterboxes, collect signatures on petitions at shopping centres and write letters to media and MPs.

‘We had five different types of letters for supporters to sign and send to the Premier, Health Minister and other ministers. We got about 15,000 letters on different ministers’ desks in the past four months and bombarded politicians with emails, sometimes hundreds a day.

‘Families of residents were very important. They did a lot of work talking to local media, writing letters to the Premier and ministers.

‘We had t-shirts printed and set up a website – www.save-wacf.com – where people could comment and contribute suggestions.

‘We held a picket line outside the facility for about 20 hours a week, with the aim of getting signatures on our petition – we eventually got more than 10,000 names. People would see our signs, stop, and take letters away to sign.’

Campaigners staged three rallies outside the gates of Parliament House in Sydney and organised a protest march to the office of the Minister for the Hunter in Newcastle. Nurses and relatives put their case to the Government’s ‘community cabinet’ meeting in Newcastle.

The anti-privatisation campaign won support from four local councils, other unions, most local MPs and the NSW Greens which sponsored a successful motion in the NSW Upper House.

Nurses condemn treatment of MP

A meeting of more than 300 NSWNA delegates from across NSW voted to condemn the then Premier Rees for sacking Wallsend MP Sonia Hornery as Parliamentary Secretary.

The Committee of Delegates’ resolution said Ms Hornery’s dismissal was punishment for her opposition to privatisation in the Hunter region, ‘particularly her strong and unswerving support to keep Wallsend Aged Care Facility in public hands’.

The delegates said Ms Hornery should be rewarded for her efforts to represent residents of the facility who included the most vulnerable in the community.

‘Ms Hornery has worked tirelessly with the nurses at Wallsend, and the local community to oppose the sale of Wallsend Aged Care Facility. She is an extremely hard-working and well-respected MP, and punishing her for standing up for the community she represents reflects poorly on this Government,’ the resolution said.

Ms Hornery said she was delighted by the decision to keep Wallsend public and thanked fellow local MPs Matthew Morris (Charlestown) and Kerry Hickey (Cessnock) for their strong support in parliament on the issue.

Louise Howell RN, the NSWNA delegate at Wallsend Aged Care Facility said: ‘Sonia paid the ultimate price for not towing the line within the Labor Party and standing up for what the community wanted.’

NSWNA organiser Rita Martin said Ms Hornery’s tireless work for the campaign contrasted with a lack of support from Newcastle MP and Minister for the Hunter Jodi McKay, who refused to even meet with the Union.