Pre-Budget wishes, expectations, and the lure of working in Australia

Dr Julian Vyas is a respiratory paediatrician, based in Auckland.
Dr Julian Vyas is a respiratory paediatrician, based in Auckland.

This week’s Budget will have more scrutiny on it than many previous ones, as the country maps its way forward through the Covid era. Warwick Rasmussen, Bridie Witton and Danielle talked to people about what they wanted, what they expected, and the lure of Australia.

Auckland doctor Julian Vyas’ pre-Budget message is blunt.

“The Budget needs to give more to the things that need money. That’s the short answer.”

The respiratory paediatrician wants to see child poverty, mental health services and accessibility to health improved in Budget 2021.

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Finance Minister Grant Robertson speaks to media after his pre-Budget speech in Auckland on Monday.

Becoming a qualified doctor in 1988, Vyas said he now treats children from all over the country with rare, complex and severe lung diseases.

He sees the effects of child poverty and said kids get a “very, very bad deal” because of it.

“I look after kids with a condition called bronchiectasis.

It is a disease that is absolutely affected, influenced, driven, aggravated by all the various markers of poverty – food, security, smoke exposure, and cold, damp housing.”

Vyas described the state of mental health services in New Zealand as a “crisis”.

He said the Budget should be putting funding into place to allow mental health services to help people who “desperately” need it.

“I think mental health is particularly a service on its knees in terms of caseload, in terms of staffing infrastructure. And other things like risk to workers with violence and all that.”

Vyas said he hadn’t considered a move to Australia for better working conditions personally, but he knew of colleagues who had talked about it and a couple who had moved there in the past.

“People feel, and this is not just doctors, this is nurses and other clinician groups, people feel they work really, really hard, that the health service is on the back foot and there doesn’t really seem to be an end in sight.”

At the end of the day, Vyas said the Budget will “be what it is”.

Given the costs of Covid-19, Vyas said he would be surprised if it provided the funding that was needed for health.

- Danielle Clent

‘I don’t know that they’re going to come to the party’

Cheryl Hanham is a Christchurch-based registered nurse.
Cheryl Hanham is a Christchurch-based registered nurse.

As a registered nurse of 33 years Cheryl Hanham feels let down by the Government, especially after the intense past 18 months in the health sector, and expects many of her colleagues to head across the Tasman.

She said Australia was always a popular destination for New Zealand nurses, but now many are putting their words into action.

‘‘People used to think about wanting to head over, but more and more are now looking to Australia as a very viable option, and they’re not just thinking about it, they’re putting things in place to actually be able leave and do so.

‘‘Australia, like the rest of the world, is short of nurses. It’s not that we can continue to look overseas to fill the gaps that we have. If our nurses are going overseas because things are far more attractive there, ie, leave provisions, tax rebates, everything else, that Australia gets, and it’s a much less stressful environment to work, then people are going to move.’’

Taking a few minutes away from giving people the Covid-19 vaccine, the New Zealand Nurses Organisation delegate told the Sunday Star-Times that if she didn’t have elderly parents and children, and it was just her and her husband ‘‘we’d be gone’’.

She said as the world recovered from Covid, it wouldn’t just be Australia that established nurses and recent graduates would look towards.

Why would a graduate with a $55,000 student loan, who started on an income of $65,000 feel compelled to stay, she asked.

Hanham said more needed to be done to train and retain nurses. That could start with changing the student loan scheme, and putting people on two to three-year bonds to stay and work in New Zealand.

She said this week’s Budget didn’t fill her with hope that the Government would deliver.

‘‘I’m really gobsmacked that they haven’t it into the Budget to negotiate with us. We have picked up a lot of slack over the Covid-19 response, not only nurses who are working now, but retired nurses, who have given a lot to the country. To not put that in your Budget for the following year defies belief.

‘‘From the PM through to the ministers of finance, health, and education and the public sector, I don’t think they’ve ever spoken to each other. How does one have any confidence that they are actually doing the job for the country that they’re meant to be doing?

‘‘I don’t know that they’re going to come to the party.’’

‘I have much less stress and daily anxiety here’

New Zealand nurse Noelani Collins, who is based in Australia.
New Zealand nurse Noelani Collins, who is based in Australia.

Noelani Collins made the move to Australia in 2019, and has been a registered nurse for 10 years.

She said the workload - especially the overtime she had to work to cover living costs –helped her make the decision.

Collins said she had a work injury while in New Zealand and in Australia she could “work fewer hours and still enjoy being able to save money on my current income”.

“I moved for health reasons and I have much less stress and daily anxiety here.

“I was very blessed to find a safer physical environment to work in, a workplace that remunerated me for my post-graduate papers, something that New Zealand nurses are not financially recognised for currently.”

She said in her current job she earns $A11 more each hour than she did on the top registered nurse wage in New Zealand.

Nurses in Australia kept their wages and agreements up with inflation, but their New Zealand counterparts hadn’t.

“New Zealand nurses are still awaiting the pay equity they were promised before I left in 2019.”

Collins said pay for our nurses needed to reflect the three-year degree to train, and wages had to be liveable to pay back student loans and manage the high cost of living.

“The workplace's safety needs to be made a priority for me to return.”

- Warwick Rasmussen

‘A big focus should be on school infrastructure’

Auckland teacher Paul Stevens wishes for improvements to school infrastructure.
Auckland teacher Paul Stevens wishes for improvements to school infrastructure.

Paul Stevens has been a secondary school art teacher on Auckland’s North Shore for seven years, and his first wish for the Budget is a basic one. Simply, that the Ministry of Education build enough classrooms and that those classrooms are a place students can learn.

“A big focus should be on school infrastructure,” he said. “Schools, both low and high decile, struggle for classrooms that are warm and dry and up to scratch and so the kids can be supported in their learning.”

Ageing infrastructure and swollen school rolls mean schools around the country are having to rely on pre-fabricated buildings for classrooms. Schools are struggling for space and classes are bigger than ever, as the population grows.

“Class sizes can be very large, and it makes a teacher’s job much harder,” he said.

It is a pressure that could overwhelm some. Stevens knows of teachers looking to leave New Zealand to work in Australia, while the Government’s May 5 announcement of public sector pay restrictions added fuel to the fire.

“It is an indication there is no interest in investing in teacher’s salaries,” he said.

“Money is a huge factor if people are looking at what to do in life. We should want the best and brightest being teachers.”

Stevens hopes for an entire cultural shift towards valuing – and paying – teachers as a high-status profession. This would reflect the teacher’s role in helping to address one of the biggest blights on the country – rising inequality. Students should be able to get a great education and reach their potential regardless of where they live, he said.

He also called for more inequality funding. Schools get more money if they are lower decile – a rating which measures the wealth of surrounding community – but Stevens said it’s not enough.

“Because of school donations, you get more support from higher socio-economic communities.”

Meanwhile, teachers are working long hours and doing their best for their students, he said.

“I wish people understood the emotional labour that the work entails. It is emotionally draining. Teachers need to feel supported,” he said.

- Bridie Witton