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Following Captain James Cook


Following Captain James Cook
[Islands Business, 17 May 2012.]

When Captain James Cook wandered through the Pacific more than two hundred years ago, he and others who followed him, not only colonised the South Pacific, but brought a series of European diseases which decimated the health and populations of the Pacific peoples.

It is ironic therefore, that today, many Pacific Islanders (doctors and nurses) are following in the foot-steps of James Cook, to provide health care to the sick and elderly amongst the largely European settlers of Australia and NZ. A case of reverse “missionaries”?

With massive nurse shortages being forecast for Australia over the next decade, that journey could well become a flood, if Pacific nurse training institutions act now to fill the looming gaps in Australia, and on a much bigger scale than what some are already doing.

It would be a win-win development for Australia and the Pacific.  Part of Australian skill gaps in nursing would be filled at virtually no cost to themselves.  While unemployment in the Pacific would be eased, while boosting their export earnings through remittances.

However, training institutions in the Pacific and Australia need to take the initiative independently of government-to-government initiatives, which are likely to bogged down by the bureaucratic inertia on both sides, with many lobby groups offering resistance to such movement.

They need to explore accreditation agreements with any of the their sister institutions in Australian institutions to provide that essential guarantee of quality, without which Pacific nurses, like doctors, will not be acceptable in Australia.

One collaborating institution in Australia could well be the James Cook University (named after the explorer) which has a very low profile in the Pacific (compared to ANU and other universities).  JCU not only has strong nurse training programs, but their campuses are based in the fast growing tropical north of Townsville and Cairns, which provide a far more hospitable climate for Pacific peoples.

Such situations also provide an opportunity for Pacific institutions like Forum Secretariat, to take the initiative to develop collaborations with newly emerging Australian institutions, like the Cairns Institute, whose mission is to serve “tropical communities” not just in Australia, but also the Pacific, including PNG where they are already active.

Looming nurse shortage crisis in Australia

   Have a look at the Sydney Morning Herald article by Katherine Murphy (March 28, 2012) where she refers to a report commissioned for federal and state governments, which points out that “The national training plan undertaken by Health Workforce Australia predicts a workforce gap by 2025 of between 80,000 and 147,000 nurses.”

This meant that Australian nursing graduates needed to be boosted “by between 85 and 158 per cent – or 8000 to 14,700 newly qualified professionals, which would require massive increases in investment by federal and state governments.
My personal assessment is that such investments are unlikely to take place, to the extent required.

The current Labour Gillard Government has imposed massive fiscal cuts on expenditure on the federal budget, including on the defence budget, which is quite likely to be reversed after the next elections should the Abbott government come into power.

Australia will keep needing foreign nurses, who can be acquired for virtually zero training costs.

These Pacific Island nurses will also be willing to work in remote territories and the tropical north, where the usual Australian nurses are reluctant to go (just as many island doctors and nurses are already doing).

You might ask, why should Pacific Islands provide these nurses?

Win-win situation

    Of course, it costs Pacific governments to train nurses.

But if the nurses end up working in Australia, NZ and Canada for four times the incomes they earn in the Pacific (and infinitely better working conditions), they can send home enough in foreign remittances to justify the training costs.

If Pacific governments want, they can impose partial fees and bond on the nurse training programs, to be paid off in the long run.

If the nurse throughput in the Pacific institutions is increased, the economies of scale will allow them to invest in better quality equipment and facilities, also improving the quality of nurses who remain in the Pacific.

But the Pacific nurse training programs need to do Memoranda of Understanding with Australian nurse training institutions, to quality control their Pacific programs, to increase the numbers well above the small numbers currently going through, and to ensure that their graduates get “top up” training in Australia, before they are set loose to work in Australia.

Such a work path and guaranteed substantial future benefits, would give confidence to better quality secondary school graduates to choose nurse training as opposed to the usual social science diplomas and degrees, and to fork out their personal scarce money for their own training.

An ancillary part of their training should also be in the area of age care services, which are also going to be facing severe shortages as the Australian population rapidly ages over the next twenty years.

Who will take the initiative?

    If our Pacific keep looking to governments they will wait a long time: government to government agreements, like PACER Plus, will take years of bureaucratic fiddling, and political horse-trading over minor issues.

It would be far easier for nurse training institutions in the Pacific (in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu particularly) to pay a visit to their Australian counterparts, to set up collaborative schemes as fully private initiativeswhose end result will be trained nurses, making their way from the Pacific, to James Cook University (or elsewhere) for accreditation.

The Australian institutions could even apply for AusAID funds for these nurses, which will increasingly be acceptable to the Australian government, since the money would be spent in Australia.

Pacific countries should note that in this year’s Australian Government budget, the aid budget is marked to face severe cuts (euphemistically called “postponements”) over the next few years, much to the anger of the overseas aid industry.

An additional role for Forum Secretariat?

    CROP organisations, like Forum Secretariat,  should diversify from putting all their eggs into official “government to government” negotiation baskets, such as PICTA and PACER Plus.

They need to examine how they can independently foster non-government (including private sector and NGO) relationships to assist Pacific countries to earn higher remittances through the export of skilled and unskilled labour not just to Australia, but also NZ, North America, and the EU).

Nursing and care giving are just two critical skill areas with shortages developing in Australia. Australia is currently even looking at US to fill other skill shortages in construction for instance, while the nearby Pacific countries look on.

This year’s Australian budget has also seen very contentious cuts in their defence budget:  fewer submarines, tanks and planes.

One possible compensating policy might be for Australia to increase their employment of army and navy personnel, especially for stationing in the far north borders of Australia, where Pacific Island military personnel would be far more adaptable than the 1500 US soldiers recently posted.

Pacific institutions like Forum Secretariat might note that there are Australian institutions like James Cook University which is expanding their services quite rapidly in many areas, including dentistry and medicine to better serve tropical communities.

The Cairns Institute, led by a newly appointed and energetic director (Professor Hurriyet Babacan) is mid-way through the construction of a dedicated building and Centre, which will not only better serve Australian tropical communities, but also those in the Pacific like PNG (where they are already very active) and other Pacific countries (where they would like to expand).

Pacific education institutions and the private sectors need to take the initiative to develop links and collaborate for mutual interest, rather than waiting for government assistance.

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