Lee Thomas, Federal Secretary of the Australian Nursing Federation, talks influences, achievements and elections with Amie Larter for the Nursing Review.
You have a clear passion for the nursing industry. Where did this stem from?
I am a nurse and midwife and have had a passion for caring from an early age. Over the years, though, I came to realise that I also held dear the principles of justice and equity. This led me to become more active in the union and it seemed to be a good mix to combine my education with my social justice principles.
Really, for me, being a nurse and a union leader is a marriage made in heaven.
Who have been your biggest influences during your nursing career?
I have been fortunate to be associated with a handful of strong women and a couple of men who all taught me many things over the years. Each had a strong and profound influence on my professional nursing and union career.
I certainly couldn't respond to this question without saying that two of the biggest influences in my life, who still remain so, are my mum and dad.
What does an average day as the federal secretary for the ANF consist of?
My days start early with a visit to the gym, where not only do I exercise hard but also mentally prepare for a busy day. Every day is different, which is fantastic, but there are some common themes.
I think what people forget is that not only do I advocate every day for our members and the community on health, industrial, professional and political issues, but I also run a multimillion-dollar business and manage staff.
I travel every week so my mobile phone and iPad are my best friends, as they are the tools I need to be able to keep on top of emails, media calls and other urgent matters. So an average day is never average and I approach each day prepared for anything!
What do you love most about the job?
Probably one of the best things is how the ANF, as the country's largest health union, continues to work for our growing membership, which now stands at 225,000 members. We are the professional voice for nurses, midwives and assistants in nursing across Australia.
I love the variety and the challenges of the job and, most importantly, I love getting out and talking to people working across a whole range of health settings.
What are your career highlights?
My first career highlight was when I graduated from my general nurse training in 1984. I was also thrilled to be awarded Practical Nurse of the Year, which was a great achievement.
Being elected as state secretary of the ANF in South Australia the first time in 2000. It was a contested election and my two competitors were both men. I campaigned very hard.
Obviously, to be elected ANF federal secretary was an honour for me, as it was a real vote of confidence from my nursing and midwifery colleagues. Since being elected in 2011, I've also helped secure several wins for our members, such as MBA and PBS access for nurse practitioners and eligible midwives.
Implementation of a national registration system, which makes working across borders easier; the aged care workforce compact negotiation, due for announcement over the coming weeks; and finally the union recognising formally that midwifery is a separate profession from nursing, and the union moving to change its name to the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation. These victories are recent and I'm proud of them all, but there is still work to be done.
What are the biggest election issues for nurses you want to see addressed?
Health must be a priority for the electorate; it must be in the top one or two issues on people's minds when they walk into the polling place on September 14.
In order for that to happen, the ANF needs to make all political parties accountable for making and announcing good policy on issues like the maintenance and extension of Medicare, including universal care for dental services.
Future governments must quickly address the nursing and midwifery workforce shortages, refunding education fees for graduates who accept jobs in rural and remote areas and areas of great need, and also address the poor record Australia has on the social determinants of health.
Safe staffing levels to ensure retention of the nursing and midwifery workforce and give patients and residents the assurances they want in relation to quality care delivery.
This wish list could go on and on, but I think the priority has to be to make health and aged care number one priorities in the next election.