April 11, 2001.


Alice Springs – in contrast to Darwin – is well supplied with nursing home beds, but Old Timers is struggling to cope with drastic staff shortages, straining workers' morale and the home's finances. Most urgently required are "direct care workers". It's a job that can be done without formal qualifications and they have never before been in short supply. For the next fortnight's roster Old Timers' Director of Nursing, Mary Miles, has more than 30 shifts for direct care workers which she hasn't been able to fill. She has had to resort to flying in interstate personnel. Mrs Miles draws on the services of two employment agencies in Alice Springs, and a nursing agency in South Australia, but they can't meet the demand. She has gone as far afield as Perth to recruit an agency physiotherapist. However, nursing homes are not funded for agency costs, and the travel and accommodation costs demanded by the industry for relief staff. Mrs Miles says her next budget will be the toughest to balance in the six years she's been in her director's position."And from my perspective I'm seeing very little sympathy and very little understanding from the funding bodies," she says.In other smaller centres in the Territory, where Frontier Services manages aged care facilities, things are even worse. Neither Tennant Creek, nor Katherine, can recruit enough registered nurses to cover their rosters. At Tennant Creek's Pulkapulkka Kari, the Director of Nursing and her registered nurses have been working 12 hour shifts for several months. NT Manager of Frontier Services, Sharon Davis, says she's spent $5000 in the last four weeks advertising Tennant Creek vacancies in Brisbane, Adelaide, the Weekend Australian, and Perth. "And I'm getting nothing – two phone calls, no applications!" She says Pulkapulkka Kari, a 17 bed facility, is operating "at quite a large deficit", underwritten by Frontier Services. Their funding from the Commonwealth – already not adequate to support a 17 bed facility, according to Ms Davis – is being dramatically eroded by the high costs of employing relief staff from agencies across Australia. How will Pulkapulkka Kari stay afloat? "Through sheer guts and determination on the part of the nurses and through support from their peers," says Ms Davis."Frontier Services has carried a deficit in aged care for the last ten years that I'm aware of. "We will continue to carry that deficit." (Without top up operational funding from Territory Health Services – given even though residential aged care is a Commonwealth responsibility – that deficit would be much greater.) In Katherine, where the partners of RAAF personnel have usually provided a pool of qualified staff, Rocky Ridge nursing home is also having recruitment problems. The new RAAF intake at the beginning of the year did not provide a single staff member, and, as in Tennant, national advertising has not yielded results. In desperation, the Director of Nursing, whom Ms Davis describes as "brilliant at her job", has stepped down to work as a registered nurse, in the hope that they will find it easier to attract someone to the senior position. In Frontier Services' other seven and nine bed facilities in very remote areas, federal funding does not even allow for the employment of a registered nurse. Says Ms Davis: "We are negotiating with the Department of Health and Aged Care, we're saying here's our budget, these are the figures we work on, we are transparent. "You tell us where we can make changes to be more effective. "We've been doing this for 50 to 80 years now, but it's getting harder and harder." Ms Davis say positions in nursing homes would be more attractive if funding allowed the employment of more registered nurses: "In a hospital situation there's likely to be one registered nurse for eight patients, in aged care facilities you're looking at one for 30." QUALIFIEDThe typical argument against employing more qualified staff is, "Mrs Jones could be cared for at home by her daughter and her daughter's not a registered nurse". Says Ms Davis: "My response is that Mrs Jones is cared for on a one to one basis by her daughter who knows her very intimately. "In a facility there are multiple people to care for, and there's a different person on each shift that's doing the care."Of course, a lot of the day to day care is carried out by direct care workers, who may have done a short course at TAFE, or by enrolled nurses, who have done one year's study, but the registered nurse has overall responsibility – "a duty of care" within a legislative and licensing framework. Ms Davis argues that there should be at least one registered nurse to 10 "high care" residents. At Old Timers, there are two registered nurses for 56 high care residents. "The direct care workers do an excellent job," says Ms Davis, "but they don't have access to the problem solving skills of a registered nurse. "They haven't been trained to identify potential problems early. "So we are putting a large load on those one or two professional people with the skills to be across it all." Mrs Miles says the "profile" of people coming into aged care facilities has shifted in the last five years, in a way that has made their care far more demanding. "The people coming in are chronically ill with multiple medical issues. "In fact, it is very similar to a medical ward in the acute care sector. "When people reach a nursing home now they are quite ill, their admission is being delayed because of the increase of supports in the community. "What hasn't kept up with the shift is the picture of the people who are required to look after them. "You require people with a medical background and training to be able to meet their care needs." However, even better staff ratios wouldn't overcome the problem of aged care's "bad press". Ms Davis: "The industry has copped a bashing over the last couple of years because of bad publicity in the national arena."We need to start looking at the positive aspects of aged care, the benefits and the joys. "I've been working in the area for 20 years – it's a joy to interact with people who have such a wealth of experience and knowledge and who delight in sharing that with you. "That's something you don't get in acute care, because people are usually only there for a very short time." LUCKY Mrs Miles: "We're very lucky at Old Timers because we have a core group of staff who are so committed and so loyal – that's what keeps you going. "We are pretty optimistic about this year, we have three year accreditation, we've started new programs and are looking at how we can do things better. "However, that's very difficult when every day you put a foot in the door and you're looking at who's going to cover the shifts." CLP Senator for the NT, Grant Tambling, responding to the Alice News' request for comment, said: "The Commonwealth Government is concerned about claims about a lack of staff for aged care facilities. "A review of the viability of aged care facilities in the Northern Territory is currently underway by the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care, which is consulting with a number of peak bodies and industry stakeholders to ensure that any concerns are heard." A spokesperson for the Minister for Aged Care, Bronwyn Bishop, said that the Minister is undertaking a number of initiatives to encourage nurses back into aged care. The spokesperson said the shortage of nurses in general is a national, and even a global, problem.


A Yuendumu resident, teacher Andrew Lloyd, is concerned that levels of uranium in the community's drinking water significantly exceed the new draft Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, and that the Power and Water Authority (PAWA) is not keeping the community adequately informed. It has long been known that there are above zero levels of uranium in the groundwater at Yuendumu. Resident geologist Frank Baarda of the Yuendumu Mining Company says it's because the water comes from the Ngalia Basin, and the source of the sediments that form the Ngalia Basin include large granite "intrusives" which contain radioactive minerals. The source granites in the region are relatively "hot", that is, they contain more radioactive minerals than the average granites. URANIUM As a result the groundwaters throughout the region, including Yuendumu, have relatively high levels of uranium. There are also some known small deposits of uranium in the Yuendumu area, identified about 30 years ago, says Mr Baarda. (These are owned by Central Pacifc Minerals as the operator for a joint venture, which includes the Yuendumu Mining Company. Mr Baarda says nothing looks like being done with them as they are "uneconomic in the present climate".)In Mr Baarda's view, whether the uranium levels in the water constitute a health hasard is "a moot point". He asks: "For instance, how does drinking Yuendumu water compare to having an X-ray?" A fact sheet on uranium in Australian drinking water, published by the National Health and Medical Research Council, which is responsible for developing the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, confirms a higher than usual concentration of uranium in the groundwater in the Anangu-Pitjantjatjara Lands in South Australia and in the Papunya-Kintore region in the Northern Territory. Concentrations in Australia are generally less than 0.003 mg/L, according to the fact sheet, while in the AP Lands and the Papunya-Kintore region there are respectively, average uranium concentrations of 0.0025 and 0.013 mg/L. The fact sheet says three per cent and 50 per cent of the respective water supplies have concentrations greater than 0.01 mg/L, and maximum concentrations of 0.027 and 0.076 mg/L. By comparison, the fact sheet says that studies overseas have reported uranium concentrations in drinking water of generally less than 0.001 mg/L; however concentrations as high as 0.8 mg/L and 3.0 mg/L have been reported in some private water supplies in Canada and Finland, respectively. In the USA, four to eight per cent of community drinking water supplies are thought to have uranium levels exceeding 0.015 mg/L. The fact sheet says there is little information available on the chemical toxic effects of long-term low-dose exposure. On radiological effects, the fact sheet says: "Studies have shown high specific activity uranium isotopes to be carcinogenic in animals, causing malignant tumours in mice and bone sarcomas in rats. Similar studies using natural uranium (uranium-238) have not shown similar effects, possibly due to the lower radiation doses involved. "Epidemiological data are inadequate to show whether exposure to uranium in drinking water will lead to an increased risk of cancer." Up until now, the Australian Drinking Water Guideline on the the concentration of uranium has been that it should not exceed 0.02 mg/L. A new draft guideline is now recommending that "based on health considerations, the concentration of uranium in drinking water should not exceed 0.01 mg/L".Mr Lloyd says that puts Yuendumu levels well above the guidelines.He has had difficulty obtaining information from PAWA, but other sources have confirmed that one of Yuendumu's supply bores has measured as high as 0.028 mg/L.Mr Lloyd also wanted to know what the results of new tests taken about six months ago showed, and questions why they have been thrown out by PAWA, who are now initiating yet more tests. After he had raised the issue on ABC radio, PAWA told Mr Lloyd that he could have the information he requested for a fee of $550."I strongly believe that the community has a right to know what they are drinking, and that the information should be freely available," says Mr Lloyd."This is now as much an issue about process, as it may be about health hasards."The Alice Springs News understands that Territory Health Services is the regulator of drinking water standards in the NT: they decide, using the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, whether or not a drinking water supply is safe.However, THS is not giving interviews on the issue, saying the controversy in Yuendumu is a PAWA matter.The News put Mr Lloyd's concerns to Darryl Day, General Manager Water Services, forPAWA. He made the following reply in writing:-"PAWA has been involved in ongoing consultation with the Yuendemu community council to improve the quantity and quality of reticulated water supply."The options for agreement developed in early 2001 require a more detailed understanding of the full spectrum of physical, chemical and radiological properties of the source options. "PAWA commissioned further work which included a comprehensive sampling and testing regime of existing and possible new supply options."The community has been consulted and advised that resampling is recommendedwhich will be undertaken on April 9. "The results will be available in around three weeks and PAWA will consult with the community as soon as practical after this date."The naturally occurring level of uranium is consistent with the upper limit recommended by the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines. PAWA is continuing to fully understand the complex nature of the groundwater involved."Mr Lloyd was not invited to be present when PAWA representatives were in the community last week.


Construction of the Alice convention centre has started but key arrangements still need to be put in place before the project can be seen as more than a nice idea in an election year.Uppermost amongst them are the capacity and fares of the airlines. And while running conventions will need the co-operation of dozens of local businesses and organisations, the first meeting to co-ordinate that effort was held only last week. Airlines are still charging exorbitant amounts for flights to The Centre when compared to ticket prices on routes now also flown by Virgin and Impulse. Virgin, which currently has a fleet of six planes in Australia, says it has 14 new generation 737s on order, with delivery beginning in November. A spokeswoman says many new routes are are being considered and "Alice Springs is definitely on radar screen". Present Qantas and Ansett flights don't have anywhere near the capacity of transporting 1200 delegates – or 2400 if they all bring their wives – in the space of one or two days. "The most important challenge for Alice Springs is air access," says Jenny Lambert, the CEO of the Meetings Industry Association of Australia (MIAA). "Not only is it a cost issue but are there enough planes available? "Conference organizers will only choose a destination where they are confident that their 200 to 400 delegates can move in an out smoothly, comfortably and reliably." She says although delegates are usually engaged in activities before and after their conference – and indeed that's the point of starting a convention centre – they all need to arrive and depart within a day or two. Bill Coffey, Operations Manager of Lasseters Hotel Casino, which will be running the centre, says he isn't worried about flights, although no agreements are in place as yet with the airlines: "They've made no commitment at this stage but we're very early in the negotiations with them." He says cost of flights "is something we have to consider". "The airlines have been very positive but nothing's been finalized as yet," says Mr Coffey.The NT Government is paying $10m for the construction of the centre. Lasseters is investing $2.5m to $3m for furnishings, fittings and equipment.Lasseters will be operating the facility for 20 years. After this, the centre – which is on Lasseters' land – will become the property of the largely Malaysian owned company. During the first 20 years the government will contribute an incentive payment based on delegate numbers.This payment is capped at a maximum of $5m over the 20 years and is performance based. Mr Coffey says four conferences are already booked and there are already "hundreds of enquiries". Ms Lambert says the new centre, which will be one of Australia''s eight purpose built facilitiesí, caok forward to a busy couple of years because at the moment, Central Australia isn't able to run meetings of more than 200 or 300 delegatesĖ. "There are many conferences which haven't been able to experience that location before because it hasn't had that facility," says Ms Lambert. "The first year or two you may find there is a lot of pent-up demand, [from] people who've done the Whitsundays, done Perth, done Gold Coast, Tasmania." Alice is "close to icons and attractions that are highly desirable".However, many other regions are also looking at getting purpose built convention centres, spurred on by Townsville and Cairns " where convention centres have been very successful in generating business for the region".Whether there will soon be too many centres in Australia is "a very debatable point," says Ms Lambert. "My view is with the right type of marketing and with the right type of buildings Australia can certainly cope with having extra convention centres. "The industry is becoming increasingly competitive, competing for a slice of ůthe pie, but that pie is also growing." Delegates using a convention centre of the type being built in Alice Springs "could stay anything from two and a half to four or five days. "There are two significant markets, the association market, which have a host committee inviting people to come [under their own steam], and the corporate kind. "A corporate client knows pretty well within a range how many people are coming, and when, whereas an association customer can [only] give an idea of howń many delegates usually attend. "There is never a guarantee and it's up to the conference to sell the benefits of going. "It's up to the individual delegates to decide whether to go, and whether to stay on for a few extra days." Ms Lambert says "anything above 35 or 40 conferences a year would be a great success."She says another "challenge" is surface transport, "getting the people around, issues such as how many busses you have on the ground at the moment. "A conference with 600 delegates requires 10 or 12 coaches. "This is an issue that is correctly being discussed at the moment." Ms Lambert and Mr Coffey differ about the likely effect on the market of an economic downturn when corporations are likely to trim perks. Says Ms Lambert: "There is no doubt the corporate business can be affected by a global recession. "But association conferences [for which delegates pay their own way] are less affected, they're pretty recession proof, but deleugate numbers may be affected to some extent. "By and large associations will run a national conference or an annual conference regardless of what the business environment is like. "It will be a question of how many people attend." She says the corporate and association business is usually " half and half" in purpose built centres, but in The Alice the corporate business is likely to predominate. Mr Coffey says he isn't worried about any recession: "I don't see it having a real effect at all. "The conferences are still going to go ahead, whether we have a recession or not, to be quite honest. "If anything, because of the value of the Australian dollar, it''s much more attractive for corporations to look at domestic venues rather than international ones."It's cheaper to come here than go to Hawaii, for example." Ms Lambert says the profitability of convention centres "is a very complex question". "Most centres are owned and paid for by a government. "Most of them would probably be operationally profitable" – that's not counting the initial capital costs. "That sort of information no-one's privy to. It's not easily obtainable. "The whole idea of a convention centre is that it drives business. "The way you have to measure its success is by how much business it brings into Central Australia." Says Mr Coffey: "The Adelaide Convention Centre, for example, is responsible for 11 per cent of the total accommodation in Adelaide."And for every dollar each individual guest spends in the convention centre he spends another 10 dollars elsewhere in Adelaide. "It's a big money spinner and it's great for the town." Ms Lambert sayms the centre's success will "depend primarily on the cooperation of people in the industry. "It's very much a team effort. "The conference market is a very high demand market, it has very high expectations, they're used to having things done properly. "You have people's reputations – both corporations and conference organizers – on the line. "The only way [conventions] can run smoothly is that from the time they hit the tarmac at Alice Springs airport, until the time they take off, everything has to go as well as it can. "The coach operators have to work well with the accommodation places which have to work well with the convention centre which have to work well with the local attractions. "A team approach to the conventions market is essential." This view is echoed by Mr Coffey: "It's not just a Lasseters thing. "We really want it to be a community effort. "We have the team here to do it, not in the numbers that are required [at the moment]." He says staff training is getting under way at the Centralian College and through other providers. "We wouldn't have entered into the arrangement if we didn't have confidence that we could do it."


Groovers in Alice were charged and ready to pounce at any musical note thrown their way at last Thursday night's Magic Dirt concert, dubbed the "Love ya and leave ya tour", at the Todd Tavern.After the disappointment of the Super Jesus cancellation, the totally enthused crowd had come looking for one thing – a good time. Supporting acts were Roy Machonkey from Darwin, and local stars, J*den.It's pronounced Jayden; the name comes up quicker on the net spelt with an asterisk.Together the bands delivered a show that not only rocked the Todd's foundations, but created a vibe that managed to change drinkers at the bar, to dancers on the dance floor. Performing songs from their latest album, "What are Rockstars Doing Today", the Melbourne-born band revealed they had been looking forward to gigging the Alice."We've played some wild gigs all over this country, but after tonight Alice Springs is definitely on top!"After the performance, lead singer and guitarist, Adelita, mingled with the party-goers, autographing anything from CDs to sweaty skin."We want to come back to Central Oz to play for the communities out bush and do some workshops for the young ones," says Adelita.


Hey! Come over here – come sit by the campfire and make a basket to the sounds of dogs barking, children laughing and crying. There's country and western and gospel blaring from a tape player, cars rumbling past on the gravel, creaking like old dinosaurs from too many trips on a rough road. Put your basket down for a while, walk with your dogs to the store. Look down at the ground, tracks, who's been coming, who's been going? Get your food, any scissors for sale? Those other ladies must have bought them all. Put your groceries on your head and walk back to camp. Shove the frozen roo tails in a tree to thaw out in the sun. Bark at the grandchildren to stop messing up. Wave somebody going by to give you some mingkulpa (tobacco). Get the fire going and put on some tea and keep going with the basket. Cut the string with a piece of tin since the kids took off with the scissors. Coil it round and round and round until you run out of grass. Put it under your blankets for a while, leave it till later. Maybe a ride out bush sometime to get more grass. Clean up the camp, have some lunch, feed the grand kids. Think about where that wangurnu or minari grass might be growing. Maybe on the old bore road, coming up nice and green since the burn. You're not waiting long and a truck rumbles by. Football in ranges this weekend. We're going right now! Grab your blankets, bag and basket and two grandchildren and in the back you go with the others. Your dogs barking and howling and choking on the dust all the way down the road. Your back aches, your legs cramp, and the wind and dust and heat are baking your face like a claypan. Then a flat tyre and the truck pulls to a rattling wheel rim halt. You haul yourself down and out of the truck, and look around. Lovely country here, maybe some minari grass just over there behind that sand dune, maybe turkeys too, they'll have a lota good feathers on them, that'll look good on the basket. Men do their business, heaving and sweating and swearing with the tyre, and women do theirs too, and off you go with the steel crowbar and shovel. That minari grass, ooh, doesn't it look lovely. Should've brought the axe to cut it with, anyway dig it out with the crowbar. Looks like a big mob. Might have to wrap it all in my jumper. Tyre's fixed but the radiator's leaking like a speared bladder. Get the fire going. Maybe tomorrow another truck will come. Put a few more rows on the basket and finish it up. Those teachers or nurses in Warburton might want to buy it, or maybe send it into Women's Council. Maybe give to Tjuwari or Kundili for a present. Got enough grass to start another one. (Thisbe Purich is the curator of the basket show, Manguri Weaving, showing at Araluen.)

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