Q&A with… Amber-Jade Sanderson

Q&A with… Amber-Jade Sanderson, WA Minister for Health and Mental Health.

Last December, Amber-Jade Sanderson was given an early Christmas present of sorts –the hot potato of the health portfolio amid a pandemic. Here she explains why she is embracing the chance to deliver on the job dubbed the poisoned chalice of government.

Amber-Jade Sanderson, WA Minister for Health and Mental Health

MF: Firstly, congratulations on your ministerial appointment. What have the first few months in undoubtedly one of the busiest Government portfolios been like?

AJS: Thank you, it has been a busy time. It’s no secret the health portfolio is a challenging and complex one – and the pandemic has added another layer to that. I have never stepped back from a challenge and no job worth doing isn’t hard, so I’m looking forward to the challenge. There are few portfolios that can have a bigger impact on people’s lives than health and mental health.

MF: You’ve had a varied career, ranging from roles as media advisor to Carmen Lawrence through to assistant state secretary of the then-United Voice union. How have those roles helped prepare you for life as a health minister?

AJS: I think all my past roles have helped prepare me for this job. I have been a Member of Parliament for nine years and around the Cabinet table for five, and the one thing I have learnt is that you have to be ready for anything and be prepared to move quickly. Throughout my career I have always valued collaboration and consultation. This is how I approached previous challenges and it is how I will approach my new portfolios. 

MF: It’s been something of a baptism by fire when it comes to managing COVID. Has it been difficult getting across all the issues that are required of a health minister in such a short time, and at such an important time?

AJS: We had an outbreak of Delta the day after I was sworn in as Health Minister, but that is just how things go with this pandemic. COVID-19 has turned our world upside down and we will continue to be challenged. I believe that no matter how complex a problem, there is always a way through – having the right people around you is key to finding that way.

MF: What aspect of WA’s handling of COVID has been most encouraging, and where do you think there is still room for improvement?

AJS: Since the start of the pandemic we have been following the health advice and undoubtedly it has served us well. We have been one of the safest places in the world while having one of the strongest economies. I will continue to rely on the health advice as I intend to make well-informed decisions. I will continue the cautious and sensible approach the Premier and the Government has taken to date, which has served the community well. One of the most encouraging aspects has been the community support for restrictions and their understanding that we are trying to protect people’s lives and health.

MF: There are concerns the WA public hospital system is not equipped to deal with the big numbers of COVID cases expected in the next few months. How confident are you that it can cope?

AJS: The McGowan Government has invested heavily in resourcing our hospital system so we can manage the unprecedented demand in our system. Through the Mid-year Review and the Budget, we have injected $3.2 billion into the health system, and it is expected an additional 530 beds will come online by the end of the year. I intend to oversee the delivery of these beds as a priority to ensure we are ready.

As I walk through our hospitals, I get a strong sense that staff are prepared and ready to meet the challenges that lay ahead, and I have every faith we will.

MF: How are you ensuring that issues that are not directly COVID-related, such as the general state of the WA public health system, are not left to languish during the pandemic?

AJS: Much of the work and preparation for COVID will help to support our health system for many years, but the challenges of workforce and meeting demand will stay with us post-pandemic. I will not be distracted by COVID when it comes to important reforms needed in areas such as infant, child and adolescent mental health – this is a priority for me. 

MF: Many of our readers are GPs. Has the pandemic redefined the importance of primary care professionals, particularly when it comes to vaccination?

AJS: GPs are critical to a functioning health system, and they do not get enough support from the Commonwealth. The vastness of WA also means GPs have an important role in bringing vaccinations to our regional and remote communities. I will always advocate for more GPs and more support for primary health.

MF: As Mental Health Minister, do you share concerns about the impact that COVID (through lockdowns, loss of income, separated families) is having on our mental wellbeing? Can we bounce back?

AJS: Because of our strong management of the pandemic, WA has been relatively insulated from the worst impacts – both health and economic. Even so, we are seeing far greater demands on services, particularly in the youth mental health space. The Government has made a significant $495 million investment last year in the mental health system to help people avoid hospitalisation and get the treatment and care they need in the community. Implementing the recommendations of the Ministerial Taskforce into Public Mental Health Services for Infants, Children and Adolescents aged 0-18 years in WA (ICA Taskforce) is a priority for me.

MF: The private hospital system in WA is undergoing significant expansion, including an increase from one private emergency department to four EDs. Do you see the private sector as a crucial part of any health system?

AJS: It is important the people of Western Australia have diversified health care options and more private emergency departments delivers more choice for patients.

MF: Many see you as one of Labor’s rising stars. Do you consider yourself politically ambitious or more go-with-the-flow? 

AJS: I’ll leave that to the commentators. It is a privilege to serve in the McGowan Government and I make the most of everyday to make that changes that will improve people’s lives.