20 October 2021

I rise to speak on the Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment (Royal Commission Response No. 2) Bill 2021. There is nothing more important than caring for our older and most vulnerable Australians, particularly at this moment in history, when the COVID pandemic poses such a significant threat to all older people with frail health and underlying conditions, and particularly when we've so recently had the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, which has forensically examined the shortcomings of a system that has been ignored for far too long.

 

We all know that the royal commission exposed frankly terrifying things, from abuse, neglect and awful hygiene practices through to poor nutrition and ongoing workforce issues. It exposed a tragic vacuum of transparency and accountability. The royal commission handed down recommendations to the Morrison government, and those opposite have a clear moral obligation to act decisively to reform this system and protect these important but vulnerable people.

 

These people are mums and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers, and uncles and aunts. They are people who have contributed to Australia in so many ways, from running milk bars to pushing the frontiers of scientific research to teaching our kids to read books, ride bikes and cook meals. But they're also just people. They are simply people who need our care—older men and women who deserve safety, security, and appropriate care as they age. We can't just think of them as a number or a cost. They're not just a political problem for the Morrison government to run spin about or hide from, hoping that the spotlight on the problem goes away. They're loved ones, and we can't ever forget that. They are people who have mastered FaceTime so they can connect with their grandkids. They're women who listen to the radio for company. They're people who, like anyone, look forward to the weekend, to sunny weather, to their favourite meals and to having visitors. They're real people, and we owe them more. We owe them more than a system in crisis.

 

Labor supports action to fix the aged-care system. We want to see change. We want to see an aged-care system that we can be proud of, one that looks after—and I mean really looks after—those among us when they age. Last year, almost 700 residents in aged-care facilities died after COVID crept into their homes. It was horrendous. We watched the situation unfold in Victoria, and the Morrison Government stood back. The protections were not in place. Neither staff nor patients were adequately looked after. The system buckled under the pressure of COVID-19. These people deserved better. Their families deserved better. That's why Labor is fighting for a system that doesn't cut corners and doesn't ask too much of too few staff. We want the system that older Australians deserve after a lifetime of paying taxes, contributing, and raising families.

 

The Morrison government have consistently let us down and failed these people. After 21 expert reports into this issue, those opposite knew that older people had been suffering in aged care, but they didn't fix the problem. They have known about the parlous situation in the aged-care sector for some time and they've sat on their hands. They sat on those reports. The evidence mounted, as those reports collected dust on someone's shelf; however, in his most recent job, as Treasurer, the now Prime Minister actually cut funding to the aged-care sector. In 2016, he cut almost $2 billion from the aged-care budget. Meanwhile, they've managed to roll out money for other stuff. They've spent money on sports rorts, on an overpriced land acquisition that helped out mates and on giving billions in JobKeeper payments to businesses that don't need it, didn't deserve it and didn't even qualify for it. But they haven't adequately followed through with the systemwide changes that the aged-care sector and those within it are crying out for. If we look at the track record of the government, they're simply not up to the job of fixing the aged-care sector. They have neither the will nor the way. They can glance at the problem, they can skim reports, they can hear testimonials about bedsores, the prevalence of sexual assault in aged-care facilities and other heartbreaking situations of neglect and abuse, and then they walk away from the very changes that matter the most. Older Australians, their families and hardworking carers and nurses cannot trust the Morrison government to fix this broken system.

 

While there are aspects of this bill that are welcome, it's clear that it needs proper scrutiny through committee process, so I move:

 

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

 

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

 

(1) notes the:

 

(a) systemic, ongoing failures in Australia's aged care system as evidenced by the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, including, but not limited to, poor levels of transparency, accountability and provider governance;

 

(b) inadequacy of the Government's response to the Royal Commission, including deferred and curtailed legislative action on key issues and an unclear plan for reform implementation; and

 

(c) Government's failures in providing safe and high-quality care for aged care residents due to their historic cuts and poor management of the aged care sector; and

 

(2) calls on the Government to clearly explain why they have ignored, deferred or curtailed so many of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety's important recommendations to fix the aged care sector and deliver the care that older Australians and their families deserve".

 

I flag that, if this amendment is passed by this House, Labor will ensure that the bill goes to a Senate committee. I know that the government have at the last minute moved their own amendments to this bill; I'm pretty sure they came in this morning, which shows that, like their response to the royal commission, it seems everything they do for aged care is half-baked, half-cooked and done on the fly without proper thought or consultation. Imagine if they'd done their job and worked up this bill in proper consultation with all stakeholders. God forbid that they actually asked stakeholder in the sector, the people who know and understand what happens in aged care, about what should be in their legislation.

 

Older Australians, their advocates, workers, their trade unions, aged-care providers and their peak bodies—they're all extremely frustrated that they've been shut out of the room and not sufficiently consulted in the development of this bill. It's not clear why they weren't properly consulted, given the impact this bill will have on their care, their jobs, their organisations and the whole aged-care sector. Put simply, this affects their lives. It has major impacts on their homes and on their workplaces, yet they weren't asked for their expertise, their feedback or their experiences to shape the direction of this legislation. They weren't consulted on the residential aged-care funding framework and they weren't consulted on workforce screening, governance structures, banning orders and a code of conduct. This legislation raises very real questions; questions that need clear and considered answers. These are big issues with significant impacts on the quality of care in our aged-care facilitates and in the sector more broadly. These big issues require proper scrutiny and proper consultation.

 

Many of those affected, those who work in the sector and those who care deeply about these issues, and I include myself, want to know why parts of this bill fall so far short of what was recommended by the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. Why has the government fobbed off, delayed and outright rejected key recommendations? Of the 148 recommendations from the royal commission, more than half are not being implemented or they're not being implemented properly. There are very real questions as to why this is the case, and yet those opposite are not providing the answers or assurances to those who need them the most. The truth is that the government has neglected aged care and older Australians for eight years. Don't just take my word for it; the royal commission perfectly described the government's approach to aged care in its final report where it said:

 

At times in this inquiry, it has felt like the Government's main consideration was what was the minimum commitment it could get away with, rather than what should be done to sustain the aged care system so that it is enabled to deliver high quality and safe care.

 

This is apparently the approach the government is still taking. As I said, this bill contains some welcome changes. But we'd like to know why the government is pursuing this collection of changes at this time, because these changes don't match the royal commission's recommended time line, and, frankly, they don't seem to fully match the government's own time line. This bill fails to deliver enduring improvements and lasting reforms for the long run. Nothing will change without reform to the workforce. There is nothing to improve wages for overstretched, undervalued aged-care workers. They're gifting $3.2 billion to providers with no strings attached, nothing to make sure that this money goes to actual care or better food for residents in aged-care facilities ue to their disinterest in transparency and accountability, there is nothing to stop shonky facilities from investing their share in bonuses for management or a refurb for their offices.

 

They failed to clear the home-care package waiting list of 100,000 people. Their numbers just don't add up. Australians want to age at home. Those opposite have ignored the recommendation to require a nurse to be on duty 24/7 in residential aged care. They've also shirked the main increase to mandatory care minutes in residential aged care. Staffing levels are central to many of the quality-of-care problems.

 

I ask: why call a $200 million royal commission and then ignore most of its recommendations? The Morrison government's response to the royal commission and the aged-care crisis falls way short of where it needs to be, and this bill is a rushed attempt to cover up the government's failure to follow the recommendations of its own royal commission. Could this be a case of the government handing in its homework at the last minute? Could it be a rushed job to make it look like it's taking action when its main consideration is still the minimum it can get away with? In almost all areas of policy, the Morrison government takes this approach, and it's this attitude towards the aged-care system that worries older Australians. It worries their families. It worries the dedicated workforce that care for them. They know that this government isn't fully committed to helping fix the system it has broken after eight long and sorry years of neglect. That's eight very long years if you have been in that system or if you've had to deal with that system.

 

The government claims to have accepted or accepted in principle 126 out of 148 recommendations. However, when it comes to the details of the follow-through, you have to read the fine print. They are simply not implementing the recommendations they are purporting to accept. If they were to actually deliver on those recommendations, firstly they would need to reform the workforce. The government has no strategy when it comes to the wonderful people who work in the aged-care sector, who care for vulnerable Australians. This is patently clear to anyone observing the situation. I know aged-care facilities. I know aged-care workers. I know the nurses who work in the system. It's clear to everyone I speak to that this government doesn't have a clear and considered plan to address the pressures that they are under, and—oh my goodness—those pressures are enormous! We are in an aged-care workforce crisis.

 

Just this week, I met with many aged-care workers—ANMF members, my old union's members—and they were crying, some of them, telling us the care that they could not deliver to the elderly people in their nursing homes, knowing that, if they were toileting one patient or one resident and a bell rang, they'd have to choose between leaving a resident alone, rushing down the corridor and hoping that the bell didn't indicate someone had fallen and hurt themselves, that somebody had wandered out or that somebody was in trouble or needed their help. You shouldn't have to make those decisions. There should be enough people working in aged-care facilities to deliver the care to answer those bells when they ring.

 

This goes back to 2013, when the former Prime Minister and member for Warringah scrapped Labor's $1.2 billion aged-care workforce compact, a compact that the current shadow minister for health put in place. Labor actually understands the need for workforce reform. We know what needs to be done, and this was a good reform that the whole sector acknowledged was needed, and yet—there we go—the Liberal Prime Minister at the time scrapped it, cancelling a much-needed pay rise for workers. In the years since, the Abbott and Morrison governments have never developed a plan to make sure that we have a pipeline of excellent, qualified and professional carers, nurses and professional staff to run the aged-care sector.

 

Aged-care workers are the crucial backbone of the system. They are mostly women, I might add, and they are exhausted. They are stretched. They are underresourced. They are actually traumatised from the past year and a half, when their system has been pushed to breaking point and they, themselves, have been pushed to breaking point. For too many years they have been asked to do too much heavy lifting for too little pay. We know the workers are chronically underpaid and the system is haemorrhaging staff. They are leaving in droves, and would you blame them? They can get better conditions and higher pay as a nurse in a hospital, as a support worker in the disability sector or even as a worker in retail, for that matter—anywhere but the aged-care sector. This is because the Morrison government has failed to address the paltry pay and conditions experienced by those who work in this area.

 

During the pandemic aged-care workers aren't given the resources they need to take care of frail older Australians. The Morrison government wasn't even able to protect these nurses and carers with a timely and appropriate vaccine rollout to aged-care workers, and they're voting with their feet. Labor believe these workers should be paid more, and we're supporting the HSU and the ANMF's pay case before the Fair Work Commission right now—and there should be more of them. The Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that we will support minimum staffing levels and an RN on every shift.

 

Sadly, the Morrison government can't be trusted to pay dedicated and hardworking aged-care workers properly, even though they know that the workforce is key to delivering a high-quality aged-care system. This isn't just Labor identifying the workforce as key to delivering a fit-for-purpose aged-care system. The royal commission itself recognised this too. It's a no-brainer really. What Australians need is wholesale reform of the aged-care system and investment in the sector and its workforce, and all this government can offer via this bill before us is a little bit of tinkering around the edges and fine print about what is not included in these measures.

 

To protect older Australians and to protect our aged-care workforce what we need is a regulator with teeth, but teeth that bite the right pieces though. Constantly hitting overworked and stretched out staff over the head with a meat axe for small compliance issues is not the type of teeth we need. We need a governance model within the sector that ensures facilities that get government subsidies spend those subsidies on actual care and not Maseratis. The system itself needs to have a governance model that clearly shows how public funds are spent through clear and accountable public reporting mechanisms. We also need individual aged-care providers to be required to clearly show the different types of care available, information about staffing levels and ratios, and information about nutrition and services within the facility. Let me say it again: transparency and accountability must be at the heart of all reforms and all measures adopted.

 

While Labor is pursuing an agenda of transparency and accountability, this bill represents the precise opposite. The Morrison government's agenda is opacity and obfuscation—a hard word to say, and some people would say that is onomatopoeic—making things as clear as mud with as much room to hide as possible. To go back to the words of the royal commission report, the government's main consideration was the minimum commitment it could get away with.

 

This bill is a masterclass in concealing things from the public and keeping things confusing for those who are seeking care within our aged-care system. This is the attitude of a government indifferent to the aged-care system that worries older Australians, their families and the workforce. We need a government with fresh ideas about what an aged-care system could look like and how to attract the next generation of talent to the system. We need a government that seizes on the opportunity to improve the aged-care sector, rather than one that shies away from reform without looking the problem directly in the eye. We need a government unafraid of taking on shonky players in the sector and creating a system where any one of us would be happy for our parents, our loved ones or, indeed, ourselves to spend time.

 

Sadly, Australians do not have a government that is willing to look at this problem and fix it, because that takes courage. What we see instead is eight years of neglect of a system that is groaning under the weight of its own crisis. We know that for the Prime Minister every problem is somebody else's problem. It's somebody else's fault. Every crisis is someone else's responsibility. When he's called out on his failure, the Prime Minister's response is always the same: 'It's not my job. It's a matter for the states. I don't hold a hose' Whether it's bushfires, robodebt, aged care or car park rorts, he doesn't show leadership; he just gives us more spin.

 

Instead of going missing in action and passing the buck, the Prime Minister's got to step up and be a leader. The stakes are too high when it comes to aged care. The Prime Minister has barely even acknowledged the aged-care system since it announced its lacklustre, beige and disappointing response to the royal commission. But there's nowhere to hide right now—not even Hawaii.

 

The Prime Minister is responsible for the aged-care system. He's responsible for the funding cuts he made as Treasurer and he's responsible for the terrible neglect identified by the aged-care royal commission. The Prime Minister failed to listen to listen to Australians, to their families and to the workers. He failed to listen to 21 expert reports and now even to his royal commission. It's clear that older Australians, their families and the workers that care for them can't trust the Prime Minister to fix this broken system. It's clear that, after eight years of neglect, another three years of this Prime Minister won't fix it. Older Australians, their families and hardworking carers and nurses can't trust the Prime Minister to fix this present system. He can't be trusted to fix the nutrition crisis and act with the urgency that this issue requires. He can't be trusted to pay dedicated, hardworking, aged-care workers properly even though they know the workforce is key to delivering a high-quality aged-care system.

 

Aged care has always a priority for Labor, and we will continue to fight for the aged-care system Australians need and deserve. We will fight for a better system for this generation of Australians and all who come next as they require care for their parents, their loved ones and, eventually, themselves. We'll fight for the aged-care workers who look after their patients with kindness, professionalism and patience. We stand shoulder to shoulder and advocate for them to get the pay and conditions they deserve.

 

I have always believed that the worth of a nation rests upon how it treats its most vulnerable, and I'm ashamed. I'm ashamed of some of the things I have seen and heard about in our aged-care system. Put simply, the stakes are too high to ignore the crisis. Therefore, I move to amend this bill as follows:

 

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

 

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

 

(1) notes the:

 

(a) systemic, ongoing failures in Australia's aged care system as evidenced by the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, including, but not limited to, poor levels of transparency, accountability and provider governance;

 

(b) inadequacy of the Government's response to the Royal Commission, including deferred and curtailed legislative action on key issues and an unclear plan for reform implementation; and

 

(c) Government's failures in providing safe and high-quality care for aged care residents due to their historic cuts and poor management of the aged care sector; and

 

(2) calls on the Government to clearly explain why they have ignored, deferred or curtailed so many of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety's important recommendations to fix the aged care sector and deliver the care that older Australians and their families deserve".