10 November 2020

I don't think anyone in Australia would disagree with me when I say that the biggest policy failing during the COVID-19 pandemic has been in residential aged care. We watched a tragedy unfold before our very eyes. As the member for Franklin told us, nearly 700 people have died of COVID in aged-care facilities. Many died undignified deaths, unable to say goodbye to loved ones, incoherent, dehydrated and confused. Families are traumatised, with a lifetime of good memories tainted by a bad death.


Yet this budget contains very little for residential aged care. Their response is astounding. This government's response was to blame shift, disgracefully trying to sidestep accountability. At a time when we should have all been in it together, they wanted to step aside. I would like to say I'm surprised, but I'm not—because the government's aged-care response has been left by an incompetent minister who will be remembered for turning his back on Senator Wong as she tried to hold him to account for his government's failings.


Our aged-care system is broken. It was broken before the COVID pandemic, but the pandemic has shone a light through the cracks. Despite the buck-passing by this government, trying to throw Victoria, my state, under the bus, we all know who is responsible for aged care: the federal government. The federal government is responsible. They have failed to regulate and to ensure that all aged-care facilities had enough staff, the right mix of nurses and carers and adequate protection—PPE equipment. The federal government and some providers failed to provide workers with a secure job or decent pay, so infection spread as workers had to move across several facilities. There was, I admit, a feeble attempt to halt this, but many providers who tried to do the right thing by their staff said that the efforts were weak. They failed to heed the warning calls about how to control a COVID outbreak, and there were so many. The counsel assisting the aged care royal commission, when investigating the outbreaks in Newmarch House and Dorothy Henderson Lodge, asked, 'What did the Commonwealth do to ensure the lessons of the two outbreaks were learned?' The answer: not enough. The Prime Minister's plan was nothing more than guidelines offered up by an uninterested minister who never acted with urgency, who infamously said that the portfolio should only take up about a day a week of his time as minister. Well, that day a week was not very productive. His so-called plan failed. It's a nonsense to say otherwise—actually, it's an insult to say otherwise.


The title of the royal commission's interim report was Neglect. Neglect is not a word that anyone relying on the aged-care system wants to hear. Neglect outlines the litany of long-term, systemic problems that this government has failed to fix during its seven-year term. As a former nurse and head of the nurses union, I have spent a large part of my career fighting for a better aged-care system, a system that offers residents of aged-care facilities the dignity they deserve in their latter years. I've been saying for decades that we need regulated staffing levels, a proper skill mix of professionals, better pay and training for staff, decent jobs, decent shifts that give people a living. We need to make sure that aged-care providers are accountable for the government funding they receive, so we know that it's being spent on quality care and not just on maximising profits at the expense of good care, at the expense of quality nursing, at the expense of quality equipment and of a decent living.


Labor have said enough is enough. We've announced a plan for aged care, which includes minimum staffing levels in residential aged care, reducing the homecare package waiting list, and ensuring transparency and accountability of funding to support high-quality care. There is no point in give the sector millions and millions of extra dollars if there's no accountability for how that is spent. Given that the government has failed residential aged care, I ask: is the government ready to accept the royal commission's recommendations when they're handed down in February? Will it act on those recommendations? Is it getting ready for a systematic overhaul of the sector? Judging by the scanty amount in the budget commitment, I suspect not. I suspect it doesn't care for the dignity and safety of our elderly at all.