House debates

Monday, 21 June 2021


Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment (Royal Commission Response No. 1) Bill 2021; Second Reading

3:56 pm

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for the Republic) Share this | Hansard source

It's often said that the measure of a nation is how well it treats its vulnerable citizens, particularly the elderly—those who helped to build the nation that we live in. Many of them lived through world conflicts and economic upheavals. Many of them were migrants who left their homeland to come to Australia and help build the prosperous nation that we all enjoy today. But, unfortunately, under the Morrison government we have forgotten that adage about how important it is to look after the elderly and those who helped to build our nation.

When the royal commission was instituted, we knew that it would uncover a series of shocking incidents that had been reported in our constituencies. When the title of the interim report into the management by those over there of the aged-care sector was one word—Neglectwe knew that there was a problem with their management and stewardship of Australia's aged-care sector. That's exactly what occurred under this government. Because of the coalition-conservative philosophy of cutting services, be they healthcare services, education services, training services or aged-care services, Australians are worse off, and no group is more worse off than our aged Australians. These are the people who helped to build this nation and who have served our country.

This Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment (Royal Commission Response No. one) Bill 2021 makes amendments to the Aged Care Act and the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission Act to implement three measures in response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, and, in the case of restrictive practices, in response to the independent review of legislative provisions governing the use of restraint in residential aged care. While the changes are urgent, the fact is that it has been eight long years, and many Australian families have suffered enough through this government's neglect of our aged-care system. Unfortunately, it's a system which is in crisis. This is a crisis which has emerged on this government's watch, and it was aggravated by the cuts to aged-care funding that have been undertaken by this government. This ensured that funding failed to keep pace with the facts that we have an ageing population and a growing population, and that we weren't providing the necessary support to ensure that aged Australians who either had to enter into home care or residential care did so with dignity and got the care and respect they deserve.

The royal commission contained some shocking details of the neglect—horror stories of maggots in wounds and that 68 per cent of aged-care residents were malnourished or at risk of malnourishment. The royal commission's comprehensive road map for reform was built around 148 recommendations and the government's aged-care package falls short of those royal commission recommendations.

This bill deals with three of those recommendations. But the government has ignored the principal problem in this particular industry, and that is the wages and conditions of those that work in the sector—better professional development, a nutrition-contingent funding boost, minimum staffing levels, guaranteed nurses on duty 24/7 and civil penalties for duty breaches. And there are many more of those royal commission recommendations that still go unanswered, that have not been adopted by this government. I think that the government's approach is, 'We'll do these three and hope that Australia forgets about the other ones.' But Australians won't forget, because this won't fix the neglect that exists in our aged-care sector that was identified by the royal commission.

Why has the Morrison government refused to accept the recommendation that requires a registered nurse to be on duty at all times in nursing homes? They're taking the nurses out of nursing homes. It doesn't make sense at all. When this change was introduced—predominantly by Liberal state governments—we warned that there would be consequences for the level of care that aged-care residents received, and that has been the result. There have been cases where the level of care hasn't been up to the standard that Australians would expect.

Why has the government refused to even countenance the recommendation to increase the wages of nurses and carers? Unfortunately, we all know that people who are working in our aged-care sector, particularly in residential care, are underpaid and overworked. But I doubt that those opposites know that. I very much doubt that they have ever sat down with a group of aged-care workers and asked them to tell their story and asked them to explain the daily challenges they face just to do their job and care for older Australians. All of them are underpaid, with many of them unable to make ends meet, and therefore have second and third jobs. We've seen through the COVID period the danger that this has caused through transmission between nursing homes. Those that are working in them simply can't earn enough to make ends meet, so they have to have a job in another residential aged-care facility just to pay their bills. That of course ended up with COVID transmission going between those nursing homes.

We have workers in nursing homes being employed by labour hire companies—not even employed directly by the nursing home company that they're working for—as a distinct tactic to lower their wages and conditions. So they're working for base-level wages and having to have two or three jobs just to make ends meet. We're talking about an occupation in which you do need quite a level of training. There's a fair degree of skill and competence involved. But, more importantly, there's an emotional element that many Australians are simply unqualified to deliver and which would challenge a lot of us—the emotional element of having to deal on a daily basis with people who have dementia, with people whose faculties are going, with people who wander off on a regular basis, with people who can't remember your name from the day before and with people who, unfortunately, you create a bond with and then they pass away.

The emotional element involved in this job has, sadly, been ignored by this government and by governments in the past for too long. That is something that the royal commission recognised and it is something that the Fair Work Commission, on numerous occasions in fair work cases and pay equity cases, has recognised as an issue that needs to be dealt with if we're going to provide the necessary care and support for people who are in our aged-care facilities. But this government completely ignores it. As a result, the Australians that are living in these facilities aren't getting the care and support that they deserve.

The Morrison government also needs to explain how 80,000 additional home-care packages will go to clearing a list that has been stuck at over 100,000 for years. We welcome the additional funding for aged-care packages in homes. It's important in ensuring that people get the care that they deserve so that they can stay in their homes for as long as possible and avoid the need to go prematurely into residential care, because residential care costs more, you tend to get a decay in the quality of life of people when they move into residential aged care earlier than would otherwise be the case, and, of course, there is a quality-of-life element associated with it. Yet this government has refused for years to countenance the fact that we've had over 100,000 people in Australia waiting for aged-care packages. Many of them are at level 4—the highest level of care—and are waiting for support from this government. Unfortunately, many of them die whilst they're waiting for an aged-care package. That shouldn't happen in a nation like Australia, where we have relative wealth and high living standards.

The other point is that thousands more will seek home-care packages over the budget forward estimates, because we've got an ageing population. It's a demographic characteristic of Australia that we can't ignore—that we have an ageing population—and we're about to have another Intergenerational report released by the government that will demonstrate once again that the number of Australians who are of working age and who are working and paying taxes is diminishing compared to those who are retiring from the workforce and ageing and requiring additional health services and aged-care services that we simply don't have the ability to fund under this government. Nothing in this package does anything to look to the future and to the growth that you're going to find in the waiting list for those aged-care packages. The Prime Minister hasn't shown an ounce of contrition or acknowledged that it was on his watch that there were cuts made to the aged-care budget that have worsened the crisis. The fact is that, when it comes to aged care, it is the Commonwealth that is responsible. It is the Commonwealth that has the responsibility for making sure that we have standards of quality and for giving an assurance to people that there will be adequate funding at a national level to ensure that not only people living in their homes but also those living in residential care get the quality of support that they need.

I was speaking to a provider in my electorate some weeks ago, as a result of having received an email from a concerned son who had a parent living in residential aged care. The son had asked me why that particular facility had cut out support services that were there to ensure a quality of life for the residents, such as services that assist with, and reduce the onset of, dementia—cognitive skills development and services like that. He was asking why those services were being cut from this particular aged-care facility. When I phoned the provider, the answer they gave me was quite a simple one. They said: 'We don't get any increases in funding that would allow us to continue to provide these services. We're under the pump, and we can't continue to provide these services because we can't fund them.' That was a not-for-profit provider that couldn't continue to fund those services because they hadn't got the necessary funding per bed to keep pace with changes in the cost of living and population growth—what's known as growth funding—and to ensure that those services could continue to be provided. Hopefully, some of the additional funding that's been announced by the government in the budget will go to ensuring that those services that are important to people's quality of life in residential aged care can be restored.

The fact is it should never have got to this. The Australian public have been warning this government for the past eight years that there has been a problem, that the aged-care waiting list has been ballooning—despite the fact we've had Intergenerational reportsand this government has refused to countenance a way to provide that growth funding. It is always on about cutting services and cutting back on that necessary expenditure to provide that support for people.

The other point to make about the government's additional commitments is they haven't announced how they're going to fund them. No details have been announced about how they're going to fund these additional home-care packages and the additional funding that is to be provided per bed in residential facilities. And that's important, because if you're going to make sure that the funding is sustainable into the future, those details need to be released.

In summation, this government have dropped the ball when it comes to aged care. They're finally getting on with implementing some of the recommendations, but they need to look at the other ones as well. And before I finish, Mr Deputy Speaker, I draw your attention to the state of the House.

(Quorum formed)


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