Monday, 21 June 2021
Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment (Royal Commission Response No. 1) Bill 2021; Second Reading
It's right that we're here again talking about aged care, because this has been one of the signature issues that has faced the government. At every turn they have failed to take adequate steps to address the real challenges that are facing residents in aged care and the staff who work in aged care. I talked to my community about this because they know that there is a crisis. The workers are telling me how hard their jobs are, the family members with someone in aged care are telling me and when I go into aged-care facilities often it's the residents who are telling me that things just aren't good enough. But they haven't felt that they had a voice. It was only thanks to a royal commission that anyone felt they had a voice to use in this situation.
People in the broader community often say to me: 'But this is a problem caused by governments over multiple decades. This has been building up.' I say, 'No. I was around in 2010 as a candidate and I vividly remember running aged-care forums in my community in 2010 and then 2013 in the lead-up to the 2013 election. Mark Butler was the minister of aged care then. He came out and spoke to people. There was no sense of crisis. There was absolutely a sense that things needed to evolve and things needed to change, but I didn't have family members telling me how much they worry about the food that their family member is being given or the lack of attention and care that they're receiving in a particular facility, anywhere near the scale that I've been hearing since being a member of parliament for the last five years and for the years since 2013.' There's clearly been a decline, a really significant decline, and it sits squarely at the feet of this government, of successive Liberal governments. Every time there's an opportunity to take action that isn't embraced by the other side. It's an incremental response. 'Let's just do a little bit and see if we can get away with doing a little bit,' and that's how this legislation feels to me. The neglect that older Australians and the aged-care system have suffered is not being addressed by this piece of legislation. This is not fundamentally going to change. I note that this bill is called 'royal commission response No. 1'. Well, I want to know where No. 2 is. And, if they're as small as this, we're going to need No. 3, No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6; we will need a lot of these for this to be considered any sort of meaningful response.
The Prime Minister somehow tries to make out that aged care is really not something he needs to worry about. We saw that during COVID at its height last year, with the onslaught aged-care facilities were facing, the fear that was around and the absolute failure by the government to take responsibility for keeping residents in aged-care facilities safe and keeping staff safe. We eventually managed to get the government to bring in some rules around staff being able to work in only one facility due to COVID. I have to say, I was shocked that that rule was quietly dropped; it just disappeared. We only found that out when we had another serious outbreak. It is just extraordinary behaviour. It's kind of like the people who slow down on the roads when the policeman's watching but speed up again as soon as the policeman's attention is diverted elsewhere. In both those situations, that costs lives.
The delay in responding to the royal commission is one thing, but in the lead-up to the royal commission there were 22 other reports about aged care which pretty much mapped the sorts of things that could be done. At every step this government failed to put forward a plan. Even this is not a plan to reform the sector. This is not what people were expecting to see. It is absolutely tiny steps.
I'd like to highlight some of the gaps that I see that remain. One of the No. 1 gaps is workforce. Nothing is going to change without fundamental reform to the workforce. Some people are earning less than they would earn if they were feeding animals at the zoo. Their base pay is so low, and that says everything about what those opposite think in terms of the quality of workers and the importance of the care that they're delivering. The workers I know—and I know them because I go into aged care; sometimes it's to visit my father—are run off their feet, but they're incredibly caring. I often see people just about to leave a shift—they've probably worked longer than their shift was meant to be, anyway—and, as they're walking out with their coat on one arm and a bag of supplies they had for the day, they hear a voice from a room saying: 'Can someone help? I need to go to the toilet', or they hear a call out from someone in a bed. Do you know what they do? They just drop their stuff, put it on the ground, and go and see what they can do to make that person more comfortable. These are the sorts of people we are talking about—incredible people.
The fact that the government has failed to do anything to improve the wages for those overstretched and undervalued workers is something else that says everything about what those opposite are like. They're very happy to give $3.2 billion of funds to providers with no strings attached—no genuine transparency about how it's going to be spent, just hoping that it's going to go to actual care or better food. The accountability built into this bill is so broad and loose. It's one of the big failings in this piece of legislation.
The home-care waitlist is more than an embarrassment; it's a shame. It's a shame on this whole nation that people are at home waiting for a home-care package that they have been approved for. They have been assessed and someone has talked to them. Do you know how hard those conversations are when you've got a husband and a wife who have to sit there and say, 'We can't do this on our own anymore'? These are people who live in their home and are married. In my parents' case, they have been married for decades, yet my mother has to say, 'I can't look after my husband anymore on my own.'
Do those opposite ever think about what that feels like, even to get to that point of asking for help in the home? Then you may be assessed and told you're eligible for a high-level care package but there's a catch: there isn't one available and there'll only be one available when someone dies and frees it up. These are the people who we should be treating with the utmost respect and dignity, but we humiliate them unnecessarily. That's one of the things that we should be trying to change fundamentally with these reforms. When there's a royal commission which just says 'neglect', underneath that is a lack of respect and a lack of dignity. Those are the sorts of things that we should be absolutely busting a gut to improve. The Home Care Package waiting list is going to continue to be a real stain on this nation because we're letting people be in their homes without the appropriate supports that they need.
The failure to put a nurse on duty 24/7 in a residential facility is also unbelievable—how can people not see how vital that is? It's a core thing to improving the quality of care. And then there's not looking seriously at more generous hours for carers and nurses to spend with residents. COVID has been hard and there are so many lonely people in aged care. I'm locked out at the moment because I've had COVID shots and so I have to wait to get my flu shot, which I will be able to do, but I just have that feeling that I can't even pop in and see my dad and help to alleviate the boredom of his day. It has been hard.
I think we have incredible staff. We need to keep them in the system and we need to upskill them. We need to make them feel proud of what they do because they're not feeling overstretched and overworked—that they can actually have a balance in their life and that maybe they only need to work at one facility because they get paid appropriately. These are the things that Labor wants to fix. I've looked at this government and at the way it has treated aged care for the last eight years and I know that Labor can do better.