Monday, 14 August 2017
Private Members' Business
That this House:
(1) notes that:
(a) the number of older Australians choosing to live in retirement villages is increasing faster than any other age-specific housing option;
(b) the revelations in the recent Four Corners program that appeared to show older Australians being exploited were shocking;
(c) many older Australians are finding it difficult to deal with the complex and confusing contracts offered to them by retirement village management;
(d) the excessive exit fees and practices used by retirement village companies when older Australians decide to leave a retirement village are unacceptable; and
(e) older Australians should not be exploited; and
(2) calls on the Government to:
(a) commit to a national approach for the regulation of retirement living facilities; and
(b) adopt consistency on retirement village contracts, with stronger consumer protections.
I am pleased to move this motion today to support retirees across the country. Clearly, there is an issue in our retirement village communities where people are feeling very unhappy about the treatment they are receiving once they move into retirement villages and, certainly, very unhappy about the contractual arrangements they find themselves in and the penalties that they are paying on leaving a retirement village. This was highlighted by the ABC Four Corners episode on 26 June, which focused on a company called Aveo. That episode clearly demonstrated that this is a national issue and that state-by-state legislation may not be the best way forward in this space to protect our retirees.
I was inspired to raise this motion after hearing the horror story of Christine and David Robinson in my electorate. Their negative retirement community experience is not an isolated one and speaks to a broader issue that demands national attention and action. Christine and David made the decision to move into the Point Cook retirement village at Point Cook, which comes under the umbrella of Retirement Communities Australia, which has two such places in my electorate. They took this decision after David had a quadruple bypass. They were promised a life of leisure and a peaceful retirement. However, when they got there the reality was much bleaker: phones didn't work, toilets were overflowing and the amenities were rarely in service. Their supposed retirement haven became a retirement nightmare. They were so dismayed and uncomfortable that they did what most of us would do in that situation: they tried to leave. That was when their problem became a genuine source of stress and frustration, and, like many across the country, they want something done about this.
From the time they tried to leave the village, it took them 16 months to get out of their contract. When it came to selling their property, they weren't allowed to advertise or go through their own agent. Because this was a new retirement village, the owners directed potential buyers to new units, while Christine and David were left paying maintenance fees. When they did end up selling the home, the aged-care provider took $46,000. The property was allegedly sold for $340,000, and they received $294,000. I've seen the letter they received to convey this information. It lists two separate deductions from the sales price, both listed as 'departure payment', but it in no way explains why those charges had been levied. To this day, the Robinsons have not been able to get a thorough explanation of the two fees.
Just imagine dealing with this nightmare scenario while recovering from major surgery—a quadruple bypass, which, having lived that experience myself with my partner, I know can be a six-month recovery. It was a nightmare for this couple. They came to see me in my office accompanied by someone from the Victorian Consumer Action Law Centre, who have been looking into this space for some time. I acknowledge the work they've been doing in Victoria, their recommendations to a Victorian inquiry and their passion about making sure that we in the federal parliament address this issue and come up with a national solution, because that's what we need. I also spoke to the member for Batman, who has similar issues. Aveo are operating in his electorate, and he has constituents with very similar concerns.
The other concerning thing that Christine shared with me is the number of people whom I know personally who have gone into retirement villages and have subsequently left, finding them not to be the ideal place they thought they were going to be. They are people who, for the most part, have worked very hard on their superannuation balances, and my concern in this space is that there is a bit of a honey pot happening here. People are seeing superannuation funds and are attracting people in through what can sometimes be 100-page contracts. People are getting into these places and are then finding that they are not happy and are having to leave again. The people that I'm talking about are people I would consider to be very bright and very competent. If they are being drawn into this, I pity people who are not so competent.
I welcome this being put on the COAG agenda for 31 August. I would encourage the Minister for Aged Care, Ken Wyatt, the member for Hasluck, to ensure that we get a national solution at that meeting to protect retirees across this country from people seeking to put their hands in retirees' pockets.
Today I rise to speak in relation to stronger consumer protections for older Australians. Firstly, I want to say that, like many other Australians, I was shocked by the allegations revealed in recent media program investigations into some retirement villages. Like many in the House, I have ageing parents and, all going well, I look forward to becoming one myself in the coming decades.
For most of us, care will become a significant consideration in our futures. I'm a family man. My wife and I have six children. She is one of four siblings, and I am one of five. Family has always been the focus and the biggest part of our lives, and the mistreatment of our older Australians is therefore simply abhorrent to all of us. These are people who have led amazing lives and have done their bit for the country through thick and thin. They are the backbone of our communities. They need to feel safe; they need to feel secure. They need our support, and the government is determined to ensure that is there for them.
Moving into a retirement village is not only a lifestyle decision but also a major financial decision, and many can be confused by the complex arrangements that are laid out before them. If things don't work out, high exit fees might leave some without enough money to seek alternative or more suitable accommodation. This can then compound the problem. None of us want to be forced to live where we don't wish.
As our Australian population continues to age, the retirement home industry continues to boom. There are now around 200,000 older Australians living in retirement villages across the country, and their cohort is increasing faster than any other age-specific option. Many of these fall into two categories: older retirees relocating because of declining health and younger retirees concerned about future health needs and seeking a relaxed lifestyle within a village provided with shared amenities. These people are simply looking for a simpler life, one filled with joy and happiness—not a life consumed with financial concerns or fears about their future. The health, safety and wellbeing of older Australians are of paramount importance to the government and, I am sure, to both sides of the House. Any mistreatment of older Australians is simply unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
Following recent reports, the government committed to expediting work across relevant portfolios and with states and territories, of course, who have ultimate responsibility for retirement villages. We are seeking to develop short-, medium- and long-term solutions, but the key imperative, of course, is to deliver better results for the future of our vulnerable, older Australians by developing with states and territories a nationally coordinated approach to ensure the adequacy of regulation, particularly so that we can ensure we don't see any further reports such as those we have seen recently. The government will be considering the recommendations of the parliamentary inquiry into aged care and the Productivity Commission report into caring for older Australians, as it has already been doing in the context of these recently highlighted cases to which I referred.
My colleague, the Minister for Small Business, the Hon. Michael McCormack, will be raising this issue in an upcoming meeting with consumer affairs ministers this month. While retirement villages, as I said, are regulated by state legislation, retirement village contracts are also subject to Australian consumer law, which prohibits unfair contract terms. The minister will be considering the effectiveness of current legislation and enforcement arrangements covering the retirement industry.
As I've said, the welfare of older Australians, particularly those who have sought the protections, the comfort, the safety and the security of retirement villages, must be prioritised and their needs must be protected by federal and state governments alike. Certainly in my electorate of Groom, a very popular retirement capital, if you like, for much of southern Queensland and northern New South Wales, particularly from regional areas, the aged-care industry is a significant industry for our local community. Stories of lack of care or maltreatment of older Australians, as I have said before, is abhorrent to all Australians and particularly, in our case, to those in my city of Toowoomba. This issue must be bipartisan. We must work together for the benefit of all Australians.
I thank the member for Lalor for putting this very important motion before the chamber and I reflect that, like both the member for Lalor and the member for Groom, when the Four Corners program recently aired I also had a lot of locals contacting me very distressed by what were quite shocking and appalling exposes in that particular program. It reflects the fact, I believe, that the community standard is very clearly one that says our older Australians deserve our best protection and respect, that they are entitled to a dignified and quality retirement life. When there are cases where people purposefully and with complete disrespect seek to treat them simply as a cash cow and to take advantage of them—and, as the member for Lalor said, that increasingly is the case, as we see superannuation become a more established form of retirement funding of lifestyle—we need to do something about it. In particular, the issues that were exposed around the nature of these contracts were very concerning. As the member for Lalor and the member for Groom indicated, this is a space where federal governments have an important role to play. Issues such as the very high exit fees, particularly where there is lack of understanding about exactly what those fees are, how they have been accrued and the extraordinary processes that people have to go through in order to exit these retirement villages are of real concern.
I was very moved by the member for Lalor's example of the couple in her electorate. You can just picture or imagine of your own parents, where there has been a major health problem—quadruple bypass heart surgery is a classical example—and then there is all the stress not only of the circumstances but also of having it dragged out over a year because of obstinacy and the difficulty in dealing with these sorts of contracts. It is just completely unacceptable. Any exploitation of this nature of older Australians is an unacceptable situation, and we should be taking action on it.
It is good to see the member for Groom reflect the fact that it should not be an issue of contention in this place. I think we would all see that action on these issues needs to occur. Indeed, Labor is ready to partner with the government to make sure that older Australians can retire with dignity and security not only in their living circumstances—going to some of the issues that are under state control around the regulation of these sorts of villages—but also in their financial arrangements and the issues we can have a say on around contracts and financial matters.
It is a really important to see success at the COAG process and to find some nationally consistent legislations and protections, particularly consumer protections in this space. Sadly, as our society becomes more complex, we are increasingly seeing that there are people who will look for an opportunity to exploit the funding that is available to improve people's lives for their own benefit and profit. I reflect, for example, on the scandals we have had over recent years around the vocational education sector. The government had the right intentions in providing funding to people to better themselves through education, but we saw terrible scandals where people were using that opportunity to exploit people. To me, this is a very similar thing. I've had a number of concerns raised with me locally about people's ageing relatives not only in the area of retirement villages. Trying to organise care for elderly parents has become so complex and difficult around aged-care package allocations. This is one issue I regularly come up against.
We need to make sure we get these systems working effectively for families and for our elderly so that they do have a life not only of dignity and respect and financial security but also of quality, so they can actually enjoy their retirement years and have some real benefit out of what should be a great Australian retirement system.
It's a privilege to have the opportunity to reflect on this motion in this place, particularly because such a high share of Goldstein residents are people who either are at a stage of living in a retirement village or may choose to do so into the future. That's why I think this issue is of broad interest to everybody in the parliament. We're very cognisant of the fact that we have to make sure that people who are entering a vulnerable stage in their life have safety and security at the heart of their living arrangements. It is not just physical safety and security but also financial safety and security so that people can retire with confidence into the future and make sure that they're not in a position where they can be taken advantage of by either companies or other individuals.
Retirement villages play an enormously important part of our retirement system, making sure people can transition to a life in some form of supported care and to an environment where they can use communal facilities—whether it's dining room, emergency or medical facilities—and other support services so that they can enjoy the remainder of their lives in comfort and security. We know that there needs to be proper regulation to make sure that the retirement system is available for everybody to achieve that security. That's why, like with other members, I was particularly shocked at the recent Four Corners investigation which found a number of concerning incidents in retirement villages, including one within the Goldstein electorate.
I need to disclose that I am a shareholder of Aveo and have taken a personal hit, but that is irrelevant to the actual discussion. What we actually need is to make sure that we prioritise the interests of residents first and people such as shareholders, like myself, later. To do so, I've connected and reached out to people who were involved in that program or informing that program. Recently, I met with Gwyneth Jones to hear her firsthand story. We were accompanied by another resident of Aveo Bentleigh Retirement Village, Margaret Leigh, as well as a volunteer advocate for Ms Jones by the name of Mr Alan Kohn. Ms Jones has been a member of the Goldstein community for most of her life and has been a long-term resident of Aveo's facility. She has raised very direct concerns with me about the experiences that she has had. She feels that she has been poorly treated as a consequence of the policies of Aveo.
There are other people who have raised similar particular concerns with me as part of a broader discussion around abuse of the elderly. I am very cognisant of that. That's why, when the Attorney-General, the honourable George Brandis QC, came to the Goldstein electorate recently, we created the opportunity to bring together different advocates as part of an internal forum in the Goldstein office to discuss some of the issues around abuse of the elderly to make sure that all constituents' concerns were heard and had a direct connection back to the most senior levels of government. I'd particularly like to thank Serge Sardo, Graham Westerway, Dominic Horne, Debbie Allum, Melissa Le Mesurier and Sally Costar, who all came from different agencies—including local hospitals, primary healthcare networks and family and community support organisations—to inform that discussion and to connect directly with the Attorney-General about some of the challenges we face with elder abuse. But they're not the only people who have reached out and connected directly with me about some of the concerning stories that they have heard in retirement villages. I recently had a conversation with Bonnie Roberts from Fairway Hostel in Sandringham. Fairway Hostel is an outstanding aged-care support home, but Bonnie, very seriously, raised with me her concerns at the reports she's seen and also reports from her friends about the situation that some people face in retirement care.
That's why this resolution is so important. The heart of the discussion is not just around regulation—and that's very important—and entry and exit fees but human experience and the extent to which people can retire with confidence and security. We know, with an ageing population, this is going to become a more sensitive issue into the future. That is precisely why it's important to take the opportunity from some of the problems that have been raised now to fix the system for everybody. Let's face it, even some of the members who are present today are going to one day need support and assisted care in retirement villages or, eventually, aged care. We have to be mindful of the fact that every Australian is going on this journey through different stages of life. If we want the system that's going to protect every Australian, it requires action by government working collaboratively with the states through COAG processes now. That is what will deliver the best interests of the Australian people and, more particularly, the best interests of the people of Goldstein.
I thank the member for Lalor for moving this motion and for the opportunity to speak on behalf of the 184,000 Australians who currently live in retirement villages, as well as the many thousands more considering such a move. As highlighted by my colleagues, the number of older Australians choosing to live in retirement villages continues to rise, with approximately 5.7 per cent of Australians over 65 currently living in a retirement village. As these numbers increase, it is important that governments consider the legislative framework that governs their operation, to ensure that the rights of residents are protected, that people can retire with dignity and that the retirement industry is free from exploitation.
In my electorate of Werriwa we've seen the development of new retirement villages in the new land releases on the city outskirts, as well as a number of villages throughout the electorate. While a number of these retirement village operators are well respected throughout my community for their work, sadly, a number of constituents have reported to my office that they fear raising issues with the village operators, owing to the mistreatment of other residents who've spoken out. Not only have we heard about complex contract and exorbitant exit fees charged by some operators but we have also heard that, in some retirement villages in my electorate, operators have tried to force residents to choose a service provider for the NBN and their landline phones that is owned by the retirement village operator themselves. Under the New South Wales Retirement Villages Act 1999, the operator of a retirement village must not restrict the right of a resident of a village to purchase goods and services that a person hasn't chosen, let alone restrict a resident to choose a provider owned by the operator.
What makes matters worse is that, because of the excessive exit fees charged by some operators, residents can find themselves unable to afford to leave a village, while being forced to live under terms and conditions of a contract they didn't fully understand because it was designed to be opaque and confusing. As noted by the chief executive of the Consumer Action Law Centre, Gerard Brody, in relation to the Aveo contracts discussed in the Four Corners program, not only are they over 120 pages in length but they are also dense, they are hard to understand and they are legalistic. It's not good enough that residents are asked to sign contracts that deliberately obfuscate fees and charges, which most reasonable people would consider excessive. It is also completely unacceptable that the drive for profit by some parts of this industry has been led by unethical behaviour and the exploitation of thousands of residents who were signed up with providers.
On behalf of all residents in Werriwa living in retirement villages and all those across the country in the same position, I call on the Turnbull government to urgently commit to the development of a national regulatory framework for the retirement village sector, including simplification of contracts and strong consumer protection. While I and my Labor colleagues are pleased that Turnbull government has acted on the member for Maribyrnong's call for an immediate review of retirement living contracts with consumer affair ministers from each state and territory, it is important that that push for reform doesn't end at the COAG meeting scheduled for 31 August.
As highlighted by the practices exposed in the Four Corners program, there's an urgent need for a national regulatory framework for retirement villages to protect the rights of residents and hold unscrupulous operators to account. The Commonwealth must work with all of the states and territories to make this a reality. Consumer protections in the retirement villages will not only protect residents but also ensure that those operators who are doing the right thing by their residents are not forced to compete against ASX-listed corporations who are more concerned with profit margins than the dignity of retiring Australians.
Labor is committed to ensuring that all Australians have choice, control and confidence in the decision they make in retirement. Our communities should be age-friendly places where older Australians are supported to live independently, to contribute to the community and to age with dignity. I look forward to continuing the campaign for stronger consumer protections and proper regulation of this industry, and I once again thank the member for Lalor for moving this motion. I commend the motion to the chamber.
() (): When you get to my age, you've not only lived aged care but you've administered aged care and you've been around aged care all of your life. I had the great pleasure for nearly 20 years of my life of being in my own show band called the Trutones, with Len McGill, Johnny Cosgrove, Mick Cook, Lloyd Poole, Frank Bunt and a few others. This week, Glen Campbell was taken by Alzheimer's. My dad succumbed to the same thing. I was thinking about Tony Wright's beautiful article in The Age on the weekend. The band was together last week for their 50-year anniversary. One song came to mind that we used every night. It was based around Glen Campbell's Gentle On My Mind. He didn't write it but he made it a hit. To me, it was a love song, not only to the boys in the band but to our families who were around us, protected us and looked after us. You have to remember that this band worked four nights a week for nearly 20 years. The lyrics to the song Gentle On My Mindsay:
It's knowin' that your door is always open
And your path is free to walk
That makes me tend to leave my sleepin' bag
Rolled up and stashed behind your couch
And it's knowin' I'm not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that have dried upon some line
That keeps you in the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
That keeps you ever gentle on my mind
The second verse, where there was a key change, is:
It's not clingin' to the rocks and ivy
Planted on their columns now that bind me
Or something that somebody said because
They thought we fit together walkin'
It's just knowing that the world
Will not be cursing or forgiving
When I walk along some railroad track and find
That you're movin' on the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
And for hours you're just gentle on my mind
It steps up again and continues:
Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines
And the junkyards and the highways come between us
And some other woman's cryin' to her mother
'Cause she turned and I was gone
Then there are these amazing lines:
I still might run in silence
Tears of joy might stain my face
And the summer sun might burn me till I'm blind
But not to where I cannot see
You walkin' on the back roads
By the rivers flowin' gentle on my mind
The last verse, with the last key change, says:
I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin' cracklin' cauldron
In some train yard
My beard a rustlin' coal pile
And a dirty hat pulled low across my face
Through cupped hands 'round a tin can
I pretend to hold you to my breast and find
That you're waitin' from the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
Ever smilin', ever gentle on my mind
Today we have a shared concern about aged care and moving from working life into retirement villages. There are the pitfalls that the member for Cunningham laid out so gracefully, previous to my address. We have a care that is built around not worry for our future but the full knowledge that we have an ageing population and there are different opportunities for their care. We, as a parliament and as a government, need to actually implement legislation that protects people's vulnerability in their cases.
As I said, when you get to my age, you have lived aged care. I will tell you the experience of my parents. Mum decided she would never, ever go into care, and didn't. Careful what comes out of your mouth! For my in-laws, can I say that every day in aged care was perfect or the situations they found themselves in were perfect? No, they weren't perfect, but they were very good. Basically, across Australia we don't have crooks in the system. We have good people in the system giving very good care. But a few are out of order. I understand that.
This week we lost Glen Campbell. He played such a big part in the song Gentle On My Mind. There are the songs of Frank Sinatra and The Beach Boys. Glen Campbell was involved in all of those songs—the songs of the lives of those going into old age and aged care.
The ABC's Four Corners show recently aired a much-publicised expose that revealed just how rife exploitation has become in Australia's aged-care sector. The reports were quite shocking, to say the least. They raised stories of retirement village organisations systematically exploiting vulnerable Australian seniors, employing complex and confusing contracts, and inflicting excessive exit fees upon those who tried to leave. The people who have been targeted helped build our nation. They are our parents and our grandparents. They supported us as we grew up and now, when they need support the most, this ABC report showed they were exploited.
As their parliamentary representatives, we must protect our parents, our grandparents and our seniors. We must develop the legislation that provides them with the necessary protections against this shocking exploitation. Any good government would have seen these reports and fast-tracked considered legislation through the parliament to protect these vulnerable Australians. Any good government would have done this right away. It worries me that the government are wasting their time throwing taxpayer money to big business instead. They are throwing taxpayer money at Rupert Murdoch's Foxtel and taxpayer money at a glorified opinion poll. A lot has been said in the last week or so about the strength of the current Prime Minister. He's held this position for over a year now. What we've seen is cuts to public services. That is what we have seen from a Prime Minister who is trying to tell us that he is strong.
Australian seniors need someone who will stand up for them and who will pass legislation to protect them from callous exploitation—legislation like a national approach for the regulation of retirement village facilities, with stronger consumer protections and consistency of contracts. In lieu of this much-needed national framework, fortunately, for us in Queensland and Queensland seniors, the state Palaszczuk government has stood up where the federal LNP government have not. In recognising the urgency of this issue, Premier Palaszczuk and her housing minister, Mick de Brenni, have fast developed considered and sensible legislation to protect the state's elderly.
Anyone would be confused by the deliberately complex contracts that must be signed upon entering a retirement village. Some of the contracts were 400-pages thick. Queensland Labor's legislation enforces simplified, standard contracts, with a minimum three-week evaluation before signing. To prevent exorbitant fees that will disallow residents the freedom to move from village to village—fees so high that they may actually cost a resident their entire life savings—the Queensland Labor government have legislated for fairer exit fees that must be reasonably declared up-front. To ensure the safety and security of these elderly residents, enforceable behaviour standards will be legislated for village operators.
Queensland Labor are taking huge steps forward in this space. When they recognise a problem, they urgently deliver the legislation that is needed to move our state forward. They are making life easier for Australian seniors. I can't say the same for our federal government, who we have heard quite a lot of times have made life harder for our seniors. There have been things like slashing the energy supplement, leaving pensioners $365 a year worse off. They should be assisting seniors and bringing back measures that help our seniors, people who have given so much in building our nation. Australia really needs a government who will fight for our society's most vulnerable. I call on this Australian government to commit to a national approach to this issue and protect our seniors.
I begin by thanking the member for Lalor for putting forward this motion on retirement villages. In June, Australia was shocked by revelations on the Four Corners program concerning the mistreatment of residents in retirement villages. The retirement village that particularly featured in that program, Veronica Gardens, is located in my electorate of Batman. The mistreatment of residents there has been deeply upsetting to them and has appalled the broader community, and we cannot let this continue.
One of the most horrifying cases is that of Gwyneth Jones, who was forcibly admitted to psychiatric care after repeated run-ins with management at Veronica Gardens. Freedom of information documents show a plan to have her evicted that pre-dates her admission to the hospital. It was only with the assistance of disability advocates that she was able to stop the eviction and receive an apology from the company. It is utterly unacceptable that Gwyneth has had to put her physical and mental wellbeing at stake in pursuing fair treatment from the management body of her own retirement village.
Immediately following the Four Corners program, I had a meeting with residents at Veronica Gardens, and I thanked the residents there for speaking with me honestly and openly about the misconduct and mistreatment they had endured at the hands of Aveo. Residents also voiced their concerns over issues such as complex and confusing contracts, excessive exit fees and the practice of churning residents.
With a growing older demographic, in particular those who are not home owners, low-income households and older residents with high-care needs, housing stock is not keeping up with demand. The current retirement village industry and regulations are not flexible enough to meet the changing needs of our ageing population, who are often moving into these places with the expectation of their social and physical needs being met. Sadly, that is often not the case. It is imperative to have a national approach to regulate the retirement village industry, especially with respect to contract agreements.
It has long been the Labor Party's passion to stand up for the marginalised. Residents in retirement villages like Veronica Gardens deserve our attention and support. As older Australians, they have made great contributions to their society. They deserve to spend their golden years with security and dignity and in quality care. They should not be left stranded in situations like this, where predatory practices are constantly looming over their place of residence and their secure retirement.
As consumers, their rights should be recognised and protected. I join my colleagues in calling on the government to immediately adopt a national approach, making nationally consistent retirement village legislation with stronger consumer protections a national priority. I was delighted on Thursday of last week to meet with the Minister for Aged Care, Ken Wyatt, to discuss how I can work with him to make sure that these priorities are achieved. I am calling on the government to review retirement living contracts, in particular to pursue four objectives: firstly, to support nationally consistent retirement village legislation in contracts, including body corporate and management service contracts; secondly, to ensure transparent easy-to-read contracts; thirdly, for there to be an industry code of conduct; and, fourthly, for there to be efficient, cost-efficient and effective dispute resolution processes, such as an ombudsman, so that people living in these residences can make complaints and receive the treatment they deserve.
It's also important for the retirement living sector to have certainty and consistency in its regulatory environment, so that it can support the choices of older Australians while maintaining its own reputation as a decent and law-abiding industry working in the interests of their consumers and our citizens—older Australians. It's time to act.