Senate debates

Tuesday, 25 June 2013


Great Southern Region of Western Australia

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will start by reflecting on how privileged I have felt over the last fortnight to have listened to Senator Crossin's contributions. When I first came to the Senate 13 months ago, Senator Crossin made some very generous remarks with regard to my predecessor, Senator Judith Adams, and it has been very refreshing to hear her contributions as she approaches the end of her term as a senator for the Northern Territory.

As this will be my final contribution to a Senate adjournment debate ahead of the election on 14 September, I want to take this opportunity to highlight some of the issues that are currently facing the Great Southern region, centred on Albany, where I maintain my regional office. It should not come as news to any senator in this place that living in regional areas brings with it a particular set of challenges. Yes, of course, there are many benefits, and I have spoken of those in this place and elsewhere previously. Indeed, since coming to the Senate just over a year ago, I have continued to be amazed and inspired by the activities of small communities right across the Great Southern, as well as by some of the things that are happening in its larger centres, including Albany. But these communities are also facing significant challenges, and I would be failing in my responsibilities as a representative for the people across the Great Southern if I did not draw some of these to the attention of the Senate this evening.

Western Australia being what it is in geographic size, I think it is sometimes difficult for those from other places to develop an understanding of the challenges and costs of living in regional WA for local families and businesses. But the first area I want to focus on particularly tonight is aged care.

When it comes to discussing the failures of the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments, there is no shortage of material, and much of the media's attention has been on the big headlined issues such as the carbon tax and the government's inability to stop the boats. However, when the book finally closes on this government—and, mercifully, that day is drawing closer and closer—I believe Labor's record in aged care will stand out as one of its more serious policy failings. This is a critically important issue. I have mentioned before in this place the words of the American writer Pearl Buck, who once observed:

Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.

If we apply that test to this government's record, I fear that, unfortunately, the results are not encouraging, particularly for regional communities and most particularly for those across the Great Southern.

In April of last year, which was just prior to my entering the Senate, the Gillard government unveiled its aged-care reforms. I am not going to go to the specifics of the legislation—there will be other forums for that—but I do want to place on record the concerns I have with this Labor government's more general approach to aged care, and in particular the impact that that approach continues to have on Western Australia's Great Southern region.

In April of this year, the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee had hearings right across Australia regarding the impact of the government's proposed reforms on the aged-care sector. As part of those hearings, the committee spent a day in Western Australia, and I was pleased that a number of aged-care operators from Albany and across the Great Southern region were able to accept my invitation to appear before the committee and share their experiences and concerns firsthand.

It was evident from those hearings that those aged-care operators in regional Western Australia, who are trying to do their best with limited resources, are having their efforts frustrated by a Labor government that is pursuing an industrial process that is being dressed up as minor administrative change. As a result, the impact on older Australians, particularly in regional Western Australia, is going to be anything but minor.

Labor's failure to consult with the aged-care sector, particularly the aged-care sector in Western Australia, over these reforms has been breathtaking. What is the point in undertaking significant reform, as this government is doing, without bothering to take into account the views of those who will be most directly affected? The whole point of what the government said it wanted to achieve was to have a collaborative agreement with providers, not a confrontation. Yet this government has failed to consult or generate goodwill with providers—another symptom of a chaotic, divided and dysfunctional government which has no plans for Australia's future, just a plan for its own day-to-day political survival.

As I mentioned, several aged-care operators from across the Great Southern region made a contribution to the inquiry, and I thank them for doing so. However, I want to pay particular attention to the contribution of Julie Christensen, the CEO of Narrogin Cottage Homes in Narrogin, a small community just under 200 kilometres south-east of Perth. Julie is one of the most tireless, committed, feisty advocates that the community aged-care sector in Western Australia has. Like many of those working in aged care around Australia, she has no time for the intricacies of the political game that seems to occupy the attention of this government. She wants instead to deliver results and an appropriate standard of care for those living at her aged-care home.

Julie was very frank in her comments to the inquiry about the challenges she and many of those like her in regional Western Australia are currently facing. Narrogin Cottage Homes is currently running at a loss, although Julie is hopeful that she will be able to balance the books next year. However, her task will not be made any easier by what the Gillard Labor government is trying to do by foisting its workforce supplement on aged-care providers.

Despite its user-friendly-sounding name, the supplement is not new money. It is not additional funding to cover the cost of the prescribed wage increases in residential care facilities. It comes from quarantining a percentage of future care subsidies and introduces even more red tape and complexity into the aged-care sector whilst diverting money away from residential care. In other words, money that should be going directly to better facilities and better care for residents in aged-care facilities is instead being used in an industrial process to cover wage increases. Worse still, in order to access the supplement, aged-care facilities will be expected to meet an eligibility checklist. One of the items on that checklist is a substantial investment from the facility itself of 70 to 80 per cent of the whole wage increase.

Julie's submission to the Senate inquiry eloquently expressed what has been the near-unanimous view of providers across the Great Southern region:

The general assumption that a reduction in direct care funding can be made to support wage increases is abhorrent to any industry provider and to the staff.

Narrogin Cottage Homes cannot support a proposal that seeks to leave our facility exposed to unfunded workforce wages that will impact directly on the most vulnerable in our community. This will only compound the WA issues of access to a skilled workforce.

So, if the government gets its way, you will see the perverse situation in regional Western Australia where aged-care facilities have to make substantial investments to meet eligibility criteria. One rural WA provider estimated that to gain $17,000 would cost them $30,000. Such are the nonsensical policy approaches of this Gillard Labor government.

The point here is that many of these regional aged-care facilities are already struggling. To put it bluntly, they do not have the capacity to make those sorts of investments. Ongoing viability is a real issue for many aged-care facilities across the Great Southern. Why any government would seek to add to operating costs at a time like this is beyond me, as it is beyond my coalition colleagues' understanding. We are talking about small communities in regional areas. People living in these regions are not necessarily spoilt for choice when it comes to aged-care options, particularly if they wish to remain living locally. And for many, that is an important consideration. If someone has lived in a particular regional community all their life, it would be a frightening prospect to pack up and be moved many hundreds of kilometres away to a metropolitan aged-care facility.

The small towns and regional centres that make up Western Australia's Great Southern region are proud local communities. They need to have confidence that they will be able to offer decent aged-care services to elderly members of the community no longer able to look after themselves. Confidence, however, is not something that aged-care operators, and indeed the wider local community, are getting from the Gillard Labor government, which is far more interested in its own internal wrangling than in providing assurances to older Australians.

I am very pleased that the shadow minister for aged care, my colleague Senator Fierravanti-Wells, has accepted my invitation to visit the Great Southern in mid-July. I know that many of the local aged-care operators who have contacted me to express their concerns about Labor's approach are looking forward to meeting with her and learning about the genuinely collaborative approach the coalition will take should we be fortunate enough to win government on 14 September.

Indeed, while I am on the subject of my coalition colleagues, it would be remiss of me not to mention the terrific support that our hardworking Liberal candidate for O'Connor, Rick Wilson, has had from members of the shadow ministry, many of whom have travelled to the Great Southern—and to other parts of O'Connor—to meet with local residents, community groups and businesses to talk about the issues and challenges confronting them. Time will not permit me to make mention of all of them this evening, but to date Rick Wilson and I have accompanied 12 shadow ministers to various parts of the Great Southern region in the one year that I have been in this place. That is a powerful indication of the ability of Rick Wilson to bring issues to the attention of senior coalition figures. It shows he is a passionate and effective advocate for local communities who is able to get policy and decision makers on the ground to see the situation firsthand.

If, as I hope, the people of O'Connor choose Rick Wilson to be their federal representative on 14 September, they can be confident that they will have a local MP who has the ear of ministers in an Abbott-led coalition government and is able to bring them right into local communities so that local people can put their views directly. As I said, time does not permit me to make mention of all the shadow ministers Rick has hosted, but I did particularly want to make mention of Senator Ronaldson, the shadow minister for veterans' affairs and the centenary of ANZAC.

Senator Ronaldson has made two visits to the Great Southern already and, all going well, will soon be making a third. Indeed, I hope there will be many more to follow in his capacity as a minister in the next government! The reason for that is the central role that Albany will play in the commemoration of the centenary of ANZAC. As many Australians will be aware, Albany was the point of departure for the first and second convoys to Gallipoli. Some 30,000 men sailed through the waters of King George Sound at the start of their long voyage. For thousands of them, the view of Albany's coastline as it receded into the horizon would be their last-ever glimpse of home.

Less well known by many is that Albany was also the location of some of the earliest services commemorating the events at Gallipoli. Padre Arthur Ernest White served with the AIF and on his return to Australia in 1918 it is believed he held a private requiem mass for the locally-known battle dead at Albany's St John's Church. In 1931, White led a small procession up Mount Clarence early in the morning of Anzac Day. It is said that, as a boatman on the waters of King George Sound tossed a memorial wreath into the sea, White recited the key line from Laurence Binyon's For theFallen: 'As the sun riseth and goeth down, we will remember them.' While there is some dispute about whether this constitutes 'the first' dawn service, it is clear that what took place in Albany so many decades ago was sufficiently moving and enduring as to help establish a commemorative tradition that is now observed not only right across Australia but in many other parts of the world.

Given that history, it is entirely fitting that it is in Albany where the national commemorations of the Centenary of ANZAC will commence at the beginning of November next year. This will not only be an important occasion for the local community in Albany, although it will be by far the biggest event Albany has staged; it will also be an important national commemoration. The focus of the nation and other parts of the world will be on Albany—providing a region that, frankly, has not done as well economically as other parts of the state with the opportunity to showcase itself.

It goes without saying that the commemorative events in Albany next year need to go well, because they will act as a springboard for attracting domestic and international tourism to Albany, and to the wider Great Southern region. What is concerning to me is that many people in the local community, including tourism operators, are fielding calls from potential visitors asking about what is happening with the commemorations—and there are no firm answers yet. The Gillard Labor government has failed to take the lead in the planning for these commemorations. Yes, the government has provided welcome funding for the Anzac interpretive centre, something that is to be welcomed, and I applaud it, but these things do not happen just by throwing money around. They require planning, they require discussion and they require cooperation. That is what has been absent here—and it is a failure on the part of this government to take the responsibility for ensuring these matters are being well coordinated that is causing the nervousness amongst the local community in Albany about what might unfold next year. I am confident that these things can quickly be put back on track, particularly if there is a change of government this September, given the strong personal interest Senator Ronaldson has taken in ensuring Albany's ANZAC commemorations are on a scale that befits the historical significance of the occasion.

While I do not seek to politicise what will be a major national occasion, I would make the point that what has happened—the lack of hands-on involvement from the Federal government—is emblematic of a larger issue that has been at play across the Great Southern region since 2010. As senators will be aware, in 2010 Mr Tony Crook was elected as the member for O'Connor, representing the WA Nationals. As was his prerogative, Mr Crook chose not to join the coalition but to sit initially on the crossbench with other Independents, most of whom are the people responsible for keeping the Gillard Labor government in office. He later joined the Nationals, but he remains outside the coalition party room.

The member for O'Connor has chosen to retire at this election, so the people of O'Connor will not have the opportunity to pass judgement directly on the wisdom of his approach and the decisions he took. It is certainly not my intention to offer lengthy commentary on his performance. To my mind, however, these last three years have been ones of lost opportunity for the O'Connor electorate and for the people of the Great Southern region. If you look at those things the member for O'Connor said were his priorities—GST distribution and the introduction of a federal royalties for regions scheme—it is fair to say that his approach of 'independence' has not paid dividends. It is possible, as the Senate has shown this week, to stand up for your community and for the principles you hold dear while also serving as a member of a political party. Furthermore, working as part of a larger team offers members of parliament the chance to take problems directly to the policy makers—and, if need be, take policy makers directly to the site of problems.

As I mentioned earlier in my contribution, our Liberal candidate Rick Wilson has certainly been able to do this in the last year that I have been working closely with him. I look forward to continuing to work closely with Rick and with my coalition colleagues in the lead-up to 14 September, and to having Rick Wilson join us in Canberra as the member for O'Connor when the parliament meets after the next election. I am confident that, with Rick Wilson as their representative and with a change of government, the people of O'Connor can look forward to a period of renewed energy, interest and commitment to their local community from Canberra.