Senate debates

Monday, 24 November 2014


Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014, Health and Other Services (Compensation) Care Charges (Amendment) Bill 2014; Second Reading

10:07 am

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

Today I rise to speak on the Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014, to which I will seek to make an amendment, and the Health and Other Services (Compensation) Care Charges (Amendment) Bill 2014. I am waiting for the amendment to be circulated.

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Is it a second reading amendment?

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a second reading amendment. I move the opposition's second reading amendment:

At the end of the motion, add:

  but the Senate notes that the Government has failed to:

(a) provide alternative assistance in meeting the demands of the aged care workforce;

(b) ensure repurposed funds be utilised for workforce pay, conditions and development;

(c) consult with or inform the aged care sector of:

  (i) Budget cuts including the axing of the $653 million Aged Care Payroll Tax Supplement; and

  (ii) the axing of the Dementia and Severe Behaviours Supplement until after the 2014 Budget; and

(e) oversee the management of aged care funding as evidenced by the over-subscription of the Dementia and Severe Behaviours Supplement and under-subscription of the Dementia and Cognition and Veterans' Supplements.

Labor will not be opposing the common sense amendments contained in the Health and Other Services (Compensation) Care Charges (Amendment) Bill 2014. We are entirely supportive of the measures which will remove impediments to recovering past care costs for home care. This adjustment simply brings home care into line with arrangements that have dictated residential care. It is a sensible change that Labor will of course not be standing in the way of.

We will also not be opposing the amendments to the Health Care Identifiers Act, which supports the implementation of stage 2 of the aged-care gateway. This stage is vital. It provides a centralised online information portal called My Aged Care. It is just another reform that resulted from Labor's Living Longer, Living Better reforms. The My Aged Care website is an integral component of the gateway and will change the way Australians access the aged-care system. This amendment will allow for the collection, use and disclosure of data for the purposes of this site and I would encourage everyone to use these services and learn about what is available, both for themselves and their loved ones. The My Aged Care website is up and running and, from next year, will be expanded to include a host of self-service functions for older Australians and service providers. The information about aged-care service availability promises to be a tremendous asset to the sector. It is just another example of how Labor's Living Longer, Living Better reforms were such a game changer for aged care in Australia. Labor was responsible for introducing a comprehensive reform package which ensures that our aged-care system is equipped for the 21st century, a century that will feature the ageing of the baby boomer generation.

Living Longer, Living Better did not just create a fairer and more equitable aged-care system; it created a more sustainable one that will be there for all of us when we reach the latter stages of our lives. I am supportive of our move towards consumer directed care because I think that everyone should be able to choose the care and support options that suit them. My Gateway is a key component of this.

I would like to, once again, congratulate the hard work undertaken by the member for Port Adelaide, Mark Butler, and Senator Collins, who both served as Minister for Mental Health and Ageing during Labor's period in office. We did the heavy lifting when it came to aged-care policy.

The most controversial aspect of the Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment Bill is that it amends the Aged Care Act to reflect the scrapping of Labor's workforce supplement, a supplement which Labor introduced as part of the Living Longer, Living Better package. It was our objective to dedicate a total of $1.2 billion to improving the pay and conditions of aged-care staff—staff who work tirelessly every day, often in trying circumstances, to care for older Australians who can no longer care for themselves. In this year's budget the axing of this supplement was badged as a 'reprioritisation'. That effectively means that money was handed to providers in the general pool of aged-care funds.

Those opposite will no doubt contend that their scrapping of the workforce supplement was a clear pre-election commitment. Although this is accurate, what they will not tell you is that they have not come up with any alternatives or solutions to address the aged-care workforce crisis that this country faces. When it comes to boosting staff levels, attracting new workers to the sector and improving the conditions of those staff members charged with such immense responsibilities, there is nothing on offer.

We now have a policy-free zone. During Senate estimates in June this year I asked Assistant Minister for Social Services, Senator Fifield, to spell out how his government would address these challenges. As I advised this chamber shortly after, his response was glib and uninspiring. He said, and I quote directly:

The main workforce pressure facing the workforce is bodies, and creating many, many more.

That was it. Let us give the minister a slow clap, maybe a 'Good effort' sticker or something similar. That was his answer as to how the government would solve the pressures faced by a sector under enormous burden to provide care and support for older Australians.

I think it is important that we pause and consider just how serious the situation is. Half of the aged-care workforce will retire in the next 10 years from this sector, a sector which, I would like to remind those opposite, has a high turnover of staff resulting, at least in part, from low pay and trying conditions. It may shock many people to learn that nurses working in aged care are paid far less than those nurses working in hospitals.

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation has actually reported that there is a difference of $210 per week nationally. I remind you that these are the nurses who are responsible for caring for some of the nation's most vulnerable people. They are older Australians who require extra help and support, including people with severe symptoms of dementia and who are at risk of harming themselves and those around them. We simply cannot put these people, who rely on aged-care workers, in the too-hard basket.

Shayne Neumann and I took the opportunity to meet with aged-care workers across the nation. Indeed, I have been fortunate enough to visit residential facilities in my home state of Tasmania in Launceston, Hobart and Smithton and have travelled to Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide to meet with residents and staff and to learn from their experiences. I have been thoroughly impressed by their dedication, hard work and compassion and I shake my head in wonderment at how they perform so much exhausting work without complaint. I think it goes without saying that they do not enter this line of work to be handsomely remunerated. But that certainly does not mean that they do not deserve a welcome boost in pay and conditions. They are currently being penalised and we on this side of the chamber think they deserve better.

The workforce as a whole is under tremendous pressure and this pressure will only grow as the nation's population ages. Aged care will become more and more complex as those in the sector deal with an ageing population suffering from dementia and age-related chronic diseases.

As the shadow minister for ageing noted in his remarks on this bill, 'Australia will need a 300 per cent increase in workers to care for our ageing population by the middle of this century.' So we clearly need a plan, we need leadership and we need direction, but those opposite have been completely derelict in their duty. Just 18 days after assuming power, the Abbott government axed the workforce supplement sneakily by legislative instrument. When we tried to disallow this instrument late last year, they actually suspended standing orders to push through an allowance motion. This motion, in effect, prevented any payments of the workforce supplement. What is even more galling is that they gagged debate so that no-one could speak about aged-care workforce pressures in their home states and territories—and, just like that, some $1.1 billion was taken away from the aged-care workers. These are workers who hoped that Labor would deliver them some relief. I want to be clear: the Abbott government has acted with unmitigated malice in overturning the workforce supplement, which would have given 350,000 aged-care workers much-needed enhancements to their pay and conditions.

The government will also be quick to mention that this 'reprioritisation' did result in the remaining workforce supplement funds—a total of $1.1 billion—being handed to providers. Whilst it is the case that the supplement funds were diverted back to providers to spend at their discretion, in practice what this means is that many aged-care workers will see no improvements in their pay or conditions. There are two reasons for this. First of all, the reprioritised workforce supplement was handed back to providers in the form of a topped-up subsidy. However—and this is crucial—there was no conditionality tied to these funds. There was no expectation or requirement that any percentage of these funds would be used to improve wages, conditions or career development. As the member for Blair said during his speech on this bill:

… with no conditionality there is nothing to ensure that that money is available and will go towards the challenge of making sure the lowest paid workers in the country get the necessary wages and conditions they deserve.

Second of all, this budget measure—the 'reprioritisation' of the workforce supplement—was accompanied by a host of other cruel cuts which this sector has had to endure. The axing of the aged-care payroll tax supplement meant that for-profit providers, many of whom already exist on slim profit margins, have had to recalculate how they would run their businesses. The axing of this supplement, valued at $653 million over four years, may yet send many providers, particularly those in remote and regional areas, to the wall. But there was more. Joe Hockey also made changes to the indexation of pensions. This affects the bottom line of providers since they calculate their fees according to a percentage of this very pension.

The budget was not just a cruel one for senior Australians; it impacted on the entire aged-care sector. The cuts were never raised with the sector or aged-care bodies prior to the election or, indeed, in the lead-up to the budget. Rather, the Abbott government shocked many with these changes, even though it promised to be a no-excuses, no-surprises government. Therefore, when you actually examine the situation in its entirety, there is little prospect of providers using the 'reprioritised' funds to boost the pay and conditions of staff when they have had to make up for other cuts imposed by this year's budget.

But, of course, there was more to come post-budget—another nasty surprise from team Abbott. I have spoken on numerous occasions in this chamber about the axing of the dementia and severe behaviours supplement, a supplement designed by Labor that provided an extra $16 dollars a day to providers caring for people with severe psychological and behavioural problems associated with dementia. The sector was absolutely stunned when, on 26 June this year, Senator Fifield stood up in question time and announced that the supplement would be scrapped—just like that. Aged-care providers and representative bodies had been kept completely in the dark and then the rug was pulled out from under them. It really is a sad state of affairs. Documents we have obtained under freedom of information reveal just how inattentive the minister was in monitoring this supplement, which had only been operating for one month prior to the coalition taking power. We now know that no-one was monitoring the supplement until it was too late. In fact, it was a question on notice that I put to the department that in part sparked any sort of action.

Do not let the government tell you otherwise; this was a supplement that needed careful attention from a competent administration. Unfortunately, that was not what happened because the minister was asleep at the wheel. It had been estimated that the supplement would apply to approximately one per cent of all residents—in other words, a very small percentage of residents who exhibit severe psychological and behavioural problems associated with dementia, roughly 2,000 nationwide. But the number of people who qualified under the supplement had actually ballooned under the government's watch to some 22,000.

When the information obtained via freedom of information is analysed carefully, it becomes clear that some important questions need to be asked. One that I am intent to get to the bottom of is this: would the situation have been different if the minister and his office were properly prepared to manage aged-care administration? As the member for Blair said in that other place:

They have an assistant minister whose major responsibility is the NDIS. They have an assistant minister who did not even have an departmental aged-care adviser in his office until March this year. Seven months after the election he finally gets an adviser in his office, and the government finally realises, after we ask questions, that there is a problem.

Would the management and monitoring of this supplement have gone differently if the office was structured properly to handle such responsibilities in the first place? I guess we will never know, but, once again, this entire issue has reinforced why it is so important to have a minister focused on aged-care responsibilities and an office set up to accommodate this. But that is not what we have; we have a minister with his mind elsewhere who is shrugging his shoulders and unable or unwilling to act.

I would like to echo the sentiments expressed by the member for Blair: when it comes to the dementia supplement, the government did not realise there were issues with this implementation because of its own incompetence and inattention to monitoring. What is worse is that, even when it was clear that there were problems, the minister panicked and ripped away the supplement without warning and without any sort of replacement scheme ready. That was 150 days ago and we are still waiting.

In a minute of 4 February 2014, the department said it would write to the peak bodies and consult with the sector—but this did not happen. There was no real consultation; the supplement was axed without warning. In fact, not one peak body or major provider can recall receiving any correspondence or speaking with the assistant minister, his office or the department about the dementia supplement. I am informed that they learnt about this issue at the same time the rest of us did: at Senate estimates on 5 June 2014, when the assistant minister made his statement before the committee.

Even if we were to excuse this lack of consultation—which, of course, we should not—you would think that the minister would have had a plan B in place. But he did not. The supplement was scrapped on 26 June and we still do not have a replacement scheme in place. The department actually recommended that the minister fund interim projects while a new payment was being developed, and these could be pursued with the aged-care sector committee. In May, the minister wrote to the secretary of the department confirming he had agreed to terminate the supplement and agreed to develop both 'an interim and an ongoing measure'. But what happened? Aged-care providers caring for vulnerable people with severe symptoms of dementia are still waiting. Those people suffering from this insidious disease in the most traumatic way are still waiting. Indeed, the entire sector is still waiting. They want leadership, they want answers and they want proper support to care for people who can no longer care for themselves. By Sunday it will be 150 days since the supplement was axed without warning. That is 150 days of neglect and 150 days of uncertainty for people with severe psychological and behavioural problems associated with dementia and those who care for them—150 days that demonstrate just how incompetent and inattentive this government has been.

What can the people of Australia think when a minister axes this supplement without any plans, without any vision and without any ideas about how the government will address the need for extra funding of staff and extra programs to help deal with those people with severe behavioural problems associated with dementia? Do you know what they are saying to me? They are saying that the minister has gone to sleep at the wheel. This is a minister who is not interested in the aged-care sector. This is a minister who failed to even go to Tasmania on Friday to open a new facility after the invitations were sent out. So the people of Tasmania are saying, 'This minister certainly does not care about aged care.'

We on this side are asking for the government to prioritise aged-care funding in this country. Shayne Neumann from the other place and I believe that there ought to be a minister for ageing, a minister who is focused on this enormous, confronting issue of the ageing population. But we have also heard time and time again from the aged care sector that they want a minister. They want a government who is going to give the priority to aged care that it deserves. We all know—and I have spoken about it today—about the challenges for the aged care sector in finding competent, good, caring staff. What has this government done? It has done nothing but take away the supplement that was going to remunerate those staff so that they would at least be given extra reinforcement, not only in terms of money but in knowing that this government cared about the very important job they are doing within the sector. But we have heard nothing. I do not know how many times I have come into this chamber and challenged the assistant minister for ageing to come in and explain to us what his government is going to do.

I am very happy with and very proud of what Labor did when we were in office. Living Longer, Living Better set the framework for aged care and for ageing Australians going into the next decade. But we cannot sit back and just allow this government to ride the coat-tails of the former Labor government. I am passionate, as Shayne Neumann is, about aged care. I have yet to see any display of that whatsoever from this government. We need to build on Living Longer, Living Better. There are enormous challenges there and I call on the minister who is here in the chamber to enter this debate today, to put on the public record what he is going to do. What programs and what assistance is there going to be for those people suffering with dementia or severe psychological and behavioural issues? What is his government going to be doing to ensure going forward that we have the people available to work in this sector, to look after some of Australia's most vulnerable people?

I recently visited an aged-care facility that deals with people who have been living on the streets, who have been homeless. They are confronted daily with issues around dementia and severe behaviour problems. Those people, just like all other Australians, deserve a better outcome from this government. They deserve compassion. They deserve the best qualified staff supporting them. The people working in this sector deserve the opportunity to have a real career path. If you are working in an acute-care hospital as a nurse, you should have the opportunity to go and work in aged care and get paid the same amount of money. Since when do we as Australians consider ageing and older Australians less valuable than the rest of the community? I say that we on this side do not. I call on the minister to enter the debate and answer some of these questions that have been outstanding and to resolve the issue about dementia funding.

10:27 am

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to contribute to the debate on this legislation, the Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 and the Health and Other Services (Compensation) Care Charges (Amendment) Bill 2014. This package of legislation introduces several amendments to aged care and health related legislation as part of the recent reforms to the aged-care system in Australia. I should say that some of it unpicks some of the recent reforms to the aged-care system in Australia.

Together, these bills enact the government's 2014 budget measure to 'reprioritise' the aged care workforce supplement, amend the Healthcare Identifiers Act 2010 to support the implementation of the My Aged Care Gateway, make minor clarifying and technical amendments arising from recent changes to aged care, and amend the Health and Other Services (Compensation) Act 1995 to overcome current impediments to the recovery of past home care costs for care recipients who receive a compensation payment.

Most of these points the Greens support and do not have a problem with. They are quite sensible amendments. It is unfortunate that they have been lumped in with the government's so-called reprioritisation of the aged care workforce supplement. This is one of the budget measures that the government have unfortunately combined with these other measures and something they said they would change when they come into government. Unfortunately, it is one of those promises that they are keeping, unlike the promise not to cut the ABC or SBS or myriad other promises that they have failed to keep. I wish they had failed to keep this one.

The Greens, unfortunately, cannot support this package of legislation, because the government are changing the aged care workforce supplement. It was a part of the Living Longer, Living Better package and we believe it was a key part of that package in that it addressed the historically poor wages for those working in aged care. Unfortunately, while we would like to support this package of legislation we cannot because of that particular measure.

The Australian Greens participated extensively in the debate and the negotiations on the Living Longer, Living Better aged care reform package that was passed under the previous government. We secured a number of important amendments to the aged-care package. The aged care workforce supplement is a component of the aged care reform package, as I said earlier, and provides a mechanism to improve the wages of aged-care workers. Under the Living Longer, Living Better package there were changes to the workforce supplement because some of the aged-care providers expressed concern about some of the mechanisms. So some changes were negotiated, which I know some of the unions and aged-care workers were not particularly happy with. In fact, some amendments eased some of the requirements, but we believe it met some concerns of the providers.

It is extremely disappointing that a government that says it cares about older Australians—and I will come to that point in more detail shortly—sees fit to cut the key mechanism that ensures that aged-care workers get pay rises and that the supplement is actually spent on aged-care workers. Under this bill, the $1.1 billion funding for the aged care workforce supplement will be redirected to residential care, home care and flexible care providers of aged-care services in the form of an increase in their basic subsidy.

This is the key part: this measure removes the guarantee of an increase in the wages paid to workers in the aged-care sector and that is extremely important. In the past we have seen that, without this guarantee, extra payments to providers do not end up in the pockets of aged-care workers, despite providers—and I am not slagging off providers—having made assurances in the past that when they got some extra funding it would go towards paying additional wages for aged-care workers. It has not resulted in better wages for aged-care workers.

The Greens oppose the government's efforts to dismantle this important component of the Living Longer, Living Better package of aged-care reforms. We remain strong advocates for the aged-care sector, including aged-care workers. They are an essential component of the aged-care sector and here we have the government undermining the very mechanism that could ensure that some of the lowest paid workers in this country actually do get better pay for the services they provide.

Aged-care workers are some of the lowest paid workers in Australia. Aged-care workers will miss out on this funding. As the name suggests, this funding was to be a supplement and would improve the wages of some of the lowest paid workers in this country. The replacement of this subsidy will not end up helping aged-care workers. As I said before, past experience has shown that in fact that is not the case. We maintain that the money should go towards the challenge of ensuring that some of the lowest paid workers in this country get the necessary wages and conditions that they deserve for the work and effort they put in.

We have difficulty attracting skilled and trained workers to the aged-care sector. Surveys of the aged-care sector show that service providers can experience difficulties in attracting and retaining sufficient numbers of appropriately skilled and trained workers to care for the growing number of older Australians.

Competitive wages are essential for attracting and retaining high-quality aged-care workers and ensuring that the highest possible quality of care for older Australians is maintained. This measure undermines that.

A key finding of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee inquiry into dementia and complex behaviours was the absolute importance and essential nature of having highly skilled and trained staff who actually have the skills and competencies to support people with dementia. It was emphasised again and again that staff who have the skills are essential for managing behaviours. If they are trained and skilled in understanding the complex behaviours and cognitive impairments of those with dementia, it actually changes the whole nature of the way that people with dementia are treated in the aged-care setting. If workers understand the nature of dementia and how to manage these complex behaviours, it actually affects the restraints that must be used, such as chemical or physical restraints, and it changes the person's whole life experience and quality of life in the aged-care facility and also in the home-care setting.

Senator Polley has gone through the issues around the dementia supplement. That, of course, is also very important, but the training of people in understanding dementia and cognitive impairment and how their treatment of people with dementia—including, as I said, the need for restraints—changes the quality of life of sufferers is crucial. This sort of cutting of wages deters people from going into that sector and certainly does not provide encouragement to get training, because it is specialty training, in dementia and the cognitive issues that go with dementia. It was quite plain during the inquiry that we held that it is essential that people have this training. Where are the incentive, support and reward for people to attain the very important, specific skills that are needed? There is no incentive when the government, by cutting the supplement, says, 'You're not important—we're going to treat you as second-class citizens and continue to treat you as some of the lowest paid workers in this country. We don't value the contribution that you make. We don't care about the fact that, if the pay is so low, the sector won't be able to attract workers or encourage people to attain the skills that are needed to deliver the services that are needed.'

All the statistics at the moment show the dreadful fact that the rate of dementia is increasing in this country, and we can expect that far more people with dementia will need support and care as the population ages. Already we have a growing older population in this country. We know there will be a growing cohort of people suffering from dementia who will need high levels of care—it will not be called high care and low care into the future under the reforms. The government is saying that, as the population ages and the cohorts of people with dementia increase, we will not ensure that the people caring for those people will be rewarded through better wages.

Aged-care workers have fought for years to get better recompense for the hard yards they put in—and they do put in the hard yards. We need to attract more workers to aged care. I have just said how providers are saying that they are finding it hard to find and attract people to work in this sector—because the wages are so low and because it is challenging work, particularly in attaining the skills that are needed and particularly in caring for those with dementia, with the resultant complex behaviours.

The aged-care sector in this country is under increasing pressure as Australia's median age continues to rise. Australia's population is growing and ageing as a result of longer life expectancy and changes to fertility rates. With existing employment models, this trend will see a smaller and younger workforce faced with a growing number of older Australians. It is a bad time to abandon the aged-care sector and aged-care workers when, for the first time in Australia's history, we have more people turning pension age each year and we have an ageing workforce. This will place enormous pressure on the system. How will we ensure that we have a trained and skilled workforce in our aged-care sector? We also know that the trend has been toward the higher end—at the moment, it is called high care. We know that people have been staying at home longer and moving into aged care when they are older and have more complex issues—in other words, requiring high-end care. What we are saying here is that we do not care about the workers who are working in that sector. We do not care about the fact that we need to be attracting people into the sector.

On that, we know that there is a growing need for care in other sectors. We know that under the National Disability Insurance Scheme we are going to have an increasing need for carers and that we are not ramped up for that yet. That is an issue that requires very serious discussion. We also know that under the HACC we are also going to need more people working in the care sector. In aged care we also know that we are going to have a growing need for care. What we are not seeing is investment through the supplement into providing the necessary wages and growth of wages for those that are working in aged care. It sends a very poor message to existing workers in the aged-care sector, and it also sends a poor message to those that may be thinking of going into the aged-care sector.

I will come back to the issue of not necessarily believing that employers and providers are actually going to pass on this supplement as it goes more directly to the providers. We know from past experience that, where additional money has been put into the system, it has not translated into a growth in aged-care workers' pay. In fact, if it had, we might not be in the situation that we are in now, where our aged-care workers are some of the lowest paid in the country. So, at the very time when we are talking about the escalating requirements and skills required for aged care with an ageing population, we are not investing in the workforce itself. We are going to find ourselves down the track with the lowest paid workers in the system, and in the care system in particular, at a time when we desperately need to be attracting people into working in the aged-care sector.

This is a step backwards, and it is nothing short of an ideological approach by the government because they do not want to see a mechanism that ensures workers continue to get paid. The previous government did compromise on this particular issue and make it a bit easier for the providers to be able to negotiate on the timing of this supplement and the way it rolls out. We agreed to that reluctantly, because we thought it compromised the ability of providers to attract workers and of workers to get a slight increase in their wages, but we thought it was a satisfactory outcome where providers were, we thought, happy. This is an approach by government, ideologically driven, that undermines the wages and support for some of the lowest paid workers in the country.

We do not support this change. It is untenable that the government thinks it is okay to take money—we are talking about $1.1 billion here—that should go to aged-care workers who do a magnificent job helping older Australians and providing care and support to some of the most vulnerable members of our community—that is, older Australians and, in particular, those older Australians with dementia who have to receive specialist support for complex behaviours.

This undermines the future of aged care, just changing it to put the money into the pockets of providers—who do an excellent job, and again I will say I am not having a go at providers. But, when additional supplements have been provided without the necessary requirements for that money to be translated into workers' pay, we know from past experience that that has not occurred. This will happen again. If I were an aged-care worker at the moment, I would be extremely concerned that I would not see the increase in my wages that I expected when Living Longer Living Better was announced. Part of aged-care reform has to include increased recompense and remuneration for the workers who keep that system going, because (a) it is fair and (b) we are not going to see an aged-care system that provides the sort of care that is required if we do not address the issue of remuneration for the workers that provide that care.

It is greatly disappointing that I am unable to support this legislation, despite the fact that there are many amendments that we could support. The overriding focus of this legislation is gutting the wages of some of the most vulnerable and lowest paid workers in this country, and the Greens cannot support that move.

10:44 am

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak on the Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014. Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle, you would know full well that I have very intimate knowledge of the aged-care sector as the former assistant secretary of United Voice, one of the key aged-care unions in this country. Prior to coming to the Senate, I spent probably three years of my working life intimately involved with the Living Longer, Living Better package. It was the most amazing transformation. As a longstanding former union official, it was very hard at times to get complete agreement between employers and unions—as you would know, Mr Acting Deputy President—but, in the Living Longer, Living Better package, the unions and the whole of the aged-care sector managed to present to the Labor government and to the minister at the time, Minister Butler, a package of amendments that we thought the aged-care sector needed. We did that as a group who came together under an association called the National Aged Care Alliance.

It has an interesting history because the only other time that employers and unions in this sector came together was when the Howard government was in power and Bronwyn Bishop, as the aged-care minister, managed to unite the whole sector against her. The National Aged Care Alliance, of which United Voice was a member—and I was the representative on that body for a significant period of time—formed because of the mean-spirited kinds of reforms we saw under the Howard government.

The National Aged Care Alliance brings together almost every body working right across the aged-care sector. Whether it is the nursing home sector, home care, physiotherapy or any of the attendant services, they all are members of the National Aged Care Alliance. When the Labor government came into power, that alliance saw an opportunity for real change. As we know, we have an ageing population and new generations of people want to be cared for at home, as indeed older and past generations wanted to be cared for at home. As a sector, we also knew that, whilst there are very fine aged-care facilities in our community and fabulous community care services, there are just not enough of them. We knew that was a critical issue. We also knew that low-paid aged-care work was a critical issue.

It was absolutely amazing to see employers coming together with unions such as United Voice to say to a Labor government, 'We have to act on wages. If we do everything else in the package, including delivering more facilities and more options for home care and all of the other wonderful reforms that came out of Living Longer, Living Better but we don't address the wages, we've done nothing. We won't be able to deliver real reform.' The sector came together and worked together for two or three years. We had the Productivity Commission inquiry into aged care, which all of us worked extremely hard on, putting submissions in and meeting with the commissioners. They addressed the National Aged Care Alliance on three or four occasions. The Productivity Commission really took the National Aged Care Alliance recommendations to heart. We produced an agreed list of recommendations. There were 20 or 30—I cannot remember the precise number, but they were all agreed. They included addressing the low-paid wages of aged-care workers right across the spectrum.

You might ask, quite rightly, why the wages are so low. Of course, historically this is a sector that has women workers. Most of the workforce are women and, historically, women's wages have remained behind those of men in equivalent roles in our community. Certainly during my involvement in the late 1980s, believe it or not, aged-care wages were then parallel with those in other sectors. However, over time, because of women's well-documented inability to bargain as successfully as male counterparts and also because they were in a sector where there is not a lot of spare cash around, despite having a very long history of bargaining—and most of the major employers in the aged-care sector in Australia are covered by enterprise bargaining agreements—they sit barely above the award, by $1 or $2. That is because there is not a lot of fat in the system. It is not an industry that runs on big profits, although there are profits there. It is hard slog when you have to sit down and face individual employers across the negotiating table to try to get a better outcome for members. The award rate is about $18, $19, $20 an hour for an aged-care worker. Of course, what adds to their take-home pay, as you would know, Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle, are penalty rates. Penalty rates are an absolute critical part of an aged-care worker's take-home pay, because they work outside normal hours and unsocial hours, they work on Saturdays and Sundays, and they miss out on time with their families, for which they receive a penalty payment.

We know that the Abbott government has an agenda to get rid of penalty rates in this country. We already have a crisis concerning workers in this country, particularly in the aged-care workforce. Imagine if you earn $20 an hour and, on average, you work 30 hours a week, because aged-care workers are not full-time workers, you could not survive. We would see a mass exodus of workers from that sector, if the government is successful in getting its agenda of getting rid of penalty rates up and running. The government is out there in the hospitality industry, trying to make that the first cab off the rank. We know that the retail sector is under threat and then there is aged-care and all the other areas where Australian workers earn penalty rates, as they should. If you give up a Sunday, when your family is out enjoying each other's company, to supplement a very meagre income you should be entitled to a penalty payment.

I need to put on the record, because I would not want the government to start jumping up and down, that Labor is not opposing these bills. But we do believe that the government has gone way too far in what it is doing.

Whilst the sector, including the unions, were negotiating and coming up with an agreed set of recommendations on the Living Longer, Living Better package, the then opposition were completely missing in action. They were nowhere to be seen. In the end, they supported the measures because, at least, they recognised that we have a problem because we have an ageing population. However, I can absolutely say to you that during all of the discussions and consultations we had when the National Aged Care Alliance drew up its agreed package, the opposition were nowhere to be seen. They took no interest at all in a very significant issue in this country, aged care.

It is fair to say that the National Aged Care Alliance did not get everything that we wanted. But as those of us who have had lives as union officials know, sometimes—in fact, many times—you do not always get everything you want. But we did get up a package of amendments that we continued to support. They included a better pay for aged-care workers. As a union official, it was one of my proudest moments to hear employers advocating really strongly to the Labor government that it had to act on wages. Why? Because, after 20 years or more of bargaining in the aged-care sector, we were not able to lift the wages to a wage that would provide a good-living income.

So as a sector, not just the unions—and we know how the Abbott government likes to really bash unions; at every opportunity it likes to bash unions—we said to government that this was an agreed position. This was the position of the National Aged Care Alliance. It was the position of all of the major employers in the country that government needed to provide a supplement. That supplement—significant amounts of money, all paid for, put in the budget, all there—would have provided about 30c an hour on an aged-care worker's hourly rate. That is not a huge amount of money, but that would have lifted that base rate to enable bargaining to add more to that. It was not a one-off. It was there to say, 'Let's make the hourly rate a certain level'—it was about 30c an hour more than aged-care workers were getting—and that just lifts the floor so that employers can continue to build on that. It creates a lift, and that is what is needed in the aged-care sector right across the sector. That lift was needed.

If the Abbott government want to say that it was some dirty deal between a few employers and a few unions in the sector, they are completely wrong. When we got down to the nuts and bolts of the issue—and, before I get on to that, I would like to say that most unions would say that the Productivity Commission is probably not a friend of unions, but the Productivity Commission in and of itself said that the aged-care workforce wages were very low. In its document, it also pointed out that, if the government did nothing else around this package, it had to do something about wages. So the recognition was there from the employers, from the Productivity Commission and from the unions that wages had to be a central part of a Living Longer, Living Better package.

The Labor government's budget put the aged-care supplement money in place. Again, the Labor government did not seek to dictate to the sector about how that money would be apportioned. It set the challenge for the unions and the employers, through their associations, to sit down under the auspices of an industrial commissioner and work out how to do that. Sure, we had some arguments, but we all know that, when you negotiate, you win some and you lose some, and there are some fierce arguments along the way. But, again, we came out with an agreed position. We came out with an agreed position because the sector itself, employers and unions, was committed to doing something about aged-care workers.

But again we see, of course, that the Abbott government, with its ideological push, its hatred of unions and its belief through its Tea Party agenda that individuals need to look after themselves, just wants to take all of that good work away. All of that process agreed by employers and unions, all of those agreed and hard negotiations that we did with the support of an industrial commissioner—all of that it just wants to throw away. It wants to go back to a system which has failed in the past. We know that under the Abbott government we had a system where additional funds were put through an instrument called COPO, and it was supposed to go to workers. And guess what, Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle? I am sure you would not be surprised to learn that not one cent of that money ever found its way into a worker's pocket.

If the government needs another example, it only needs to look at the disability sector in Western Australia, where the Barnett government made provision for additional wages to be given to disability services workers, but again it was not through any transparent legislative process but just through direct funding to employers. I can tell you that that has left a very sour taste in the mouths of disability workers—who, believe it or not, are paid even less than aged-care workers—because not one cent of that money went to workers. It went to cars. It went to CEOs. But it certainly did not go to workers.

Aged-care employers in this country signed up to a designated hourly rate, and it was completely above board. But we know that just putting the money out there and not requiring any transparency and any accountability will mean that the money will not go into workers' pockets. Alternatively, it will go into one area of the workforce. The unions in this sector do not always agree, but what the unions did agree on was that the supplement should be distributed fairly to all of the sector—not just to nurses, not just to aged-care workers but to everyone in the sector—because that is a fair way. Everyone's wages need to be lifted. But, now, if some of this money does find its way to the pockets of workers, you could reward a manager of your aged-care facility. They could receive all of this money. There is no guarantee at all that, first, the money will get there and that, second, it will go to the lowest paid.

So we will continue to see under the Abbott government an exodus of quality workers. Many of the aged-care nurses and aged-care staff who are members of United Voice are amazing people who do the most dedicated job of caring for aged-care people in our community, some of the most vulnerable people in the community. These workers sit with people in their dying moments. These workers have the most vulnerable people in our community dying in their arms. That happens on a weekly basis. The last moments, the last breaths, of those in our community in their twilight years are witnessed by low-paid aged-care workers.

The Abbott government are so mean and so ideologically driven that they will not sign up to something that Labor put in place. That is the reason that they will not sign up to it; Labor put it in place. But if they have an issue with that, let us look at the history of this. It was the National Aged Care Alliance who really pushed for these changes. Yes, Minister Butler was a very popular minister and a minister who listened and who cared. Unfortunately, we are not seeing any of that now. So the aged-care workforce will continue to be low paid and will continue to have a very high turnover, at a time when our seniors should be guaranteed that the staff that they get to know, and who love them and whom they love in return, are going to stay there.

But the government do not care. As I say, they were completely absent during the whole of the time that we were negotiating the Living Longer, Living Better package. To take that funding away from the workforce is a disgrace—and the workforce will not forget that. They know who promised them a fair deal. They know that it was Labor who promised a fair deal. And they know who has taken the money out of their pockets.

This cruel attack on these low-paid workers comes on top of the freezing of superannuation. So this group of workers have low retirement savings, but the Abbott government wants to make them lower. So, in the future, this group of workers will be more reliant on benefits from the government, instead of being able to stand on their own two feet—one, with a better wage in aged care, which the Abbott government has stolen from them; and, two, with decent superannuation savings, which the Abbott government has also stolen from them. Talk about not thinking for the future!

I have had a lot of correspondence from aged-care employers in Western Australia about the removal of the payroll tax supplement. That has hit them hard. Certain parts of this sector are doing well but in other areas many providers are doing a very good service and not making huge profits—and, I would argue, they should not anyway—and losing that payroll supplement has hurt. So, again, we see an Abbott government with no clear policy on aged care—just its same old, same old, 'Let's attack workers; let's hit them in the pockets; and let's just give this money to employers and they can use it as they wish.' It is a disgraceful move.

11:04 am

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I will make a brief contribution on the Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 and related bill, but the brevity of my contribution should be seen as inversely proportional to the importance of this issue. I will be supporting this legislation but I will be doing so reluctantly. I agree with Senator Lines that this was not a dirty deal between the unions and the former government. But it was a messy deal—and I will get into that shortly.

I have a number of concerns in relation to this bill. First among them is the government's winding back of the workforce supplement for aged-care workers. I understand that the passage of this bill will not change the fact that the money has been rolled over into payments to providers. The money is, in effect, gone, and opposing this bill will not change that. I do note that there is a second reading amendment, which I think has a lot of merit. It walks about the failure of the government to deal with a number of issues in respect of aged care. Whilst that second reading amendment is not binding on this parliament, it is a statement of fact that more needs to be done and that there are policy voids that need to be dealt with as a matter of some urgency.

I raised concerns about the former government's practice of providing what some would regard as artificial pay rises through legislation last year in reference to both the child-care and aged-care sectors. They are both sectors that are doing it pretty tough. In the child-care sector, you get to a tipping point where, if child-care fees become less and less affordable, more and more people will take their children out of childcare and come to alternative—and, in some cases, less than satisfactory—arrangements or, mainly, women will simply stop participating in the workforce, which is a double whammy in terms of the impact it has on our economy arrangements and it also pushes up the price of childcare as more and more people dip out of the sector.

The aged-care sector has some parallel issues in terms of the viability of the aged-care sector. It is a tough sector to be in. It is a sector where affordability is also important. The rules have recently been changed, engineered by former minister Mark Butler. I think a number of those change were quite good and sensible changes in order to make the sector more robust and more sustainable, but it is a very tough sector to be in. As more and more Australians are getting older, there will be a need to support this growing number of patients, customers or clients of the aged-care sector and there will be more and more pressure in terms of finite resources. As I said at the time, there is no doubt that the workers in both of these sectors deserve to have higher rates of pay. But the roundabout way the former government approached this, in a sense circumventing the Fair Work process, put workers at risk and potential disadvantage. It was the ad hoc nature of it that I was concerned about, including in the childcare sector.

The current government's reallocation of the supplement has sadly validated my concerns. Because the former government did not go through Fair Work and because of the way it chose to artificially raise wages, the current government has been able to simply take the money back again. This has, in a sense, left workers worse off than they were before—not strictly in a monetary sense, but in the sense that they expected a pay rise and have likely acted accordingly only to find they are not receiving it after all—and this is simply unfair. I have significant concerns that the measures that were supposed to reform the aged-care system may not be achieving the changes that we need. My reluctance to support this bill is based on these concerns. I do acknowledge the comments of Glenn Rees, the CEO of Alzheimer's Australia, who: firstly, agreed with the union position that 'the $1.1 billion should not be returned to the sector without clear accountability requirements on how the funding will meet wage parity objectives' and, secondly, said that the 'possible conditions raised by providers during discussions did not go far enough to achieve the level of accountability and transparency consumers and unions were seeking'. These are matters that I hope will be explored in the committee stage of this bill. I presume either my crossbench colleagues or the opposition will be pursuing that, as it should be.

These issues are of vital importance in my home state of South Australia because of its ageing population—it has the most aged demographic on the mainland; however, these issues also affect us on a personal level as our own families age and we face the reality of seeking the appropriate care for our parents or other relatives. Older Australians are relying on us to ensure that the system provides care and support and, most of all, dignity to our senior citizens.

11:09 am

Photo of Joe BullockJoe Bullock (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In my maiden speech I said that I would always look at legislation from the point of view of shop assistants. After 37 years of representing their interests, shop assistants, to me, are the very salt of the earth, their views epitomising those of everyday, hard-working Australians.

Everyday Australians are a fair lot. They want to work hard, but they also believe there should be time for rest and family. They do not want handouts, but they do believe in giving every person a chance. They believe in private enterprise, but they also believe that the community, through our elected governments, has a duty to care and a responsibility to support vulnerable people—the aged, those with a disability and those who find themselves on the wrong side of advantage. This is what Australians mean when they talk about a 'fair go'. It is not some political slogan; it is the idea of reward for effort and of contributing to a community, a community which will support those in need of a bit of a hand. I promised to look at every piece of legislation from the perspective of the ordinary Australian. I am keeping that promise and, in this instance, the government is found wanting.

Today, I want to focus on one particular aspect of this bill: the government's abolition of the dementia and severe behaviours supplement payment. This payment, all of $16.15 a day, has not only been cut entirely by the government but the cut has also been effected without any meaningful consultation and without any warning. Aged-care homes and those who care for people with dementia have suddenly found themselves denied this important support. The former Labor government instituted the supplement in recognition of and in response to the higher needs of those suffering from dementia, recognising that for carers and those working in aged-care facilities patients with dementia present a much greater challenge.

Dementia can give rise to a huge range of behaviours and symptoms. These can include psychosis, psychotic behaviours, aggression, a lack of inhibition and control, hallucination or severe depression. These symptoms affect not only those suffering from the affliction but also impact upon those who care for them. Apparently, according to this government, those people in our community who suffer from such symptoms should now stop leaning and do their share of the lifting to put the budget back into surplus. The dementia and severe behaviours supplement funded programs, services, staff and supports that helped aged-care providers deal with these issues. It gave families peace of mind. It gave security to other residents and staff. It enabled care providers to effectively plan to cope with a future in which the number of Australians affected by dementia, currently 330,000, is predicted to increase sharply in coming years in line with our aging population. Now all of those services have been ripped away—indiscriminately. Instead of keeping carers in the dark, ministers could have been working with the Department of Social Services, with stakeholders, with carers, with aged-care providers to properly cater for the needs of dementia sufferers. They prefer to slash the support and hang the consequences.

Let us examine in order the events that led to this appallingly misconceived decision. First, the government promised that they would not act rashly in addressing the budget measures involved in the field of aged care. Second, after just one round table meeting and with no warning at all, the government abolished the dementia and severe behaviours supplement lock, stock and barrel. This is no way for a responsible government to behave. In the election campaign, the now Prime Minister assured the Australian people that he would lead a government of no surprises. Well, this move was certainly a surprise to every aged-care provider and dementia carer in Australia. It is a move for which there is no excuses.

What is not surprising, however, is the industry's response. The Chief Executive Officer of Western Australia's aged-care provider Baptistcare, the Reverend Dr Lucy Morris, has called these cuts 'a noose that will choke the industry'. I have met with senior industry figures and I can assure senators that they are not partisan players, but they do understand the impact of these cuts on real people. In May, Dr Morris told the Aged Care Guide:

Everyone with a family member with dementia in a residential aged care facility will lose their additional much needed support. Support that has been developed specific to individual needs, support that has been designed after significant testing and assessment on a case by case basis

Professor John Kelly, the Chief Executive of Aged and Community Services Australia, has said that the withdrawal of this funding 'ignored the problems faced by staff and patients. He said:

This action by the Assistant Minister, Senator Mitch Fifield, does not send a good message to the community.

If the government will not listen to the opposition, perhaps it will listen to aged-care providers.

The government may assert that it has a mandate to reform areas of the budget. The government might even be able to say with some cogency that the dementia and severe behaviours supplement was oversubscribed and needed some revision. But to slash it completely and to remove support from even the most extreme and needy cases is without justification or excuse. And to do it by stealth and without consultation with the aged-care sector or with any stakeholders is simply irresponsible.

Once it became apparent that the government had decided to impose this course of action, my office —following the leadership of Senator Polley—began a mail campaign to make the community aware of just what was being planned. Unsurprisingly, the response was overwhelming and it was not happy at all.

From just the first 20,000 households my office contacted, in the electorate in which I live, Stirling, over 1,700 replies came flooding back calling on the government to stop the cuts. Approximately 2,500 people took the time to fill in a petition and mail it back. There were thousands of views, likes and shares online and on Facebook. And all this from just part of just one electorate in my home state of Western Australia. People like 78-year-old Joe Richmond, of Stirling, who wrote to me to say:

… cutting funding that affects the lives of ordinary Australians, and the subsequent extra cost of these cuts that may cost the taxpayer more than they save in extra care, is utterly stupid.

People like Lara, of Balcatta, who wrote to me to say:

How disgusting of the government to do this.

People like June, of Innaloo, who asks:

I'm disgusted. How much more can the aged and the vulnerable be told to give?

People like Toriko, of Karrinyup, who wrote:

This government keeps picking on the most vulnerable. I will not vote for it at the next election.

People like Julie Munns, Bernice Grose, Lloyd Nicholls, David Blackledge and Barry McCarley, who wrote to tell me of their loved ones suffering from dementia—thousands of ordinary people, in just one electorate, who know what the real impact of cutting this payment will mean to our community; thousands of everyday working families who know that introducing these cuts, without any warning, was mean and tricky. I might even dare to say: they know it is un-Australian. If the government will not listen to the opposition and to aged-care professionals and stakeholders, perhaps they will listen to the community.

Were I not elected to this place, I might very well have joined with those thousands in registering my protest with a letter or a petition. My own mother, Beulah, began to exhibit the early effects of dementia during the last three years of her life and, while my wife, my in-laws and I did our best to care for her in our home, it was sad to see her deteriorate to the point where I became, in her words, 'the nice man who lives down the hall'.

Those with dementia, their families and their carers face daily struggles. Why this government has decided it is these people, who must suffer further in order to put the budget back into surplus is beyond my comprehension—I suspect it would be beyond the comprehension of most Australians.

At the start of this address, I referred to my maiden speech and my promise to speak on behalf of ordinary working people and to consider legislation from their point of view. There can be no doubt that in the view of ordinary working Australians cutting payments for the care of those with serious behaviours associated with dementia is wrong. Phantom budget emergency or no budget emergency; why should the heaviest lifting be done by the most vulnerable in our community?

11:19 am

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 and the Health and Other Services (Compensation) Care Charges Amendment Bill 2014. These bills create the provisions to recover prior costs for home care provided to people who received a compensation payment. As this is currently the situation for people in residential care, the changes merely bring home care arrangements into alignment. This is a common-sense provision that Labor will not stand in the way of.

Similarly, we support the amendments to the Healthcare Identifiers Act to allow for the collection, use and disclosure of relevant data to be used in the aged-care gateway, My Aged Care. My Aged Care is an online service designed to help families navigate the aged-care system. It provides up-to-date information and a central portal for all information on aged care.

My Aged Care was a key element of Labor's landmark Living Longer, Living Better aged-care package, which was brought before the last parliament. The Living Longer, Living Better legislation package laid the foundations for a more responsive, reliable and streamlined system to give older Australians high-quality, accessible and affordable care. It set a framework to ensure Australians would get the aged care they want and need regardless of where they live or their financial means. It included consumer-directed care packages to give people more control over the care they receive and close to a billion dollars in new funding for home care to increase the number of home support packages. In addition, there was increased funding for residential aged care to support 30,000 new places over five years, tailored packages for people with dementia and funding for aged-care homes to significantly upgrade their facilities.

Living Longer, living better was welcomed by older Australians, aged-care service provider organisations, professional bodies and unions active in aged care. In fact, it was considered to be so vitally important that 22 organisations representing many of the largest aged-care providers, both not-for-profit and private as well as consumer body, COTA, the two key unions, Alzheimer's Australia and several other representative organisations, joined forces to pen a letter urging:

… in the strongest terms that the current legislation pass this Parliament, with or without amendments that may be proposed by the Committee.

And rightly so.

The ageing of our population is perhaps one of the most pressing issues that governments across the globe face today. A growing tendency to have fewer children, coupled with a significantly increased lifespan, will lead to massive changes in our national demographic make-up in the decades to come. The proportion of Australia's population aged over 65 was 8 per cent in 1970-71. The 2010 intergenerational aged-care report projected that over the next 40 years that proportion of the population over 65 years will almost double to around 25 per cent. So we are getting older.

Tasmania is currently home to more than 80,000 people over the age of 65 and our population is ageing more rapidly than any other jurisdiction, making this legislation vital for our community. Along with other landmark legislation such as NDIS and the landmark Gonski education reforms, Living longer. Living better.stands as part of the proud legacy of the Labor government that was committed to constant improvement and considered, compassionate policy.

One of the key elements of Labor's aged-care reforms was the workforce supplement, which was designed to address looming workforce shortages in the aged-care sector. The supplement allowed providers to deliver better wages and attract and retain appropriately skilled staff. The aged-care workforce is one of the largest service industries in this country. It employs over 250,000 people, caters to the needs of over 1.1 million older Australians and accounts for about one per cent of GDP in terms of Commonwealth funding alone. But the unavoidable reality is that the aged-care workforce is at crisis point. If we do nothing, we simply will not have the staff we need to ensure that Australians receive the care they need in their senior years.

The aged-care workforce is ageing itself with the average age of an aged-care nurse sitting at 48.5 years as opposed to 44.5 years for other nurses. A full 53.9 per cent of aged-care nurses are over 50 compared to 38.6 per cent of nurses across other sectors. Aged-care providers simply are not able to offer the wages that are necessary to ensure they have enough staff. In fact, the Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation undertakes a quarterly sector comparison which looks at 785 agreements operating in the residential aged-care sector.

The latest comparison reported by the Aged Care Financing Authority, covering the period December 2013 to February 2014, found that for level 1 registered nurses there is a pay difference on average of almost $210 a week, or 17 per cent between those working in aged care and nurses in other areas. Worse, we know that the demand for carers will increase by 40 percent over the next five years. The simple truth is that if we do not act to increase the salaries, training opportunities and career development of aged-care workers, we will have a workforce crisis on our hands at a time when the demand from them keeps on growing.

This government has no plan to address the problems of the aged-care workforce. In fact, one of their first acts in the area of aged care was to try to bypass the parliament and try to axe the workforce supplement through regulation. Again today this short-sighted government is axing the supplement while putting forward no plans to solve the massive problems facing our aged-care workforce into the future. Nor are they doing anything to ensure the funds from the workforce supplement will be redirected toward the vital areas of workforce pay, conditions and development.

But this is not the only area of bad policy from this government when it comes to addressing health sector workforce issues. They have scrapped Health Workforce Australia, which was tasked with ensuring Australia has enough doctors, aged-care workers, nurses and allied health professionals to meet community needs into the future. They also axed the National Workforce Development Fund, which was supporting training and workforce development in the areas of current and future skills needs, and they have provided no solutions as to how the aged-care workforce will be made sustainable into the long-term. In its words, this government pretends to be the best friend of older Australians, but its actions tell a very different story.

This government has an appalling record for delivering to older Australians. They have axed the dementia and severe behaviours supplement with no warning, no consultation and no alternatives offered. This was a $16 supplement paid daily to approved residential aged-care providers caring for people with severe behavioural and psychological symptoms that all too often accompany dementia. Mr Abbott waited until after the May budget to axe the supplement, causing untold financial constraints for aged-care providers who had already prepared their budgets.

We also saw thousands of older Australians thrown into limbo as a result of the government's chaotic mismanagement of income and assets testing arrangements for aged care. This cruel incompetence forced older Australians to wait months before they could enter residential aged care, while Centrelink assessed their accommodation payments level resulting from the introduction of means testing on 1 July. However, it was clear the government did not make sure that Centrelink's systems and processes were able to adequately implement the changes, resulting in incorrect information and massive delays.

The May budget also slugged the aged-care sector with a number of other savage cuts. It slashed the aged-care payroll tax supplement. This supplement was paid to for-profit providers that often exist on wafer-thin profit margins. COTA, the peak body for older Australians, has pointed out that this will see aged-care providers pass on more than $650 million in higher accommodation charges to consumers over the next four years. The changes to pension indexing arrangements, which we all know are just a cut by another name, will also hit the income streams of aged-care providers as the real value of the pension drops by year by year.

And, of course, the Abbott government's cruel and short-sighted GP tax will also hit older Australians disproportionately hard as they are the people most likely to have high healthcare needs. Suddenly, we are hearing that we can't possibly afford proper health, education and support for our citizens. Curiously, however, we still can manage to find billions for slush funds for big polluters and $50,000 cheques for millionaires to have babies. And, while there has been a lot of chest beating, there have been precious few, if any, practical measures to improve government balance sheets by ensuring multinational companies pay their fair share of tax.

Make no mistake: this is a government intent on taking from the young, the poor, the elderly and the vulnerable.

11:29 am

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Can I thank colleagues for their contributions in this debate on the Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 and the Health and Other Services (Compensation) Care Charges (Amendment) Bill 2014. As has been canvassed, the two bills that are before us seek to introduce several minor amendments to aged-care and health related legislation.

One measure makes consequential amendments to reflect the 2014 budget measure to repurpose the aged-care workforce supplement, and I just want to talk about this one very briefly. This is a change which has already happened. It was a 2014 budget measure that gave effect to an election commitment which was very clearly documented in the coalition's pre-election aged-care policy. The reason for the election commitment which was given effect to in the 2014 budget was fairly straightforward. The workforce supplement was essentially a mechanism to achieve an industrial objective. The view that the coalition took and has since implemented is that aged-care providers are in the best position to know and to understand how to run their businesses, which is why we said we would repurpose the money for the aged-care workforce supplement—$1.1 billion—into the general pool of aged-care funding. That is a decision that has already been taken and given effect to. What this piece of legislation seeks to do, among other things, is to remove the workforce supplement from the list of primary supplements that may be provided by the subsidy principles under the act. So that is essentially just a bit of housekeeping. This is not giving the effect to the election commitment. That has already happened. This is essentially a bit of legislative tidying up. I appreciate that those opposite tend to view most portfolio areas as another platform by which to give effect to their industrial agenda. I guess they are usually fairly straightforward about that. I have spoken to Senator Siewert, and we will agree to disagree on this particular point—this particular minor technical amendment—but I thought that the context was important.

A second measure in the bill will support the implementation of stage 2 of the Aged Care Gateway, which, for those colleagues who might not be familiar with it, is an online information portal and contact centre. These two bills will also make amendments to allow for the recovery of past home care costs where the care recipient receives a compensation payment, as is currently possible in relation to residential care costs. So this is essentially bringing that into line and is fairly similar to the sort of approach that is taken with the NDIS.

Lastly, there are some minor clarifying technical amendments to aged-care legislation to remove redundant provisions and ensure that the legislation operates as intended. I do not want to delay the chamber by diverting for a moment into an area which is not directly touched upon by this legislation, but I do so because the contributions of colleagues opposite did vary fairly widely from the legislation that is before us. Opposition senators spoke at length about the cessation of the dementia and severe behaviour supplement. I think, Mr Acting Deputy President Dastyari—knowing that you are someone who pays close attention to the budget and to the finances of the nation—that you will be interested to know that the dementia and severe behaviour supplement introduced by the previous government, which operated for one year, had a budget allocation of $11.7 million but ended up coming in at $110 million. That was because the previous government assumed that there would be 2,000 aged-care residents who would trigger eligibility for providers for the dementia and severe behaviour supplement; it ended up being 29,000 aged-care residents who triggered eligibility for providers, and over the forward estimates, rather than the $52 million allocated by the previous government, the supplement was going to cost $780 million. Over the following 10 years, operating within the budget envisaged by those opposite, the supplement was in fact going to cost $1.5 billion. I did look to see whether it was possible to recast the supplement, but I ended up reaching the conclusion that it was not possible to salvage the supplement in its current form. No government, given a situation where a badly designed program by a previous government was intended to cost $11.7 million in its first year of operation but actually cost $110 million, can stand by and let that situation continue. It is curious that, somehow, bad policy designed by the previous government for the dementia and severe behaviour supplement is actually the fault of this government. That is a perverse approach. Anyway, this government took the responsible approach, and that was to conclude the supplement.

Senator Polley interjecting

Mr Acting Deputy President, I am hearing strange noises emanating from across the chamber.

Photo of Sam DastyariSam Dastyari (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The Senate will come to order.

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

They are incoherent, but they are certainly strange noises.

Senator Polley interjecting

Photo of Sam DastyariSam Dastyari (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Senator!

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. Nevertheless, the government is firmly of the view that we need to look to see what can stand in the stead of the dementia and severe behaviour supplement to better provide support for the small number of people in residential aged-care settings who exhibit severe behaviours related to dementia. I convened a ministerial group to address this issue, under the auspices of KPMG. Advice has been provided to me, and we are currently consulting with the Aged Care Sector Committee to look for what might be a good and practical thing that government can do within the original funding envelope. I think that is the right approach.

I will not detain the chamber any longer, other than to note that yet again Senator Polley, who claims to have such passion in this area, read every single word. Such is her passion in this area that she cannot utter a sentence about aged care unless she reads what has been written for her.

Senator Polley interjecting

Senator Polley says 'play the person'. I think if you look at the Hansard you will see that that is all Senator Polley did in her entire contribution in this place.

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, a point of order: I know that the minister has now sat down, but I want to raise a point of order in terms of the comments made by the minister about Senator Polley, reflecting on Senator Polley's performance as a shadow parliamentary secretary in this place, and to draw the attention of the chamber to the significant number of people in this place who consistently read issues into the record.

Photo of Sam DastyariSam Dastyari (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There is no point of order.

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I merely make the point that if Senator Polley wishes to make contributions that are pointed and personal then she should not be averse to some commentary in return. That is the way the place operates. With those comments, I conclude my contribution.

Photo of Sam DastyariSam Dastyari (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will now read, word for word, what is in front of me: the question is that the second reading amendment moved by Senator Lines be agreed to.

Question negatived.

11:40 am

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I wish to record that the Greens do support that amendment.

Photo of Sam DastyariSam Dastyari (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That has now been recorded. The question now is that the bills be read a second time.

Question agreed to.

Bills read a second time.