Senate debates

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Aged Care

3:02 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister to the Leader (Tasmania)) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Indigenous Affairs (Senator Scullion) to questions without notice asked by Senators O'Neill, Brown and Chisholm today relating to aged care funding.

What I thought was extraordinary today was the minister's lack of ability to answer any of the questions relating to the aged-care cuts and whether or not the minister watched the Four Corners program last night. But just to highlight one of the answers that was given by Senator Scullion, when we asked about former Treasurer Scott Morrison's cut of $1.2 billion, the minister said that it wasn't a cut; it was just an efficiency dividend. When isn't a cut a cut?

The answers, and the lack thereof, from this minister demonstrated very clearly why the aged-care sector has been in crisis and why this government has failed to address those concerns. The minister didn't even know who Sean Rooney—the CEO of LASA, the national body of aged-care providers—was. It was Sean Rooney, in fact, who said that over the last four years there has been $3 billion taken out of the aged-care sector. When the sector is in crisis it's not the time to cut—as this government has done.

They've been in government five years and what they want to do is point back to when Labor was in government. Well, I'm quite happy to talk about what we did when we were in government, because it was former minister Mark Butler who worked with the then opposition to deliver a new platform for aged care in this country with the Living Longer Living Better reforms. That was reinforced with an investment of $3.7 billion. All this government had to do when they came into power was to continue that reform. They failed to do that. Three ministers have had this responsibility over four years. Not one of them has actually had their eye on the ball, otherwise they would have known what this sector was facing. They would have known the issues and the challenges around the work force. What have we seen? In the last three years at least 14 reports have been handed down, ranging from issues with staff and the challenges there to the cost of aged care. What have we seen from this government? All they've done is stack them one on top of the other. All they're doing is gathering dust. One of those reports was mandated through legislation which we introduced when we were in government. That was the David Tune report. It was a very thorough report, and he was a very highly respected public servant. But what have we seen from this government? They have just cherrypicked a few things—that's all that they have done.

I understand the anguish the Australian community would have felt watching the Four Corners program last night. They have every right to be ashamed at the lack of high standard of care in this country. We support the call for a royal commission, but what I want to make very clear in this chamber is that this government cannot use the royal commission to stall any further investment and reform into this sector. They can take immediate action now. There are 108,000 older Australians who are waiting for aged-care support to be provided to them in their own home. Fifty-four thousand of those—that's half of those people—aren't getting any support at all. Eighty-eight thousand of those people who are waiting have already been diagnosed and are living with dementia. That funding can be restored. What this government should be doing is taking action now to make sure that that waiting list is cleared. Those figures were from March. I can't even imagine, when the government finally has the gumption to release the latest figures from June, how much they would have increased by.

This government has a lot to answer for. They could do a lot more, when it comes to leadership around employment, about the wages and conditions of the people that are working in the aged-care sector. They need to have a career opportunity and a pathway going forward. This government at every opportunity says, 'This is not our responsibility; this is the responsibility of the sector.' A mature government would sit down with the sector and with the opposition and try and resolve these issues. We have put that olive branch out countless times, but what have we heard? The Prime Minister has instructed the minister not to talk to us. This is how committed this Prime Minister is! All of a sudden he has found out there are old people in this country. Well, he's in political trouble, because he knows that having this job means he is not up to this job and there's no reason to replace the— (Time expired)

3:07 pm

Photo of James PatersonJames Paterson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have to say, I am genuinely a little bit disappointed in the highly political approach that Labor senators have adopted on this issue. This is a real opportunity, I would have thought, for all senators to demonstrate their concern and care for older Australians and to get behind the royal commission in a genuinely and unambiguously bipartisan way. Sadly, we have not seen that. I think one very good piece of evidence of that is the way in which Labor senators have conducted themselves in question time this week compared to how they conducted themselves in question time last week. I think it's a fair question to ask: how many questions did the Labor Party ask about aged care last week in question time in the Senate? This week, on Monday and today, in the Senate they devoted nearly every question to it. What's changed in the intervening period? The Morrison government has taken decisive action to address the widespread and genuine concerns about the quality of care being provided in the aged-care system. The Labor Party have found a sudden and new interest in this issue and are devoting virtually all of their time in question time this week to this issue, but it featured virtually not at all last week. I think that's very telling about the political approach that they're taking to this issue. If they were ahead of the curve on this issue and if they thought this was a genuine issue, they would have been asking just as many questions about this last week as they have this week.

This royal commission is a real opportunity to get to the bottom of the problems in the aged-care industry. The display by Labor senators in question time today is evidence of exactly why a respected institution like a royal commission is necessary to get down to the raw facts and the raw evidence of the problems in the aged-care industry. We don't need to see any more politicisation of it, as we've seen from Labor senators today.

As senators, probably all of us have both professional and personal experience of the aged-care system. In the course of our duties, I'm sure we've all visited many aged-care facilities. Personally, we may have had the experience of putting a parent or a grandparent into aged care or visiting them in aged care, and so we will all know there are some fantastic aged-care homes out there. Some of those excellent homes out there are for-profit homes, some of them are community homes and some of them are faith based institutions or other not-for-profit institutions. We also know that there are some homes out there that are not as good as the leading operators in the field and where the care and quality of service is not as high and not as good as it could be. This royal commission is a real opportunity to get to the bottom of that.

I have to take the opportunity to respond to the claim made in question time today that the government has cut funding to aged care. It's a false claim and Labor senators should know it's a false claim. The last and best word of evidence on this is an article written yesterday. It was published in a publication called Crikey, and it was written by an author called Bernard Keane. I don't think any senator in this place would suggest that Crikey is exactly a newspaper or publication which campaigns for the coalition. I don't think anyone would suggest Mr Keane—and I hope he's not offended by this—is a cheerleader of the Liberal Party or the National Party. But this is what he wrote when it came to the question of aged-care funding. The headline is 'Morrison is right on aged care funding: reports of cuts are fiction'. The article says:

Let's hit the nail on the head early on a key claim that is already being widely circulated about the aged care sector. It's one that is likely to continue to be spread despite the government's efforts to get ahead of Four Corners tonight with a preemptive royal commission. And it's completely wrong: this government did not cut $1.2 billion from aged care funding.

It's pretty easy to check. In Labor's last budget in 2013, residential care funding -- as distinct from home or community or flexible care, the other categories of aged care funding -- was $8.3 billion and forecast to rise to $10.1 billion in 2016-17. The 2017-18 budget shows how much funding the—


actually spent on residential care in 2016-17: $10.9 billion. That is, the Coalition spend nearly $1 billion more than Labor forecast. And that rose to $11.4 billion in the year just ended.

This year’s budget papers annoyingly combine residential and home care numbers—

which he goes on about—

… but the combined total still increases by another $800 million this year.

No cut. Of any kind. Zero. Zip. Nada.

That's in the words of Bernard Keane, a journalist commentating on this issue. I think it should put paid to the false claims being made by Labor in question time today. I hope they cease and desist their attempt to politicise this issue, and I hope they genuinely and bipartisanly get behind the royal commission and support its process.

3:12 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Environment and Water (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise this afternoon to take note of answers given by Senator Scullion. That is because Australians, through their own personal experiences, have been shocked and appalled at what they've seen happen in our aged-care system. The Four Corners episode last night had its genesis in thousands of people reaching out to the ABC to share their shocking and appalling stories about what has been happening in the aged-care system, particularly in relation to the standard of care being delivered in some nursing homes—a standard of care that does not meet community expectations and that has seen things like people left on the toilet for hours because no-one comes to attend to them and people left lying on the floor overnight when they have fallen over because staffing ratios have meant that there's been no-one to check on them.

We should, as a nation, judge ourselves by how we treat our elderly citizens. We're not a fair and generous country unless we treat all Australians with the dignity, care and respect that they deserve. But it's very clear that this is a standard that is not being met in many nursing homes around the country. I've spoken to staff, to people in nursing homes and to the families of people in nursing homes not only about the conditions but, more importantly, also about the abuse and cover-ups that are happening in the aged-care sector. There is a failure to maintain the expected standards.

The Liberals shouldn't be waiting for a royal commission before they start fixing this crisis. Let's be clear: I don't accept what Senator Paterson has said about the effect of budget cuts in this space. I have spoken to aged-care providers about the impact of things like the withdrawal of and decline in the dementia funding packages, and the very real impact of the changes that this government has made on the capacity of aged-care services to provide quality and sustainable care for their residents. In addition, we know that there are some 108,000 people waiting for a home care package, including 88,000 people with high needs, many living with dementia.

We have before us a shocking record from this government on aged care. It cut the dementia supplement—funding that was meant to go to older Australians who need our care and support most of all. We have said for a long time that the system is in a state of crisis. Back in May, Bill Shorten said to this parliament that the government likened his statements to committing elder abuse. That was the Leader of the Labor Party raising the profile of these issues to highlight them to the parliament and to the nation. What did those opposite call it? They called his statements 'an act of elder abuse'.

I don't think that there is anyone in our nation who would disagree that there need to be more workers and better-trained staff in our nursing homes. I have spoken to staff who are members of the United Voice union about their desire to be able to access training and to lift quality standards in the homes in which they work. Time and time again, they've told me stories like: 'I've been offered an online package to go and do my personal care training but there's no time to do it. I can't even leave the nursing home to go and do this training because we do not have the staff available. If I leave the nursing home to go and do training, then there is no-one here to do the personal care for the residents of my home.' There are real reasons why staff have been unable to do the training that they need, and that is because they don't have access— (Time expired)

3:17 pm

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

Senator Paterson, in his contribution a few moments ago, shared with us how disappointed he was. I'm going to share with you how confused I am with regard to what Labor's position is on aged-care issues generally. Also, specifically, what are they talking about with regard to the royal commission? Do they support it, and will they be active in promoting proper consideration of aged-care issues?

I think it's important to expose the very serious mistruths and lies that are being told regarding what is actually happening with aged-care funding in our country. What Labor wants you to believe is not the truth. In fact, Labor wants you not to go back and look at its own past behaviour on aged-care funding and, importantly, on how aged-care funding works in our country.

There can be no doubt that the royal commission is necessary, because what we have seen is a tremendous failure of the system. There can be no denying it. With the rates of compliance failures and the closure of homes, no-one can deny the importance of a royal commission. But what Labor is seeking to do is undermine the worthiness of that royal commission and distract people's attention from the very important work that that royal commission must do—and, I'd argue, must do quickly—to turn this issue, the proper care of older Australians, into part of its rhetoric and preparations for the next election.

Let's be clear: the royal commission is broadly supported across the Australian community. The Women With Disabilities organisation has supported it. The Council on the Ageing has supported it. The Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils in Australia has supported it. The coalition supports it, and I dare say many Labor members and senators support it. But the confusion that Labor seeks to build and spread across the community undermines their decency with regard to what the royal commission is seeking to do, and that is to build an aged-care system that properly cares for ageing Australians in an environment that is rapidly changing. The aged-care needs of this country over the next five to 15 years will be very, very different to the aged-care needs that dominated this country over the last 10 years. We saw that in the work of the Productivity Commission in 2010, and we have seen that in the Living Longer, Living Better legislative package. Aged care is a dynamic and important issue for our country. It deserves constant attention by policymakers and, importantly, I'd argue, it requires strong bipartisanship or tripartisanship across the parliament if the needs of older Australians can going to be properly met.

Senator Paterson shared with us some media commentary yesterday by Bernard Keane and Crikey which made the case very clearly that the coalition had not cut aged-care funding. Let me share with you some media from today that demonstrates very, very clearly that aged-care funding has not been cut by this coalition government—and you can read it for yourselves in the Sydney Morning Herald. It is an article by Eryk Bagshaw entitled, 'Has the federal government cut funding to aged care?' What does that media report say? It says:

Even as a proportion of the total economy, which accounts for immigration and other factors, spending on aged care increased from 0.73 per cent in Wayne Swan's fifth budget as a Labor treasurer to 1.05 per cent of GDP in Mr Morrison's May budget.

Labor has repeatedly targeted a 2015-16 budget measure that shows the government would achieve $1.2 billion in "efficiencies" over four years, but focusing on one measure in the sixth largest area of government spending is misleading and ignores a funding increase of more than $1 billion every year since Labor was in office.

That's not Senator Smith's contribution or Senator Scullion's contribution, but the work Eryk Bagshaw in the Sydney Morning Herald.

What would Labor do in the future? We don't know what Labor would do in the future just yet, so let's have a look at what Labor has said in the past. Going into the last federal election, Labor said: 'I will not sugar-coat it; Labor is not in a position to reverse those cuts.'

3:22 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Let me make it very clear: Labor are not undermining anything or anyone. If anything, what we are doing is keeping these guys opposite accountable—accountable to the Australian people and accountable to the Australian parliament—on why they make the decisions they do, when they make the decisions they do, especially when the Minister for Aged Care, only a month ago, didn't agree with a royal commission. However, that minister has been rolled by his own cabinet and made to agree that something that he said on national television was not necessary. Why was that? Why was it not necessary? It was because Minister Wyatt knew that this parliament conducted numerous reports over many, many years—and, in fact, so many reports in the five years of this government—in relation to the care and concern for aged people in this country. Those recommendations, which could have been implemented by this government, simply have not been implemented.

We have heard on national television, on the ABC's Four Corners report, the deeply distressing and painful stories of families in this country who have seen their loved ones treated in ways that are absolutely appalling. We've seen stories of those who work in the industry, who have tried on numerous occasions to have the system changed and who have had their concerns fall on deaf ears.

The Labor Party is asking the right questions here. It's not about undermining or disagreeing with the need for care for our most vulnerable people in this country; it is about keeping this lot transparent. Why is it that, again, they wait for a national television program, the Four Corners program, to put a story to air before immediately rushing to a royal commission? It's just like what they did with the Northern Territory youth detention centre. Out of the 226 recommendations of that royal commission, the Commonwealth has failed to fund a single one of those recommendations. And in keeping this lot accountable, we will certainly want to see what the terms of reference will be, what they mean and who will be involved with it. And, just like the Northern Territory royal commission, I will certainly want to see that there is sufficient examination of our remote, rural and regional areas, of our First Nations families in particular, in some of the most desperate and desolate places across this country.

Aged-care providers around Australia have adjusted accordingly. Next to children, our elderly, our most vulnerable, are the ones who have suffered in this country. The Prime Minister's announcement of a royal commission into aged-care quality and safety surprised everyone. As I said, it certainly surprised the minister responsible, Ken Wyatt. In the Northern Territory, while many remote care services do their best to provide care, I've seen the issues that impact on some of our elders, and they are suffering because of the neglect and terrible policies of this government. At many of the aged-care facilities in remote NT communities, there are high fences and locked gates. This is not to stop residents from wandering, but to keep out community members who humbug the elderly for food and money because they've been cut off from CDP—another failed government policy. Too many of our elders are living locked behind 10-foot fences.

Last year it was revealed that renowned artist Kathleen Ngale, who was in her 80s, was spending most of her time sleeping outside in freezing desert nights, often going hungry and sometimes unable to wash. She lived on a homeland in the Utopia region, where there was reported to be up to 15 people sleeping rough at times. They were living in total poverty, totally disempowered. These are some of the oldest living traditional owners of this country. We will most certainly keep this government accountable in all that it does here.

Question agreed to.