Senate debates

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

COVID-19: Aged Care

3:02 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians (Senator Colbeck) to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today relating to COVID-19 and aged care.

Here we go again—another woeful performance from the utterly out of his depth incompetent minister for aged care, Senator Colbeck. There have truly been a sad series of days this week here in the Senate watching Senator Colbeck flail around and demonstrate day after day why older Australians and their loved ones can have no confidence whatsoever in the man who is overseeing and running our aged-care system in this country.

Let's be really, really clear: it is the Australian government—the federal government—that is responsible for keeping older Australians safe in aged care. It's not the state governments, it's not the territory governments and it's not local governments; it's the federal government that regulates aged care. It's the federal government that funds aged care. It's the federal government whose job it is to keep aged-care residents safe, and they have grossly failed in that responsibility.

The Prime Minister and the series of aged-care ministers we have seen in this government have failed to plan for this aged-care crisis, they have failed to act when the crisis hit and they have completely failed to take responsibility for the problems that are of their own making. The Prime Minister, as he is wont to do, says that it's not his fault, that it's not his responsibility, that there is no responsibility here and that none of these problems could have been anticipated. The only way you could not anticipate what we have seen play out in aged-care homes across Victoria is if you had kept your eyes shut, covered your ears, closed your mouth and ignored warning after warning after warning in the seven years this government has been in power about the state of the aged-care system and the risk that it posed to residents.

Today in question time we went to only a small number of the warnings this government have received. We would need weeks and weeks of question times to point out every warning this government has received. But let's be generous to the government and focus on just a small number of them. Six years ago this government was handed an aged-care workforce strategy by a committee chaired by an expert, Professor Pollaers, which illustrated what needed to be done to make sure that the aged-care sector in Australia had the workforce it needed. But as we went on to see, as with every other warning, that strategy was ignored. It was not implemented. In fact, just recently Professor Pollaers, who conducted that strategy, says that there has no progress by this government in implementing it and that in fact they have just sat on his report.

This government's sitting on that report has put the lives of older Australians at risk. They had the opportunity to get the workforce in place. They had a report that told them what to do, and they couldn't get around to doing it over the next six years, and we are now seeing the result of that. Last year the royal commission's interim report was handed down, titled Neglect. It doesn't get more obvious than that. What exactly did the government need from its royal commission to realise how serious the problems in the aged-care system were? Again, they failed to act.

Then we get to this year, once we see COVID hit, and we see all around the world the problems that are happening in the aged-care system, but nothing is done here to prepare. In March it starts impacting on Australian aged-care centres. At Dorothy Henderson Lodge, tragically, lives were lost. All the permanent carers were forced into isolation, because COVID got into the aged-care home. But still nothing was done. A month later, in April, we see it again: Newmarch House; 87 per cent of staff go into isolation. Again, older Australians' lives are lost because of the failures to take the precautionary measures needed. Then we get to Victoria, where it's run like wildfire through Victorian aged-care homes, and we are now seeing hundreds of older Australians die and over 1,000 aged-care workers contract COVID themselves. This government has known what needed to be done. It has had warnings repeatedly. It has failed to plan, it has failed to act and it fails to take responsibility. (Time expired)

3:07 pm

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Finance, Charities and Electoral Matters) Share this | | Hansard source

The coalition government—the Prime Minister and the minister responsible, Minister Colbeck, and the entire government—has from day one treated issues around aged care and protection of the community in aged-care homes and in other settings with the utmost of seriousness. That is backed by our record, by the amount of investment that we are putting in, by the way we are responding. It would be a lot easier to take the attacks coming from the Labor Party seriously if they didn't resort to the politics of smear against the minister and if they didn't resort to outright lies in order to make their case.

The minister, the Prime Minister and the government have not only taken this seriously and of course expressed our sincere condolences to those who have lost loved ones. We are working to address these issues and are continuing to work with other governments. When we have Senator Watt come in here and engage in the politics of smear, it needs to be seen for what it is. It would be a lot easier to take it seriously if they didn't have to resort to outright lies, as we have seen on a number of occasions in this space. If the attack was to be taken seriously, if we were to believe they were actually sincere—well, they wouldn't have to tell bald-faced lies in this place and in the other place. We had it in question time again today, where they claim—and they did it in the House today—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Polley?

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Deputy President, I want to bring to your attention the language that the good senator is using. It's unparliamentary and I ask him to withdraw it.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Seselja, whilst you haven't named senators directly, it's close to the wind. So I ask you to refrain, if you wouldn't mind. Please continue.

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Finance, Charities and Electoral Matters) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you for your guidance, Madam Deputy President. The Labor Party has been going in there, into the House of Representatives and the Senate, and outright lying when it comes to aged care. We can go to the facts. Because Mr Albanese—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Polley?

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Deputy President, I raise with you again that the assertions of the senator are unacceptable and unparliamentary. I ask you to remind him or ask him to withdraw.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Seselja, you can't actually say, 'People have come into this chamber'. That's my advice from the clerk.

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Finance, Charities and Electoral Matters) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. The Labor Party has been going around the place lying about this issue. It goes to the fact that this is about politics rather than getting to the substance of the issue. The substance of the issue is something this government takes seriously and treats with the utmost seriousness. But you have to come in and claim that we've cut funding. We inherited a spend in aged care of a tick over $13 billion annually from the Labor Party. That has gone up to $22 billion, and in the forward estimates will go to $25 billion. So, when the Labor Party comes in here and pretends that they are serious about the issue and that they are serious about accountability, let's go to the fact that they don't want to speak to the fact that they want to make up their own numbers—false numbers and fake numbers. That's what we've heard from Mr Albanese in the other place, and that's what we've consistently heard from senior Labor—

An opposition senator interjecting

Well, we've got the budget papers, where it goes from $13 billion, when we came to government, to $22 billion. We are taking this issue seriously and will continue to take this issue seriously. But when you see this kind of smear from Senator Watt, and when you see this kind of dishonesty from other members of the Labor Party, it goes to the other fact: they are running a protection racket for the Victorian Labor government. At no stage in considering the facts of the matter and considering the serious challenges in aged-care facilities in Victoria do they go to the fact that these things are happening in Victoria because of the serious failings of Dan Andrews and the Victorian government in quarantine, in testing and in tracing. This is a government that had the toughest lockdowns, but the biggest—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Polley?

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Deputy President, I just draw your attention that we should be using the correct titles. It is Premier Dan Andrews.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Polley. Senator Seselja, please continue.

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Finance, Charities and Electoral Matters) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. It is Premier Dan Andrews and his failings that this lot over here want to run a protection racket for. They want to ignore the failures of quarantine. They want to ignore the failures of testing and tracing. This is a government where Premier Dan Andrews acted like a dictator during this process. He had the toughest lockdowns and the biggest failings, and the people of Victoria are suffering the consequences. Those on the other side ignore that. I haven't heard a Victorian Labor senator come in here and raise one iota of criticism of Dan Andrews from the Victorian Labor government. Why is it happening in Victoria and not in New South Wales? Has New South Wales not faced similar challenges? Of course they have, but they have responded differently. This goes to the heart of the political attack. They will lie, they will smear and they will continue to run a protection racket for their mate Daniel Andrews in Victoria.

3:14 pm

Photo of Anthony ChisholmAnthony Chisholm (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The performance that we just saw from Senator Seselja was completely unbecoming of this chamber. One of the things that I have really found difficult to deal with over the last couple of months has been speaking to some of my Victorian colleagues and hearing the firsthand accounts from them of the work that they have been doing, dealing with the aged-care crisis in Victoria. They have been traumatised by the work they have had to do helping out their constituents in aged care. Some of the stories that we have been highlighting at part of our work here this week have been really important to put a spotlight on the neglect of this government. What we went through in question time today was not only the neglect that this government has been responsible for this year but that, going back over many years, this government has been responsible for the neglect in aged care.

We saw through the questions from Senator Watt, Senator Ciccone, Senator O'Neill, Senator Carr and me that the government were warned by experts and they were warned by their own reports, but they were also warned by people on their own team—by Mr Broadbent and Senator Fierravanti-Wells—numerous times about their neglect of aged care. Senator Ciccone and Senator Carr focused on the workforce issues. As Senator Watt mentioned, the government had a report on that years ago that they failed to actually take any action on. Senator O'Neill and I focused on the warnings from colleagues.

There is a history and a pattern with this government when it comes to difficult challenges on this issue. There is a timeline through this that tells the story of the government's neglect of aged care now going back five or six years. The timeline actually centres around the now Prime Minister, who was Treasurer at the time. We know that in December 2015 and May 2016, as Treasurer, the now Prime Minister cut $2 billion from the aged-care budget. These decisions have real consequences,. In June 2018, the government received a report from the Aged Care Workforce Strategy Taskforce and failed to implement its recommendations. What happened after this? We know that—and I am sure Senator Cormann recalls this as well; the anniversary was recently—on 24 August Scott Morrison became Prime Minister. We saw Minister Colbeck respond on this numerous times today. We know that a few weeks later he called a royal commission into aged care. What we know with this Prime Minister is that, before he makes any decision, it's politics first, politics second and politics third. We know in those three weeks after he became Prime Minister, before he called a royal commission, he would have been sitting around with his colleagues saying: 'Right. What do we have to try to neutralise to get through an election campaign? I know! Let's have a royal commission into aged care.' Their motivation wasn't to fix these problems. Their motivation was to get this off the agenda so they didn't have to deal with the real challenges of aged care between then and their election. That's what their motivation was. Their motivation was always around the politics and not around fixing these challenges. We know this because they received the interim report from the royal commission titled Neglect. What could possibly get you more motivated to take more action than receiving a report titled Neglect? They failed to act on its findings.

What we have seen this year is devastation that this government needs to be held accountable for. We saw aged-care homes hit throughout the world, providing a warning shot for the Australian government to be ready. We know in March and April there were outbreaks in New South Wales and then obviously over the last couple of months we have seen the devastation in Victoria. There is one figure that Senator Seselja didn't mention, and that's the more than 300 deaths that we've had in Victoria as a result of this, with more than a thousand people in aged care battling the virus at the moment.

Minister Colbeck happens to be the one who is in the job now who is bearing responsibility for these decisions that the government have made over numerous years. The minister was warned and the government were warned about years of neglect. The minister was the one there when it all caught up with them in devastating fashion, because they have been found wanting in aged care. They have been found wanting in their response to COVID and how they are dealing with it. There is no doubt that there is a lack of confidence in this minister to deal with this COVID outbreak. But the long-term worry for Australians is that he's not going to be capable enough to put in the long-term reforms that aged care needs, and this is what this government needs to be held accountable for.

3:19 pm

Photo of Jim MolanJim Molan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We have taken responsibility. We have acted. We will continue to act, and we will act effectively. From day one, based on our record—and our record is known—we will be accountable. We will not smear and we will not lie. What we've seen in the last few days is a game of numbers that is a disgrace to those who have suffered in aged care or anywhere else with COVID-19. Perfection might be something which exists in the world opposite, but, in the real world in which we live, let's look at how we compare.

Of course every death in Australia due to COVID-19, including the deaths of older Australians in residential aged care, is a tragedy. I extend my deepest sympathy and condolences to the families and carers of those who have died. I also acknowledge the extraordinary work that's been put in by the workers—the dedicated aged-care workforce who turn up, work and face extraordinarily confronting situations each and every day. But—and this is an important point—during the COVID-19 pandemic, no country has been able to avoid outbreaks or deaths in residential aged care when there has been widespread community transmission, as we saw in Premier Dan Andrews's Victoria.

I totally reject the assertion that Australia has a high death rate in residential aged care by international comparisons. In actual fact, the contrary is true. Of course that doesn't detract from the tragedy of every death. I know that the opposition does not like facts, but these are the facts. Australia's overall COVID death rate as a proportion of cases is around 2.1 per cent, compared to 13.1 per cent in the UK, and 3.2 per cent in the USA. The death rate in aged care across Australia as a proportion of total aged-care residents is around 0.18 per cent, or 1.2 per cent in a thousand, compared to 5.3 per cent in the UK, where there have been nearly 20,000 deaths. These are the facts. The opposition has been playing some fun catch-me-out mathematical game for a week or so. These are the mathematical facts: in the UK, of the 9,081 care homes included in a recent study, 56 per cent reported at least one confirmed case of coronavirus among the staff or residents, compared to 7.7 per cent in Australian aged-care homes. Nationally, there have been 25,053 cases of COVID-19, including 525 deaths. Of those deaths, 342 have been aged-care recipients: 335 in residential care and seven in home care. This represents a national crude case fatality rate of 2.1 per cent and a per capita death rate of two per 100,000 of population. Globally, there is a crude case fatality rate of 3.7 per cent, whereas Australia's crude case fatality rate is comparatively lower at 2.1 per cent. By comparison, the crude case fatality rate in the United Kingdom is 13.1 per cent; in the United States, it's 3.2 per cent; and in Canada, it's 7.4 per cent.

We have taken responsibility. We have acted. We will continue to act, and we will act effectively—as we have from day one, based on our record. We will be accountable, without smearing or lying. (Time expired)

3:24 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm sure I'm not the only person in the chamber or the only person listening to that last contribution who finds the effort to obscure the government's responsibility with a wall of figures as odious as we should find it. The idea that Senator Molan—

Government Senators:

Government senators interjecting

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Senator Ayres, resume your seat. Order! Senator Ayres has the right—

Senator Wong interjecting

Senator Wong—to be heard in peace. I meant 'silence', sorry. Thank you, Senator Ayres.

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd settle for a bit of peace at the moment! Comparing our performance in Australia, a First-World developed country, to Florida or the United Kingdom, old Jim's ideological bedfellows, where it's a complete and utter disaster—exactly where Prime Minister Morrison would have taken the country if left to his own devices—is absolutely odious.

But this is about aged care. Minister Colbeck's performance in this chamber during question time today and yesterday and the day before has been excruciating. It should be a source of shame to him and an embarrassment to his colleagues. But the problem is much deeper than Minister Colbeck's embarrassing performance. It's systemic, it's political, it's an abject failure of governance and it's a symbol of the utter contempt that this government has for its most basic responsibilities—that is, to govern in the interests of all Australians. In this case it's older Australians, who deserve our respect, our love and the highest standards of service, not cuts or a system that's all about profiteering and neglect.

There were plenty of warnings. We went through those in some detail in question time today. Forty per cent of US COVID deaths have been in aged-care facilities, as have 80 per cent of Canada's deaths. There were the outbreaks at Newmarch and Dorothy Henderson Lodge in March. At the height of the Newmarch crisis, 87 per cent of their staff were unable to attend work. No action from the government! Federal advice was to prepare for up to 30 per cent of staff being infected or quarantined, yet only 50 per cent of this so-called surge funding, breathlessly announced in another press conference, another announcement, has been spent. A report from Professor Gilbert was handed to the government on 14 April. It was only made public when it was submitted to the royal commission into aged care. It focused on the outbreak at Dorothy Henderson Lodge, where six people died. The warnings went unheeded.

It's abundantly clear that Minister Colbeck isn't fit to run Australia's aged-care system, which is why, despite having the title of Australia's aged-care minister, he's had many of his responsibilities in this pandemic stripped away from him. The safest bet in politics at the moment is that Senator Colbeck's ministry will not survive the next reshuffle. Why was Senator Colbeck ever put in charge of our aged-care system? Senator Colbeck has no experience in the sector. He briefly served as Minister for Tourism and International Education. In 2016 he was demoted to fifth place on the Liberal Party's Tasmanian Senate ticket, and he only returned to the parliament because former Senator Parry had to leave. A man who the Tasmanian Liberals didn't even want to put into an electable position on the Tasmanian Senate ticket has been put in charge of a system that provides care for 1.3 million older Australians.

Beyond supporting the appointment of this minister, the Prime Minister is deeply implicated in the aged-care crisis. As determined as he always is to avoid responsibility, aged care is funded and regulated by the federal government. It is a core federal responsibility. From the Prime Minister there's no shortage of sympathetic words, crocodile tears and focus-group-tested apologies to the residents of Australia's aged-care system, but his fake empathy derives from only one thing, and that is his fear of the exposure of his role in the running down of Australia's aged-care system, in the cuts to funding for Australia's aged-care system, and his role as an utter failure at doing what should have been done all this year to make sure we defended Australia's aged-care residents against the coronavirus pandemic.

Question agreed to.