Senate debates

Monday, 31 August 2020

Matters of Public Importance

COVID-19: Aged Care, COVID-19: Aged-Care Workers

3:46 pm

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

I inform the Senate that at 8.30 am today 18 proposals were received in accordance with standing order 75. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot. As a result, I inform the Senate that the following letter has been received from Senator Chisholm:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

The decision by the Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians (Senator Colbeck) to turn his back on his accountability and responsibility to this parliament; on the families, friends, children, grandchildren, siblings and friends of each and every one of the older Australians who has died in aged care as a result of COVID-19; and on the 200,000 Australians in aged care and those who put themselves at risk every day to care for them.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times for each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

3:47 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As of 8 o'clock this morning, 457 older Australians have died either in residential aged care or other aged-care settings as a result of COVID-19. They've died in circumstances where their families and loved ones were unable to hold them, unable to comfort them and unable to say a proper goodbye. Over 120 residential aged-care facilities have now had COVID-19 outbreaks, including at least 10 facilities that have had more than 100 infections. The government had months to plan for an outbreak in aged care, and they did nothing.

One of the most damning indictments of their performance was given by the aged care royal commission. Let me remind people once again of what the commissioners said:

Had the Australian Government acted upon previous reviews of aged care, the persistent problems in aged care would have been known much earlier and the suffering of many people could have been avoided.

I quote the commissioners to make the point that it's not just Labor that has been saying this. The government's own appointed commissioners have criticised the government's failure to plan for an aged-care outbreak. Even the New South Wales Liberal government released a report saying that the Morrison government had no plan to deal with what has happened in aged care. I also remind those opposite of this part of the statement made by counsel assisting the commissioners, Peter Rozen QC, about the government's attitude following the Newmarch House outbreak:

… a degree of self-congratulation and even hubris was displayed by the Commonwealth Government.

Failure to plan, hubris and self-congratulation—that's what we've heard stated by the aged care royal commission.

We've also heard of the errors and the delays in communicating with relatives about whether their loved ones were dead or alive and, despite the numerous warnings the government had about communication issues on outbreaks from both Newmarch House and Dorothy Henderson Lodge, they still failed to fix these issues when further outbreaks occurred. With three months to learn from the failures of the Newmarch House outbreak, it's astounding that exactly the same issues were repeated in the St Basil's outbreak. The minister had three months to learn from what happened at Newmarch House, yet he still failed to put in place plans for the sector.

Given these failings, I wonder how those relatives of the hundreds of older Australians who've died felt when the minister turned his back and walked out of the chamber during the debate on his mishandling of the crisis. I wonder how those relatives of older Australians who have come close to death felt after they'd gone through the pain and uncertainty of not knowing where their relatives were or what condition they were in. And how did they feel when confronted with Mr Morrison's response to being told that Australia's aged-care sector has one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the world? When Mr Morrison was confronted with this tragic fact, he said, 'When it rains, everyone gets wet.' Seriously? What an insensitive sort of comment to make. What a glib, insensitive and stupid response to this national tragedy. It's the kind of response, however, that typifies this government's attitude to the aged-care COVID-19 outbreak—no care, no plans and no responsibility.

When Mr Colbeck turned his back and walked out of the chamber last week he turned his back on the more than one million Australians receiving aged care, their families and the 360,000 workers who care for and support them. While the minister can walk out of the Senate chamber, he cannot turn his back and walk away from his, and his government's, disastrous handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in aged care. He can try and run and he can try and hide, but he cannot do it forever. The Prime Minister continues to claim that he's got confidence in the minister, but Mr Morrison's actions actually spoke volumes when he cut the minister out of key decisions relating to managing the outbreak in aged care. There's no way of spinning this: Mr Morrison has shown his lack of confidence in Senator Colbeck by effectively demoting him.

You would think that at this stage, with where the crisis is and the amount of scrutiny that the minister and his government are under, they would have got a handle on what is happening in aged care, but they haven't. Around half of the active cases in Victoria are in aged-care settings, but the failures are still continuing. The Morrison government has no idea how many aged-care workers in Victoria are working across multiple sites. We still don't have assurances that all workers have access to adequate PPE and that they've completed the PPE use and infection control training. As of Thursday last week, only one in four had, and it is still voluntary, as I understand it. I'm happy to be corrected if it's been made compulsory since Thursday. Maybe someone could tell me. But why is it not compulsory? It is bizarre. There are still new infections in aged care in Victoria, which points to an obvious lack of adequate infection control.

Senators on the opposite side of the chamber claim that Labor are making this a political issue. The minister himself accused us of playing games. Let me tell everybody listening: nothing could be further from the truth. It's our job as the opposition to highlight the government's aged-care failings and demand some accountability for them. It is our job to call on this government to do better. It is also our job to offer constructive suggestions as to how it can do better because, in doing so, there is a chance we can save lives.

The shadow minister for aged care, Julie Collins, the member for Franklin, has done an amazing job over the last seven years, trying to hold this government to account for the litany of issues around aged care and the concerns she's had about aged care. I just want to take my hat off to shadow minister Julie Collins and to say: Thank you for the work, Julie. I think without your hard work the aged-care sector would be in a much worse situation than it is now. Thank you for holding the government to account.

There are thousands of families out there with relatives in aged care who expect us to take up this issue on their behalf. They're afraid for their relatives—their mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts and uncles—and they want some assurance that those people are safe. As I mentioned last week in this place, according to a recent survey, 54 per cent of people with loved ones in aged care want to get them out. This shocking statistic is a clear demonstration of the level of fear that Australians have about the state of aged care and the level of distrust they have in the government's ability to manage this outbreak.

Residents and their families are not the only ones who are scared. We've got aged-care workers who are scared too. They're dealing with the fear of being infected day in, day out while trying to work in an aged-care system which is under the most incredible pressure. It's underfunded. They can't get appropriate PPE. They worry about going home to their families and maybe infecting them. It's completely unreasonable for this government to not take responsibility and to not have dealt with it over the past few months. The emotional toll this crisis is taking pushes those workers to exhaustion. All those workers are looking for is an assurance that the government overseeing the sector that they work in, the Australian government, is looking out for their health and safety. They want to hear that the government has a clear plan to end the COVID-19 outbreak in aged care and to prevent further outbreaks in the sector, and that's what Labor wants too.

We are simply looking for action. We are looking to this government to take responsibility for their role in managing the COVID-19 outbreak in aged care. We are raising these issues here to help save lives, and that's why we've done more than just criticise, more than just point out the failings of those opposite; we have outlined a positive plan to address the crisis. Mr Albanese outlined Labor's eight-point plan on aged care to the National Press Club last week. I hope those opposite have taken time to read and consider the eight points, but, just in case they haven't, I'll quickly go through them: establish minimum staffing levels in residential aged care, reduce the home care package waiting list so more people can stay in their homes for longer, ensure transparency and accountability of funding to support high-quality care— (Time expired)

3:57 pm

Photo of Amanda StokerAmanda Stoker (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Senate is a funny place. Labor come here and they ask their questions at question time and they say, 'Oh, there's not enough funding for aged care.' The coalition announces more funding for aged care, and they say, 'Oh, it's not really funding for aged care.' Well, what is it? A ham sandwich? Then they say, 'Oh, another announcement!' mockingly, as though to announce more funding for aged care is something less than what they were asking for only a day ago. Then they harass the minister, demanding an apology for everything, and then, when he does offer a sincere, heartfelt, deeply held apology, they double down again, offering cover for dodgy Dan Andrews, hoping that if they attack him enough no-one will notice the dog's breakfast going on in Victoria. But the Australian people are a whole lot smarter than Labor give them credit for, so I'm going to go to the facts.

Facts are very uncomfortable for those opposite. Facts are very uncomfortable, but I'm going to go to some. How about this? The percentage of lives—

Hon. Senators:

Honourable senators interjecting

Photo of Amanda StokerAmanda Stoker (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This really matters. The percentage of lives lost—very tragically of course—among those in residential aged care in Australia is 0.18 per cent. All losses of lives are tragic, and nobody resiles from that, but at 0.18 per cent of the residential aged-care population—remember that these are people who are fragile. Many of them are in residential aged care to help them through a palliative processes. Many of them are complex cases, managing a number of illnesses, many of which have the potential, themselves, to end life. None of this is to dismiss the seriousness of COVID-19, of course, but it is to acknowledge the fact that the challenge presented by managing deaths in the residential aged-care context is different to managing it in the broader community.

We're at 0.18 per cent. Let's compare that to Canada. For the same circumstances—residential aged-care residents—their rate is 1.5 per cent. That's six times the Australian rate. Let's go to France as a comparison. There, the equivalent figure is 2.4 per cent: 2.4 of their residential aged-care population have passed away. That is 1,300 per cent of the Australian figure.

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

I have a point of order under standing order 193(3), which says:

A senator shall not use offensive words against either House of Parliament or of a House of a state or territory parliament, or any member of such House, or against a judicial officer, and all imputations of improper motives and all personal reflections on those Houses, members or officers shall be considered highly disorderly.

Madam Acting Deputy President, I ask you to consider that with the contribution from Senator Stoker referring to 'dodgy Dan Andrews'.

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I remind senators of the standing order, as raised by Senator Gallagher.

Photo of Amanda StokerAmanda Stoker (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Acting Deputy President, are you asking me to withdraw? Perhaps I could offer this accommodation: I could clarify what I meant? I'm happy to withdraw and clarify?

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Stoker, you could refer to the Premier of Victoria by his correct title and move on. Senator Polley?

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

Acting Deputy President, I ask you, under that standing order, to ask Senator Stoker to withdraw her comment.

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I made a ruling. Senator Stoker, could you please continue with your remarks and clarify the correct title for the Premier of Victoria as you are referring to him.

Photo of Amanda StokerAmanda Stoker (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you very much. I was referring to the Premier of Victoria and the political cover that those opposite were seeking to give, and I withdraw any reference to 'dodgy Dan'.

Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator. Please continue.

Photo of Amanda StokerAmanda Stoker (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In their craven attempts to provide political cover for the Premier of Victoria and his epic fails to manage the COVID-19 virus, they seem to ignore the comparative performance of the Australian aged-care population on this measure. Before I was interrupted, I mentioned that the Australian rate of lives lost among the residential aged-care population is, quite sadly, 0.18 per cent. In France, it is 2.4 per cent, or over 1,300 per cent of the Australian figure. Let's go to Spain. It is 2.5 per cent there. In Ireland, it's 3.2 per cent. In Italy, it's 3.2 per cent. In Austria, it's 4.9 per cent of the residential aged-care population—1,600 per cent of the rate we have here in Australia. This is absolutely enormous. When we compare the fact that in the United Kingdom 16,598 older people who are residents of residential aged care have passed away—5.3 per cent of their entire aged-care residential population, which is 3,000 per cent of the Australian figure—it's a little bit rich for those people opposite to be playing this flip-flopping game where they say, 'There's not enough funding,' and then they say, 'That announcement's not real funding; that's just reannouncing old measures.' What we have in place here is a plan, devised in January and implemented in the months following, for which funding has been the subject of an announcement of an enormous extension today to show that we are committed to managing this difficult situation as best as it possibly can be to protect Australia's older people. It's very easy for those opposite to have an awfully short memory. When we came to government how much was the budget for aged care? It was $13 billion. When we go to the year just completed the funding for aged care in this country was $22 billion. It will continue to grow to $23 billion, $24 billion and $25 billion for each year of the forward estimates. Aged-care funding in this country is increasing by over a billion dollars every year. That's not just inflation, those are significant investments in our aging population and continual improvements of the standard of care that Australian families can expect when they come to depend upon residential aged care to help them through some of the most difficult times of life.

Since the 2018-19 budget this government has invested $3 billion into home-care packages to support more Australians living in their homes for longer. We've released 14,275 new residential aged-care places. We're investing $5.3 billion from 1 July through to June 2022 for existing Commonwealth Home Support Program service providers, so that they have got continuity of service for the 840,000 people they assist across Australia. We've invested $21.9 million for the cost of operating My Aged Care. We've provided $320 million in a boost for residential care subsidies. We've given providers almost $50 million for a business improvement fund to assist them through financial difficulty, to prioritise helping them get the assistance they need to run those operations well in a long-term, viable way. And, of course, we're helping with some of the unique challenges that come with operating a residential aged-care service in rural, regional and remote areas of Australia.

There's an ongoing 30 per cent increase to the viability supplement to support services that operate in rural and regional Australia. I can tell you, there are unique challenges that operate in rural and regional Australia for the provision of aged care. An example I can give you is this: most of the time in order to be viable an aged-care centre needs to have a certain number of residents to get the economies of scale—to use a somewhat crass term—needed to make it economical to be able to provide a high level of care to all of those people who are residents. But in a place like Dalby, for instance, where there is an outstanding aged-care centre being run by the local Rotarians, with the assistance of council, the smaller population of that town means that the per head cost is much higher. The local community pitches in to make sure the service can stay in the local area, because it is important to keep families connected to one another. This government recognises those challenges by providing additional funding through the special funds to acknowledge some of the financial challenges that come from operating a service of this kind in rural and regional areas, because we understand that it's important to keep families together. The Dalby aged-care service is an outstanding quality aged-care residential home, with cheerful residents living a good life in a beautiful country environment. Those are the kinds of services we are supporting all around the country, and so we will not be lectured to by those opposite who underperformed persistently during their time in government. We stand by senior Australians through the toughest days of their lives.

4:09 pm

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

I rise to make a contribution to this debate on aged care. If we had a plan in January, it has now failed. I dispute that we had a plan, but, if we did have a plan, I don't know that the government should be shouting about it from the rooftop, given that it has failed. We have had so many people—older Australians—die in aged care, we've had healthcare workers become extremely ill from COVID and we have not prepared adequately. This comes to an aged-care sector which, I would strongly argue, was in crisis even before COVID got here. We were not well set up to deal with it.

I want to go through one of the later reports into aged care. This report was looking particularly at clinical care in aged care. For me, it underlines what the problems are in aged care and one of the reasons we are in the position we are in now. The introduction to the last chapter of the report, in which the report made a number of recommendations, states:

5.1 Residential aged care is a hybrid model of service delivery, awkwardly straddling the divide between being a health facility and support accommodation. The problem with this approach is that it is people who fall in the gap: people who are vulnerable, frail and aged, and who often lack an advocate who is both aware of their needs and is in a position to ensure their rights.

5.2 There is a lack of clarity about where the dividing line is between personal and clinical care, who should be responsible for delivering those different types of care, and who should be responsible for the standards of care. Until we solve the fundamental problem of defining what we want from residential aged care facilities (RACFs), no regulatory framework will be able to resolve these issues.

5.3 This lack of definition is not only felt at the service level, it is evident within policies, operational guidelines and funding frameworks within the Department of Health (Department) itself, which lack clarity and are often contradictory in how aged care is defined.

5.4 There has been a move to make RACFs more comfortable for residents, reflecting that RACFs are, for all intents and purposes, their home. However, it appears that this has been conflated with a move to reduce the clinical rigor of services in that 'home'. … a lack of formality in appearance should not result in any lack of formality in clinical services.

5.5 This inquiry has demonstrated to the committee that gaps exist in the current framework for the delivery of clinical services in RACFs and that poor clinical care for older Australians … has too often been the result. … the Single Aged Care Quality Framework … is a positive step forward… much more needs to be done to promote a higher quality of care for people living in RACFs.

5.6 The committee considers that aged care stands at a crossroad.

The committee was right. Aged care did stand at a crossroad. I would argue that it has gone across the crossroad into a disaster when you consider COVID.

The government 'noted' most of the recommendations from this committee, and we were discussing that in this place last Thursday when we were talking about the government's response to those recommendations. If the government had implemented those recommendations—instead of just taken note—and moved on clinical care, I argue that we'd be in a much better position now. We'd have a plan to actually deal with COVID and stop it getting into aged care.

Really, can we stop using the argument that just because it has been rampant in other places means it's okay for it to be rampant here? It's not okay. It's not okay for so many people to have passed away due to COVID in our aged-care facilities. It's not okay that we have so many healthcare workers who have caught COVID. We put paid to that notion of, 'They're bringing it in'. No, they're catching it in aged-care facilities. It has been demonstrated that it could be kept out of aged-care facilities if appropriate measures are taken and if people have a plan. But there is no plan to keep it out of aged-care facilities.

While I welcome any expenditure going into aged care, I consider the $563.3 million committed today to be a down payment on what is needed to address these very significant issues. We heard just last week that around $3.5 billion is needed to address the issue, and that money is basically extending current initiatives. It's not addressing one of the fundamental flaws in the system by making sure we have a workforce that is, firstly, funded to the level needed to deliver the care, which is at least four hours and 18 minutes.

So from the start we're behind the eight ball, because we don't have a workforce that is of sufficient size to actually meet the need, let alone be able to do surge workforce when people unfortunately do get sick. So we need the funding, for a start, to go into the proper level of care. And we need a minimum level of care in terms of staffing ratios. We are still having an argument in this country that we might need a nurse on 24/7, for crying out loud. Honestly, that is the level of debate we were having. We were still trying to argue that, let alone get proper ratios to enable proper care, let alone getting the four hours and 18 minutes.

Then we've got to make sure that we have adequate training. I remember providers coming to our hearing—and I'm sure Senator Polley does, too—saying, 'The staff we are hiring are insufficiently trained.' You could go and get a cert III or IV off the internet, for crying out loud, without putting your hands on a patient or a resident. That needs to change. We need to be making sure infectious disease control is mandatory. And how about making sure the retention bonus—additional funding was provided for that—extends not just to direct-care workers? Don't get me wrong: direct-care workers are absolutely essential, but so are the people who keep the place running and so are the people who are working in the kitchen, who are gardening, who are providing auxiliary support services; they are also important and absolutely essential for the good running of good aged-care facilities.

And let's start having a look at the level of profit being made from providing care to older vulnerable Australians. If you look at some of the work that came out of UQ just last week, looking at the quality of care, only 11 per cent of facilities were found to have the best quality of care, and that was based on consumer experience, compliance with official standards and use of medications; 78 per cent were in the middle and 11 per cent provided poorer care. Smaller and government aged-care facilities were more likely to have high-quality services. So, I think we need to have a good hard look at aged care in this country. It's not as if the government hasn't had so many recommendations. You've got the Pollaers report on workforce that has very good recommendations about how to improve the workforce. Where are we in implementing that? We are not very far along the road.

Not only do we need to make sure we are providing funding for the sorts of things the government outlined today but also we need a massive level of funding injected into our workforce, and we need to be training that workforce. And we need to agree that in aged-care facilities these days we are providing clinical care. They are sub-acute facilities, and we need to make sure we hold these providers to account on clinical care, because the argument of whether these facilities provide clinical care was still being had during the inquiry. Well, we know right now that yes, they do. We need to substantially shake up the game here, and we can't wait for the aged-care royal commission to provide its recommendations. While they are going to be very, very important, it doesn't take Einstein to work out that we need a significant investment in our workforce. We need to increase care substantially, so let's get on with doing that right now—cough up the $3.5 billion now. Do not wait for the aged-care royal commission; you can start on it now.

4:19 pm

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Last Thursday the Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians, Senator Colbeck, turned his back on this chamber, and it wasn't just us he turned his back on. He turned his back on the aged-care residents he has failed to protect. He turned his back on their families, their children and their grandchildren. He turned his back on the aged-care workers, who are understaffed and overworked in this crisis. He turned his back on all of those who count on him to do his job and do it well. He turned his back on his accountability not only to this parliament but to the Australian people. He turned his back when he needed to front up. He needed to front up to the crisis in aged care. He needed to front up to the families, front up to the workers, front up to the community—front up and take responsibility, not walk away.

All of last week we saw Minister Colbeck repeatedly dismiss concerns about the crisis in aged care and declare to this chamber just how well he's dealing with it, but that is not real life. In the real world, aged care is in deep crisis. Four hundred and fifty-seven aged-care residents have now lost their lives to this pandemic, to this virus, and many of these residents would not have had the chance to say goodbye to their friends, to say goodbye to their families, to see their loved ones one final time before their death. Many would not have been able to spend their final moments with their spouses, their children or their grandchildren. This crisis is heartbreaking. It is an absolute tragedy. Yet the minister has the audacity to tell this chamber that he is doing a great job, that his performance is a high-water mark. This is the same minister who isn't even across the basic detail of his portfolio.

Senator Van interjecting

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and Financial Technology) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This is the minister that we need to have a plan, that the Australian people need to have a plan to deal with COVID-19 outbreaks in aged care.

Senator Van interjecting

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and Financial Technology) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is the responsibility of this minister we're talking about, the minister who has no plan to keep residents safe, to keep them protected.

We have known about coronavirus for a long time now. We knew it was deadly. We knew that aged-care facilities were particularly vulnerable to outbreaks. But proper protections were not put in place by this minister or by this government. Proper protection was not afforded to the residents of aged care in this country. Proper protections were not put in place. Back in April we had our first aged-care outbreaks. Absolutely no lessons were learned, and Minister Colbeck did not act. There was no audit done of access to PPE.

Senator Van interjecting

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and Financial Technology) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Senator Van.

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There was piecemeal infection control training and no proper workforce strategy was put in place. Aged-care workers have described just how short-staffed and overworked they have been. As a result, history repeated itself in Victorian aged-care homes. Aged-care royal commissioners appointed by this government have pointed to how evidence was ignored, how plans were not put in place and how, tragically, if action had been taken, this crisis could have been prevented.

Senator Van interjecting

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and Financial Technology) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Senator Van.

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

If action had been taken by this minister, by this government, this crisis could have been averted. This is a pretty damning assessment of this minister's response to the—

Senator Van interjecting

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and Financial Technology) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Urquhart on a point of order.

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

You have asked the senator on at least three or four occasions, noting that interjections are disorderly, and he has continued to disregard your ruling. I ask you to draw his attention again to that.

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and Financial Technology) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, Senator Urquhart, interjections are disorderly. Senator Van on the point of order?

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I do recognise that they are disorderly, but I've taken a lead from the other side during question time, who get reminded constantly.

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and Financial Technology) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Van, that's not a debating point. I repeat my previously stated position that interjections are disorderly. Senator Walsh, if you could please continue and if the chamber could respect her right to contribute to this debate.

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The royal commissioners have given a damning assessment of this minister's response to this crisis, yet still we are struggling to get the details of a full plan for aged care from this minister and from this government. Labor has released our plan for aged care, so where is the government's plan?

We desperately need minimum staffing levels. We need to support aged-care workers with job security and decent pay and not rely on the government's bungled retention bonus. We need better staff training, we need a better surge workforce strategy and we need better transparency and accountability. Why have we been waiting so long for your plan? Why have we been waiting so long for transparency and accountability from this minister and this government? Why do we still not have them? The government has failed. This minister has failed. They have failed to protect our most vulnerable Australians. They've failed the families of those vulnerable Australians. They've failed the workers who care for them. Minister Colbeck is clearly not up to the job. It's time for solutions. It's time for action. It's time for a new minister.

4:25 pm

Photo of Sarah HendersonSarah Henderson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the incredibly important issue of aged care. It is with regret that I have to call out these very grubby tactics from Labor senators over the tragic issue of aged-care deaths, including those people who have died from or with COVID-19. The Australian government is determined to ensure a safe environment exists in aged care facilities as we work together to contain the spread of COVID-19. We offer or deep condolences to those families who have lost loved ones. But let's have a debate on facts. Let's not see Labor senators turn their back on the facts.

Across the country, 97 per cent of aged-care facilities have not had an outbreak of COVID-19. That figure is 92 per cent in Victoria. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has announced funding of an additional $1.5 billion in new measures to respond to the impacts of COVID-19 on aged care. The fact is that some 60,000 residents in aged-care facilities die every year. It's a tragic statistic, but that is a fact. But what Labor is attempting to do is attribute the deaths of some 450 aged-care residents and seven home care residents to the minister. This is a disgraceful proposition that demonstrates how desperate the Labor Party has become. As I say, Labor has turned its back on the facts.

First and foremost, here is a very critical fact in this debate: the Australian government's role is to fund and regulate aged care, not to run aged-care facilities. This is done by the state and territory governments, by private operators and not-for-profit operators such as churches. Where there are regulatory breaches, the Australian government, through the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, comes down very heavily on the operator to ensure there are appropriate ramifications, remedies and accountability for such breaches. The commission is taking, at the moment, a proportionate risk based approach in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Remember, this is unprecedented.

The commission continues to use the full range of its regulatory powers to ensure aged-care consumers are safe and providers are delivering quality care and services consistent with the Aged Care Quality Standards. This is of particular importance in respect of the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. If a provider is not meeting its legislative obligations, the commission may take regulatory action, including imposing sanctions or issuing a notice to agree to certain requirements, called an NTA. The commission has taken regulatory action during the pandemic in relation to services where there was a severe and immediate risk to care recipients due to the management of the outbreak. There have been 19 NTAs issued to providers since the beginning of the outbreak for this reason—18 of these notices relate to residential services in Victoria; one notice was issued to Anglicare New South Wales for Newmarch House in New South Wales; and for one NTA that has been issued details have not yet been published. Information about these notices is published on My Aged Care after residents and relatives have been informed by the provider of the action taken by the commission.

We need to have a brutally honest discussion about what is going on in aged care in this country at the moment as a result of the pandemic. Nearly all of the COVID-19 related deaths in aged-care facilities have occurred in Victoria, and yet we have not seen that very important point made by members opposite. I just want to go through the numbers. These are really tragic numbers. Again, I reiterate my condolences to the family and friends of those who have died in aged care, including during this pandemic. These numbers, of course, relate to people who have died from or with COVID-19. There have been 29 deaths in New South Wales, zero in the ACT, zero in the Northern Territory, one in Queensland, zero in South Australia, one in Tasmania and 419 in Victoria.

I reiterate that our government is a national government. Our policies and our plans are enacted across the nation. Our policies and our management of aged-care facilities are no different in Victoria other than Victoria receiving greater funding because of the pressure it has been under due to the number of deaths it has suffered. The difference between what is happening in Victoria and what is happening in other states is the alarmingly high rate of community transmission which has been caused, principally, because of the Victorian government's failure to manage the spread of coronavirus in Victoria. It is a grim fact, but it is not contestable, as we now know, due to the evidence that's been presented to the Coate commission of inquiry.

The hotel quarantine disaster to which nearly every active case can be linked is one of the principal reasons there are such high levels of community transmission in Victoria, which have invariably meant that there is such a high number of deaths proportionate to every other state and territory in the country. So, looking at the contributions from Senators Walsh and Siewert, I want to reiterate that our plans and our policies in combatting COVID-19 in aged-care facilities have absolutely worked in states which have worked effectively to suppress the community transmission of coronavirus. I think all senators on the other side of this chamber will understand that, but they are not being honest about the facts.

The other critical issue in Victoria is the mismanagement of contact tracing. Contact tracing in New South Wales, for instance, has been managed extremely well. For every outbreak there's an identification of where it's happened, and enormous resourcing is being placed into contact tracing in New South Wales. That's not the case in Victoria. There's a huge lack of resources, and there are literally thousands of mystery cases. There have been huge issues in identifying the source of the coronavirus and in suppressing the spread of community transmission. As the Treasurer said today, this represents one of the worst public policy failures we have seen by any government in this nation. But the Morrison government continues to work very closely with the Victorian government and with all states and territories to suppress the spread of the coronavirus, including in aged-care residential facilities.

We've initiated a number of important initiatives to deal with the issue of the spread of coronavirus in aged-care facilities. I've mentioned the $1.5 billion of additional funding, and another $500 million was announced today. The Victorian Aged Care Response Centre is actually a collective effort between the Commonwealth and the state to make sure that, when there is an outbreak, we can act urgently to address it. There has been massive support for the National Medical Stockpile, including the supply of some 14 million masks and three million gowns, and immediate support from the wonderful members of the Australian Defence Force and AUSMAT personnel who are being dispatched urgently to facilities which need that help. Of course, as soon as there is an outbreak in an aged-care centre, the workforce and anyone who comes into contact with the coronavirus has to isolate for at least 14 days, and that's why the response from ADF personnel has been so magnificent.

The other really significant thing that's happened in Victoria is the Commonwealth has intervened to ensure that anyone in aged care who needs hospitalisation is immediately transferred to hospital. That was not happening and that was deeply, deeply concerning. We have now worked with the Victorian government to ensure that those defects whereby people who needed hospitalisation were not being sent to hospital have now been remedied. We're also working very hard with infection control and compliance spot checks.

We as a government will continue to work with the Victorian government to manage the spread of COVID-19 in Victoria, but I think it is fair to say that Australians understand why there is such a major pressure in Victoria. I absolutely condemn senators opposite for the very wrong implications they've made in relation to the minister.

4:35 pm

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

I rise to speak on the matter of public importance: the decision by the Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians, Senator Colbeck, to turn his back on his accountability and responsibility to this parliament, on the families, children, grandchildren, siblings and friends of each and every one of the older Australians who has died in aged care as a result of COVID-19 and on the 200,000 Australians in aged care and those who put themselves at risk every day to care for them.

We've been saying from this side of the chamber for some time that there needs to be a plan. The contributions this afternoon are no different to the contributions of last week when we were raising these issues of concern. But we've had our leader, Anthony Albanese, state very clearly the principles of his plan going forward for the aged-care sector. I think it's important that we outline that strategy, because we know the Prime Minister of the day, Mr Morrison, has no plan for the aged-care sector in this country. He's had seven years to come up with some sort of strategy and plan but hasn't got one.

The first point is on having minimum staffing levels in residential aged care. The second is on reducing the home-care waiting list so more people can stay in their own homes for longer. The third is on ensuring transparency and accountability of funding. The fourth is on independent measurement and public reporting as recommended by the royal commission. By the way, the Liberals called a royal commission into their own failings. The fifth is on ensuring adequate PPE in every residential aged-care home. The sixth is on having better staff training, including on infection control. The seventh is on having a better surge workforce strategy. The eighth is on providing additional resources so the royal commission can inquire into COVID-19 without delaying its final report.

We had the minister come into this chamber last week and say he'd had nothing sensible in terms of suggestions from the opposition. I dispute that categorically. Our shadow minister has put forward strategies, but if the minister couldn't understand those strategies then we have an eight-point plan from Mr Albanese. Senator Colbeck, the minister responsible, and the Prime Minister, can take it and run with it. That would be a very sensible idea.

Let's talk about those deaths that have been experienced in the aged-care sector in this country during COVID-19. It's all very well for people to want to blame the Victorian government for the deaths in this sector, but, quite frankly, the government have known since January at the very least, if not the end of last year, the consequences of COVID-19 and the potential it had to decimate older people, particularly those in residential care. And what did they do? They didn't do anything. They certainly didn't do enough. What did we hear this afternoon? We heard the Minister for Health outline another bandaid, putting another bandaid on what is a broken system. It was not the minister responsible for aged care, no. They had to get the Minister for Health, because the Prime Minister, quite frankly, doesn't trust the Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians to make, yet again, another announcement.

We have known, as Senator Siewert has so eloquently outlined in her contribution to this debate, the failings of this sector to address the needs of older Australians, the failure of this government to ensure that there is a properly skilled, trained workforce that report after report have highlighted demonstrates the need to have a national standard of training for those working in aged care. Those failures didn't just happen in the last six months with COVID-19. There is no planning. We've had report after report. Even the government's own workforce taskforce that brought down its own recommendations have not been heard by this government and, certainly, no action has been taken.

Let's look at the app—the waste of money spent developing an app that was going to trace the transmission of COVID-19. It was another waste of money because it failed. Those opposite want to continue to blame everyone else and won't take any responsibility. We know the hallmark of this government under Prime Minister Morrison is no transparency, no responsibility and no scrutiny. Even today, when putting that extra Band-Aid on the aged-care sector by announcing some more money, the Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians walked away without answering all the journalists' questions. You can run away from journalists, Minister, but you can't run away from scrutiny. You cannot run away from the scrutiny of this chamber and the Australian people.

For seven years we've been waiting for a plan from those opposite. We've all had relatives—our grandparents, our parents, our aunties or uncles—who've experienced residential aged care. We know there's been failing after failing of all the reports that have highlighted the difficulties. We know that those opposite realised, long before COVID-19 hit our shores, that the aged-care sector was in crisis. Why was it in crisis? Because the funding instrument is broken. There aren't enough staff. We need to double the workforce in this country to deal with the ageing of our own population. In my home state of Tasmania, we need an additional 5,000 workers over the next decade. Where are those people coming from?

But the irony is people who work in this sector are committed; they're caring. Most of those who are working in this sector are women who are low paid. We talk about respecting those older Australians who have come before us because they're the ones that built this country. Well, it's about time that we used the light that has been shone on aged care right now to ensure there's adequate funding going forward. We need to know what it really costs to give the highest possible care to older Australians. We need to ensure that those working in this sector are there because they want to be there, because they're highly-skilled and because they are resourced to ensure the best outcomes for older Australians.

The minister, today, when asked about how many older Australians in residential care have died from neglect, couldn't answer. He said, in his own words, the aged-care sector really is about older people dying in residential homes. I was staggered, absolutely staggered. I can assure you, my relatives, when they've had to go into residential care, never went in there believing that it was just a matter of course that they were going to die. They went in there expecting that they would be cared for, that they would be supported, and that they would get to live out their final years with good care, with comfort and surrounded by people who had time to give to them. This minister is quite clearly out of his depth. But the responsibility really lies at the top and that's with the Prime Minister, because any minister responsible for the aged-care sector in this country should sit around the cabinet table. The sector wants a cabinet minister, because they know that if you're not sitting around that cabinet table you have no real say in the government when it comes to budget. In the last seven years we've had seven ministers, who have all failed, and most of them have shown very little interest in this sector. Labor has always said, over the last seven years, that we believe there should be a minister sitting at that cabinet table. No accountability, no responsibility from this Prime Minister is going to be accepted by the Australian people. You have time, Prime Minister, so step up, take some responsibility and do something now.

4:45 pm

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I find the wording of this motion quite intriguing, 'the decision of the minister to turn his back on accountability and responsibility'. But what decision is that? Is it his decision to respond to the aged care royal commission interim report within 25 days of it being handed over? Is it his decision to work with the AHPPC and the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner to develop and communicate guidelines and responses to the COVID pandemic in aged-care facilities?

Since the royal commission interim report this minister has decided to invest nearly $500 million for additional home-care packages, because we know, as a government, that home care leads to better outcomes for both our senior Australians and the budget. That is why our government has seen the number of people on home-care packages almost triple since coming in. This minister also took the active decision, as a result of the interim report, to invest $25½ million to improve medication management programs, so we don't over medicate and we get better health outcomes. To support this, we've invested $10 million for additional dementia training and support for aged-care workers and providers, so we take better care of our most treasured Australians.

This minister has also decided to invest nearly $5 million to help get young people out of aged care. This is an issue that has been kicked around for ages but this minister decided to act. This minister established the Young People in Residential Aged Care Action Plan and this minister has seen a reduction in the number of young people in aged-care facilities. Our government, under this minister, has not turned its back on aged care, not before COVID and not since.

The Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for Novel Coronavirus was developed and published on 18 February and activated nine days later. In March we announced funding to assess infection control training for aged-care workers, we set up an aged care rapid response unit in the Department of Health and the AHPPC released recommendations for aged-care facilities. We initiated support for the aged-care workforce, including the retention bonus and the surge workforce, and that is working. I thank all of our surge workforce partners, including our dedicated Defence Force personnel who are assisting to provide this emergency relief service.

If any of this is evidence of the minister turning his back on his responsibilities then Labor have a very different view of what responsibility means than I do. His responsibility, as minister, is to the aged-care sector and the people who live in residential facilities, the people on home-care packages and the workforce that supports them. But that is not the real problem here. No, Labor aren't offended by him seeming to turn his back on his responsibility. Labor are purely offended by symbolism. As Senator Bilyk said in her contribution to this debate, they are offended that the minister, after providing the explanation he was requested to provide to the Senate, left to do his job, to deal with the crisis that is ongoing in our aged-care facilities. Yes, he didn't sit here and listen to Labor grandstand and politicise the tragic circumstances that families are still suffering. He left to deal with the issue at hand, to ensure that his department's responsibilities and his responsibilities are delivered and met. The minister did not turn his back. He left to confront the problem. And Labor should be ashamed of saying that that was the wrong thing to do.

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The time for the discussion has expired.