Senate debates

Tuesday, 1 September 2020


Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians; Attempted Censure

2:48 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr President, I seek leave to move a motion relating to the censure of the Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians, as circulated in the chamber.

Leave not granted.

Pursuant to contingent notice of motion standing in my name, I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Wong) moving a motion to provide for the consideration of a matter, namely a motion to give precedence to a motion of censure of the Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians.

This is a motion which goes to the failure of this minister to take responsibility for the devastating crisis in the aged-care sector, which has caused death, grief and untold trauma for vulnerable Australians and their families. We move this motion because ministers are accountable to the parliament. Despite the protection racket being run by Mr Morrison, Senator Colbeck is accountable to this Senate and Senator Colbeck has been found wanting.

How much grief and loss must be suffered by Australians as a result of the incompetence of this minister? When the incompetence of a minister is measured in the sum of lives lost, when the most vulnerable of our older Australians are the victims of this neglect, when does this chamber say someone must be held accountable? When the consequences for Australian families is the death of a loved one, the consequence for the minister responsible cannot simply be a shrug.

A government senator interjecting

I'll take that interjection. You know what is shameless? His failure to take responsibility and your involvement in the protection racket. That is what is shameless. That is what is shameful. A minister cannot simply about absolve himself of responsibility by shrugging and blaming someone else. He cannot absolve himself of responsibility for death by neglect simply by saying that that is a function of aged care, because the deaths by neglect are a function of the neglect of aged care by this government. $1.7 billion was ripped from aged care by Mr Morrison when he was Treasurer. The situation is so dire that Mr Morrison was forced to call a royal commission into the government's own mismanagement of aged care—a royal commission that summarised this government's care of older Australians in the title of its interim report, Neglect.

There were warnings from overseas, where aged care was ravaged well before COVID-19 took hold here. There were warnings from experts and unions representing carers. Carers were given one glove and had to choose which hand to put it on. There were warnings from tragedies already experienced in Dorothy Henderson Lodge and Newmarch House in New South Wales. These are warnings that have still not been acted upon by a government that even now has not produced a COVID-19 plan for aged care, despite more than 460 aged care residents, on today's figures, having died. The royal commission has said:

Had the Australian government acted upon previous reviews of aged care … the suffering of many people could have been avoided.

Yet even now this minister ignores the royal commission.

Yesterday this government made more announcements. Senator Colbeck, like Mr Morrison, loves to list his announcements. But you know what? Announcements don't save lives. It's delivery that matters. It's follow-up that matters. Until Senator Colbeck delivers on the recommendations of the royal commission, the one word which will always come to mind at the sound of this minister's name is 'neglect'. The royal commission has warned Senator Colbeck it will take an additional $620 million per year to improve the aged-care system, and once again this minister ignores yet another warning. He says, 'We'll wait and see what the final report says.' Well, when lives are on the line, when the neglect in the Morrison government's aged-care system is clear, why is this minister putting off until later what he knows older Australians need today?

Ultimately, this neglect is not just on Senator Colbeck; it's also on Mr Morrison, and we will soon see if it is on every senator opposite. Will they be part of the protection racket Mr Morrison is running for Senator Colbeck? Will they be part of that? The neglect of our most vulnerable older Australians is in Senator Colbeck's name, but it is not just in Senator Colbeck's name; it is in the name of even each and every senator who shields him from accountability. There is no-one on that side who has confidence in this minister anymore. The Senate should do the right thing and censure this minister.

2:54 pm

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Richard Colbeck has worked flat out—absolutely flat out—to do the best he can to ensure that those residents in aged-care facilities across Australia are safe. Listening to the Labor Party, you'd think that somehow there is no pandemic happening anywhere. Listening to the Labor Party, you'd think that all of this is happening in isolation of any context whatsoever. Senators—through you, Mr President—of course every passing of a loved one is tragic. The minister, like every senator in this chamber, of course is deeply empathetic to the grief felt by families who lose a loved one—in particular, in circumstances where they sadly, because of the restrictions that have had to be imposed to keep everybody else in the community safe, pass away on their own. Of course that is tragic, but the reason we have a particular aged-care problem in Victoria is that we have a COVID problem in Victoria. If you look at the—

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

That is a fact.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Cormann, I ask you to resume your seat for a moment. It's not your fault. I cannot hear a word. Your quite loud voice is capable of dominating the chamber. I need to be able to hear the minister. I ask for compliance with the standing orders and if not complete compliance then at least compliance at a level of volume at which I can hear the minister.

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

It might be an inconvenient truth and it might interfere with your base political strategy in this chamber, but it is a fact nevertheless.

Senator Wong interjecting

Here is Senator Wong using the sad passing of Australians as a political weapon. You should be ashamed of yourself, Senator Wong. As tragic as the passing of any Australian in these circumstances is, in Australia, by any measure, despite what's going on in Victoria, we are in a comparatively better position. I would challenge you to look at what's happening in the United Kingdom, what's happening in the United States and what's happening in a whole range of comparative jurisdictions and compare the performance of our aged-care system with the performance of the aged-care system in other parts of the world.

Opposition senators interjecting

Here again, we get the political attack. How much is alright? Of course we want to absolutely minimise the risk, but to suggest that, in the context of a global pandemic which is costing lives all around the world and which is having a devastating impact all around the world, somehow this minister is to blame because of what is happening in individual aged-care facilities is absolutely and utterly unreasonable. Let me tell you, I have admired Senator Colbeck this fortnight. I have absolutely admired him. He has stood here calmly with his usual compassion and with his usual dedication to the job. He's been directly accountable, he's been answering all of your questions and he's ignored your political provocations.

Senator Watt interjecting

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Watt!

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

You are here trying to use and abuse the tragedy of individual Australians as a desperate political weapon, and it is a sad reflection not just on Labor senators in this chamber but on the Labor Party under the leadership of Anthony Albanese. You should collectively be ashamed of yourselves. Our government and this minister will continue to do what we have done every single day during this pandemic—that is, make judgements about the best way forward in very difficult circumstances. I've sat there in the ERC as this minister has come forward with measure after measure to strengthen our capacity to respond to what is a very difficult circumstance. You haven't seen that clearly.

This minister could be walking on water, and you would still be finding reasons to criticise him because he can't swim. The truth is you will try. You've seen an opportunity. There was a clumsy moment captured on television, and the minister has apologised for not having a set of numbers at his fingertips at that time. That is what you have used to pursue a base partisan political campaign. This is not about you genuinely caring about what is right and what is wrong. This is about you pursuing the partisan political interests of the Labor Party, and you should be seriously ashamed of yourselves. On this side of the chamber, we understand that we are dealing with a very serious challenge. We will continue to do the best we can to ensure that all Australians have the best opportunity to get through this period safely. We are sad that some Australians in the context of a global pandemic will sadly—

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Senator Cormann.

2:59 pm

Photo of Kristina KeneallyKristina Keneally (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Colbeck is not the minister for aged care. He is the minister for walking away. He walked away from this chamber when we were moving our motion the other day. He walked away from a media conference yesterday, refusing to answer questions from the media about the aged-care crisis. He is the minister who walks away from interviews, who walks away from this chamber. Quite frankly, the only place Minister Colbeck should be walking to is back to his office to clear his desk and resign. Too slow, too late: that is this government's response to the COVID-19 crisis in aged care.

When John Howard was Prime Minister, when there was one kerosene bath incident, what happened to Bronwyn Bishop, the Minister for Aged Care? She was gone. Right now we have evidence from the royal commission that Senator Colbeck has presided over—in fact, it's not just evidence; it is a report from the royal commission into aged care. This minister has presided over a system of what? Neglect. He has presided over a system of neglect—neglect that meant when we had an aged-care crisis hit with COVID-19 he had no plan. Don't take my word for it. Take Gladys Berejiklian's word for it—the Liberal Premier of New South Wales. Don't just take my word for it. Take the royal commission evidence that has made clear that in no way, shape or form was the aged-care system ready for a highly contagious virus that could devastate older Australians. One kerosene bath and the minister was gone under John Howard; 462 deaths, 876 active cases, workers who only have one glove, aged-care residents who have ants in open sores, who are malnourished, who are suffering physical abuse, who have maggots in their mouth—

Senator Payne interjecting

I will take that interjection from Senator Payne. She said, 'How did that happen?' It is in the royal commission's report titled Neglect. It is clear that the cabinet ministers in this government have not even read the royal commission's report called Neglect.

Senator Cormann interjecting

The minister didn't just have one clumsy moment, Senator Cormann. He couldn't even remember if he had briefed the cabinet on the royal commission's report called Neglect, so neglectful is he of his responsibilities. But we know that older Australians are being left behind, older Australians are being ignored and older Australians are being neglected by the Morrison government, specifically by this minister, Richard Colbeck.

I want to say to those people watching at home that, when you hear us talking about the word neglect, it is not a word the Labor Party invented. It is the title of the royal commission's report into aged care that was established by this government.

Day in and day out, we have seen the minister in this place really puffing himself up. He talked about the high watermark that Australia has achieved—unbelievable! He talked about how 'the system has performed exceptionally well'. Well, it's not exceptionally well if your family member is one of the 462 people who have died, if your family member is one of the over 800 active cases in aged care. How do you think it feels for the son or the daughter to hear the minister and this government gloating about how well it's all going out there, about what a high watermark Australian aged care is? Come on! When is this minister going to take some accountability? Where does the buck stop in this government? All we have heard today is: 'It's the New South Wales government's fault. It's the Victorian government's fault. It's the regulator's fault.' It's anybody's fault but his.

What we know about this minister for aged care is he follows the example set by his Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, who never accepts responsibility, who hates accountability and who is all about the photo-op and the announcement but never about the follow-through. Well, if there was one group of Australians who should have been able to rely on their government to look after them, it is the vulnerable and the precious senior citizens, our elderly who live in residential aged-care homes. They have been failed by this minister, and the Senate should censure this minister for failing to do his job.

3:04 pm

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians) Share this | | Hansard source

It's really quite tragic that the Labor Party seeks to play such base politics with what is a complete and utter national tragedy.

Hon. Senators:

Honourable senators interjecting

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians) Share this | | Hansard source

As we've indicated, there are 462 Australians—

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Cormann?

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

This is a very serious point of order. We sat here in comparative silence—

Honourable senators interjecting

We did, during your contribution, Senator Wong, and yours, Senator Keneally! This is a very serious matter. This is a censure motion debate, and to have the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and various other senior frontbenchers continually and aggressively interjecting is out of order at the best of times. But it is particularly inappropriate and a very low way of operating at this point in time.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm taking the traditionally liberal view that motions to suspend standing orders for the purposes of a censure debate allow certain material. After an initial flurry there was general silence from the government side, compared to the previous address. The minister, in particular, sat there and listened to the speeches in silence. I am going to say that the standing orders have a place here, and I have to be able to hear the minister speak—which I was having trouble doing. Senator Colbeck to continue.

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians) Share this | | Hansard source

It is tragic that the Labor Party takes to playing such base politics with what is a really tragic issue: 462 deaths in this country so far. Unfortunately, because of the infection rates, there will be more. As the Leader of the Government in the Senate has said, there are correlations with the level of community spread. As the government has said, and as many experts have acknowledged, there is a correlation between the level of community spread—the level of infection in the community—and the level of infection that will occur in residential aged care. If we want to overlay the statistics there is a direct correlation.

Unfortunately, in Victoria we had the situation where we got to the circumstance of over 700 infections every day. And, unfortunately, some of those people who were infected in the community were working in residential aged care, and the only way we can completely protect residential aged care from that community transmission is to completely isolate. That's not been done anywhere in the world. But when we consider that 97 per cent of the facilities in this country have not had a case of COVID-19 which has infected a resident, that demonstrates that a large number of aged-care providers in this country have been well prepared—a large number of them. There are a few—about 20-odd—that, tragically, have had significant infections. And, as was put to me by one of the clinical experts in infection control and infectious diseases, by the time the first case of infection is discovered the infection has largely occurred.

So it's a very tragic circumstance. I have issued my condolences on a number of occasions to all the families who are involved for their extremely tragic loss. Every single death is a tragedy—in fact, I wish that every case in this country had never occurred. But we're living in a global pandemic and governments at all levels are struggling with this. We continue to work every day to ensure that we provide the resources and the capacity to protect senior Australians in residential aged care, and we'll continue to do that.

The Labor Party can misrepresent my words and my actions in any way they like; it's not going to change the facts. This government set out its plan for dealing with COVID-19 very early in the outbreak. We started working with the sector extremely early. We did act, and we continue to work with the sector to improve the capacity to provide them with additional resources. In fact, over $1.5 billion of resources have been supplied to this sector to ensure that it has the resources available and the capacity to assist us to work with them to look after the residents in residential aged care in this country.

I reject the base politics that Labor is attempting to play with this. Every single death is an absolute tragedy. And I know, from the health professionals at the AHPPC and the CDNA right down through all members of the government, that they have been working every day to ensure that Australians more broadly as well as Australians who are residing in aged care have the best chance, have the best level of resources available, so that we can continue to protect them. The Labor Party scoff at our national performance, but on a global scale we have as a country performed extremely well. You only need to look at our capacity and the level of COVID-19 in this country. I have to say, I would rather be here in this country than in almost any other country in the world. In respect of residential aged care, it's the same: in the UK , over 20,000 deaths, each one of them a tragedy, as all of the 462 in this country are a tragedy— (Time expired)

3:10 pm

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

The Greens will be supporting this censure. We are sick of having Australia compared with global situations. Australians are sick of hearing that. They are desperately upset that so many people have died in aged care in this country. We are sick of hearing that there was a plan when quite obviously there was no plan. You rip a cover off one report and stick another one on it and say, 'Here's our plan.' The planning included self-assessment by providers of their preparedness for the pandemic—self-assessment! And guess what? Most of them said, 'We're prepared.' Well, quite obviously they were not.

We should have had people in these facilities from the beginning. We should have made sure infectious disease control training was mandatory—and not online. It's come to the point where we've got the defence forces there in these residential facilities providing the training that should have been provided from the start. I will admit that the scene for this was set a long time ago; it didn't just suddenly happen. There is the fact that we don't have a sufficient number of hours of provision of care, for a start; the fact that we don't have enough workforce in place; and the fact that we don't even have minimum standards in residential aged care for staffing ratios. All that has set the scene. The fact that funding for the provision of care hasn't been dealt with has also set the scene. The fact that we haven't got it right with clinical care, the balance of which is provided in aged care, is also a factor. But the fact is that we knew that if COVID got into aged-care facilities it was going to have a devastating impact.

Where I will accept international comparisons is where we look and see what happened. There have been facilities that have kept it out. All the facilities in this country should have had an audit, not a self-assessment. They should have had an audit. They should have been prepared for this pandemic, for the fact that it might get into the facilities and the fact that more staff needed training and made sure that we had sufficient PPE—so that people weren't having to share masks, weren't having to use just one glove—and knew how to use it. Then we had the excuse that the staff were bringing it in, that that's how residents were catching it, when in fact we know that healthcare workers predominantly have caught it in the workplace and weren't bringing it into the aged-care facilities.

This has not been handled. We didn't have a plan. We don't a system that's set up to protect workers. And now all of a sudden we will have someone who's ensuring that we have infectious disease control in place in facilities—now. Now we put it in place. Why wasn't that—making sure we had somebody checking that—there from the beginning? We get accused of base politics. It is base politics not to accept and acknowledge that you did not have a plan, that you weren't prepared, that you didn't learn the lessons internationally.

The fact that the regulator does not have enough staff and that the regulator has not been there doing its job also needs to be strongly considered and factored in. A strong regulator in place, a strong cop on the beat, would also have helped to ensure that this did not happen. The fact that we have so many notices now in place on these facilities that have had a lot of infection and a lot of deaths again points to the failure of the regulatory process. And it's not as if we hadn't been warned. I will keep saying it: 35 reports over 40 years—a lot of them on the watch of this government. This was not inevitable, and I will not have it said that it was inevitable. It wasn't! We could have done more and we should have done more.

3:15 pm

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

The opposition does not move this censure motion lightly. In fact, we have been asking questions of this minister and holding him to account for the last five question times, following his appearance before the select committee. We have been holding him to account, and we get accused of base politics. It's not base politics to require that a minister does his job properly. The minister has failed to lead. He has failed to plan. He has failed to protect. He has failed to take responsibility. He has failed to provide an environment where the appropriate level of care is provided to older Australians.

Since this outbreak in Victoria occurred, we have seen the number of cases grow from just a few cases in aged care to its peak at over 2,000 cases across 125 aged-care facilities where older Australians were taken on trolleys, put into ambulances and taken to private hospitals because the system was broken. Older Australians were malnourished, dehydrated and soiled. They hadn't eaten for at least 24 hours. They hadn't had their medication. Their families didn't know where they were. The people providing care to them didn't know who they were. This is the system that this minister oversaw, and this is why we are holding him to account. People are angry. People are upset. People go into aged care because they think they're going to be protected. People think the environment of residential aged care will help their loved ones, will care for them and will keep them safe.

The minister told the select committee that he was first worried about community transmission levels rising in Victoria in mid-June, but action in aged-care facilities didn't happen until cases were well underway and until staff working across multiple facilities had it. The Victorian Aged Care Response Centre wasn't established until 23 July. By then, there were more than 100 outbreaks, with thousands of cases, hundreds hospitalised and the death count increasing. Today, we hear that 462 Australians have succumbed to COVID-19 in residential aged care in a system that this minister is in charge of. That's why we're having this debate today. It's not trivial. It's not base politics. It's real. It's about 462 families who entrusted their loved ones to the aged-care system, and it failed them.

And you were warned. That's the other thing that makes people angry—not just what has happened but the fact that this government was warned. It was warned in October. This minister couldn't tell the select committee whether or not he had briefed the cabinet on a report titled Neglect. He couldn't recall whether he'd been invited to the decision-making table with the people who run this government. He couldn't recall whether he had briefed them on Neglect! You were warned. You were warned in October, and you were warned every three months by the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission. Every three months they told you, 'This system is failing.' More than half of their site audits failed, and 100 per cent of the review audits failed. And what happened? What happened was: 'Oh, well. We'll wait for the next one, shall we? We'll see what happens.'

The standard that was most not met was personal and clinical care. Personal and clinical care for older Australians means showering, getting medication, being cared for, meals. That's care. That's what failed. And this minister did nothing. Then he got Dorothy Henderson Lodge and then he got Newmarch House. Then he saw what happened in the Northern Hemisphere. Still, we just kicked along and waited as community transmission rates grew.

You've blamed the Victorian government. You've blamed the New South Wales government. You've blamed the regulator. This motion today—and hopefully the Senate supports it—is about your actions, your responsibility and your accountability for the job you have. It's hard. No-one's saying it's not hard. But we expect you to be able to do your job. If you can't do your job, get out of the way and give it to someone who can do the job, because older Australians deserve that.

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr President, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.