Senate debates

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

COVID-19: Aged Care, Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability

3:06 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) 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) and the Minister representing the Minister for Health (Senator Cash) to the questions asked by Senators Bilyk, Pratt and Urquhart relating to aged care and the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.

Here we have a minister for aged care who, while a pandemic raged through our country and took a terrible toll, most particularly on the most vulnerable, on residents in our aged-care facilities, was incapable of taking decisive and timely action to meet the government's responsibilities to this sector. He gave every impression of not being on top of his brief and freezing on the job. From his answers today, I have no more confidence in his abilities or the ability of the government that he's part of to manage or respond to serious infectious outbreaks and pandemics in aged-care residential facilities.

This pandemic has taken the lives of 685 residents of these government facilities, leaving thousands grieving the loss of partners, husbands, wives, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents and often dear, life-long friends. It has left in its wake traumatised residents and traumatised staff. Six hundred and eighty-five Australians are dead. These are our loved ones; these are those who cared for us, loved us and deserved better—better care from their government and better respect for the contribution that they have made to our country. They deserved action and they deserved a government with a plan. They deserved a federal minister who could move fast, who could lead. At the very, very least they deserved a mention, an apology, even in the government's response to the royal commission's report, Aged care and COVID-19: a special report. But what did they get? They got a response from this minister no faster than a glacier moves. This is a lumbering government in denial, constantly trying to deflect and deny responsibility, constantly saying it had a plan and failing to show anything for it.

I have looked through the government's response to the aged-care royal commission's special report into COVID-19. I have listened to this minister attempt to answer the questions that I put to him in the chamber here today and yesterday when he was in here talking to that document. I heard nothing but self-congratulations, slippery words and hubris, the same self-congratulations and hubris that the royal commission itself criticised.

Minister Colbeck, the truth is that your response and the response of the miserable, careless government you are a part of has been totally inadequate, glacially slow and massively disrespectful to the lives of 685 Australians and their loved ones. The truth is that you are now only putting into effect actions that you should have taken in March and April. When infections tore through the aged-care facilities in Europe, this government should have taken action. When the first COVID-19 infections occurred in New South Wales, the government should have taken action then. It's December now, and that was March, and to date 685 Australians have died. They didn't get a mention from this government in response to the aged-care royal commission's special report into COVID-19. Even now, by your own admission, you've had no way of monitoring or knowing how effective the government's response has been. I point out to you recommendation 6:

… the Australian Government should require providers to appoint infection control officers and should arrange for the deployment of accredited infection prevention and control experts into residential aged care homes.

Here we are, 1 December, and the response is that it's in progress. Infection control surely should have been the No. 1 priority of this government back in March. In August, the government promised that residential aged-care facilities would have 'a designated infection control officer on site'. Here we are, in December, and the minister can't tell us whether they've been appointed, how many experts there are and how much training has been done. It's in progress, you say. That's not good enough. In fact, it's pathetic. A great many Australians have suffered because it's not good enough. The government is not good enough, and it's a sham.

For many months, the minister's been saying that the government has a plan for aged care. And what do we find in December? You've accepted a recommendation that you have a plan for aged care. It beggars belief. It leaves us quite sure that we're right to be fearful and angry. If this government can't respond in an effective and timely manner to a pandemic, then imagine how hopeless its response is going to be to the final report. (Time expired)

3:11 pm

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

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to what is a very important issue. Of course, it's an issue that this government treats with the utmost seriousness and urgency and gravity. One of the Prime Minister's first actions upon becoming Prime Minister was to call the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. This is a government that takes these responsibilities seriously and a minister who takes those responsibilities seriously. We heard Senator Urquhart's contribution, somehow claiming that Minister Colbeck doesn't care or that, in fact, his answer did anything other than respond to those serious issues. I think that is a complete misrepresentation of this minister, of the work that he has been doing and, in fact, of the answers that he was giving in question time to some of the Labor Party's questions that were put to him.

I do want to go through some of the responses to the report. I just want to point out that the Labor Party, despite all of its promised tax hikes at the last election, couldn't bring itself to promise one extra dollar when it came to aged care in this country. Despite $387 billion of new taxes, there was not one dollar to show its priorities in this space. When it comes to the response, the Australian government accepted all six recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety's report, Aged care and COVID-19: a special report. In response to recommendation 4 of the royal commission's report, the government has updated the National COVID-19 Aged Care Plan to its seventh edition, in consultation with the AHPPC Aged Care Advisory Group. The national plan sets out how the government has and will continue to support the aged-care sector to prevent, prepare, respond and recover from COVID-19. It also provides links to guidance, information and tools to support aged-care recipients, their families, the aged-care workforce and providers of aged-care services. The revised plan builds on and consolidates the critical and successful work already undertaken by the Commonwealth government and allows flexibility to manage individual situations in each state and territory. It represents the seventh stage of national aged-care planning.

Other measures which have been announced include that aged-care residents will now be eligible to receive up to 20 individual psychological services, in line with the services available to the broader community. They will also be eligible for double the allied health sessions under the Medicare chronic disease management plan. In addition to the recommendations of the royal commission, the government is also funding group allied health sessions for residents in facilities affected by COVID-19 outbreaks, including people who need rehabilitation after recovering from COVID-19 and people who have lost condition or mobility because of restrictions put in place to manage the outbreak. A range of actions have been undertaken by the Australian government to ensure the right balance can be struck between restricting visitations in residential aged-care facilities, where necessary, but ensuring residents are not isolated and lonely during these difficult times. So this is a government that takes these issues seriously and is carefully responding to these recommendations.

But I would make this point in terms of the Labor Party's attacks, and we saw this again today, in question time. Even though we have seen tragic deaths—which the minister again acknowledged in his answers today, which wasn't acknowledged by those opposite—and those tragic deaths have occurred almost overwhelmingly in the state of Victoria, the Labor Party seek to deny that, for rank political opportunism and for rank political purposes. They seek to try and ignore the fact that virtually all of the deaths were happening in Victoria as a result of the huge outbreak there, as a result of the Victorian Labor government—

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

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

Well, you're running a protection racket for the Victorian Labor government. We take this issue seriously, but pretending there is no issue to see in Victoria, and that it has nothing to do with the massive community outbreak caused by the Victorian Labor government, demonstrates your motives in this space. (Time expired)

3:16 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise this afternoon to also take note of answers given to questions by Senator Colbeck and Senator Cash. It is indeed a greatly disturbing event: the royal commission's report that has been handed down, in relation to the treatment of people with disability under the COVID-19 arrangements—or, should I say, lack of arrangements. The royal commission chair, Ronald Sackville, has found that the government was responsible for a 'serious failure' in its communications with Australians with disability. The report noted it was the absence of consultation that led to significant failures in the responses of the Australian government. It is the most basic and fundamental task of this government—of any government—to undertake consultation with those affected, in any time of change or need, and especially those who might be vulnerable to those circumstances.

We have seen, in this time, people with disability left stranded at home, without meals, without being able to wash, without being able to move themselves in order to prevent bedsores, and without being able to take required medication and get required support. It was entirely predictable and obvious that these kinds of scenarios were likely to occur—entirely predictable.

We know that disability care workers often need to work across a number of households of people with disability, and we also know they're poorly paid. We also know that those workers had their own fears and concerns at the height of COVID about their own susceptibility to catching COVID and their own caring responsibilities. So it was of surprise to no-one that disability support workers fell away and that the basic care needs of many people with disability went totally unmet. Because of the suspension, because of the lockdowns, we also saw the usual recreational and other outing activities suspended, and that again meant that people with disability were left further isolated and alone.

Australians with disability have been treated as an absolute afterthought by this government during this pandemic. Not only were these outcomes for people with disability entirely predictable; people with disability were picking up the phone. They certainly called my office to ask for help and support, and I'm sure they would have been calling your offices as well. These Australians should have been our first and top priority, not treated as an afterthought.

We also saw an appalling lack of personal protective equipment for disability care workers. This meant that care workers were afraid for their own health and also afraid of spreading COVID-19 to their own families. In that climate of fear, many of them didn't take their shifts, didn't go to work, in many instances because they were on casual employment contracts; frankly, they weren't required to. If you are permanent part-time or permanent full-time, it's a requirement of your job that you go to work or else call in sick or take personal leave. But in these circumstances, where large numbers of workers were concerned for their own wellbeing and safety and were on casual contracts, it was absolutely inevitable that they were going to feel vulnerable. But this government— (Time expired)

3:21 pm

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I find it extraordinary that I'm going to respond to the matters raised in this take note of answers motion raised by the Labor Party, who, once again, are acting as if the actions of this government were taken with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, as if the situation had been completely predictable, as if this wasn't the greatest pandemic that had hit the world in the past 100 years. With a sanctimonious glow, after being able to see what has happened, they now want to lecture the government on what could have happened and what should have happened.

When you're in a position of responsibility, in government, you have to make the difficult decisions at difficult times, without the benefit of hindsight and 20/20 vision. But the government has at all times acknowledged and expressed sincere sympathy to those affected by the pandemic and our deepest condolences to those who have lost loved ones. Every time the minister stands up he acknowledges the 693 people in aged care who have lost their lives. As one of the few people in this place who've actually had COVID-19, I understand the fear of having the test, of having it come back positive and wondering what the impacts on you will be. My heart goes out to all those people who not only have been in that situation but have then had contact with people who are the most vulnerable and at risk in our society. I know the terrible price they will have paid, being in that situation.

This government has prioritised the introduction of the Serious Incident Response Scheme to provide additional protection for aged-care residents. This is additional funding of $11.1 million, taking the government's total investment in the scheme to $67.2 million. Our response to the royal commission's report and updated plan highlights our ongoing commitment to improving care for senior Australians and keeping them safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. The government has now funded more than $1.7 billion in aged-care-specific measures to support the plan. This investment directly addresses issues raised by the aged-care royal commission and will improve and support the health and wellbeing of aged-care residents, who are the most significantly impacted by COVID-19. It must be noted that whenever there are high rates of community transmission the risk to older people, particularly those in residential aged care, increases, and we need to remain vigilant.

The government will continue to work closely with aged-care providers and all states and territories to ensure the ongoing safety and care of senior Australians because, most tragically, it was in the state of Victoria where the hotel quarantine provisions, still subject to inquiry, were found to be desperately inadequate. They failed not only the people of Victoria and not only the people of Australia but also, most tragically, those most vulnerable and at risk in our society, our elderly people, who have paid a terrible price for that government's response. I am sure that they, too, wish they had this federal opposition's incredible hindsight, incredible 20/20 vision, to know exactly what could have possibly been done differently.

As I have said already, this government is acting at all times to protect and take care of people, particularly in aged care. The government has accepted and is acting on all six recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, as announced in October 2020. The Morrison government will invest a further $132.2 million in its response to the aged-care royal commission recommendations on COVID-19.

This government has also updated its aged-care plan. The plan has been developed in close consultation with the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee's Aged Care Advisory Group, which has been made permanent, meeting another recommendation of the royal commission's report. The minister has said on many occasions how carefully he has consulted and how carefully he has listened and taken into account the recommendations and views of not only that group but also others right across Australia who care about the aged in our community.

3:26 pm

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

Too little, too late—that's the reality of the actions, or the lack of actions earlier, by the Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians, Richard Colbeck, and this government. Let's put things into context, shall we? On the 685 older Australians who died during the pandemic, we had a government senator explaining just now to the chamber how it is all the Victorian government's fault. It's amazing how it is okay for this government to shift the blame but not to accept responsibility for its failings not just since March this year by neglecting older Australians and some of the most vulnerable Australians in this country; in fact, it's been seven years. I have lost count how many ministers for aged care there have been in that time.

I was talking to a colleague and I asked, 'Who do you think has been the worst aged-care minister in this country in the last seven years?' Names like Ken Wyatt, Sussan Ley, Greg Hunt and Mitch Fifield came to mind, but I think we agreed in our discussion that it is this current minister who has failed older Australians. He's been censured by this chamber. What we are seeing now is it's not only the 685 older Australians who have died; it's the impact on their families, their loved ones. During this pandemic, it's not only been about those who have lost their lives; it has been about the staff who have had the responsibility for caring for them. They have not been supported by this government. Not only were they not provided with the adequate PPE and support that they needed, being on the frontline; we know this government has also neglected them for the last seven years, not ensuring that they were adequately resourced. They certainly don't get paid the remuneration that they deserve. We have just seen cuts. Why should we expect anything different from the Prime Minister when, in fact, he cut almost $2 billion out of aged care when he was Treasurer and used this sector as an ATM?

So the public have no confidence in this minister. They have no more confidence in him than we on this side of the chamber do. We know countless reports have outlined the issues very clearly, after days and days of evidence given to various committees and inquiries into the aged-care sector trying to get to the bottom of why this system is so broken, and put forward to the government of the day solutions for how it can do its job better by providing older Australians the support they deserve. But what have we got? Absolutely no response at all from this government.

What we then saw was them calling for a royal commission into the aged-care sector, after they had been in government for a number of years and failed to address the concerns that had been collected in somewhere between 12 and 16 different reports into the failings of the aged-care sector. They were also told of the struggle that a lot of the providers themselves were having to keep their heads above water. But what we haven't seen is any leadership from this government. We have a minister who, quite frankly, is no more interested than the minister they had when they first came into government. We saw Senator Fifield take on that responsibility, but the only thing he was ever interested in was the arts. He certainly wasn't interested in older Australians. And we've seen no improvement over the seven years that they've been in government.

What we see now—finally!—is that the spotlight has been shone on the aged-care sector in this country because of the royal commission, because of this government's failing. The media now has some interest in aged care, and this is the opportunity for this government to address all those concerns that the community has had, address all the recommendations from those countless reports that have been put forward and finally do something. Do something so that those 685 older, vulnerable Australians in the aged-care sector, who died because of the failure of this government to provide the leadership and the support that was needed in this sector, have not died in vain. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.