Senate debates

Thursday, 4 February 2021


Aged Care Legislation Amendment (Serious Incident Response Scheme and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading

12:59 pm

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

The government's inaction on elder abuse—after years of evidence, after years of review—is absolutely inexcusable. Another review, commissioned by the government into the Oakden nursing home tragedy, also recommended the implementation of a Serious Incident Response Scheme. That review was released back in 2017, over three years ago. And KPMG did a review as well. It was a study into the prevalence of abuse and assault in aged care. What they found was also tragic. They found more than 50,000 cases of abuse and assault every year going unreported.

The KPMG findings were from a government-commissioned study. The Morrison government received this report in November 2019, and then they sat on that report and did not make it public until June 2020. Why? What is the minister doing? What is Minister Colbeck doing? What is the government doing on this absolutely tragic issue? Why is it that the 40 per cent of aged-care residents experiencing elder abuse have not been a top government priority for the last three years at least? Why has it taken so long to implement this absolutely critical scheme?

We're talking about our parents. We're talking about our grandparents. These are the Australians who have worked so hard to make our country what it is. These are the Australians who have worked so hard to give all of us the opportunities that we have today. The very least that they deserve is dignity. They deserve to be protected in our aged-care facilities: They deserve to be supported by their own government. They need better than a government that sits on reviews, reports and recommendations for three years. They need that respect, that support and that dignity now, right now—immediately. But this scheme is just another chapter in a story of eight years of this government's neglect. It doesn't matter how many shocking reports or stories there are, the Morrison government has not delivered the urgent reforms that are needed to address the aged-care crisis. Every report—ignored. Every warning—ignored. Every heartbreaking story—ignored. This is neglect. 'Neglect' sums up the government's eight-year record on aged care.

You just have to listen to the stories of the hardworking aged-care staff to really understand just how hard things have got in aged care under this government. Last year I met with Ross, Delia, Wendy and Tracy. They are proud aged-care workers and proud United Workers Union members. They need our support. They need the support of everyone in this chamber and everyone in this place, because they want to fix the aged-care crisis, and they have a plan to do it.

Ross told me about a 90-year-old woman that he cares for. He described her, movingly, as an elegant and proud woman—a woman who came through World War II in Germany and made her way here; a woman who he has huge respect for; and a woman who, because of the aged-care crisis, he has witnessed being forced to sit in her own mess just because there are not enough staff to give her the dignity and the respect that she deserves.

Ross works 50 hours a week, because his aged-care job is not enough to support himself and his three children. It's not enough pay per week, so he has a second job to make ends meet. He is absolutely passionate about aged care. He wants it to be his career. It's already his vocation, but he has to work a second job to make ends meet, because the jobs in aged care are so poorly paid and insecure. The jobs don't offer workers enough hours to make that commitment to the sector.

So what does that say about the priority that we as a country and that this Morrison government puts on our older Australians? What does it say about that level of priority? What does it say about the respect that we give to the dedicated and caring workforce that is trying so hard, despite the government's failings, to actually deliver quality care to the residents that they are so committed to? We need to do better. This government needs to do better by the aged-care residents, by their families and by the workforce.

Delia and Tracey spoke about being tired all the time, too tired when they're finished their work to enjoy their own lives and too tired, in their own words, to give the quality of care that they know the residents absolutely deserve. They say that they are always running because of the lack of support and the lack of investment from this government into the aged-care system. They say that there are just not enough staff and not enough time in a day to get the work done. But they spoke to me of their commitment to the residents that they serve, to these people who have contributed, these people who have fought so hard for the country that we have today, people who deserve so much more from this government and who deserve better from this minister.

When I met with Wendy, she had actually come to the gallery to listen to Minister Colbeck, to hear the government answer questions about what their plan is for aged care, what their plan is to actually protect the residents in our federally run aged-care system. When I met with Wendy, after being in the gallery here in question time, she was in tears. She was in tears because the minister sitting opposite, Minister Colbeck, could not answer the questions about how he was going to protect residents in aged care. He couldn't answer the questions about how he was going to back up the workforce and give them the tools they need to do their jobs. She came to this place to see if the minister had a plan, and she left in tears because she was convinced that he didn't. As she said to me, what she felt was happening was that the minister was turning his back on her, on the workforce and on the residents in aged care in Australia, and that is a complete disgrace.

So, Ross, Delia, Tracey and Wendy have a plan, even if the government doesn't. They have a plan to deliver the aged-care sector that our elders absolutely deserve. They have a plan to win the decent, secure jobs that have to be the foundation of any reform to aged care in this country, because without a stable, committed and dedicated workforce we are not going to be able to fix the problems and we are not going to be able to give our elders the care that they so absolutely deserve. The workforce need good, secure jobs to care for residents in aged care. They need a decent wage, and they don't have one today. They need enough hours to get by on one job—not two jobs or three jobs but one job—in their vocation to deliver the quality care that they want to deliver to the residents in aged care. We need minimum staffing levels in this country. It is a disgrace that we do not have minimum staffing levels today in aged-care facilities in our country under this government. It is a complete disgrace. We need those minimum staffing levels so that our committed, dedicated aged-care workforce can do their jobs so that our elders have the care that they need and the dignity that they deserve.

We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world. We can and we must fund aged care properly. We can and we must ensure that the funding goes exactly where it is meant to go. That is to the care of residents. It is to good, secure jobs for the workforce, who are doing their best to look after those residents and provide that care. And we need to make sure that the funding goes to them—to the residents, to the workforce providing the care—and not to the reserves of for-profit providers in the sector. The funding should go to the residents and to the workforce that looks after those residents. Tracey said it best to me when I met with her. She said, 'People in aged care are humans, and under this government they're being treated as if they're on a production line.'

It's time we listened to the dedicated aged-care workers who are speaking up so courageously about the problems. It is time we listened to them. They're not just speaking up for their own jobs, for their own security; they're speaking up for the residents as well. They're speaking up to protect the residents, which this government has failed to do for the past three years, while we have heard tragic, disgraceful story after tragic, disgraceful story about abuse in our aged-care facilities in this country. I stand with those workers who are raising these concerns, who are calling the government out, who are speaking up for the residents, who are standing with the residents and protecting them, which this government refuses to do.

1:11 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Aged Care Legislation Amendment (Serious Incident Response Scheme and Other Measures) Bill 2020. Firstly, I'll say that, having listened to a number of speakers before me, I probably don't need to go through all the issues associated with aged care in Australia at the moment, other than to say that it's not in a satisfactory state. Senator Walsh has summarised a number of the issues at hand. The government has been slow in responding to the needs in aged-care facilities.

I might say that sometimes fixes come down to money, so I will raise perhaps my favourite pet issue with the government as I speak on this bill. And I say this as a former submariner, probably the keenest person in the parliament in relation to our submarine capability. I note that the government entered into the future submarine program with a view that the project would cost $50 billion outturned. We know that from evidence before the FADT estimates committee back in 2015. The number is now $89 billion. That's $39,000 million in blowout cost. That equates, over the period of the program—38 years—to $2.8 million per day. So, Australians are paying $2.8 million per day not for the submarines but for the blowout associated with that particular program.

We need to start thinking about what we could do with $2.8 million per day in the aged-care sector. I'm all for defence. But defence money must be spent wisely, and that particular program is in significant trouble, and unfortunately it's having an effect on money that could be spent on other, more-worthy projects, other than waste and blowout. We need to take aged care seriously. We need to fund it properly. I think this bill goes some way to remedying difficulties and problems that we have in the aged-care sector, and for that reason I will be supporting the bill.

I do, however, want to speak on a couple of the amendments that I will move in the committee stage, and I'm doing that now because I note that I was a little bit late in circulating these amendments. I did that yesterday. The first set of amendments that I've circulated relate to staffing ratio disclosure. Senator Walsh mentioned issues of staff ratios. She mentioned issues associated with people having to spread across a couple of jobs. Look, I understand that proprietors of these aged-care facilities can't run at a loss. They've got to provide care, and if they're a private enterprise there would be purpose in making some profit. In what is effectively a market, not all of the information about the product being offered is being disclosed to those who are using the product. People don't know how many staff are employed by a facility. They don't know what the qualifications of those staff members are, and they have a right to know that. It's part of the offering and it's part of the choice-making process. There are some that want to impose patient-to-staff ratios or resident-to-staff ratios, and I understand that there are difficulties associated with that.

This is a step that I think this parliament can accept in that doesn't impose a cost; it simply requires facilities to declare how many staff they have, what the qualifications of those staff members are and what sort of roles they fulfil within the facility. That information can be published and then people can make a choice about whether they want their father, mother or relative to go to a particular facility based on a comparison between three or four facilities in the area, the total costs and what sort of capabilities the aged-care facility has. That's the nature of the first amendment that I will be asking the Senate to support.

There's a second amendment that I've circulated that relates to CCTV in aged-care facilities. I know that when you talk about CCTV in an aged-care facility people immediately get alarmed and think about privacy. I just want to explain the model that is proposed in my amendment. The model is proposed on the basis of the awful events and situations like we had at Oakden in South Australia in 2016 and like we have had just in the last couple of weeks. There have been some problems in South Australia, in Whyalla and Adelaide, in relation to some aged-care facilities.

Putting CCTV cameras into the rooms of aged-care recipients, of residents, in an opt-in manner—so it is not forced upon residents—would allow for remote monitoring. That remote monitoring would not be done by a relative but would be done by professionals. Professional aged-care people would monitor offsite for a few things. Firstly, they would be able to look and see if someone in the aged-care facility had fallen out of bed or tripped over and they're on the floor. They would be able to immediately alert the facility—who won't have a person in every room—that there is a medical problem or an issue in one of the rooms in their facility. That means they can respond more quickly and we won't have residents left on the floor of an aged-care facility and people missing the fact that there's a problem.

The second thing that CCTV can allow for is the recording of activities. There are lots of people that get quite suspicious—and they do it on the basis they care about their mum or their dad—about what's happening or they are not satisfied with the care that is being provided. The CCTV footage could be subpoenaed or referred to police or the aged-care commissioner and could be used to deal with any incidents, or alleged incidents, associated with abuse or poor care. I put it to the chamber that, perhaps more importantly, if staff are aware that there are cameras around, those who perform the services well will be quite comfortable with that but anyone who wants to do something that is untoward will be deterred by the fact that there are cameras installed. These cameras would be installed but only monitored in circumstances where the resident approves that monitoring—or, indeed, where someone with power of attorney approves that monitoring. I ask the chamber to give that some careful consideration.

I will point out that this amendment has been drawn from a bill that is before the South Australian parliament. The South Australian government is actually conducting a trial in relation to this. I think they've botched the trial; it should have been concluded by now. Nonetheless they are conducting a trial, and it is funded by the federal government; the federal government threw in $500,000. So there is some acceptance that this is a useful tool that could assist in raising the standards of aged care and dealing with incidents that might be occurring in aged-care facilities.

I advise the chamber that after I circulated the amendment some concerns were raised that there was a provision for the installation of a camera in common areas. I have been asked to remove that, because there may be people in common areas who don't approve of being recorded. I've now circulated a revised amendment that removes the bit about common area cameras, because I accept that some people may view that as a bridge too far, particularly at this point in time.

The hope is that we get support for this. I think it would be a measure that adds to the quality of care, simply by having professionals monitoring and recording in real-time what is happening in terms of care. I think it is helpful in that it will deal with real-time incidents where there is not 100 per cent monitoring by carers of patients in rooms; it might simply be that there is an incident occurring somewhere else in the facility, that it might be a well-staffed aged-care facility but people are attending to another incident in the facility. It's nice to have a second pair of eyes keeping watch over people.

Not only will it raise standards; I think it will also give relatives comfort as well. Relatives don't get access to the footage; who gets access to the footage would be set by the rules. There is a rule-making power in the amendment. The minister would make rules as to who would have access and under what circumstances; I would envisage that to be quite a tight set of rules. Access to footage would be limited to commissioners, to police, to courts by way of subpoena and so forth. I ask that the chamber give consideration to the two amendments that I will move during the committee stage.

1:24 pm

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

The Aged Care Legislation Amendment (Serious Incident Response Scheme and Other Measures) Bill 2020 introduces a serious incident response scheme that will respond to and take steps to prevent incidents of abuse and neglect of older Australians in residential aged care. This includes those receiving flexible care delivered in a residential aged-care setting. The scheme will provide greater protections for older Australians by taking into account broader instances of abuse and neglect and by introducing more robust requirements for residential aged-care providers to respond and report.

From 1 April 2021 this bill introduces legislative requirements that will build provider capacity to identify risk and respond to incidents if and when they occur. By imposing these requirements the scheme is expected to drive learning improvements that will reduce the number of preventable incidents in the future.

The bill will also provide new powers to the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission to enforce the requirements of the scheme and the aged-care responsibilities of approved providers and related offences more generally. These are standard regulatory powers which will provide the commission with a more graduated suite of powers for ensuring compliance and protecting consumers. Additional information-gathering powers are also provided to ensure the commission is equipped to obtain the information it requires to administer the scheme and the commission's regulatory framework more broadly.

The scheme complements and supports existing regulatory settings, including the integrated expectations of the Aged Care Quality Standards, the Charter of Aged Care Rights and open disclosure requirements. Together these will support residential aged-care providers to engage in risk management and continuous improvement to deliver safe and quality care to older Australians.

I thank colleagues who have contributed to this bill. The health, safety and wellbeing of older Australians is of utmost importance to all of us and the Australian government. Any abuse of a person in a residential care facility is unacceptable. It is important that these incidents are reported, managed and prevented from occurring in the future.

I wish to table an addendum to the explanatory memorandum, which responds to concerns raised by the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills. This addendum clarifies how subordinate legislation will operate to support the arrangements in this bill. I thank the committee for their comments.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.