Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2018


Peter Khalil: I rise to speak on the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission Bill 2018. Deputy Speaker Hastie, you know that we support the royal commission into aged care, as, of course, do the vast majority of the public—there was a 240,000-strong petition to that effect. But it should not be an excuse for inaction on the issues that are facing the aged-care sector today. I’ve received emails, phone calls and letters—hundreds of them—and I’ve visited constituents of mine who have shared with me their struggles with the quality of their own aged care and that of their family members. As the need for high-quality and transparent aged-care services expands, we must act now. We must address these issues and support the quality of care that older Australians should be receiving. This bill goes some way to doing that.

The impacts of understaffing and underfunding are real—we’ve heard about that. The ones who get the short straw as a by-product of those shortcomings are our parents, our grandparents and our loved ones. That is not to mention, as the previous speaker has, the nurses and aged-care workers who look after them. There are around 1.3 million Australians who are currently receiving some form of aged care. This care is being provided by around 400,000 nurses and carers. There clearly are not enough carers and nurses to do the job, and the ones who are doing the hard work on the ground aren’t given enough pay, respect and support. Their role is critical in the care of our older Australians and will become increasingly important as the numbers increase, so we have to act now.

We have to implement long-term solutions to this growing and demanding issue. It is projected that by 2056 the aged-care workforce will need to triple to around one million workers to adequately deliver the services for more than 3½ million older Australians, who will represent one in four aged Australians who will need that care.

The recommendations from a Senate inquiry and the subsequent Carnell-Paterson review following the investigations into elder abuse at the Oakden facility in South Australia have led us to this point, but it has been slow, halting and fumbling. We are extremely concerned about the government’s dithering response in introducing legislation into this parliament. We are concerned that the government have yet to respond to many of the other recommendations of the Carnell-Paterson review. We are concerned that the government have known about this review and the recommendations since October 2017. That was a year ago. What is the hold-up?

The government only decided to act when they watched, or heard about before watching, the harrowing Four Corners series, the first part of which aired during the last parliamentary sitting week. The sharing of the personal experiences of families and residential aged-care facilities suddenly made them wake up to some of the problems that were right before their noses the entire time. But the Carnell-Paterson review is not the only review that has sat untouched by the government. There have been more than a dozen reviews and reports, and there are hundreds of unactioned recommendations.

There can only be one sad answer to this dithering, this slowness. Clearly, unfortunately, the coalition government are too busy fighting amongst themselves, day to day, to actually do their day job, to drive long-term reform and to make the necessary changes to address the issues in the aged-care sector. What they’ve managed to do, just barely, is fit in what is pretty much a piecemeal—piecemeal in nature—process.

I recently visited the Ethnic Communities Council in my electorate to speak and participate on a panel at its forum on the aged and those on the aged pension. A lot of the discussion included the challenges faced by culturally and linguistically diverse pensioners in particular—the rising cost of living, access to health care, maintaining active lifestyles, mental and physical health in retirement, but also the additional language and cultural challenges faced by those pensioners from very diverse backgrounds, some of whom migrated to this country in the fifties and worked all their lives helping build Australia. Really, these challenges are shared by all ageing Australians.

The forum took place on the Monday after Scott Morrison’s ascension to the position of Prime Minister. The slowness in addressing these issues could be an indication, maybe, of another reason besides the infighting—that is, his philosophical view towards the elderly. As I was researching that speech, it was interesting to read what Scott Morrison had said about those elderly constituents—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Howarth): Order! The member will refer to—

Peter Khalil: Sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker—what the now Prime Minister—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Thank you.

Peter Khalil: the member for Cook, had said in the past when he was a freshly minted Treasurer. In 2015, he had made comments stating that the aged pension should not be regarded as an entitlement for all. This is a fundamentally flawed view of the social contract that binds pensioners with the government. These are pensioners who have worked 40, 50, 60 years, paid their taxes and made their contributions. There is a contract that binds them with the government, and that is that the government has a responsibility to provide them with their pension.

I was quite shocked by the philosophical position that was put by the then Treasurer and now Prime Minister. In my mind the Prime Minister’s philosophical position on this is a big part of the problem that we’re facing right now. As Treasurer during the Turnbull government, he then outlined his vision for an overhaul of the country’s retirement income system, by both reducing expenditure on welfare payments and limiting the amount of revenue foregone through tax concessions.

I have a fundamental difference of opinion with this philosophical position. As I said, there is a binding contract between the elderly Australians, pensioners in this country, who deserve, after all of their years, decades, of hard work and commitment to this nation, that they are looked after by the government. It is not an entitlement; it is not welfare; it’s part of the social contract. I said to the pensioners and the aged in my electorate of Wills, ‘The pension is not a privilege. It is a right which you have worked for and which you deserve.’ And this principle applies to aged care as well. Its provision is of fundamental and existential importance to millions of ageing Australians.

The government may have abandoned the proposal to raise the pension age from 67 to 70, but I would say let’s not be fooled by the new Prime Minister. He may be the new Prime Minister of Australia, but there is a track record there of wanting to make cuts to social welfare payments and of seeing the provision of these aged-care services and the pension as a form of welfare. Some of these policies are lifted out of the right-wing think tanks that we know of, like the Institute of Public Affairs.

Let’s look at the contrast. Labor has a strong track record of support for aged care. The Living Longer Living Better reforms were delivered by Labor in government in 2012 and 2013. These reforms were designed to deliver important benefits to older Australians. They included more support and care at home, better access to residential care, increased recognition of carers and those from culturally diverse backgrounds, more support for those with dementia and better access to information. I think it is a truism. I mean, it is obvious, but I will say it again: Labor has always prioritised health care, especially for those working and living in aged-care facilities. It was Labor that was responsible for the historic reforms in 2012.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten committed in his budget reply speech that a Labor government, if elected, would make dementia and ageing a national priority. The fact is we are in a mess because, for years, the coalition government have been slashing funding to aged care repeatedly. It is only now that they claim to have some concern, but they continue to fail the public on aged care. In the Turnbull government, Sussan Ley was health minister and little if nothing was done to progress the LLLB reforms. The current Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care—a portfolio clearly not valued enough to be included in the cabinet—has also struggled to progress any of those reforms. Three different aged-care ministers across the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments have had carriage of these reforms for the past five years and have failed miserably to do any real reform across the ageing portfolio. How can we call ourselves a fair and generous country if we continue to treat elderly Australians without the respect that they deserve? The system is in crisis and it is no wonder. You can’t fix aged-care support and support our ageing population and our healthcare workforce by slashing funding. It just doesn’t work that way. When you cut funding, you make it harder; you make it more difficult for those in aged care.

The government’s lame attempts in the 2018-19 budget were woefully inadequate and they’ve admitted this themselves. Data released from March 2018 sadly now reveals more than 108,000 older Australians are waiting for a home-care package. These numbers are shocking and the government made a much touted—by themselves—commitment to 14,000 home-care packages over four years. That’s a drop in the ocean and nowhere near the number that is needed. It is not just inadequate; it is actually an insult to older Australians. This is only worsened by the fact that it’s not even new funding. It was pulled out from another part of the budget. It was found in the same bucket and re-allocated.

The government puts older Australians and their families so low on their list of priorities that they did not even commit to increase funding to keep their promises to address the waitlist to access these packages. What a sad reflection on the government—self-centred, fighting themselves, unable to focus on the needs of older Australians. Whatever light this government held up to itself as a government that would be concerned for the ageing is now covered in darkened ashes. The government created the aged-care crisis. The government then ignored the aged-care crisis, and the government and its budget failed to fix the aged-care crisis.

Labor, when we were in government, recognised the national crisis in the aged-care system and offered practical policy and reform to make change. But things have actually got worse over the past five years under the coalition government. Inaction has been the catchword, and it’s clear that a royal commission into the abuse and cover-ups of neglect in the aged-care sector is absolutely necessary. At least we can agree on that across the aisles—we can agree that we need the royal commission.

So we, on this side, wholeheartedly support the royal commission into aged care. It must examine the impact of the years of neglect, the years of funding slashed from those who need it most, and the Prime Minister’s, Mr Morrison’s, own attacks when he was Treasurer, when he cut almost $2 billion in his first year.

I’ve had many recent visits, and many visits over the two years that I’ve been an MP, to residential aged-care facilities in my electorate, and I’ve heard firsthand, from the workers and the residents, of the difficulties that they face. I support their campaign around funding, as to increasing the ratios in the system and the staffing issues generally. Fixing these issues will undoubtedly improve quality of care for some of the most vulnerable members of our society and concurrently improve the conditions of some of our least appreciated workers. But, as I said earlier, the royal commission can’t be an excuse for inaction by this government.

The purpose of these bills that we speak on today is to restore confidence in the delivery of aged-care services to those in aged-care facilities—those with family who reside there and those who work there. Despite the minister for aged care receiving the ‘A Matter of Care’ strategy more than two months ago, the government has actually sat on it and has only just released that strategy. It is yet to make any concrete commitments to increase funding to support the aged-care workforce in the 2018-19 budget. How does the government expect to drive reform without providing that additional funding? How does that happen?

Labor has called on the government to heed the important advice of the chair of the report, John Pollaers, and implement the workforce strategy in full to meet the growing demand. We’ve seen that the public has lost confidence in the safety and quality of the delivery of these services. That is why this bill seeks to establish a new Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, starting on 1 January 2019, that will take this restoration of confidence as its primary task.

The government, frankly, has a lot of work to do to get this right—to get the commission right; to make it available to support the public as soon as possible—and they’re taking far too long to do the work to establish it. We, on this side of the House, hope that the Greens political party, as to referral of these bills to the community affairs committee, will not further hold up the passage of this extremely important legislation. The government is still yet to fill three important positions on the advisory council, and you would think that these would have been filled by now if the government were as concerned as the public are on this issue.

Under Labor, there was a clear plan within our reform package. That was achieved largely through a bipartisan approach, and we’re proud of that. So we hope that we can work together again to ensure that these issues in the aged-care sector are addressed, because these older Australians are so important, given the commitment to and the sacrifices they have made in this country, to help build it and to give us the wonderful future that we have before us.