18 September 2019

Aged Care - Matter of Public Importance

I rise to speak on the matter of public importance. I do so because, like colleagues on this side, I recognise that Australia's aged-care system is broken. It is broken because of years of inaction and cuts by the Liberal government.

This week, we've marked the anniversary of the announcement of a royal commission into aged care. I note that my colleague, Senator Scarr, was insistent that there was nothing wrong with the aged-care system. Well, why did we need a royal commission? This is a royal commission we so desperately need because our aged-care system is in crisis. After extending the reporting date of the royal commission on Friday, it is vital that this Liberal government acts on what we know is broken today. We cannot wait until November 2020 for action, because 120,000 older Australians are waiting for aged care at home, with waiting times now of more than two years for the highest levels of care. A week does not go by without another disturbing account emerging about the mistreatment or neglect of older Australians in residential care.

Like so many other South Australians, I was shocked and appalled at some of the horrific revelations of abuse and poor care of elderly people in care in my state. But this problem has not been confined to South Australia; the royal commission has already heard devastating evidence of mistreatment and neglect across our country. We have heard witnesses give evidence suggesting there are regulators paying lip-service to the welfare of the elderly and who are so desensitised to poor care they're allowing these nursing homes to stay open. Only last month a home on the Gold Coast closed due to a dispute over money, which left nearly 70 elderly residents homeless—an issue that my colleague, Senator Watt, has been more than vocal on. I note the government is yet to examine whether cuts to residential aged-care funding have contributed to the closure of this place. Disturbingly, we've seen reports that a number of other aged-care facilities in Queensland are at a risk of closure due to insufficient federal funding.

The royal commission has heard evidence about one home in Sydney which repeatedly failed dozens of standard inspections over 12 months, at one point only meeting 10 of the 44 standards on quality and safety. We have heard horrific reports regarding malnourishment, neglect, medication mismanagement and abuse incidents in some aged-care homes around our country.

There are things this government can act on now, starting with our workforce. We know that there aren't enough aged-care workers and that they aren't paid enough. Australia is far from having the workforce that is required to care for our ageing population. In 2015-16 almost 240,000 people received permanent residential aged care. The proportion of people aged 65 years or over is projected to increase from 15.3 per cent in 2017 to 22 per cent in 2061, when one in 20 people will be aged 85 years and over. The frailty of residents is also increasing, as people are being admitted at an older age with multiple morbidities. We have seen too much blame placed on aged-care staff for what are systemic, long-term issues mainly caused by funding cuts, poor management, a lack of transparency and accountability and a lack of willingness by the Liberal government to tackle real reform. In fact, it was only last year when former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that aged-care workers could always aspire to a better job. Let me be very clear: aged-care workers deserve our respect; they do not deserve to be berated. Aged-care workers and their unions have been screaming out for reforms and resources, a call that has been completely ignored by this third-term Liberal government. They desperately need these resources so they can continue to do the best job they can for their patients and their residents.

The crisis in aged care is a failure of public policy, and, like so many other policy failures under this government, it was not inevitable. It did not have to happen, but it has happened because of this government's hopeless record of inaction and cuts over the last six years. It has happened because of the Prime Minister's cuts to aged care that have contributed to the broken system. And, remember, he was the architect of these cuts. The government has been asleep at the wheel for six years, with four ministers and billions of dollars ripped out of our aged-care system.

In the meantime, the aged-care system lurches from one crisis to another. We've had review after review ignored, with recommendations for fixing Australia's aged care system left to collect dust in different ministerial offices. It is shameful that, in a wealthy country like Australia, older people are not getting the care they need. I spoke to many, many older Australians during the campaign. Some were weeping, begging us to fix this disaster. The government must do better now to ensure older Australians get the quality aged-care services that they deserve, because older Australians and their loved ones cannot wait any longer.

It has been six years since the Liberals formed government. What can we celebrate? Actually, it's hard to think of much at all that they have done well when it comes to aged-care reform, because they don't have a genuine reform agenda. Crisis by crisis, we have seen policy on the run. Clearly, this sector and the people who rely on it are not prioritised by this government. We can see this simply in the fact that they are on their fourth aged-care minister in six years, and this minister is not considered significant enough to be in the cabinet, even though there is a royal commission currently underway. Since the Liberals have been in government, the policy and reform void in this policy space has been startling. Let's start with home care: 120,000 older Australians are waiting for their approved home care package. That is not good enough. In fact, it is just totally unacceptable. More than 16,000 people have died while waiting for their approved package, and 14,000 have had to enter residential aged care because they could not stay at home waiting for care that wasn't there—talk about a policy failure. Others enter emergency departments or the hospital system due to their increasing care needs. Not only is there a distinct lack of packages available, there's also the increasing length of time older Australians have to wait for their approved home care package. Many people approved for the highest level of home care are now waiting more than 24 months to receive their approved packages. Make no mistake, this waiting time is a crisis. Figures included in the most recent government report clearly show that there are more people on the home care package waiting list than there are packages in the system.

For years, Labor has been calling on successive Liberal governments to fix the home care package waiting list crisis. We know Australia has a growing ageing population. We also know that more Australians are choosing to age in their own home. They should be able to make that choice. The former minister admitted last year that he needed to intervene. Did he? The next quarterly report on the number of older Australians waiting for care has just been released, and given the seriousness of issue I hope there is no further delay.

The government's track record of inaction continues when it comes to dozens of other reports as well—reviews and inquiries that have been gathering dust on the desk of minister after minister. More than two years ago the Australian Law Reform Commission's final Elder abuse report was tabled in the parliament. Forty-three recommendations were put to government by the Law Reform Commission, the majority of which still have yet to be actioned or fully implemented. Last week it was two years since the report of the Tune review was tabled in the parliament, an important review that gave the government a pathway forward about how to address a number of critical issues impacting on the now broken aged-care system. Thirty-eight recommendations were put to government, many of which still have yet to be fully implemented. In question time today the minister said he was working through them, but it's not good enough.

Last week also marked a year since the minister announced the release of the A Matter of Care workforce strategy, which included 14 actions to address current and future workforce challenges. How many of those 14 actions have been addressed? To date none have been fully implemented. What a disgrace this is, when we know there aren't enough aged-care workers now to care for older Australians, let alone those that will be needed to provide this care over the next decade. And in less than a month it will be two years since the Carnell-Paterson report into regulatory processes was handed to the government. This report has 10 recommendations, many of which, yet again, have yet to be fully implemented. What we have seen over and over are policy failures under this government—policies that are failing older Australians. This government has turned its back on older Australians. It needs to do more. It needs to fix the crisis in aged care.

18 September 2019