Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment (Royal Commission Response No. 2) Bill 2021

House of Representatives
25 October 2021

I'm delighted to rise and enter the debate tonight about a critical issue facing us all. I'm particularly in strong support of the second reading amendment to the Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment (Royal Commission Response No. 2) Bill 2021, because I want to talk about some of the systemic failures from the perspective of my local communities when it comes to aged care. I also want to talk about the inadequacies that the government has so far delivered in response to the royal commission and I want to raise my voice around the government's failures in providing safe and high-quality care for aged-care residents. Particularly, I want to place on the record the concerns, frustrations and genuine fears of many in my community.

In tonight's contribution, I will be referencing the outstanding work of local aged-care workers in my community—the outstanding management and staff who do so much with so little, thanks to this government—and also the impact that some of these changes have meant for the residents who I have spoken to and their families who have contacted me as their advocate in wanting a better deal for those in our community who aren't getting the care that they deserve.

We know that action to fix aged care has been a long time coming and that it's needed desperately. Tonight's bill, like much of what the government has provided in this portfolio after eight years, falls woefully short. Several key recommendations from the aged-care royal commission have been neglected and rejected by the government. As we know from previous speakers in today's debate, over 140 recommendations—more than half—will not be implemented fully or at all. This bill claims to be addressing the recommendations from the royal commission, but missing items and alterations that have been made mean this falls far short of what I believe the community expects.

The bill does make some small changes, and the proposed measures will impact residential aged-care funding, workforce screening, provider governance, banning orders and a code of conduct. Listening to previous speakers on this side of the chamber and the shadow minister, certainly these recommendations being put forward have been put forward without any adequate consultation with older Australians or any of the aged-care peak bodies. I've been privileged to sit down with a number of providers in my community—and across Australia—who have reached out to me and spoken to me about their sheer frustration with government policy and the sheer frustration of not being heard by the government orby a minister who seems to be either uninterested in or unable to deliver adequate reform.

Certainly, from tonight's discussion, policy changes have not had the impact for workers, and, in particular, the unions who represent some of the hardest working Australians—the aged-care nurses, the frontline allied staff, the people who provide round-the-clock care. When United Voice has brought their delegations to the parliament I have always been first in the queue, because I want to hear firsthand from workers. I want to hear their frustrations. I've visited workplaces in my own electorate and heard the sheer desperation and also the heartbreaking stories of workers leaving the sector because of inadequate pay or the fact that they are unable to deal with the complexities—the stress and strain of working in a system that is simply broken.

The aged-care crisis, in my opinion, falls firmly at the feet of the Prime Minister. He is responsible for the aged-care system. We need to go a little bit back in time to look at the Prime Minister's record in aged care, particularly when he was Treasurer, where we saw the damaging round of cuts that were made. But, also, there is the fact that he was dragged kicking and screaming to actually get the royal commission done in the first place. It was Labor who called for it, the opposition who rallied and championed a royal commission into this sector. We were told it wasn't necessary. We were told it wouldn't fix things.

Well, what the royal commission has highlighted is that our system is broken. We heard during the evidence to the commission about the horrific way that residents have been treated. Regarding the fact that two thirds of residents were malnourished or at risk of malnourishment, I have had experience with this that I would like to share with the chamber. My own mother was in aged care and was rushed to hospital due to malnourishment and dehydration. She had lost around 16 kilos in weight, she had continual UTIs and she was in enormous pain. She was admitted to hospital the week after the last federal election—rushed to hospital when I was visiting her with my cousin. She did make a lengthy recovery but, as a member of parliament and someone who stands in this place, when I look people in the eye to hear their stories, it's heartbreaking to know about the abuse and the difficulties of navigating the aged-care system. When we made the decision, with my mother's involvement, to change facilities, the complexities involved with navigating the system and the difficulties of residential aged-care deposits, the RADs—it was a really difficult period. I can only imagine, for someone with poor literacy skills or someone from a non-English-speaking background, or someone with not a lot of money, what that means in terms of trying to navigate the system. Let's face it, even trying to apply for Meals on Wheels through the My Aged Care portal is a battle.

I hope the bureaucrats listening to this speech tonight will take all this into consideration, because the system is not working; the system is broken. With a system that requires so much detail and has so much complexity to navigate, I worry about the future as we all get older—what this means for all of us—because we will all have to face this aged-care system. Certainly, in my time in this place, I'm dedicated to reforming, improving and enhancing this system so that no Australian will have to go through the difficulties that our family went through and that literally thousands and thousands of others have to deal with.

I want to make the remark that this is not a reflection of my own personal stance about the quality of care or the difficulties. It was simply the fact that the facilities that I've spoken to—and in our own family's example—did not have enough resources. They didn't have enough time, they didn't have enough care workers, to be able to check meals or to check hydration levels. The staffing levels were not adequate. It's that simple. So we do need durable improvements and lasting reforms that will make a real difference in the lives of our nation's elderly in the long run. As I said, 148 recommendations are not being implemented, or aren't being implemented properly. Nothing will change without reforms to the workforce; I fundamentally believe that.

There has been nothing so far to improve the wages of overstretched, undervalued aged-care workers. A couple of weeks ago I was at a local business, a cafe in my local suburb, and I ran into a former aged-care worker. I said to them, 'What are you doing here?'—because they were working at the cafe—and they said they had to leave the facility they were working for because they couldn't make enough money and because of the stress and the strain. That means we've lost the quality and knowledge of that person, in their leaving the sector. The $3.2 billion that the government is coughing up for providers has no strings attached. There are no guarantees that this will go to better care or better food. There are no guarantees that some of this money won't be wasted on management bonuses or fit-outs of new offices or new equipment for the top executives. I don't begrudge anyone decent pay, but you've also got to think about at whose expense that comes—what does that mean for the actual frontline workers in the facilities, who need more support.

Older Australians have helped build this country. They've paid their taxes, they've worked hard, they've raised their families and they honestly deserve the respect, dignity and peace of mind that a federal government should be providing to them at an aged-care facility. I know this is a complex piece of policy. I know this is very difficult. But we have to do better for older Australians.

We have to do better for the 12,580 pensioners that I represent in this place, with many of them coming to having to deal with tough decisions about what sort of care they have. In my community, I've got wonderful Aveo facilities; I've got Sinnamon Village, which is a terrific facility in the south-western suburbs of Brisbane; there's TriCare at Jindalee—amazing staff, but they are really stretched to the limit, and so many of them have become burnt out. Forest Lake Lodge is another great facility, down from my electorate office. These workers are tireless in their support, and the fact that they've got to come and advocate in their own time to their members of parliament—we should be doing everything we can to support them. And I would say on the record that many of them are begging for help and support. They simply cannot continue the work that they're doing. They love what they do, they love caring for older residents, but they simply do not have the resources to do it.

I really hope that the government understands the complexities of this issue and understands how hard it is for older Australians to navigate the current system. We've had 21 expert reports. The then Treasurer, Scott Morrison, now Prime Minister, decided to make those decisions about cutting funding. None of us want to hear the horror stories. None of us want to live the horror stories of what so many residents have gone through. But there is a trust deficit here with the Commonwealth government when it comes to delivering quality aged-care services. It is in black and white. It is as clear as day that, in the system that we have at the moment, the quality of care is not what Australians believe that they are entitled to.

After eight years, you have to ask yourself: is the government up to the task? After eight long years and a royal commission, half the recommendations of which have not been implemented, you have to ask: is this federal government shaping up to be one of the worst governments in our nation's history, full of dysfunction and chaos—and that's just this week? Each week we seem to go from bad to worse, with someone being held hostage or some sort of Hunger Games episode inside the government where someone is being held to ransom about a policy issue or someone threatens to resign, walk out or cross the floor.

The real losers out of this are older Australians, the residents who are fearful, but also their families. Particularly during the pandemic, there has been the issue of isolation. I won't even get onto what the member for Macquarie touched on in her speech: the issue of vaccination and all the promises that were made by the health minister. I would sit in this parliament and hear the excuses about 16 per cent, 72 per cent, four per cent or nine per cent. 'We just didn't do our job. We promised that, in every facility, every aged-care worker would be done by Easter, and that turned into May, June and July.' On and on it went. No-one from the government ever got up and said: 'We stuffed up. We didn't order enough vaccines. We didn't deliver what we said we would.' Maybe if they had there'd be a bit more confidence in the aged-care sector. But that was during the pandemic.

The government does have an opportunity now, in the dying days of this term, to do better when it comes to aged care. If they don't, older Australians have a very clear choice at the next election: they can continue on with a government not committed to aged care or to real reform, or they can elect a future Albanese Labor government with, hopefully, Minister Mark Butler—currently the shadow minister—who will deliver and will see real reform to give older Australians the respect, dignity and kindness that they deserve.