Aug 27, 2020

ANTHONY ALBANESE – SPEECH – AGED CARE IN AUSTRALIA: GOVERNMENT BY NEGLECT – NATIONAL PRESS CLUB, CANBERRA – THURSDAY, 27 AUGUST 2020

 

ANTHONY ALBANESE MP
LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY
MEMBER FOR GRAYNDLER

 

SPEECH TO THE NATIONAL PRESS CLUB
CANBERRA
THURSDAY, 27 AUGUST 2020

AGED CARE IN AUSTRALIA: GOVERNMENT BY NEGLECT

*** CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY ***

 

Watch Full Speech Here – Including Q&A

 

Introduction

 

My hope has always been that, as Australians, our guiding spirit during this crisis would be the idea that we are all in this together.

 

Because we have shown repeatedly through our history that this is when we are at our best.

 

Through war.

 

Through depression and recession.

 

Through fire and flood and cyclone.

 

Working together is our finest and strongest reflex.

 

Overwhelmingly, Australians have made sacrifices in order to help each other get through this period.

 

And yet, a calamity is unfolding before our eyes. As if that weren’t enough, a future calamity is being created.

 

Older Australians are dying.

 

We are losing mums and dads. Grandmas and grandpas. Uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers.

 

Families have been hurt terribly, denied even that one small comfort that the person that they loved — and who loved them right back — was able to depart life in peace, surrounded by those dearest to them.

 

I myself know how important it was to me to be able to say goodbye to my mother, Maryanne as she passed in 2002.  The pain of families who have lost loved ones in terrible circumstances would have been added to if they had read some commentators suggesting these loved ones are simply dying “a few months earlier”.

 

And it is certainly of no comfort to hear the Prime Minister boast that 97 per cent of aged care facilities do not have coronavirus infections.

 

And as coronavirus continues its awful march through our aged care sector, we are seeing many of our fellow Australians — desperate and painted into a corner — succumbing to the costly temptation to raid their own superannuation.

 

Presiding over it all is a Government that is failing to protect older Australians in the present.

 

And failing to protect the older Australians of the future.

 

It’s a Government that saw what was coming and had a chance to make a difference — but didn’t.

 

A Government that’s always there for the photo op, but never there for the follow up.

 

How has this happened? At his campaign launch last year, Scott Morrison vowed to “keep the promise of Australia to all Australians”.

 

All Australians.

 

But then, this is also the same Scott Morrison who has repeatedly asked the question, “Whose side are you on?”

 

Which is the real Scott Morrison? This year has answered the question.

 

He is a man who has climbed to the highest office of the land without even accidentally gaining any of the necessary compassion along the way.

 

A Prime Minister who doesn’t hold a hose.

 

It’s a handy metaphor he’s given us. The hose can stand for anything he is shirking responsibility for, anything he’s trying to keep his fingerprints off.

 

Indeed, the last time Scott Morrison held anything with conviction was a lump of coal he carried into the Parliament.

 

Time and again, this Government has been warned about the threat the coronavirus posed to aged care. Time and again those warnings have been neglected.

 

None of what is going wrong just crept up on us. This Government was warned by experts that our already troubled aged care system was vulnerable to the pandemic.

 

Just as they were warned in the past by experts that a terrible fire season was coming.

 

Just as they have been warned by experts that the climate is changing, and inaction will cost us more in the long run.

 

Just as they have been warned by experts that wages are flatlining and working people are being left behind.

 

Just as they are now being warned by experts that the raids they are encouraging on superannuation will leave people much worse off later in life.

 

Their response to each warning has been the same: Neglect. And the smirk of someone who is convinced he knows better, and then sits on his hands.

 

If actions speak louder than words, Scott Morrison is truly the quietest Australian of all.

 

 

Aged care

It is a different sort of quiet falling across our aged care homes.

 

It is the quiet of anguish. Of despair. Of loneliness.

 

And it breaks my heart.

 

It has been a calamity years in the making on the Coalition’s watch. And it has been recognised within their own ranks.

 

Here’s what Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has had to say:

“…Prime Minister Abbott and those advising him in the Coalition failed in their promise to reform aged care and simply opted for a shift that had no demonstrable positive outcome for the wellbeing of our older Australians.”

 

She also lays blame at the feet of Scott Morrison, who cut $1.7 billion from the sector when he was Treasurer.

 

Cuts that divided aged care providers into winners and losers. Cuts that have made the current crisis worse.

 

And when we asked about these cuts yesterday, Morrison simply denied it. In his world, everything can be spun, anything can be turned upside down.

 

A forced handshake is consensual. A turned back is a friendly conversation. An incompetent Minister is doing a great job. A Royal Commissioner damning the Federal Government must be talking about someone else.

 

And cuts that are there in the Budget Papers for all to see never happened.

 

In a speech to CEDA in 2014, Mitch Fifield — then Assistant Minister for Social Services to Kevin Andrews — characterised a lot of the sector’s built-in protections as cumbersome red tape.

And I quote:

“Most agree that the aged care system is over regulated; it can stifle innovation and it can constrain the ability to provide people with the services they want… The Government has also introduced legislation to remove the cumbersome key personnel reporting requirements…”

 

Just think that through for a moment.

 

And remind yourself that what he was talking about was the care and dignity of older Australians.

 

The older Australians of the present, and the older Australians we all hope to be one day.

 

As a distillation of the Liberal ethos — deregulation to the point it’s almost the law of the jungle — it’s hard to top.

 

They have churned through seven ministers with responsibility for aged care — one for every year they have been in power.

 

The incumbent doesn’t even sit in the Cabinet. And this week he was effectively demoted.

 

He’s lost his responsibility and now he should lose his title.

 

I’ve had the honour of meeting with aged care workers on the frontline. Likewise, I have had the privilege of sitting with the families of those in aged care. I have listened to their stories.

 

As one said to me, this pandemic is like an X-ray because it has shown us what is broken.

 

And so much is broken. It already was before the pandemic, which is why Labor was relentless in calling for the Royal Commission.

 

In the words of its interim report:

“Many people receiving aged care services have their basic human rights denied. Their dignity is not respected and their identity is ignored…  It is a shocking tale of neglect.”

 

And that is the title of the report: Neglect.

 

Just one, damning word that sits atop the report into the Morrison Government’s administration of aged care in Australia.

 

Neglect.

 

That’s the legacy of the Morrison Government on aged care.

 

Neglect is people with open sores left unattended.

 

Neglect is people left hungry, alone in their rooms.

 

Neglect is a system totally unprepared for the coronavirus.

 

Older Australians in aged care – and all those who love them – deserve far better than this.

 

It is a shocking tale. It is a shocking indictment. And the neglect spreads far.

 

More than 103,000 Australians are waiting for home care packages.

 

Packages that have already been approved.

 

Packages that would let them stay in their homes.

 

Of course, it was Labor that established Home and Community Care in the mid 1980s.

 

The pandemic has taken a desperately ailing system and pushed it to the brink.

 

It is a system the Morrison Government is fully responsible for.

 

But in the stark words of Peter Rozen QC, the senior counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Aged Care:

“…the evidence will reveal that neither the Commonwealth Department of Health nor the aged care regulator developed a COVID-19 plan specifically for the aged care sector.”

 

This is something we just can’t ignore.

 

Listen to their stories.

 

There is the desperate family of Concetta Mineo, who were reduced to calling around the hospitals because Epping Gardens wouldn’t pick up the phone.

 

In the words of her daughter, Nella: “We were beside ourselves.”

 

Then there’s Jayne Erdevicki, who learnt in an unspeakable way that her father was dead:

“I started crying and I said: ‘Why didn’t anybody call? Why didn’t anybody call? I’ve been ringing and ringing.

“And [they] go: ‘Oh he was fine this morning, he was fine this afternoon, when I checked on him he’d passed away’.”

 

Then there’s the family of Epping Gardens’ resident Thelma Hyatt, who were told after her death:

“When are you going to move the body? You need to move her because she’s in a body bag and we don’t have a fridge facility and she’s deteriorating while we speak.”

 

And part of where it has gone wrong is that we have turned looking after our older Australians into just one more source of profit.

 

We have let humanity and dignity become subordinate to the bottom line.

 

Take just two of the big listed for-profit providers.

 

In 2020, Regis Health Care paid out $35 million in dividends to its shareholders, including its two founders, who are regulars in the BRW rich list.

 

And BUPA paid nearly $15 million to its executives, while over half of its aged care homes failed basic standards of care, and almost one in three were putting the health and safety of the elderly at “serious risk”.

 

Staff in the sector are left begging for help. They can’t even get a pair of gloves. Some have had to use just one glove.

 

Staff beg for COVID-testing teams to be sent.

 

Staff who are low-paid and undervalued, providing the most intimate care to the most vulnerable people.

 

When Greg Hunt declared our aged care system was “immensely prepared”, workers on the frontline felt sheer despair.

 

Because they knew it wasn’t.

 

Thankfully, unlike the Government, the Royal Commission is not lost in wishful thinking and buck passing.

 

It sees a sector dangerously unprepared.

 

It sees the human toll.

 

It sees the families struggling to get information.

 

It sees the families who have had to say goodbye on FaceTime.

 

It sees the families who do not even get to say goodbye at all.

 

And just as earlier warning from experts hasn’t been enough to jolt the Government into action, neither have these heart-wrenching stories.

 

I turn again to the words of Peter Rozen, QC:

“…some families have been unable to ascertain even whether their loved ones are alive or dead. That this can happen in Australia in 2020 is unacceptable. That it is happening again so soon after Newmarch House is unforgivable.”

 

Peter Rozen has also said this:

“…a degree of self-congratulation and even hubris was displayed by the Commonwealth Government.”

 

Whatever questions are raised by the current circumstances, Richard Colbeck cannot be the answer to any of them.

 

There are few greater indictments on this Government than Minister Colbeck’s performance last week before the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 led by Katy Gallagher.

 

As he fumbled about with pieces of paper, it became clear that even the absolute basics of his job were beyond him.

 

We saw the heights of his ineptitude.

 

The fact is our aged care sector has one of the highest COVID death rates in the world.

 

Scott Morrison’s response? “When it rains, everyone gets wet.”

 

Yes, he really said that. He knew the rain was coming. He never thought to give anyone an umbrella.

 

In the absence of a Government plan, here are eight points the Government could consider:

  1. Minimum staffing levels in residential aged care;
  2. Reduce the home care package waiting list so more people can stay in their homes for longer;
  3. Ensure transparency and accountability of funding to support high quality care;
  4. Independent measurement and public reporting as recommended by the Royal Commission this week;
  5. Ensure every residential aged care facility has adequate personal protective equipment;
  6. Better training for staff, including on infection control;
  7. A better surge workforce strategy; and
  8. Provide additional resources so the Aged Care Royal Commission can inquire specifically into COVID-19 across the sector while not impacting or delaying the handing down of the final report.

 

As the Royal Commissioners appointed by this Government said on Monday:

“Had the Australian Government acted upon previous reviews of aged care, the persistent problems in aged care would have been known much earlier and the suffering of many people could have been avoided.”

 

An unequivocal indictment of this Government’s performance.

 

Superannuation

The pandemic has brought other forms of suffering.

 

I have walked Centrelink’s queues in my local community. I’ve stopped and talked with people and it often took a while, because the lines were so long and slow.

 

People have felt lost. Frightened.

 

Their livelihoods evaporated in the pandemic. Whatever certainties they had are gone.

 

Ordinary obligations have become daunting challenges. Putting food on the table. Putting clean clothes on the children. Buying medicine. Paying the bills, the rent, the mortgage.

 

These fears are playing out across Australia: in country towns, in inner cities and outer suburbs.

 

Many feel like they are out of options. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, the Government has found a receptive audience with its invitation to Australians to raid their own superannuation.

 

Boil it down to its essence and what the Government has done is ask workers to fund their own stimulus with this Early Release Scheme.

 

And who has been most receptive to this idea?

 

Young workers. Women. Those who are already at a disadvantage, and who cannot afford the hit to their savings.

 

So far, $33 billion has been withdrawn — comparable to and on the same scale as what the Government has paid out on JobKeeper.

 

More than 600,000 superannuation accounts have been reduced to zero.

 

This is as sneaky as it is wicked. The Government has shifted the cost of the pandemic from themselves to individuals — making workers and families pay for the pandemic by depleting their retirement incomes.

 

And they are withdrawing their super at the bottom of the market.

 

What’s happening right now is casting a shadow so long it will darken future generations.

 

It will increasingly fall to them to prop up budget spending ever more on aged care and pensions.

 

This means either that future workers will face higher taxation or that future government services — including the age pension — will come under pressure.

 

Universal superannuation was built to avoid this problem.

 

It was never designed to be a mere safety net – a welfare measure.

 

The Hawke and Keating Governments established superannuation to give working people a fuller and richer retirement.

 

So they could do better than the limited $24,000 per annum of the full age pension.

 

But the Liberals have never believed in universal superannuation.

 

It’s a perverse paradox that this self-professed party of small government prefers Australians to be dependent on bigger government into the future, with more people dependent on the anti-destitution device of the age pension.

 

And we can see where that takes us. Next month will be the first time the age pension hasn’t risen in nearly a quarter of a century.

 

As Linda Burney so rightly puts it:

“This is the worst possible time to be putting the squeeze on the household budgets of seniors and the most vulnerable.”

 

Some have argued that if we cut super then the Coalition might just increase the pension.  The evidence is in.  They want to cut super and freeze the pension.

 

Coalition members are opposing even the smallest 0.5 per cent increase in the Superannuation Guarantee – already legislated to come into effect in July next year.

 

For the average worker, that would cost their employer less than $7 per week.

 

The opponents would have you believe that this modest increase, after years of flat wages growth, is unaffordable.

 

They claim that it comes at the cost of wages.

 

But in 2014 when super was frozen by the Coalition Government, wages did not rise.

 

Since 2013, there has been around a 10 per cent increase in productivity. This has flowed almost exclusively into company profits, with wages remaining flat and working people being left behind.

 

Universal superannuation was built to ensure working people got a fair share of their own productivity.

 

The fact is universal superannuation doesn’t just mean a return for individuals. It’s also good for our economy.

 

For the first time in our history, we are now a net exporter of capital.

 

At a time of global uncertainty and disruption, having a strong domestic savings pool is a clear measure of national resilience. It is the ballast our financial system and economy needs.

 

It provides the capital to invest in needed infrastructure and nation building.

 

And as our population ages, it will take pressure off future budgets.

 

When superannuation was established in the early 1990s, for every Australian aged over 65, we had six people of working age supporting them.

 

We now have just four supporting them, and by 2050 that dependency will be down to just three.

 

The coronavirus has punished young Australians enough today, without requiring them to bear the cost of national ageing tomorrow.

 

The Government is setting us up for a future where millions of Australians are condemned to a very lean retirement.

 

The Liberal Party’s ideological prejudice means they certainly don’t want workers to have self-sufficiency in capital and have undermined superannuation at every opportunity.

 

This Coalition Government has now been in office for three terms. In their first two terms they broke their promise not to touch superannuation. If they now break their promise a third time, it should be three strikes and you’re out.

 

Taking responsibility

When Harry Truman was President of the US, he had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that said: “The buck stops here.”

 

It was an expression of the very core of leadership: the acceptance of the responsibility that comes with it.

 

Not Scott Morrison.

 

The buck doesn’t stop with him. And, as the Ruby Princess debacle showed, neither do the boats — no matter what that little trinket in his office says.

 

It is just one more monument to the emptiness of his promises.

 

As hollow as his promise to drought victims.

 

As hollow as his promise to bushfire victims.

 

And ultimately, as hollow as his campaign launch promise to all Australians.

 

The Prime Minister can try to sidestep the truth all he wants. He can dismiss valid questions from journalists as “gossip” or “inside the Canberra bubble”.

 

He can pretend that his Government’s pattern of inaction and its very real consequences is nothing more than the trivial obsession of political insiders. He can try to reframe reality.

 

But it changes nothing.

 

Scott Morrison has had to be dragged to nearly every important decision during this pandemic.

 

In the words of columnist for The Australian, Niki Savva:

“At almost every critical point on almost every contentious issue, he has been forced to shift position. He stopped travel from China but waited too long to block travel from the US. He opposed lockdowns, he opposed school closures, he opposed state border restrictions, he opposed wage subsidies, he opposed pandemic leave and he suspended parliament.”

 

This records the lack of judgment and a complacency.

 

Complacency first, demonstrated so tragically during the bushfires.

 

I can’t help but wonder how much better shape Australia would be in if the Government hadn’t put so much energy into resisting what was obvious and essential.

 

Labor has made suggestions during this crisis, and we have been constructive. We want to help Australia’s recovery, not hinder it.

 

We want solutions, not arguments.

 

But when it’s the Government that is acting as a drag on our recovery, then we have a responsibility to speak up.

 

The actions taken by the Government to assist people and business during the pandemic, including wage subsidies, have been based on Labor values – the power of government to make a positive difference; the belief that no one should be left behind during the pandemic, and no one held back during the recovery.

 

The value written in every Australian heart: the fair go.

 

At every step of the way they have been dragged to these actions because these values go against their deepest instincts of a nation divided into winners and losers.

 

Likewise, only Labor values will carry us to recovery.

 

This unnerves the Liberals. Finding themselves in alien territory, they have panicked and run for the comfort of the familiar.

 

You saw it with Treasurer Frydenberg recently when he announced his inspiration for the recovery was … Margaret Thatcher.

 

Margaret Thatcher — the Prime Minister who declared there was no such thing as society.

 

The Prime Minister who let the more vulnerable regions of her country slide into ruin.

 

Treasurer Frydenberg was admonished by Scott Morrison — not because he had said something wrong, but because he’d said the quiet bit out loud.

 

Australians are depending on this Government right now. Yes, Australians are resourceful, tough-minded and independent.

 

But we are in a crisis.

 

The nation needs leadership.

 

It’s been a long fall for the Liberal Party: from a founder who spoke about forgotten Australians, to a leader determined to forget them — and a minister who struggles to remember them.

 

Conclusion

For more than a century, Labor has used our time in power to make Australia a better, fairer nation.

 

We have worked to sever the old anchor chain of class and destiny.

 

The pandemic is a challenge, but also an opportunity for a reset, to imagine a better future for all Australians – and set about creating one.

 

That means looking after the aged care residents and the pensioners of today, and those whose retirement might be decades away but who will depend upon our superannuation system.

 

A plan for individuals, but also a plan for economic strength.

 

A government with the vision to deal with the urgent necessities of today, while anticipating the challenges of tomorrow.

 

Those challenges can be addressed with foresight, commitment and a determination as strong as the Australian people are showing themselves and each other to be during this pandemic.

 

THURSDAY, 27 AUGUST 2020