Mar 14, 2002

Matters of Public Importance: Howard Government: Aged Care

MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE

Howard Government: Aged Care

14 March 2002

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (3.30 p.m.)—This is a government that is characterised by deceit. In aged care, the government has no beds, no nurses, no plan and no shame. We have seen evidence of how this government has been prepared to lie and cheat its way to election victories. We saw today in question time a response from the minister—

Interjection

The SPEAKER—The Member for Grayndler is aware that the term `the government lies’ is not desirable. I ask him to desist.

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Mr ALBANESE—I withdraw the remark and say that the government has been prepared to say untruths. We actually gave the minister the opportunity to correct the record by asking him in question time today whether he was aware that his own department had told us that, in spite of the fact that the former minister had said that there were 4,600 beds coming online, fewer than one in four has materialised. We asked the department where this figure came from. The answer we were given was that they had no idea. This is a government that is prepared to simply make things up in whatever portfolio. In the area of immigration we were told that children were thrown overboard. In the area of aged care we were told that all these beds were coming online, but the government cannot say where those figures came from.

The government has produced one in four of those beds. But it was not a mistruth conducted just by the former minister. The Leader of the National Party, Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, has also been caught out. During the election campaign on 19 October he said that 632 beds were expected to open before the end of the year. That is a very precise figure. In fact we have found, from the answers we were given last night, that the figure is only 484. We know that this is a government that has not got a single area of aged care right. When the current government came to office in 1996, the Prime Minister said that older Australians would be one of his priorities. All too quickly we understood what that meant. It meant that in the first Costello budget a half a billion dollar cut—a $500 million cut—to the area of aged care was slotted in there.

The system has been in crisis ever since. This is not one of those areas of abstract debate. This is an area that has a real impact on the lives of older Australians, those people who care for older Australians and the families of older Australians. The shortage of beds is not the only tragedy in aged care. Currently, not one area of the government’s aged care program is working—not one measure, policy or action this government has taken has improved aged care services. When the coalition came to power there was a surplus of 800 aged care beds. Now there is a deficit of at least 6,500 beds. Not only has the government taken away these beds; it has taken away dignity from older Australians.

Only the government’s ministers believe there is no crisis in aged care, and we know that there have been four of them in six years—it is the revolving door portfolio. The only positive thing we can say about this minister to give him credit is that he is not Bronwyn Bishop.

Interjection

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member will refer to members by their seat.

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Mr ALBANESE—The former minister was sacked by this government. If aged care is not in crisis, why has minister, after minister, after minister been replaced by the Prime Minister? They are being replaced because the system is in crisis. The current minister may well be more personable than his predecessor—and, I think that is probably correct—nonetheless, there has been no change. The current minister has not foreshadowed a single piece of legislation before this parliament. This is the agenda of the current minister—a blank page. Because of his ideological obsession with stem cell research, he actually does not have the time to do the job that he is paid for.

I want to go through the areas of aged care and look at what the situation is. Firstly, there are the waiting times. The blow-out in waiting times under this government, which was 29 days in 1998, grew by more than 10 days a year—up to 55 days in 2000. So what did the government do—and why do I use that figure and not a more up-to-date figure? I use that figure because, as a response, the government did not try to fix the problems; they just stopped giving us the figures. When we asked at Senate estimates hearings last week what the current situation is, they said they did not know. They knew that the figure was 55 days up to the year 2000, but now, all of a sudden, they do not know. They have no idea. That is quite extraordinary. But what is more extraordinary is that they do not call them waiting lists anymore. Under this government they are now called entry periods. Once again, language is being used and abused in order to hide the crisis in the system.

If we look at the numbers of nursing staff and aged care staff, we can see there is a shortage of at least 5,000. We know that the sector has difficulty in recruiting and retaining registered nurses. We know that there is a lack of wage parity between aged care nurses and their public hospital counterparts. But there has been no response whatsoever from this government. These people are working in difficult circumstances and under enormous pressure caring for older Australians, and what do they receive from this government? Contempt—what they receive is an administrative system in which every single nursing home has to do an estimated four hours of paperwork every day for the Resident Classification Scale. This is an administrative system which has been set up to do nothing more than claw back the funding which was given to nursing homes—$90 million has been budgeted for in savings, year after year, in order to cut the funds that the government has to contribute to the nursing homes. If you got rid of that four hours of paperwork in each nursing home, you could give back four million hours of care each year to look after older Australians. For the current financial year, there is an estimate of $44 million and, in 2003-04, a target of $51 million—once again, the priority of this government is to save money rather than to fix the problem.

We know that there is a problem with the complaints system: we know that there is a public perception that the complaints system lacks independence and transparency—and, of course, it is a former Victorian Liberal minister who is in charge of the show. There is no accountability whatsoever. Complaints go in, and nothing comes out. We know that no surprise inspection took place for over two years. We know that there is story after story of human tragedy. The most recent is at Mosman Park Nursing Home in Perth, where 40 to 60 maggots were tunnelling into the leg of an elderly Australian. How did the minister find out about this? We had a departmental briefing, and I asked his chief of staff when the minister found out. They found out from the 6 o’clock news. That is how they found out—when a worker in that facility blew at the whistle, and it appeared on the TV news that night. This is a government that simply does not care about aged care.

We then come to phantom beds. The phantom minister himself tried to take the heat out of this issue by releasing a press release in which he said that there were 13,300—phantom—beds allocated to nursing home operators which were not operational. Of those, 2,816—almost 3,000—were allocated more than two years ago. More than two years ago they were allocated but there was no delivery on the ground. What was the minister’s response? This is from the minister who under the system funds every individual in there. What did he say? In the Herald Sun on 24 February, he said:

This situation is unacceptable and we want to find out where the beds are, who has them and what their reasons are for not making them operational.

Well, that is your job, Minister. You should know where they are. Your department should know where they are, because you fund them. It is an extraordinary admission by the minister that he just has no idea. Surely it is the minister’s job to know exactly what the situation is.

We come to certification. Conflicting advice has been given by the department to operators, so that they do not know whether they are coming or going. They simply do not know what certifications standards they are required to meet, and there is a complete lack of transparency in the aged care bed allocation process. I was up in the member for Capricornia’s electorate last week. In Rockhampton, the providers told us that they were simply bewildered by the decision-making process with regard to the allocation of beds. The funding formula is considered by all in the industry to be fundamentally flawed and not reflective of the actual costs faced by operators.

The aged care system is in crisis. But what have the government done? They have now adopted the Strategy for an Ageing Australia to try to take attention away from the aged care crisis. The Strategy for an Ageing Australia was actually intended to be released in 1999 for the International Year of Older Persons. Four ministers and $6.1 million later, a document has been released twice—once by the former minister and once by the current minister. That document does not have one spending commitment, not one time line, not one specific policy.

But there is a difference between the two documents. We outlined yesterday how much it cost. During the election campaign the former minister released this document—or tried to release this document—in spite of her advice from the department that it was against the caretaker conventions, at a cost of $42,000. Once again, taxpayers funds were used to fund an election stunt by a desperate minister and a desperate government. The difference between the two documents is that one has a photo of the former minister and a different foreword, and the other one has a photo of the new minister. But the one with the photo of the former minister was nine times more expensive to produce than the current one. There is another difference in the document: in the former minister’s document, she said in the foreword:

As well, I wish to recognise the expert advice we received from the multidisciplinary expert advisory group and the business mature age work force advisory group. Contributions from the business sector, industry bodies, academia, community organisations and individuals also helped to inject valuable community debate into the national strategy development process.

What she was saying was: `We’ve done all this work. We’ve consulted the sector. Here’s the document.’ But the new minister has made a change to the foreword. He says:

As a first step—

a first step!—

I am delighted to announce the next phase in progressing the National Strategy for an Ageing Australia by using this strategy as a springboard to engage with the community on the issues of ageing.

The end of the process has become the beginning. It is groundhog day. We are back again! Bear in mind that this document was released about a month ago, and the International Year of Older Persons was 1999. Four ministers later, in 2002, we have the minister putting out this document. The minister has made himself so unaccountable that we have phantom beds and we have a phantom strategy. We also have a phantom minister, because he does not have press conferences when he allocates beds. He produced a press release which said that prerecorded interviews are available for radio, because he would not want to answer a question from a radio interviewer about whether the beds would actually appear. This is a government that has no strategy, no idea, no plan. (Time expired)