Sep 17, 2019

Matters of Public Importance – Representative Government – Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the Opposition) (15:11): Not even the snow outside parliament today was as white as the empty pages of this Prime Minister’s agenda—a government without a sense of purpose, a government without an agenda, a government without a plan and, most importantly, a government without a plan for the economy. But we’ve also seen today a government without a plan when it comes to important social policy, particularly when it comes to looking after senior Australians.

Whether it is the seven times that this Prime Minister has voted to raise the pension age to 70 or whether it is the breaching of that famous promise—by the first in the troika of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, prior to 2013—that there’d be no cuts to pensions, what we’ve seen is that in each and every single budget they have come after pensioners. One of the reasons why we raise it again today is the number of pieces of legislation in which there are cuts before the parliament right now. They follow the 2014 budget cut of a billion dollars from pensioner concessions and follow on from 2015 when the deal with the Greens cut the pension of 370,000 pensioners by as much as $12,000 a year. They follow the 2016 budget when the government tried to cut the pension of around 190,000 pensioners, in a similar way to the legislation that’s in parliament today, and follow the attempted scrapping of the energy supplement for 1.5 million age pensioners. We saw it today from the Prime Minister when he described pensioners as welfare recipients. It said it all about the attitude about pensioners who have worked hard and paid taxes in this country their whole life and ask for dignity in their older years.

We’re also seeing it played out with the shocking evidence before the aged-care royal commission, a royal commission that this Prime Minister has the hide to say he initiated. The member for Maribyrnong went to an election campaigning for the aged-care royal commission and asked, time after time, for it to happen. What we had, in order to avoid a vote when they lost the numbers on that in this parliament, was the longest question time in history since Federation—remember that—just to avoid a vote in this parliament.

Well, no wonder they were trying to avoid it, because this is the same Prime Minister who cut the aged-care budget by $1.2 billion when he was Treasurer, in the 2016-17 budget. When we asked today about the 16,000 Australians who have died while waiting for their approved aged-care package, what did he do? He had nothing to say about them. He didn’t express any sympathy for them, their families or their communities; he just dismissed it with more politicking.

Even before the royal commission began to hear the testimonies of the sector, we were rocked by the reports on Four Corners and 7.30—people coming forward with the problems that were there in the system. We saw stories of degradation, suffering, abuse, neglect and systemic failure on this government’s watch. We’re a wealthy nation. We’re compassionate. We’re fair. How can we allow Margot, 99 years of age, blind and struggling to walk, to still be stuck on a waiting list to access adequate home care? How can we allow cases like that of Nancy Santoro, who, in the months before she died, was found with maggots infecting her untreated wounds? The father of Sarah Holland-Batt was left for days with unchanged incontinence pads. Then there was John Callaghan, who was already struggling with cancer but was found with maggots in his ear. Lisa Corcoran is just 43, one of the many younger Australians in a nursing home; she has been there since an accident when she was 37. A nursing home designed for the elderly is no place for a young person. Marooned away from her generation, Lisa has battled loneliness, and she’s had to fight for the basic right to be showered more than once a week. That’s all she’s asking for: a bit of dignity. Then there’s the 85-year-old artist, landscape architect and adoring grandfather who was left in his Alzheimer’s-stricken state in an understaffed nursing home, suffering bone fractures and left to lie unattended in his own faeces. There’s the man who died after no-one checked on him during a gastro outbreak. There are the residents of Earle Haven—as we raised today in the parliament before being dismissed by the government—who were left abandoned and left to be rescued by the Queensland Labor government.

How can we allow this to be the pay-off for a long life? Our elderly have seen so much. They’ve experienced the world as it’s gone through some of the fastest yet most profound changes. Throughout their long lives, they have worked hard for this country. They’ve given so much to their families and their communities. They’ve paid tax, they’ve volunteered, they’ve raised children, they’ve farmed, they’ve run businesses and they’ve helped their neighbours. They’ve made sacrifices. They’ve fought in wars. They’ve battled fires. They’ve taught classes and they’ve played music. They have handed out more than they needed to in the church tray. They’ve helped friends and strangers. They’ve shown love and they’ve inspired it in others. They’ve contributed throughout their lives, and this abysmal litany of failure and neglect cannot be their reward. They cannot be sidelined because society has decided they no longer serve a purpose. They cannot be abandoned. Human dignity should not be too much for them to hope for. That’s why a focus on senior Australians will be a focus of the Labor Party that I lead, because we need to treat these people with dignity. We’re a wealthy country, and we can do so much better than that.

We have more than 360,000 people who work in the aged-care sector. They are dedicated. So many of them are unsung heroes, and we rely upon them more than we allow ourselves to say. We’re so grateful to the many who’ve shown great courage in coming forward to blow the whistle and make sure we all know what’s going on. But there are too few aged-care workers, and they’re paid too little. They’ve begged the government to do something. There are 129,000 older Australians waiting for aged care at home, with the waiting time for the highest level of care having doubled—not reduced but doubled—to two years. These people are our mothers and our fathers. For some, they are sisters and brothers. For some, they are people who’ve lived in our neighbourhood. But they are all Australians who deserve dignity.

And for all of us, it’s our future, too. We need to have a system that, as our nation ages, recognises that we need to put more resources in and plan more adequately. Quite frankly, the farcical situation whereby this government uses raw numbers to pretend that cuts aren’t there, when there’s an increasing ageing of the population, is, quite frankly, an insult to our intelligence in this parliament. But it’s more than that: it’s an insult to all Australians out there. Quite frankly, time’s arrow flies in one direction, and it’s taking us all along with it. The simple, unavoidable demographic truth is that the number of us who will require care—whether at home or in facilities—is growing. There’s a wave coming, and we’re not ready for it. There are few things more urgent than the need for this government to shake off its complacency.

The government will receive an interim report from the royal commission at the end of October. Action must be taken then. There’s a need for a government response then. Today they went through all the reports they’ve had. It’s no good having reports if you don’t act on them. There’s an interim report on the royal commission, and we will hold the government to account, because action must be taken, and time is simply not on our side. We cannot wait any longer. None of us can.