Aug 24, 2020

Statements On Indulgence – COVID-19 – Monday, 24 August 2020

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the Opposition) (14:22): Thanks very much, Mr Speaker. This pandemic continues to challenge the global community. It continues to challenge us as a nation and it challenges us as individuals. Australians have shown themselves to be the resilient, courageous, determined people that all of us in this chamber know them to be. They’ve followed instructions under hard conditions, particularly the conditions that Victorians are experiencing at the moment. We are indeed all in this together. Australians are certainly doing their bit, and I have never been as proud to be an Australian as I have been through this difficult time.

The job of an opposition leader and an opposition at times like these is to be constructive, just as it should have been during the global financial crisis. We have been constructive. We have put forward ideas in good faith and encouraged the government to get on board with those ideas. Where we think the government has got it right, we have said so and praised the government for doing so. But it’s also the job of the opposition in a democracy to call things as they see them. It’s the job of the opposition to hold a government to account, to make sure that each and every day the outcome is as good as it can be. To do otherwise is not to be responsible. To do otherwise is to abandon the democratic principles that are the fundamental difference between us and other regimes around the world.

There are no areas that have been more critical for this than the area of aged care. The fact is that, whilst throughout the country there are some 517 people, at least, who have lost loved ones during the crisis, some 328 of them were aged-care residents and another seven were in supported home care. Every one of those Australians is valued. It’s a source of heartache. My sincere condolences go to all the families and friends who have lost loved ones during this pandemic. Too many of them have had to farewell those loved ones over FaceTime. Too many aged-care workers have had to hold the hands of older Australians as they pass—older Australians who helped make this great country what it is today, older Australians who are deserving of our respect and our support, older Australians who are entitled to dignity in their later years. Aged-care residents are vulnerable. They depend on the dedicated nurses, carers and staff in facilities. I pay tribute to every one of those workers putting themselves at risk in order to provide support to these vulnerable Australians.

Aged-care residents also depend upon the federal government, because it’s the federal government that funds and regulates these facilities. Indeed, the Prime Minister told us so on 27 February—after question time was over, after a parliamentary week, on a Thursday afternoon in the parliamentary courtyard. He waved around a document that said: ‘The Australian government will also be responsible for residential aged-care facilities. They will be responsible for establishing and maintaining infection control guidelines, healthcare safety and quality standards.’ But we know that no plan was put in place. We know this from the royal commission opening statement by the counsel assisting, who said:

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

The fact is that there wasn’t a plan and there wasn’t the action that was required. If actions speak louder than words then the Morrison government truly is ‘the quiet Australian’. The fact is that this could also have been foreseen. We know from the statements. The Prime Minister said on 29 July that the complete withdrawal of the workforce was ‘a new situation that had not been anticipated or foreshadowed at a state level or considered at a federal level’. In fact, a document issued by the federal health department on 29 June urged providers: ‘Keep in mind that up to 80 to 100 per cent of the workforce may need to isolate in a major outbreak. There may be difficulty recruiting agency staff during an outbreak.’

But it wasn’t just something predicting forward, because we know that it had happened. Going back to November last year, the royal commission released its interim report. The hint is in the title. It’s called Neglect. That’s the title of an interim report of a royal commission established by this government—Neglect. It described the system as ‘cruel and harmful’, ‘shocking’ and ‘all too often unsafe and seemingly uncaring’. It found that up to half of the residents were malnourished. They were literally starving. Here, in a wealthy country like ours, almost half the aged-care residents were literally starving—that’s what the royal commission found. It found that there were too few aged-care workers and they were paid too little. But also we know that that flowed through to what happened, tragically, at the Dorothy Henderson Lodge, where six residents died.

The report was given to the government in April. It was made public only because of the royal commission. It found issues with workforce and it found the problems that were there, consistent with the interim report of the royal commission. Then there was the Newmarch House report—17 deaths attributed directly to COVID. It found serious PPE shortages contributed to the outbreaks. We’ve heard firsthand stories of nurses and aged-care workers having to use just one glove rather than two. How do you lift a resident with one glove? The sort of pressure that these people were under. It found communications failures. This is back in March and April in New South Wales; warning bells were ringing but no-one was listening. On 10 June there was a phone hook-up with 120 people on the call, including the regulator, with people speaking up, crying out for support. That’s outlined in such detail in The Saturday Paper of last week.

But for this government the buck never stops. No-one’s responsible. The motto that was used last year, ‘I don’t hold a hose, mate’, is a flexible one for all occasions. But it is very clear that this Prime Minister and this government are responsible for aged care, very clear. On 19 August the Prime Minister said:

… we regulate aged care, but when there is a public health pandemic … then they are things that are—

managed from Victoria. In the same statement he said:

… when there is a public health pandemic, then public health, which, whether it gets into aged care, shopping centres, schools or anywhere else, then they are things that are matters for Victoria.

There’s a big difference between aged care and shopping centres. No-one’s arguing that shopping centres are responsible, that there’s a federal regulator or that they are federally funded—but aged care is, and that’s why there needs to be responsibility.

It took until today, believe it or not, that there was a media release as a result of a decision just last Friday to finally set up an aged-care advisory group. That’s a positive thing, but why did it take until now? And just today, the royal commissioners themselves—not a lawyer appearing before the royal commission, not a submission to the royal commission, but the royal commissioners themselves—said this:

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.

There it is, the royal commissioners.

Last Friday we saw, frankly, a minister appear before the COVID-19 committee who’s just not up to this task—just not up to it. I don’t know what it takes to lose your job on the front bench of this government. Whether it’s the minister for so-called emissions reductions—one of the great ironic titles of modern politics—or the Assistant Treasurer or the minister for aged care, there is nothing that any minister can do which is a dismissible offence. I would have thought that last Friday’s performance underlined that.

So we are concerned, and it’s legitimate. We have a responsibility to raise these issues, and we will be raising them in this parliament, as we should, this week. We’ll also continue to be constructive about a range of issues. We put forward arguments—

Mr Frydenberg interjecting

Mr ALBANESE: Can you withdraw? I ask that that be withdrawn.

The SPEAKER: I didn’t hear what was said, but if a member or minister made an unparliamentary remark I’d like them to withdraw.

Mr Frydenberg interjecting

The SPEAKER: You’ll need to come to the dispatch box. Hansard needs to record it.

Mr Frydenberg: I withdraw.

Mr ALBANESE: The fact is that we have put forward a range of ideas on the need for borders to be shut—not just to China—that eventually were adopted. We put forward issues about entry points, temperature testing and quarantining at airports for people who were arriving—eventually, some of those were adopted. We put forward extension and support to youth allowance and Austudy that was adopted. We put forward wage subsidies that became JobKeeper. That was originally opposed, but adopted. We put forward the need to support particular sectors, such as the arts—eventually adopted. We put forward the warning, very clearly, that a snapback in September would not work. The reason why we have to have legislation is that the government told us and the Australian people that all support could be withdrawn in September. We warned about the abuse of the superannuation scheme, and we now know that there hasn’t been a single cheque, but $40 billion has been withdrawn on that basis. We put forward the need to support public and social housing and to have job creation, not just the so-called HomeBuilder scheme.

Above all, throughout this, we put forward a strong view that we needed to listen to the science. That’s consistent with our view on other issues as well. We need to listen to the science, listen to the experts and follow that advice, and we’ll continue to do so. We’ll continue to put forward suggestions to the government. We are concerned about the early withdrawal of support—that it will result in a longer and deeper recession than there needs to be. We will continue to argue for support for measures such as job creation in social housing and other areas. We will continue to argue that, during the pandemic, no-one should be left behind and, during the recovery, no-one should be held back.

That’s our firm view. We will hold the government to account over this fortnight. It is a good thing that parliament has now resumed. I thank you, Mr Speaker, and the President of the Senate for the foresight that you’ve shown in supporting the measures, which are flexible and which will enable there to be parliamentary sittings during this fortnight. That’s our responsibility, because we have a responsibility to the Australian people to try to be as determined—to end where I started—as courageous and as committed as they are. They have shown that commitment. They deserve nothing less than us doing our absolute best to make sure that the deliberations of the parliament this fortnight produce outcomes that improve health outcomes but also alleviate some of the economic consequences of the necessary health action which has been taken.