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Wednesday, 25 March 1998
Page: 1504

Mr HOLLIS (11:43 AM) —When I was considering what I would say in this debate on the Aged Care Amendment Bill 1998 , I found it very difficult and confusing because of the number of backflips this government has made in relation to aged care. If I am confused, imagine how the over-55s must feel. Whichever way one assesses the legislation, the more evident is the pain and confusion the government has invoked upon the elderly community in every corner of this land. The aged care proposal has seen more backflips by the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) and the Minister for Family Services (Mr Warwick Smith) than in the Moscow Circus, but the circus does backflips with more class and applause.

It has been interesting to hear government members trying to defend the indefensible, none more so than the honourable member for Gilmore (Mrs Gash) who this morning called for honesty and integrity in this debate. Let us have a bit of honesty and integrity. I listened to her comments that her constituents are sick of opposition complaints. This is the same line she trots out on every issue. Perhaps she should talk to her constituents more and find out how sick of this government they are on a whole range of issues.

The honourable member's description of nursing homes most certainly does not apply to the nursing homes in Throsby. I also find it offensive when she claims that Labor members have no contact with their nursing homes. I do not have to defend myself in this regard. Let her contact those in charge of the nursing homes in Throsby regarding my record of help and support for them.

I also witnessed a huge expansion in nursing home facilities during the years Labor was in government. I saw Mount Warrigal grow from a small building on a hill to the vast complex of buildings and services it is today. I have witnessed the expansion of the Illawarra retirement trust and St Luke's village at Dapto, the formation of the multicultural village at Berkeley and the Marco Polo Nursing Home at Unanderra. When I represented Kiama, I witnessed the expansion at Blue Haven and Mayflower. This was all under a Labor government which was supposed to have done nothing for the aged. What rubbish!

Yes, we do want honesty and integrity. The member for Gilmore should stop making these silly, unfounded claims that Labor members have no contact with nursing homes, their management or residents. In his second reading speech, the Minister for Family Services (Mr Warwick Smith) said:

However, as with any reform of major significance, it has become apparent that there are some issues that require finetuning and others that relate to the administration of the act that need addressing.

Never has a truer word been spoken. Far from providing a sense of reassurance, comfort and dignity to elderly Australians, the saga of incompetence continues. There is only one thing that will restore some sanity to aged care—that is, to abolish both the annual fee and the new extra daily fee and put back the $500 million which this government so ruthlessly savaged from aged care funding. Only this will provide elderly Australians with reassurance, comfort and dignity—reassurance that Labor will deliver to the elderly in Australia.

This legislation—let us be frank about it—is about trying to save face for the Prime Minister. Government members are stunned, having the blowtorch applied by the churches, nursing home organisations and the media. They are reeling. But the damage has been done. No-one in the community actually has any faith or trust in the Prime Minister or the government he leads. The Australian of Monday 9 March had a very interesting article in it by Glenn Milne. I suspect that the Chief Government Whip has had the article distributed widely with a must read instruction. It says:

. . . voters have finally abandoned their embrace of Howard as `Honest John'—the moral sheet anchor that has sustained the Prime Minister's political career for more than a decade.

Glenn Milne goes on to say, in devastating form:

What ultimately appears to have done it for `Honest John' was the tortuous retreat the Government beat over nursing home policy. People may not be aware of the details but they can sense the backdown . . . They cannot credit how badly the Coalition handled the campaign to sell the changes.

The simple fact is that nobody could sell these changes to aged care policy. The changes have a spiteful meanness about them. Having taken to pensioners within two budgets within 12 months, as well as imposing upon them the new nursing home fees, taken away the government dental scheme, cut funding to hearing services, cut access to essential medicines and increased user charges for home and community care, is it any wonder that the elderly and the general community do not have faith in the Howard government?

As I said at the outset, there have been a number of confusing backflips by this government. Fourteen changes have been made to this controversial aged care policy. No wonder people are confused. It was all brought about by this government trying to rush through the legislation without providing facts. The electorate would not wear the accommodation bond. The elderly were outraged and rallied together to oppose the sell-off of their homes to pay accommodation bonds, and why shouldn't they? The government had to back down.

What do we find now? This new annual fee which replaces the accommodation bond will mean that nursing home residents will be paying more. As most people know, very few older Australians have access to $4,380 cash a year. This will mean that they will still either have to sell their homes, remortgage them or rent them out to meet this fee. For example, if a pensioner chooses to rent his or her property and recovers, say, $200 per week rental, after the daily fee, the new annual fee and taxes on that rent, he will end up paying $14,774 a year for care. This government is stripping the assets of older Australians. This is not just the opinion of the opposition but the opinion of many churches throughout Australia. You crowd over there accuse us of scaremongering. We are telling the elderly Australians the truth and you do not like it.

Another disaster by this government was the introduction of extra daily fees from 1 March this year. All new residents of hostels and nursing homes are to be assessed to see if they are liable to pay the new extra daily fees. These fees will mean an additional 25c of every dollar of private income a person may have over $50 a week. Where are these extra fees going? The minister says they are going into capital funding for the aged care facilities. But no, the minister has told a bit of a porky here. They will go directly into government revenue. It is a tax on the aged again. These fees will add not one cent to the quality of care of residents. They just go to help fund the government's $500 million cut to the aged care budget. That is not scaremongering; that is the truth. Residents in aged care facilities will not now be guaran teed proper standards of care under the new system introduced for assessing care needs of residents.

From October last year the government replaced the previous resident care funding with a single daily payment called the residential classification scale. This new classification reduces the daily payment for what was previously paid to aged care establishments under the old system. Service providers and nursing associations are very critical, and rightly so, of this change, which will mean a decline in the level of care, resulting in a reduction of nursing staff in many establishments.

The new RCS will fail to categorise residents according to their real nursing and personal care needs. Many residents are having their care levels downgraded. In some cases this means as much as $23 per day for a resident whose condition has not changed since assessment prior to October 1997. Hostels and nursing homes will have the same mix of patients but less money to care for them.

This new classification will create major problems in nursing homes. It means less nursing staff. Aged care facilities will not have enough money to employ qualified and skilled staff because the largest recurring budget item in nursing homes is nursing wages and salaries. Less staff obviously means a reduced quality of care.

I quote an example from my own electorate of an 85-year-old woman waiting for hostel placement. I know this woman; she is no longer able to live alone. She is frightened, feels vulnerable and needs the companionship which can be offered in a hostel. Prior to October 1997, under the former residential classification, she would have attracted a subsidy for the hostel. Since the introduction of the new RCS she no longer attracts a subsidy; therefore, she is not a priority for hostel placement. She has been informed by hostels in the area that she may have to wait 12 months or more for placement. I ask you to try to explain to an 85-year-old woman that because she does not attract a personal care subsidy she cannot get placement. And you accuse us of scaremongering.

Elderly people have made a lifelong contribution to this society and we owe it to them to ensure that they can spend their last years in dignity and being cared for by properly skilled staff. The Australian Labor Party has made a commitment to abolish this new annual fee and daily nursing home fees, and will ensure that nursing home care is available to all and not just to those with the financial means. I do not support this legislation, obviously.