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Tuesday, 22 June 1999
Page: 7057

Ms GAMBARO (10:12 PM) —I am very pleased to speak to the Aged Care Amendment (Omnibus) Bill 1999 tonight because it reflects the Howard government's commitment to older Australians. When the Howard government came into office in March 1996, we inherited an aged care legislation regime that had very little regard for maintaining and ensuring the quality of service delivered to older Australians. Addressing these shortcomings was one of the major priorities of this government. The bill before the House today builds on many of the reforms that were introduced in the 38th parliament by implementing a number of finetuning measures and by resolving a few administrative and procedural issues that have emerged following the commencement of the reform process in October 1997. Significantly, for the benefit of members opposite, the bill also meets an election commitment—something that the Labor Party has never been terribly adept at. It is implementing a 1999 budget initiative.

Responsible government is about ensuring that all citizens, both young and old, can have security and a really decent standard of living. Through responsible economic management practices, this government has delivered an economic environment not seen since the end of the 1960s: strong economic growth, low inflation and strong consumer and business confidence. That environment has been good for average Australians as well as older Australians. Low interest rates have made the Australian dream much more affordable and within the reach of many Australians. That is of course the exact opposite of the experience of many battling Australian families while the economy was under the combined stewardship of the former member for Blaxland and the member for Brand. Australians can still recall the abysmal policy prescription of the Australian Labor Party in the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s. Labor's inability to break free of the shackles of sectional interest groups was a policy and fiscal disaster for all Australians, but it was particularly so for older Australians.

Labor's collective policy prescriptions, their ideological preoccupations, created an environment in which older people were effectively denied choice, and that is what the bill we are debating tonight is about: choice. This was exemplified by an underprovision of services and help to those older people—and the Labor Party may find this surprising—who actually wanted to stay in their homes. Isn't that something that we all want to do, particularly when we get older? The Prime Minister recognised this particular shortcoming in Australia's aged care policy and readdressed the situation through the government's Staying at Home package. Those measures were very well received in my electorate of Petrie. What were they really about? They were about giving older Australians choices and flexibility about how, as individuals, they wanted to live their lives.

I recently attended a forum in my electorate of Petrie that discussed some of the community care packages that are available out in the community. There were representatives from local councils and state government, and I represented the federal government. There were some 150 older people at this particular community forum, and what they wanted was to stay at home as long as possible. Security and care issues were important to them, as was being able to stay in their homes and have help with home assist and with maintenance. All those sorts of things came up. But the overwhelming conclusion of that meeting was that people wanted to stay in their homes as long as possible. They felt that they should have that freedom and that particular choice. This is what this government's community care packages are about.

Also, a recent government initiative that I want to highlight is the $7 million that will be spent on a very important program to eliminate danger in the home for older Australians. Older Australians have a huge predisposition to falls in the home. This program will certainly be very welcome in the community and will help ensure the safety of older Australians and promote a greater awareness of the sorts of accidents that older people have.

Given the Labor Party's policies, I think it is fair to say that the ALP actually forgot about older Australians as individuals and that they had a right to exercise their choice. The coalition is committed to choice for all Australians, whether it is how they receive their health care or whether they want to join a union. The same applies to aged care. Ensuring that Australians have a choice means ensuring that the expectation of the community of the highest possible standards is maintained. Within the area of aged care the coalition has ensured that many older Austral ians have a choice between home and community based care and that offered by residential aged care service providers. As I said in my opening remarks, this bill before the House this evening addresses the second option that older Australians have when it comes to aged care services.

Just as the Australian Labor Party chose to ignore home based care when they were in government, they also let the standard of residential aged care services decline to a level where some nursing homes were struggling to provide safe living environments for older Australians. One of the unfortunate things that happened to me when I became the member for Petrie was having to deal with one such facility, and I must say that it consumed most of my time. The care of the residents in a particular facility in my electorate was definitely below standard. A member earlier spoke about a more responsible allocation of resources by the previous government to ensure that nursing homes spent their funding wisely. Unfortunately, there was also a lack of adequate standards and care in these nursing homes, particularly in the care of the elderly. This was something that was abhorrent to me in this particular nursing home. Clearly that situation has been rectified, but it did not come without a price and it did not come without upsetting a number of residents. A number of aged care assessment teams have visited this particular facility, and I commend them on the work that they do. Aged care assessment teams have done a terrific job in this particular sector.

When the health of older Australians is on the line, it is absolutely vital that the older and more frail members of the community have this sort of protection and that their families are confident that they are safe and very well looked after. The Howard government has been very determined to address the situation and we have done a number of things. Firstly, there is the fact that, as the Minister for Aged Care pointed out, there have been increased outlays on residential care during successive Howard governments. Secondly, there is the fact that there has been a growth in care places. It is very important to highlight those things.

As the federal representative of some 17,250 people who are over the age of 65, I can personally say that I am acutely aware and respectful of the needs of older Australians. We are living longer; we are living healthier lives. We have a number of active community groups in Petrie that I have had the personal pleasure of getting very well acquainted with. One is the cardiac rehab group. I must say that when I was invited to go along on their walk again this year I had to put myself in training. Some of these older Australians are fitter than I am because of the wonderful walks that they go on and their commitment to health and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. It certainly gives me a run for my money every year when I join the cardiac rehab walk and I have a hard time keeping up with them. That is a terrific spin-off of all this because it tells me a number of things: older Australians are taking greater care of their health, they are living longer, they are eating better and they are exercising. They are mindful of a number of these factors. We are an ageing community and we have to look to the future to make sure that we do plan for our older Australians.

I am very proud to be a member of a government which has the courage, the conviction and the tenacity to fix the problems that Labor let fester through their lack of political acumen. Not only have the Labor Party got a solid record of bad policy based on political expediency in government but also they seem to have maintained this in opposition—so much so that, as I am advised, they are opposing some of the measures contained in this particular bill tonight. Perhaps the most bizarre thing about the position taken by the Labor Party is that they are now opposing a number of these very positive and progressive measures that will create new protection for residents of aged care facilities.

It is important to ensure that the standards of care and service that nursing home residents receive are not only maintained but improved. The government has introduced accommodation charges so that people who can afford to make a contribution are able to improve the quality of care in nursing homes. This bill does not change the nature and level of these charges but, instead, formalises them in principal legislation, with the aim of making sure that a range of protective measures for accommodation charges for residents are in line with those that apply to accommodation bonds. For instance, in cases where a person has a concessional status vis-a-vis an accommodation bond, this bill ensures that the concessional status will apply with respect to the accommodation charge. At the moment, concessional status is guaranteed only for a person who it is deemed would suffer financial hardship when it comes to the payment of an accommodation bond. This bill will address that situation.

The bill expands the definition of a concessional resident so many more older Australians will not have to pay an accommodation charge or bond. I know that there has been considerable mention of accommodation bonds by the members opposite. The system of accommodation bonds has existed for a very long time and was actually introduced by the former government. It dealt with hostels, and the hostel sector was working perfectly. One day I visited a particular hostel in my electorate and was shown the books of the previous five years. I was quite pleased to see that they showed that when the residents left the hostel they got back all the accommodation bond they had put in. The hostel was able to use that bond for capital expansion and for capital processes. All this scaremongering about accommodation bonds was absolutely uncalled for. It was working in the hostel sector and it was working well. Those on the other side brought that particular measure in. With this in mind, I think it is fair to say that one would consider it somewhat odd that the members opposite would oppose such a measure.

The same can be said for a measure which will exempt current nursing home residents from accommodation charges if they were in care at the time of the act's assent and may wish to move to another nursing home. What is more, residents who move from one home to another will be refunded the accommodation charges they have already paid. This is another aspect of the bill which one would have thought the Labor Party would have supported. What would be fairer than a refund of the accommodation charges that residents have already paid, if they move from one facility to the next? The measure also excludes rental income from the pension income test and removes the value of property from the assets test. That is a very positive measure.

All of these measures are positive measures that restore the equity and responsibility considerations by ensuring that those who cannot afford to contribute do not and those who can afford it do contribute. What can be fairer than that? They are the solid foundations upon which to build an aged care system that will deliver quality to all older Australians. I am passionate about older Australians. I feel that they have contributed much to society and that we should care for them. When I first heard the Labor Party were not supporting these measures I was totally stunned. After my initial shock I realised that they have conducted an irresponsible campaign all the way through this. They have achieved nothing but scared older members of the community. They continue to scare the frailest older members of the community. They also have caused concern to adult children and grandchildren. They continue to scare members of the entire family.

But, as with their position on tax reform, the Labor Party have consistently argued for the maintenance of a very mediocre system that has always failed the Australian public. Many of these nursing home facilities were substandard and needed a great deal of upgrading and attention. I am not going to apologise for the accreditation process. It is long overdue. It will bring a greater standard of health care for all people. Restructuring grants are available. A member spoke earlier about community based nursing homes which did not have the money to contribute to the accreditation process. Many homes out there can apply for these restructuring grants. They are available to help nursing homes that are in those predicaments. Accreditation is the way we have to go. I am fully supportive of it. If it means a better quality of life and a greater standard of health for our older Australians, it is to be supported consistently. The Labor Party seem content for Australians to have a substandard tax system and also a substandard aged care system.

Mr Lloyd —It is a substandard Labor Party.

Ms GAMBARO —Absolutely right, Member for Robertson. The Labor Party, it would seem, are the main proponents of keeping an inadequate aged care facility system. They want older Australians to live in nursing homes that are below standard. It is just not acceptable. I will continue to do all I can in the Petrie electorate to make sure that we have high standards of nursing home facilities. I would like to urge the Labor Party to rethink their position, to support this bill and be seen as a caring party interested in helping Australians rise above mediocrity. Mediocrity is what the Labor Party have always been about. How about putting some new standards into aged care facilities? How about raising those standards and making sure that we look after the people who need it the most?

Debate (on motion by Mr Andren) adjourned.