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Wednesday, 14 February 2007
Page: 132

Mr GEORGANAS (6:51 PM) —I am very glad to be in this place giving support for the greater protection of some of our community’s most vulnerable members in the form of the Aged Care Amendment (Security and Protection) Bill 2007. I am happy to give in-principle support at this time. Last week the Selection of Bills Committee referred this bill to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs for inquiry. I look forward to reading the thoughts of people in the community on the detail of this bill and to perhaps making further comment after the report is made available in approximately one month’s time.

I am aware that allegations have been made by members of the community in the past of mistreatment of our elderly citizens within nursing homes. That prospect disgusts me, as it would all members of this House. The notion that adult people can stoop so low as to physically and/or sexually abuse these people is abhorrent. It is absolutely beyond belief that this can happen to the very people who have nurtured this generation and raised probably most of us here, the very people who have served this nation so substantially and selflessly in times of war and crisis and through depressions, paid their taxes and worked all their lives, the very people who have turned this country into the modern, democratic success that we all have the benefit of. The least that we can do for these people is to allow them to live in dignity in their twilight years.

So I totally support the full authority of the Commonwealth of Australia being harnessed and directed to protect those Australians who are residents of aged-care facilities and to investigate alleged instances of abuse. It is not just physical and/or sexual abuse involved. There are lots of other forms of abuse, such as financial abuse. Financial abuse of the elderly—that is, taking advantage of the elderly or, for that matter, others in the community—has only been drawn to the public’s attention for a relatively short time. With more people saving greater amounts for their retirement, the bigger bank balances simply make them bigger targets for the grubbier thieves and snake-oil merchants that, regrettably, are amongst us.

Interest in the physical and/or sexual abuse of elderly Australians has rarely received attention in the past, other than through the very occasional home invasion that we hear about on the nightly news where, against someone of senior years, the most pathetic of all cowards throws away his soul, beating and raping his helpless victim. It is very difficult to even approximate the incidence of abuse within aged-care facilities around the country. It has been suggested that, after applying the ratios from the United States—where mandatory reporting is necessary in law—to the Australian context, there could be as many as 80,000 instances of elder abuse occurring throughout Australia each year.

Any incidence of elder abuse is abhorrent, as I said earlier, to all of us in this House, to the majority of Australians and to Australian society. The current federal government did note allegations of rape within Victorian nursing homes in 2005, and I expect they noted similar ones in Queensland sometime later. In the Victorian case, charges of four rapes and two indecent assaults were laid against a former personal care attendant. According to reports, one alleged survivor’s grand-daughter described the situation as ‘distressing and horribly sad’—as it would be. The Prime Minister himself reportedly expressed ‘horror, disgust and almost disbelief’ at the allegations. This was only six or so months after the damning Senate report of June 2005 identified the limitations of and discouragement within the complaints resolution scheme.

So we have a Senate report drawing attention to the unsatisfactory nature of the complaints resolution scheme, six months later the Prime Minister expressing his deepest and most sincere regret that such depravity occurs, the media being fed the line—this is in February last year, mind you; almost a year ago—that ‘new laws loom on nursing home rape’, and the minister pledging to stamp out elder abuse in such homes on 13 March last year. Now, in February 2007, some 12 months after the PM expressed his disgust and the honourable senator pledged to stamp out abuse, the government sees fit to throw up this bill, referring it straight off to a Senate inquiry which is only going to report on 14 March, and then the government is expecting the bill to be implemented as early as 1 April 2007.

I have never heard of or seen such a serious issue receiving no apparent attention for so long and then, within the space of seven weeks, we hear of a bill racing its way through the system to become law before we know it. My question to the Prime Minister and to the minister responsible is: why for heaven’s sake have you taken a whole year to progress notionally satisfactory arrangements, when it only looks like taking you a couple of months to make the changes? Why has it taken a whole year to try to implement this? Why wait a year from the conviction demonstrated in the media before acting? Why wait almost two years from the Senate report’s identification of the need to act? I hope the minister has not simply cobbled this together as a part of his homework—as a part of his late-night, last-minute cram—before heading off to his electoral examination. He may have been aware of the problem since becoming minister and he may have been speaking with industry and consumer groups, but to drop a bill on the parliament, send it off to a committee and take it as read that it will be law within seven-odd weeks does diminish one’s confidence.

Whether or not this has gone to cabinet, I do not know. You cannot put much faith in anything coming from certain sectors of the current administration. They did not even seem to be aware of the fact that the Murray-Darling system is not, in fact, within Western Australia. The issue of aged-care abuse deserves serious consideration and sound legislative practice—I hope that is what we have evidence of here, despite the peculiar timetable that this government has selected—but it also deserves attention more urgent than the government has appeared to be prepared to give it.

The minister has had the unfortunate task of saving the government from itself on aged care. Only given some 12 months to resurrect the government’s pretence of caring about aged care, after 10 years of aged care sector neglect, reliance on phantasm and delivering little more than deep concern within the aged-care sector, the minister has just announced a sum of money to be delivered over five years—in an election year. That is most surprising. This, after allowing the aged-care sector to starve for funds to the point of dropping to its knees. The government created, through its own lack of interest in the sector and its obsession with playing to interest groups, a funding system that never worked. Remember the time of the kerosene baths?

Mr Murphy —That was a disgrace.

Mr GEORGANAS —We all remember that. That was some years ago now but, at that point in time, the government had the bold introduction of a bond for all aged-care residents. It was dropped at the first whiff of electoral backlash. We all recall that from back in 2001.

Professor Hogan’s review of pricing arrangements in residential aged care three years ago said that funding had to be increased. In a typical response, we have seen the bravado, bluff and bulldust we are so used to from this government. They have dropped the number of aged-care beds from the high-water mark of 92 beds per thousand people aged 70 years and over in 1996 to the current 85.6 beds. In 1996 there was a surplus of 800 beds in this nation. Today, the government is running a most serious and damning deficit of some 5,000 beds, if you use the government’s own formula and quota. That is quite a turnaround in the attention paid to, and care made available to, some of our most needy and dependent Australians. As I said earlier, these people have gone through world wars, they have worked all their lives and they have built the foundations of this nation. The least governments can do for them is to offer them some dignity in their twilight years by giving them the care that they require.

Within the electorate of Hindmarsh, which covers suburbs of Adelaide’s west and south, the deficit has been growing steadily. The last numbers to come out indicated a 10 per cent increase. It was a 10 per cent increase not in beds but in—wait for it—the shortfall of beds within aged-care facilities. And that was in a very short period of time. The government is running an aged-care deficit of just over 300 beds within my area, and that is according to the formula that the government uses to put out beds. Waiting lists are phenomenal. I do not know how many people contact my office wanting help to find a nursing home bed for their parent or elderly relative, but there are many on a constant basis. Most of them cannot find something within the immediate area, but they do find the odd bed. One elderly person was asked to go to Port Augusta, 300 kilometres north of Adelaide. How can you expect someone to move 300 kilometres away from their whole family structure and their whole community?

Mr Murphy —You can’t.

Mr GEORGANAS —I do not think that is good enough. According to the Productivity Commission report in 2005-06, over 28 per cent of people assessed as requiring a bed are forced to wait three months or more to actually receive a bed. As I said, it is even worse in my area. I had a case of an elderly woman who was a volunteer within the electorate of Hindmarsh. She was a very active person within the community all her life. When she needed a nursing home bed, one could not be found for her, so she spent three months in the Flinders Medical Centre, in a public bed in a public hospital, until a nursing home bed was found. There have been other cases. Recently, a gentleman was in the Royal Adelaide Hospital for nine weeks because a bed was not able to be found for him within the southern or western region.

This is a pretty phenomenal issue that is affecting a lot of people. People do not need that sort of hassle at that point in their lives. As I said earlier, they need to be treated with dignity and they need to be given the care that they require and not just be shoved off into a public hospital bed with a shrug of the shoulders while saying, ‘We can’t find anything for you.’ And if the department does find something it can be 300 kilometres away and they will tell my office, ‘We did find something for them.’ I do not think that is good enough. This shows the little interest in the plight of aged care within my electorate and around the country. It also demonstrates that the government is full of rhetoric but fails to deliver. I hope that the debate around the bill currently before us leads to a more successful and beneficial outcome for the people it is meant to serve, as they have served us for many years.