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Thursday, 29 May 1997
Page: 4025

Senator FORSHAW(4.47 p.m.) —I seek leave of the Senate to amend general business notice of motion No. 611 standing in the name of Senator Carr by replacing paragraph (b).

Leave granted.

Senator FORSHAW —I move:

That the Senate notes:

(a)   the community's overwhelming opposition to the introduction of nursing home entry fees;

(b)   that the Howard Government has finally conceded that the 1 July 1997 deadline for introducing nursing home entry fees is unrealistic; and

(c)   that the Minister for Family Services (Ms Moylan) has announced by press release on 26 May 1997, just 4 weeks before the deadline, that the structural reform of aged care changes, including the introduction of nursing home entry fees, will now not come into effect until 1 October 1997

Originally, point (b) read:

(b)   calls on the Howard Government to amend the commencement provisions of the Aged Care Bill 1997 to reflect this.

By virtue of a statement made by the minister, (b) has now been effected, so it is no longer necessary in the motion. As we have seen in its budgets of last year and again this year, this is a government that leaves no section of the community untouched with its policies of abolition of services and applying greater costs to members of the community.

They have done it in areas such as child care, which has affected families and their children prior to their going to school. They have done it in education—at school, tertiary and post-school levels. They have hit the battlers and the families—those people who, prior to the last election, the then Leader of the Opposition, the now Prime Minister (Mr Howard), promised to stand up for, protect and make feel relaxed and comfortable. I think most insidiously of all, they have attacked probably the most vulnerable group in our community—the elderly and the frail, aged people, particularly those with illnesses.

Last year the government announced that it would rip hundreds of millions of dollars out of the aged care sector and introduce a system whereby elderly people wishing to get access into nursing homes would have to pay substantial up-front contributions. This is what this motion is about.

This government was intent on introducing these changes by 1 July this year. But as there is so much uncertainty and concern out in the community, particularly within the elderly community, and as the Aged Care Bill is yet to be passed by this parliament, the government has at least acknowledged the necessity to delay the implementation date of these measures. Of course, that is small compensation for the people who will be affected by the government's proposed legislation, which proposes to make the elderly pay—and pay substantially—for access to nursing home care.

In 1985 the previous Labor government set in place an aged care strategy which set out to improve standards in nursing homes and aged care, and which set out to achieve the appropriate balance between the different forms of aged care, whether it be nursing homes, hostel accommodation or care in the home. The program that we set in place, which injected massive expenditure into the system, certainly went a long way towards achieving those goals.

Of course, in dealing with the neglect that had gone on in the many years beforehand, and recognising that we had an increasing demand for aged care accommodation due to the aging population factor and that many facilities were in need of upgrade, we knew that this was a task that would take some time. The Labor government had a strategy in place.

But of course what we have seen since the election of this government is a change in direction, a change away from the federal government, in cooperation with the states, recognising its responsibility to provide quality care—particularly, we are talking here today about nursing home care—for the elderly population, for people who have made their contribution to our community and to our economy and for people for whom it is not a choice.

That is an important factor to remember, because this government talk all the time about choice. They talk about the need for smaller government, for less government intervention, for promoting the private sector and for promoting deregulation. Those things are what motivates the proposals that they have in store for the aged care sector and particularly in nursing homes. But what are those things going to mean? They are going to mean lower standards in accommodation and nursing home care. They are going to mean the establishment of a two-tier system, because the proposal will force people who, as I said, do not choose to go into nursing homes but actually need to go into nursing homes because of their age and their particular health concerns to, in many, many cases, sell their own home.

The government makes all sorts of promises that nobody will be forced to sell their own home. But I can tell you from all of the representations that I have had right across the spectrum—the industry and the elderly community—they do not believe this government. They are fearful that that is what is going to happen. When you look at the proposals, that is indeed what is in store for them. What we are going to end up with is a system whereby the wealthy, who can afford to put up bonds, payments, up-front entry fees—which have no limit on them under the legislation—will be able to gain access to nursing homes. But the poor, the less well off and those that probably have their home as their only asset will be faced with that terrible dilemma.

What a time in their life to have to face that dilemma. What a time for their families to have to face the issue of whether they can get their loved ones, their mothers and fathers, into a nursing home when they need to be in that type of care. The only way that that can happen is by selling off the family home. You can imagine the stress and the pressure that these people are going to be under. That is being reflected in all of the communications that are coming through.

I attended a conference in Sydney on Monday, 7 April this year. Unfortunately, the Minister for Family Services, Mrs Moylan, could not attend. She sent along one of her departmental representatives, who was unable to allay any of the fears of the people there. I can tell you that there were hundreds upon hundreds of people at that meeting in Sydney.

As I said, there is no upper limit on the entry payment. But of course the entry payments, we are told, are going to be held in trust by the operators of the nursing homes to be used for improving standards of nursing homes. There are no guarantees anywhere in the legislation that we have seen to date that will actually ensure that. It is quite possible, indeed we fear, that in many cases that may be simply taken as profit.

What we have from this government—you really have to ask them why—is their ideological obsession with deregulation and less government intervention and the provision of fewer government services. Why do they pick on those people that are most vulnerable? We saw the reductions in the allocation of funds for palliative care before and now we are seeing these proposals coming through as well. As I said, it is just so distressing for many people and I am sure honourable senators and members on all sides of the political spectrum would have received many, many complaints and expressions of concern about these proposals.

There are many other speakers in this debate. My time is drawing to a close. There is so much more that needs to be said, and it will be said, as the legislation comes on for debate in the parliament. But I do urge the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health and Family Services (Senator Ellison), who is listed to speak later on this matter, and the minister and the Prime Minister, to go back and rethink this proposal.

As I said at the outset, people do not choose to go into nursing homes because they want to. They are an integral part of the provision of adequate and equitable health care for all citizens in this country, including, as I said, those in the remaining days of their life. They are entitled to it as a right. They should not have to get into some negotiating position with the operator of a nursing home simply to achieve that service.