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Thursday, 29 May 1997
Page: 4029

Senator WOODLEY(5.09 p.m.) —I thank Senator Knowles for her reference to one of my press releases—and she quoted me accurately. But the debate has moved on since I made that statement, and I am a little less confident than I was then about the government's ability to deliver the reforms they are promising.

The Democrats are still willing to meet with the government on this. I think what we all need in this debate is perhaps to realise that, although there is plenty of party political points scoring we can do—and the Democrats are willing to do that too—

Senator Neal —No, you are not.

Senator WOODLEY —Yes, we are—what we really need in the end is to be able to deliver the very best policy and the very best outcome for aged citizens. I hear both the government and the Labor Party throwing mud across the chamber at one another. But I hope in the end, after scraping away all the mud, we can actually deliver.

I would say to the government that one of the problems I have with the reforms which are being proposed is their very radical nature. This government claims all the time that it is a conservative government. But I have to say to them that conservatives are on about gradual incremental changes. They are not on about radical social engineering. I have to say to the government that what they are proposing is, in fact, very radical and ap proaches very close to radical social engineering.

Aged care needs—and I want to stress this—deserve a `conservative' response. Aged people do not need to have their lives turned upside-down. This is one of the problems I have with these reforms: they are so radical that I wonder whether or not we will be able to deliver the good outcomes we all want. The Democrats are not afraid of change; we are not even afraid of radical change. But we will not support any proposals which are as radical as those contained in the Aged Care Bill 1997, unless we are convinced that the proposals have been the subject of an adequate consultation process.

Let me give the Minister for Family Services (Mrs Moylan) a tick in this regard. I think she has tried very hard to consult. She certainly has consulted with me. But let us also make sure that we take note of all that has been said in that consultation process. I hear what Senator Knowles said, and I think she also is able to selectively quote—as we all do—from the evidence given. Let us make sure that we take on board all of the evidence.

We also need to be convinced that all of the comments and concerns raised during that process have been fully considered and, where necessary, incorporated into the existing proposal. I want to have discussions with the minister, because we would have some pretty serious amendments to the legislation as it is presented to us.

We want to know that the various aspects of the reform will work in practice—and, of course, I suppose even to say it is obvious. But there are serious concerns which have been raised, and we would want to make sure they are met. We would want to make sure that there are adequate safeguards in place to protect the more vulnerable and powerless members of the community from unnecessary hardship.

Let me comment on the minister's proposal to offer a subsidy of $5 a day. As I understand it, that is a subsidy to match the problem of no accommodation bond being available from financially disadvantaged residents. If that is so, if that is what the $5 a day is for, the problem is that it falls far short of the recommendation of the Gregory report, which came out some time ago and which was for a subsidy of $12 a day. So there is a gap already in the proposal in the Gregory report and what the minister is offering.

Let me say that I think Minister Moylan is keen to make some worthwhile policy changes. But the problem is that good policy cannot survive a budget rip-off of funds from the sector. No matter how good the words are, unless the numbers match those words, the minister will not be able to deliver good policy—and that certainly is a deep concern which the Democrats have.

I think the minister is going to have to go back to the Treasurer (Mr Costello) and seek more funds, particularly in this area of the subsidy to match the accommodation bond which will be paid by those able to pay. So I repeat: she will have to go back to the Treasurer and seek more funds for the sake of aged people in this country, but especially for the sake of those who are financially disadvantaged.

Let me put on the record some of the concerns that I heard in the inquiry which was conducted—and I spent a fair bit of time at those hearings as well—particularly the community's concern about the introduction of nursing home entry fees. The New South Wales Council of Senior Citizens Associations said this:

On behalf of members of affiliated associations, COSCA objects vehemently to the way in which the Aged Care Bill 1997 has been presented to parliament, following totally inadequate consultation and similar limited time of 10 calendar days only allowed for comment by concerned current and aspiring residents of nursing homes, their families, carers and other interested persons, on unsatisfactory aspects of a lengthy and complicated piece of legislation.

The motion before us reads:

The community's overwhelming opposition to the introduction of nursing home entry fees,

What I am saying in response to that is that there is a concern out there. The question is whether it is because of Labor's scare campaign, as the minister claims, or whether it is a real concern that people have. I think it is probably the second. The problem has been that I do not think the minister has really been in the public debate sufficiently to explain what it is she is on about. But that is her problem, and it is no use blaming the Labor Party for running a so-called scare campaign if the government has not been able to put the opposing point of view.

There is a lot of concern in the community. We have had quite a number of letters from religious and community organisations which have a great deal of experience in the area of aged care. Let me just list some of the concerns they have raised. The first is the unrealistic time frame of 1 July. Let us give the minister another tick that she has heard that and has extended that time to 1 October. Whether that will give sufficient time or not we are still needing to hear, but the few consultations I have had give me a mixed reaction.

The removal of the hostel care subsidy is a big concern, particularly for those not-for-profit organisations, which are the ones which mainly run hostels. The lack of information, until this week, on funding levels has made it very difficult for aged care providers formulating their budget targets for the 1997-98 financial year. Other concerns are the loss of variable fees, the compatibility of federal with state legislation and the unknown details and costs of the prudential arrangements. Those are concerns which have been raised. We have had hundreds of form letters from elderly people. These letters state:

While the government has said that an entry fee will only be around $26,000, I believe that proprietors will demand much more. In fact, some hostel proprietors are already charging an entry fee of between $60,000 and $80,000. As demand for nursing home beds grows it can be expected that the actual entry fee will be much higher in the future . . . I am very worried that, if this legislation is passed, good nursing home care for frail older people will only be for those who can pay.

I was at an aged care conference about two weeks ago where fees of $300,000 to $400,000 were mentioned. I need to ask the minister a question about that when I get the transcript, so I can be sure that my question is accurate.

I can share with the Senate that the Democrats certainly still have concerns. We are willing to work for a good outcome. Unlike the Labor Party, we are not necessarily threatening to chuck out the bill, but we do want to see our concerns met, and until they are we will continue to be a little ambivalent about this legislation.