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Wednesday, 14 February 2007
Page: 128

Mrs ELLIOT (6:31 PM) —I rise to speak on the Aged Care Amendment (Security and Protection) Bill 2007. Let me say from the outset that Labor supports this bill. However, there are very real concerns, particularly with the timing of this bill. Indeed, these measures are very long overdue and, I believe, should have been acted upon after the Senate report two years ago. One could be sceptical about the motivation behind introducing this bill at this late stage. It does seem to coincide with recent media coverage and it certainly does seem typical of this government’s often knee-jerk reactions to any major situations in the community—as opposed to the long-term planning, assessing of situations, making decisions and putting forth legislation that needs to occur. There often seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to media reports in relation to incidents. For the issues that this bill deals with, which are so very important, we should have seen the government acting earlier than this and not just as a knee-jerk reaction to the media.

Whilst this bill is supported by Labor in principle, this government could be doing a lot more to address so many of the underlying issues within aged care. There are a whole variety of aged-care issues that need to be addressed. I have raised a lot of issues in the House on many occasions and I will discuss those in further detail later on.

This bill introduces new compulsory reporting provisions with requirements for aged-care providers to report suspected and alleged sexual abuse and serious physical assault of residents. This is supported by Labor as it is a very necessary step towards protecting our seniors. Our seniors built this nation and I believe wholeheartedly that it is absolutely right that they be treated with dignity and respect. It is certainly important that these provisions are in place. Unfortunately, as many speakers have commented in relation to this bill, elder abuse does exist within our community. So I am pleased that, after years of lobbying by various groups, these protections are finally being codified. The people they refer to are often the most vulnerable in our community and they are often in the most vulnerable of situations. They certainly deserve and need to have these protections in place.

This bill also contains important whistleblower protections so that the identity of staff who make reports is protected and to ensure that staff are not unfairly treated as a result of making such reports. Labor supports the whistleblowing provisions of this bill and I understand that they have also been supported by the union. Provisions such as these protect our valued aged-care workers when they seek to protect their clients. The union has called for provisions such as these for over two years. Whistleblower protection is vitally important in many instances, but certainly in cases such as these it is vitally important that adequate protections are in place so that people are able to come forward with the issues, action can be taken and they can be protected.

I am also pleased that the bill includes the establishment of the Office of Aged Care Quality and Compliance. This will give the Department of Health and Ageing greater capacity and scope to investigate complaints. It is important that complaints are fully investigated and that the processes are in place for that to be able to occur. The appointment of a new Aged Care Commissioner should provide an independent voice in hearing complaints and also assess the department’s responses to these complaints. The establishment of the Office of Aged Care Quality and Compliance and the appointment of an Aged Care Commissioner are certainly welcome.

As I mentioned earlier, the timing of this bill is somewhat suspect. If one were cynical one might suggest that this bill was rushed through by the minister on the tail of many media reports of abuse in residential aged care. This might explain why the bill was sent to a Senate inquiry even before the shadow minister was provided with a copy of it. I agree that this bill deals with some very urgent issues. However, it simply does not wash that this problem was only recently discovered. Indeed, two years have passed since the Senate report Quality and equity in aged care, which outlined the deficiencies in the current complaints resolution process, was handed down, so one could certainly ask how many of our seniors have had to endure under a system the government was told needed to be fixed and action taken.

The Senate report also looked directly at the issue of protection of whistleblowers within the industry. In fact, recommendation 17 of the Senate report was:

That the Commonwealth examine the feasibility of introducing whistleblower legislation to provide protection for people, especially staff of aged care facilities, disclosing allegations of inadequate standards of care or other deficiencies in aged care facilities.

That Senate inquiry was some years ago, but nonetheless these changes are welcome, as is any progress on aged care no matter how large or small, no matter how overdue and no matter what the motivations are. As I have said, Labor does support this bill in principle, and I understand that the aged-care sector is also in broad agreement with the principles of the bill and the outcomes that it will attempt to achieve. Any attention the government pays the aged-care industry is welcome, however belated it may be. So, whilst we may criticise the government for coming so late to the party, I guess we can console ourselves with the fact that they even showed up at all, especially on an important issue such as this.

The contribution of aged-care workers to our communities is unparalleled. In my electorate of Richmond 20 per cent of residents are aged over 65, so we have many aged-care workers and we certainly know the value of aged-care workers in our community. I have had the pleasure of attending many aged-care facilities in my electorate, because there are many in Richmond due to the many elderly people who move or retire there. I have been very fortunate to meet with many aged-care providers and workers. I have seen firsthand their dedication and devotion and the often difficult circumstances under which many of them work. But what I find really astounding about aged-care workers is that, no matter how many facilities I visit to speak with workers, I usually find that they are people who have been working in the industry for 10 or 20 years or even longer. These people are truly committed to the job that they are doing and it is very common for them to have been there for many years. It really shows the level of dedication that these people have. I will certainly always take time to commend them because they do a very difficult job at times but do it with such compassion and professionalism.

This is certainly an industry which has been underfunded, underappreciated and, I believe, a low priority of this government for the past 11 years. And, of course, we need more aged-care workers in Richmond—indeed, throughout the country—and we need more adequate training and resources for them in what is obviously a growing industry.

Unfortunately, this is not the only area of aged care where the government has fallen behind. Across the board the government has been cutting services for older Australians, from those needing access to specialist health services, to those who are literally begging for home care provisions, to those older Australians needing full-time care in nursing homes. All have suffered under this government. The first sign of contempt the government showed for older Australians was the slashing of the Commonwealth Dental Scheme in 1996. In its haste to foist this responsibility onto state governments, the federal government conveniently forgot the tens of thousands of elderly Australians who relied on the Commonwealth Dental Scheme and now have to do without, often waiting years for treatment. I have said before in this House—and I will continue to raise this point—that it is in fact a constitutional responsibility that the federal government fund dental health, but it often seems that those on the other side of the House forget this. Perhaps they need to brush up on section 51 of our Constitution, which affirms the federal government’s responsibility when it comes to dental health, which is a major issue within my electorate and indeed throughout Australia.

My electorate of Richmond is particularly affected by this government’s failings in aged care. As I mentioned, 20 per cent of Richmond’s population is aged over 65, which I believe makes it one of the oldest electorates in the country. Richmond now stands as a model for the future demographics of this country because it is predicted that, in 40 years time, 20 per cent of this country will be over 65. Richmond really is a snapshot of what our nation will look like in 40 years, so it represents an opportunity to get aged care on the ground right.

We recently had an announcement from the government of $1.5 billion in funding for aged care over five years. Whilst this is very welcome, the community have had to wait since 1997 and until the sector was facing an absolute crisis for the government to act. In his Review of pricing arrangements in residential aged care, Professor Hogan said three years ago that funding increases had to happen, and yet it has taken the Howard government till 2007 to make a decision and take some action in relation to that.

In the past 11 years the Howard government has presided over a decline in the numbers of aged-care beds available. When Labor left government in 1996 there were 92 beds for every 1,000 people aged 70 years and over, compared with only 85.6 now. In 1996 there was a surplus of 800 beds compared with a shortage of nearly 5,000 now. Whilst we see in these measures provisions for community aged-care packages or home care packages—which are very welcome because it is a major issue and of course most people want to be able to stay in their homes for as long as they can; we all understand that—the people of my electorate are specifically interested in how many CAC and EACH packages we are going to see in Richmond. We need to know specifically how the measures are going to translate into the actual CAC package that will be available to people.

With the aged-care needs in Richmond, firstly we do not have enough beds in nursing homes. When it comes to home care services, on some occasions there can be a six- or seven-month wait—and that is once people have been assessed. Being assessed is the first stage, and in some cases it can take up to 12 weeks just to get the assessment, and then there is the wait for the provision of those home care services.

Again, the people who work in that industry are true community champions. Their dedication and compassion are absolutely fantastic. Yet they have been severely underfunded by the federal government. I want to see a lot more CACPs and EACH packages and a lot more funding for the ACATs so that they can adequately make provisions for home care.

I regularly hear from local families desperate to find residential aged care, home care or simply health services for their loved ones. It is not good enough; these Australians deserve our respect, not the contempt that they have had to endure under this government. As I said, our seniors built this nation, worked hard, paid their taxes, contributed to the community and raised their families, and here they are desperately needing some assistance and often being turned away by this government.

Looking after our seniors should be one of our first priorities; it is where our attentions should lie. That is where our focus and the funding from this government should lie. We have the opportunity to put in place sufficient resources for aged care, but we must act now, particularly with the ageing of the population. We need to see a lot more action being taken by the government now. In last year’s budget the Treasurer failed to address the ever-increasing demand for aged-care services across Australia, particularly in electorates like Richmond. I urge the Treasurer not to be complacent again this year and instead to focus on the needs of elderly Australians and provide funding for the whole variety of services that they need. As the population ages, the need is obviously going to increase dramatically, so we need to have something in place because we truly are at crisis point.

As I have said, the problems facing seniors in Richmond are a sneak peek into the future. It is not good. If the government continue with their lack of commitment to aged-care services then we are going to see the same situation of desperate need for greater funding right across the country. It is in the best economic interests of the country to deal with the problems in aged-care services and funding now. They need to be addressed now. The lack of healthcare services, aged-care beds and suitable home care arrangements for our seniors create problems in the wider community.

I hear about many cases in my electorate. Many locals tell me about elderly people being forced to stay in hospital because there are no aged-care beds available, and some are going into the emergency ward because they cannot afford to see their GPs. This places greater strain upon our hospitals and is obviously very distressing for the people involved. They often have to wait, particularly in hospitals, for long periods of time before they find a bed in a nursing home. Often those hospital beds and services could be used for others who require more urgent attention.

The everyday healthcare needs of our seniors should not be dealt with in emergency rooms. That is not the role of emergency rooms. It places a strain on our wider health community. It causes such unnecessary distress for both the patients and their families. I have spoken with many locals who are very depressed because they want to assist their parents or grandparents—their relatives—at this time, and they can see that they are distressed in those situations. It affects whole families and whole communities and has to be addressed urgently.

Aged care is one of those areas in which we see the government playing the blame game, as we often see them do. It is issues like these where we need to see national leadership and would like to see the federal government working with the states to improve all areas when it comes to the provisions of aged care particularly, but health care and education as well. Yet it often seems very convenient for the government to play the blame game yet again, rather than saying: ‘We’ll take responsibility for this. We’ll fix it up. That’s what we’re here to do.’ It is easier for them to say, ‘It’s somebody else’s fault and we won’t worry about it.’ It is actually their responsibility and they need to take a lot more action.

As I have said, Labor supports this bill. It is welcome, as any improvement in aged care, large or small, is welcome. As a nation we need to prioritise aged care and put in place resources and funding to ensure that there is appropriate aged care in the future, and we need to have the foundations of that now for our ageing population. As I said, the predictions are that in 2040 we will have 20 per cent of the population aged over 65. When we look across the country, the needs of nursing homes and home care packages will be very extreme.

I support the protections that this bill will afford those within nursing homes. It is vitally important that that is in place, along with the whistleblower provisions. It is very important that those staff are protected. Ultimately those provisions are to protect residents of nursing homes, who are often the most vulnerable within our community and need to be protected because of the situations that they are in.

There are many issues in relation to aged care that I have raised previously and will continue to raise, and I call upon the government to invest more funding in these vital areas. Whilst this bill is very welcome for the protections that it provides, there is still much more that has to be done right across the board. It is a very complex issue and has to be tackled and dealt with effectively. We need to see national leadership on this issue and see the government working with the states, with the community and with the providers to make sure that as a whole we are providing a great degree of support for all of those who require this assistance in their later years. We have many nursing homes within Richmond and I will continue to fight for these issues on behalf of the constituents of Richmond. (Time expired)