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Wednesday, 14 February 2007
Page: 135

Mr MURPHY (7:05 PM) —I begin by congratulating my colleague and friend the member for Hindmarsh for his thoughtful and erudite contribution to the debate. The purpose of the Aged Care Amendment (Security and Protection) Bill 2007 is to introduce new compulsory reporting arrangements with requirements for aged-care providers to report suspected and alleged sexual abuse and serious physical assaults of residents. It also requires providers to ensure there are internal processes in place for the reporting by staff of all incidents of suspected or alleged sexual or serious physical assault, and that the identity of the staff member who reports them is protected and that they are not unfairly treated as a result of making a report.

The bill also gives the Department of Health and Ageing a greater capacity to investigate complaints and to require aged-care providers to correct failures to meet their responsibilities. It also provides for the new Office of Aged Care Quality and Compliance within the department, which will be responsible for this. The other important element is that this bill will serve to replace the current Commissioner for Complaints with a new Aged Care Commissioner to provide an independent mechanism to hear complaints about how the department has responded to complaints and about the conduct of the Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency and its assessors. As we know, the Aged Care Commissioner will also have the capacity to initiate its own reviews.

The debate on this very important bill before the House tonight is timely indeed. Its passage through the parliament comes when we are hearing new horror stories about the abuse of patients in aged-care facilities across Australia. An article titled ‘Aged care abuse’, published in the Adelaide Advertiser on 7 February 2007 refers to new allegations of degrading treatment of aged residents. The article refers to shocking allegations of a patient sitting in a urine-soaked bed while eating her breakfast. In this day and age, that is a disgrace. It refers to an allegation that patients’ pressure sores were left open for more than an hour because of staff shortages. That is a disgrace too. It also refers to allegations of severe rashes developing on patients who are incontinent. That, too, is a disgrace.

Mr Brendan O’Connor —Indeed!

Mr MURPHY —The member for Gorton knows. These allegations are not without substance given the bona fides of the two Flinders University academics who made them. I am referring to Ms Anita De Bellis and Ms Maree Khoo. Should these serious allegations not prick the conscience of the Minister for Ageing, perhaps figures from the Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency will. It found that almost 550 aged-care residents were not fed properly and more than 1,000 were not given proper medication—again, a disgrace. It also found that 14 nursing homes fell down on clinical care, 17 on medication management and six on medication—again, a disgrace.

The minister would do well to take heed of the numerous other reports of substandard care being afforded to one of the most vulnerable groups in our community. We well remember, in the 39th parliament, a former coalition minister coming to this dispatch box in relation to that disgraceful episode referred to by the member for Hindmarsh, the infamous kerosene baths case. If memory serves me correctly, it occurred in the seat of the former member for Isaacs, the late Greg Wilton. He was one of the most prolific speakers and interjectors in this place, and I can remember him shouting out on many occasions, as the then Minister for Aged Care kept coming to the dispatch box, what a disgrace it was that patients had been bathed in kerosene.

This was only a matter of five or six years ago. That was a monumental disgrace and we had the unedifying experience of the then minister defending it. I remember the minister coming to the dispatch box, if memory serves me correctly, on three separate days and taking the total 10 questions from our side—so she would have had to answer 30 straight questions—and each time she came to the dispatch box she was more unconvincing than the last. She took absolutely no responsibility for that disgraceful experience. I felt we were witnessing someone who could have been labelled ‘the mistress of projection’, because everyone got blamed for that disgraceful episode—it was the accreditation agency or it was the public servants working in the department. The member for Macarthur, who is at the table, appreciates this. It was a monumental triumph for projection. The former minister blamed everyone else and took no responsibility. I thought, ‘I am witnessing the mistress of projection,’ because there was no accountability and no acceptance of what had happened in that nursing home. It was a very sad chapter in our history that people could be treated in such a manner.

Our frailest Australians deserve the high-quality care that they are demanding, yet, despite the Howard government sitting on record billion-dollar surpluses, many residents have suffered from its reckless and lackadaisical approach to many allegations of maltreatment. The Prime Minister has previously stated that he, like any other person, is distressed by individual stories of people not being treated well. The Prime Minister stated, on 30 March 2000:

I don’t believe for a moment, no matter what system you have, you wouldn’t occasionally have some abuses.

I do not doubt the Prime Minister’s sincerity when he made that statement. In fact, I am inclined to agree with him. However, the point should not be lost that the government at the very least needs to have these systems in place.

This point is most relevant to the bill before the House tonight. It should not take incidents like the disgraceful incident of kerosene baths being delivered to people in aged-care centres for the government to look at toughening the accreditation processes. Nor should it take horrible, disgusting reports of the abuse and assault of elderly people in nursing homes before a government will get around to doing the right thing, as the Howard government has tried to do with this bill.

We have a right to expect that our parents and grandparents, some of the most vulnerable members of the community, will be well cared for in nursing homes without the spectre of kerosene baths. We have a right to expect that our parents and grandparents can live in comfort and security within residential aged-care facilities without fear of attack or abuse. The majority of Australia’s aged-care facilities offer caring and compassionate service to the elderly. However, there is clearly a minority of aged-care facilities and the rare aged-care staff member that fail to meet minimum decent standards. Systems need to be put in place to protect our parents and grandparents from them, however rare they may be.

Members will recall the ABC Lateline program which aired on 20 February 2006. Many Australians were understandably repulsed by allegations of the sexual assault by a male staff member on a 98-year-old woman and three other dementia patients in a Victorian nursing home. How could such an assault take place? It is just unthinkable. Further allegations of less serious though equally unacceptable behaviour were aired that evening. They included the allegation that an elderly woman was squirted in the face with a water bottle apparently on three separate occasions.

It is a very sad indictment of the nature of human beings that some people will be abused simply because they can be. The assault by so-called aged-care providers on the aged or the frail is an assault on all of us. Unfortunately, evidence of the abuse of the elderly in aged care continues to mount. Questions to Senate estimates reveal that from July 2006 to November 2006 there have been 23 allegations of abuse in aged-care facilities. Four of these allegations have already resulted in charges being laid. Yet the government’s moves to tighten regulation of the industry have remained lethargic at best. A more proactive approach to aged care and the need to tighten the seriously inadequate levels of regulation is taking on even greater impetus. In the coming 20 to 30 years members of the baby boomer generation—that is us—will be making the transition to aged care.

Mr Byrne —I could say, ‘Speak for yourself,’ but I won’t.

Mr MURPHY —I am speaking for you too, I think. We must have proper systems and proper standards and greater protections in place to make life a little easier for Australians entering their twilight years. I am sure that every member of this parliament and everyone who works in this place would be horrified if things did not improve. Fortunately, these instances are in the minority, but there should not be any instances. That is the truth of the matter. After years of hard work, the baby boomers will certainly deserve a comfortable retirement and accommodation in aged-care facilities provided by the government. This legislation is part of the government’s attempt to use the problems of the past, however belated this response may be, to protect residents in the future.

Many aspects of this bill are being implemented two years after the Senate inquiry and report titled Quality and equity in aged care. The inquiry found deficiencies with the operation of the current Aged Care Complaints Resolution Scheme and made recommendations to improve the system, yet here we are debating a bill two years later, and it is now being rammed through parliament without following proper processes. I ask again: why has it taken two years and media reports of sexual abuse in residential aged-care facilities to kick the government into gear? Why does it take the alleged rape of an elderly patient before the bill is presented to the parliament?

While Labor supports the bill, the process, as I have indicated, has been far from acceptable. It is completely unacceptable to feign concern that the important measures in this bill have a timely passage through parliament, when the government sat on some important recommendations for two years. I will say it again and again: that is a disgrace. The government has certainly not earned the right to be above scrutiny and accountability in this parliament.

I will preface my comments about specific aspects of this bill by saying that, while I am supportive of it, it is only part of a much greater package that is needed if we are to tackle seriously the abuse of older people in Australia. The truth is that most abuse of older people occurs in the community, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, this bill does nothing to address that reality.

Had the government pursued a proper timetable with this issue, we could have carefully considered some very important policy measures in much greater detail. We could have analysed other forms of abuse, including but not limited to psychological, financial and emotional abuse or neglect. We could have taken the opportunity to learn a lesson or two from some of our state governments. Rather than looking at a bill which is extremely limited in its scope, we could have looked at some very worthwhile initiatives that support the aged and provide community education about combating abuse.

Victoria’s swift action to raise community awareness of elder abuse—which I know the member for Gorton is well aware of—the implementation of a new legal and advocacy service for the elderly in community legal centres, and police checks for employees in Victoria’s aged-care sector are cases in point. I know that the member for Holt, who is sitting here listening to this debate, is also aware of that. Good on Victoria in relation to these matters. The government could have taken a leaf out of its book.

If the government had any further, serious reforms to safeguard older people it ought to have presented them to us today. It cannot rely on the flippant statement in the explanatory memorandum, which states, inter alia:

... the new initiatives that are implemented through this bill are part of a $90.2 million (over four years) package of reforms aimed at further safeguarding older people in Australian Government-subsidised aged care from sexual and serious physical assault.

It is no surprise that details are sketchy. Do the details actually exist, despite years of inertia? If they do, the community is entitled to know how much is being expended and on what, as belated as the case may be.

The specific elements of the bill I have alluded to deal with: the requirement for compulsory reporting of suspected and alleged sexual abuse and serious physical assault of residents; the protection of those who make such reports; giving the Department of Health and Ageing greater capacity to investigate complaints; the creation of a new Office of Aged Care Quality and Compliance; and the creation of a new Aged Care Commissioner to provide an independent mechanism to hear complaints about how the department has responded to complaints.

While concurring with my colleagues on all aspects of this bill, I only make the following observation on the new protections afforded by the bill to those who report an assault. This is a most important protection, and one that will go some way to redressing the situation where witnesses to a vile rape or assault of an aged-care resident only come forward with some trepidation. It is worth noting that there has been at least one occasion where a staff member has failed to report an assault against a 95-year-old grandmother, despite witnessing it.

I again draw the attention of members to the Lateline program broadcast on 20 February 2006 in which an unnamed aged-care worker said:

You have no recourse to say anything, because if you do say anything, you are then bullied by management, from right up, the head office right the way down. You have no recourse. There is nowhere—you put in reports and say that this is happening. Nothing is ever done. It disappears never to be seen again.

That is a disgrace. This can never be allowed to happen again. Staff members, such as the one I have just quoted, should not have to be in the insidious position of knowing what is happening but feeling helpless at instigating change.

The legislation requires that staff members who make disclosures must have their identities protected and must not be criticised. Further, it protects disclosers from civil and criminal liability. Unions, knowing better than anyone else the helplessness felt by many of their members, have been calling for whistleblower protection for some time. I ask on their behalf tonight: why have their calls been ignored? Why have staff had to endure feelings which oscillate between trepidation and helplessness?

This has been most unfair to the aged-care residents who have suffered from maltreatment, and, to a lesser extent, the staff who have witnessed such maltreatment. I hope that staff will feel empowered by the provisions in this bill and never have to endure a sense of helplessness ever again. It is with this in mind that I will support this legislation, bearing in mind the need for far more comprehensive reforms in the future.