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Wednesday, 1 June 2011
Page: 5581

Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (17:02): Aged care in Australia is a topic that confronts and challenges us all. I spoke in my maiden speech about the importance of social connectedness and active ageing. To put the potential impact of an ageing population into perspective, it is worth noting the statistics. By 2050, one in two voters will be aged over 50 and by 2055, 78,000 Australians will be aged over 100. We need to acknowledge not only the cost but also the potential benefits of age. Australians aged over 55 contribute an estimated $74.5 billion per annum through voluntary, unpaid and caring work. We must not dismiss their enormous contribution and potential. That is our challenge.

The government is not meeting this challenge. We are here today debating yet another amendment—another stop-gap measure; a bandaid solution—that still does not resolve the bigger issue. The government came to the 2007 election claiming 'new directions for frail and older Australians' and claimed that it would make the transition from hospital to aged care a priority. Yet the reality is: another Labor priority policy area; another Labor government failure.

After delivering so little for this sector during its first term, this Labor government refused to commit to any substantial reform during last year's election campaign, leaving aged care to be swept under the rug once again. This government has failed to make the tough decisions needed in the aged-care sector, yet again dodging the key issues and then passing the buck to the Productivity Commission inquiry. The findings of this inquiry will not be released until after the 2011-12 budget, providing the government with yet another excuse to delay any real action in this vital area.

This amendment bill aims to strengthen consumer protection for accommodation bonds paid to aged-care facilities as well as to improve the arrangements for the handling of complaints about Commonwealth funded aged-care services. Given the recent experience of one of my constituents, I agree with the government that at the very least there are major issues within this area that need to be addressed. Ms Linda Fitzgibbon recently contacted my office to share her experience when dealing with an aged-care facility. Ms Fitzgibbon placed her two elderly parents into care last year, paying an upfront accommodation bond of $300,000 for each parent—$600,000 in total up-front just for the bond—in addition to the fees she would be paying for their care.

As Ms Fitzgibbon points out, she was lucky to have been able to afford this outlay up-front, as the interest charged on paying this bond off over time was, at that point, over seven per cent per annum. Sadly, she has lost both her parents over the course of the past year, her mother in September and her father in March. During this grieving and stressful time she also faced, due to circumstances beyond her control, a delay in her parents' wills going to probate.

As you would appreciate, this was a very distressing time for Ms Fitzgibbon. That stress was compounded by the fact that, due to the delay in the will going to probate, the aged-care facility would not release her parents' accommodation bond. Unfairly, neither was that bond earning interest at the same rate that the constituent would have been charged had she not paid that bond up-front. That rate has now increased to 8.94 per cent. With this in mind, I do find the proposals to strengthen consumer protection for accommodation bonds and improve arrangements for the handling of complaints to be warranted, and we on this side will continue to support sensible policy measures. It will help to curb aged-care facilities investing these accommodation bonds—substantial amounts of money—in high risk investments, reducing the possibility of the bond being lost. The proposals will also, hopefully, encourage aged-care providers to upgrade their facilities for residents, which I am sure residents and their families would appreciate.

But the question we must ask is: why is this happening within the aged-care industry? It is happening because the sector does not receive enough support from the government. As the Productivity Commission report stated, the aged-care industry is close to crisis, with 40 per cent of aged-care providers operating in the red as at June 2010. Yet the population of over 85-year-olds, the main users of aged care in Australia, is set to swell from 400,000 in 2007 to 1.6 million by 2047. Increasingly, seniors are struggling to access the care that they want, they need and they deserve, with 2,000 aged-care beds and 786 bed licences lost since 2007 alone. The government clearly have not faced the reality of our ageing population and they do not appreciate the dedicated and committed individuals working in aged-care facilities. Aged-care nurses on average earn 20 to 30 per cent less than their acute-care colleagues.

Whilst the amendments we discuss today are both needed, they are not enough. This government's entire treatment of the sector is simply inadequate. Those in the industry have already raised the alarm that the system is difficult to navigate, confusing and underfunded. The whole industry is already overregulated, yet here we are today discussing stopgap regulation but not real reform. Back in 2007 the government promised to cut one regulation for every one it introduced—one in, one out. So the obvious question is: what is being cut today? The answer to that is: nothing. It is yet another broken promise of this Labor government. In fact it has introduced 220 new regulations for each one it has repealed. Indeed, rather than reducing regulation, the only cut this government has made is a cut to funding for the sector. The assistive technology in community care initiative was cut and, as a result, there is restricted access to vital technology which could assist older Australians in their homes. We have also seen cuts to hearing services through the introduction of a threshold, and funding cuts to preventative measures that assisted our older Australians to keep fit and healthy, increasing the financial burden on the government purse and, sadly, reducing support for our senior citizens. On top of that the Labor government applied one of their most simplistic and lazy 'saving' measures: freezing indexation payable to aged-care providers in the 2009-10 budget, thereby cutting approximately $910 million over four years. The government continues to fail our aged-care sector and therefore fails our seniors, in turn fails their families and then fails our young Australians—for it is our young Australians who will bear the responsibility and the cost in the future for rectifying this neglect.

The amendments today are a bandaid step, but we need genuine reform if we are to support aged care in Australia. It must be done responsibly and it must be done soon. Aged care is in crisis, and the financial viability and associated issues are of vital importance. As Mike Woods of the Productivity Commission said:

… the system is expected to provide care to over 3.6 million older Australians by 2050. It is inevitable that government expenditure will rise. The challenge is to reform the system, while keeping that expenditure within sustainable limits.

The more we fail now, the greater the problems for future generations. The more costs and pressures we place now on the aged-care industry, and by extension the health system, the greater the burden we place on future generations. Failing in aged care affects so many facets of our economy and has far-reaching consequences which this government refuses to face. To quote Abraham J. Heschel:

A test of a people is how it behaves towards the old. It is easy to love children. Even tyrants and dictators make a point of being fond of children. But the affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless are the true gold mines of a culture.

Mr Deputy Speaker, let us begin to apply this philosophy to our aged-care sector.