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Wednesday, 13 November 2013
Page: 152


Senator POLLEY (Tasmania) (10:51): It gives me great pleasure to make a contribution in this debate on the Address-in-reply. It will come as no surprise that I was honoured to be appointed as shadow parliamentary secretary for aged care. Anyone who has followed me in public life knows that I have had a long-held passion for aged-care policy and making sure that older Australians receive the care and support they need. I will be working alongside the new shadow aged-care minister, the member for Blair, and I am really enjoying the prospect of meeting lots of people in the sector and sinking my teeth into this new challenge.

I have spoken on numerous occasions in this chamber on another issue of great importance to me, the National Disability Insurance Scheme. It is of course designed to afford those with intellectual and physical disabilities autonomy and dignity in how they live their lives. That that new role gives me the opportunity to improve the lives of older Australians in a similar fashion. It is a sad reality that unless we work diligently many older people will not live their lives in a way that is beneficial to their long-term physical and mental health. We must never be complacent and we must never assume that older Australians will automatically be able to live independently and comfortably just because they are blessed to live in a First World country.

It may surprise some to learn that my home state of Tasmania not only has the highest percentage among the states and territories of people with disabilities but also a higher percentage of older people. In fact our population is the oldest in the country and ageing faster than any other state or territory. It presents enormous challenges, but also opportunities. It is just one of the many reasons I have developed a strong interest in aged care.

Aged-care organisations in Tasmania are generally not as consolidated or as big as those interstate, and Tasmanian aged-care homes rely on their community connections and on dedicated volunteers. Older Tasmanians are still able to live in aged-care homes in the community where they have lived and contributed all their lives. Many leaders in the local industry are striving to maintain this model because it is seen to be the best model for those residents.

I was also thrilled to discover several days ago that Smithton's aged-care facility Emmerton Park won the prestigious aged-care organisation of the year award at this year's National Aged Care Awards just this past weekend. The chief executive, Rob Barden, believed the award was recognition for the commitment and tireless work achieved by the organisation's team and its implementation of programs and initiatives that provide a fun, inclusive and caring environment for residents. Once again, I congratulate the whole team down there. Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak to Chris, the deputy CEO, and relay how delighted I was and how beneficial it was to once again show that Tasmania can lead the way, and what better place than in aged care. It shows just what can be achieved when aged-care facilities across the country continue to strive for excellence to ensure that residents are provided the best care possible, while also pushing new and exciting initiatives to ensure residents are active and involved within their community more broadly.

I want to help shine a spotlight on numerous issues that I believe receive insufficient attention in the media. Aged care may not always appear exciting or newsworthy to mainstream media outlets, but what could be more important than making sure that some of the nation's most vulnerable people are looked after properly? Last year I was thrilled when Labor delivered on yet another promise and passed historic reforms to aged care, the $3.7 billion Living Longer Living Better program. Labor delivered what the coalition, when they were previously in government, was unable to achieve.

Sadly, this package of reforms did not receive the attention it sorely deserved. It creates a flexible and seamless system that provides older Australians with more choice, control and easier access to a full range of services, where they want it and when they need it. It also positions Australia to meet the social and economic challenges of the nation's ageing population. It is vital to our future and it is something that Labor should be incredibly proud of. In particular, we can attribute this achievement to the tireless efforts of the former Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, the Member for Port Adelaide. We are the ones with a positive plan to ensure the best possible care for older Australians, to substantially increase aged-care places and to build a stronger aged-care system.

One aspect of aged care that I intend to take a particularly strong interest in is dementia. For Australia, like many other advanced countries around the world, dementia is a tidal wave on the horizon. The numbers are sobering. An ageing population means that there are over 320,000 Australians living with dementia right now and in the absence of a major medical breakthrough the number of people with dementia is expected to be almost 900,000 by 2050.

It is also vital that we consider those whose lives are affected by people with dementia, not least the estimated 1.2 million Australians who are caring for their loved ones with dementia. It is also the single greatest cause of disability in older Australians aged 65 years or older. It is the third leading cause of death in Australia. There is no cure. Fortunately for Australia, the Living Longer Living Better reforms deliver key outcomes for the future of assisting Australians with dementia. The package expands the Dementia Behaviour Management Advisory Services into acute and primary care settings. It also focuses on achieving a timelier dementia diagnosis with GPs and practice nurses receiving much-needed training and education. There is also a new dementia supplement to provide extra financial assistance for dementia care.

It is vital that the coalition takes dementia, and indeed aged care, seriously and there are troubling signs that this may not be the case. Tony Abbott has decided not only that his government does not require a minister with specific responsibilities for aged care but also he has decided to lump aged care and ageing into the social services portfolio. This certainly shows that wherever the priorities of his government lie they certainly do not lie with improving the lives of older Australians. As things currently stand, aged care and ageing will be jostling for attention amongst a range of other broad social issues including families, housing, social services and disability services. It is certainly a step backwards for confronting key challenges in aged care that we must not shy away from.

We also know that the Prime Minister plans to abolish Labor's $1.2 billion scheme to deliver pay rises to the nation's 350,000 aged-care workers. These are people who work extraordinarily hard to care for older Australians and the coalition does not believe they deserve a boost in their pay. When the coalition released their aged-care policy—and I use that term very loosely because it was a pamphlet of a few pages—just before the election we also discovered that they propose to relax vital aged-care regulations including accreditation periods. As was pointed out by the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association, this shows a poor understanding of the problems of abuse, neglect and premature death in Australian nursing homes. We need to do everything we can to protect those in aged care, yet the coalition appears to be willing to relax the strong standards that are in place.

In addition to this, there is more recent and troubling news: the coalition government is abolishing the panel on positive ageing, a key council set up to ensure that the needs of older Australians were promptly considered in the formation of government policy. The rationale offered was that the Prime Minister wanted to streamline government where 'activities are no longer needed or can be managed within existing departmental resources'. The chair of this panel, Mr Everald Compton, has understandably spoken out on how short-sighted and reckless this decision was. The panel was just six months away from finishing a blueprint on how Australia can turn an ageing population into an asset. Those who are older and ageing were developing a blueprint for the future. Two years of solid work went into this blueprint. Two years of work for nothing. If that is not short-sighted, I don't know what is.

I can assure you that Labor will hold the coalition to account. I also think that this new role as shadow parliamentary secretary will provide me with the opportunity to look closely at the options for further improving palliative care in Australia. Older Australians deserve to spend their last days living comfortably and with dignity, and there is absolutely no reason Australia should not aspire to have the most efficient, well-funded palliative care system in the world.

When it comes to aged care more generally, I think that we should never shy away from big ideas; we should never be afraid of thinking outside the box. During the first of the Labor leadership head-to-head debates, both candidates backed the idea of higher superannuation payments to build a sovereign wealth fund to help pay for the care of the increasing numbers of Australians living into their 80s and 90s. Referring to a plan floated by the former Prime Minister Paul Keating, our now opposition leader said Labor should consider 'big' new ideas, like 'encouraging people to save for a sovereign wealth fund that enables people to draw down on that resource when they need it'. It is certainly something that should be considered, because the cost of caring for older Australians is only going to rise.

I think it is also vital that we consider how a range of policy areas overlap with aged care; we must never view issues relating to the care of older Australians in isolation. For example, it is not surprising that many older Australians living in rural, regional or remote communities suffer from a distinct lack of access to medical specialists to assist in making a timely diagnosis of dementia. This is particularly concerning, because experts agree that an early diagnosis is crucial to treating dementia. However, one area where we can really hope for improvement in this regard is by encouraging innovative approaches to dementia diagnosis and care, including telehealth initiatives. Of course telehealth can only really benefit those who can connect to reliable, fast broadband that is available under, for example, fibre-to-the-premises NBN. Now that is of course under threat because the coalition wants to create a digital divide that will only allow some to access 21st century internet speeds.

Over the weekend, the sorely missed Tony Windsor was speaking at the Victorian Women's Trust event honouring Julia Gillard—the Prime Minister who of course presided over the passage of Living Longer, Living Better. When considering cost-benefit implications of the two opposing broadband plans, he had this to say about the real costs of not embracing fibre-to-the-home broadband:

We have a significant problem—Peter Costello recognised this some years ago—in terms of the ageing of the population; we are going to have a big bump of older people … coming through the system. If five per cent of those people could stay in their homes for one or two years additionally … what impact would that have on the capital costs of this bump coming through the system? What impact would it have on the operational costs of supplying those beds? What impact would it have on the psyche of the people and their families? That one issue—and we've done the numbers on this—pays for the scheme. It pays for the scheme on its own.

Fibre to the premises is a network which provides a medical-grade, reliable connection to each home and a complete standardisation of equipment. It is as simple as that. We need to consider just what the digital divide could mean for older Australians, in particular those who are at risk of dementia, and how many may not be afforded an early diagnosis if using inferior broadband alternatives.

Even though I now have new responsibilities as a shadow parliamentary secretary, I will of course continue to work diligently for the people of Tasmania. I think it is fair to suggest that the electorate of my home state sent us a strong message and one that we should listen closely to. There are of course many, many people in the state still committed to Labor, but it is also fair to suggest that some have, at least for the time being, issued a protest vote in key electorates that swung away from us. I prefer to see this as an opportunity: an opportunity to rethink our approach and an opportunity to reconsider the future of Tasmania and how we can improve the state's prospects.

During the recent federal election campaign it was clear that the chief concern for many Tasmanians was jobs and growth. The challenge lies in identifying precisely where Tasmania can exploit competitive advantages and in the process find new, innovative ways of boosting the economy. One such area where I think Tasmania can get ahead and achieve positive change is the renewable energy sector, an important component of the modern economy that is no doubt bracing for the worst now that the Abbott government is in power. Unfortunately Mr Abbott and the coalition do not understand that encouraging developments in renewable energy has the capacity to transform the economy and lower total carbon emissions.

As I noted in the Senate chamber earlier this year, in recent times the policies delivered by Labor have ensured that the renewable energy industry has gone from strength to strength. To take just one example, wind capacity in Australia rose from just over 1,100 megawatts to over 3,000 megawatts during Labor's time in power. In fact, last year wind farms in this country produced enough electricity to power over one million homes, a target that seemed impossible not that long ago.

Tasmania was the recipient of several grants under the Clean Technology Investment Program and the Clean Technology Innovation Program, which allowed numerous local outfits in northern Tasmania and indeed across the state to upgrade equipment and reduce emissions intensity. There is much planned for the future of Tasmania's renewable energy sector as well, including a 200-turbine wind farm development on King Island.

Now is the time for Tasmania to embrace the renewable energy sector and make sure that the Abbott government does not hinder progress. If approached intelligently, renewable energy will allow the state to take advantage of new innovations in the coming decades that promise to revolutionise how energy is produced. It is not good enough to stick our heads in the sand. If we do not jump on board and do everything possible to encourage renewable energies then the accompanying jobs and growth opportunities will flow elsewhere and overseas.

Renewable energy represents a potential goldmine that will benefit all Tasmanians but only if we work to make it happen. Proactively fostering developments in the renewable energy sector, including putting a price on carbon, is about long-term vision. It is about considering what sort of planet we want to leave behind and new jobs and opportunities that have the potential to    enhance Tasmania's economic prospects for generations to come

I certainly hope that the member for Bass and his coalition colleagues do not continue to exploit outdated views to suit their own political objectives. The Prime Minister has on numerous occasions channelled the incredible Rick Perry and said that 'Australia is back open for business'. I can tell you that the businesses of the future will not be the same as the businesses of today, and if we want to position ourselves to take advantage of future areas of growth, including renewable energies, we need to act now.

Tasmania is also a state that can prosper by focusing on new innovations and new technologies. In order for Tasmanian businesses to innovate and thrive, particularly those in remote and regional areas, we need world-class broadband. Once again I am talking fibre-to-the-premises superior broadband, not the tin-can-and-string approach favoured by the current government. Earlier I spoke about how superior broadband outcomes could benefit those Australians with dementia or at risk of dementia, yet that is just one facet of how Labor's version of the NBN will benefit us all.

If we create a digital divide, we are also effectively closing the door on opportunities for many businesses which were not lucky enough to get in first. As I said in this chamber several months ago, the people of Tasmania, along with Australians everywhere, are eager to take advantage of fibre-to-the-premises broadband. When it comes to our internet speeds, we can afford to be bold. We have to be because if we are not the opportunities that come from fibre-optic cables delivering world-class internet speeds will be enjoyed elsewhere. It is as simple as that.

This highlights why this coalition government will be such a predictably disappointing and uninspiring government. They have this view that if left alone with minimal government intrusion that any economy can thrive. But what they do not understand is that any playing field is never perfectly level and it is not acceptable that one household can afford a computer for their child while another cannot. It is not acceptable that one business can enjoy superior broadband speeds whilst another cannot.

But it is more than that: it is not just about what is fair; it is also about what is smart. If Australia invests in its people, in its infrastructure, in new innovations and in ensuring that we do not suffer from a dual-track economy, I promise you we will thrive in ways that would not have been imaginable a generation or two ago. We are the lucky country, and we all like to say it and remind ourselves of it but it is true. But we are only the lucky country because we have not allowed complacency and complicity with vested interests, greed and selfishness to dominate our public policymaking. We need to always be looking ahead to the next opportunity rather than just enjoying what we have now. Our future depends on this. We have to change our mindset, and I call on this government to show some initiative and innovation so we can move forward.