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Wednesday, 15 March 2000
Page: 12837

Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (3:07 PM) —My question is directed to Senator Herron, the Minister representing the Minister for Aged Care. Can the minister confirm that the Minister for Aged Care has severely criticised her department for failing to remedy the many defects that have been brought to light in the nursing home sector? What steps has the minister taken to restructure her department, given her view that the department has comprehensively failed to achieve the government's objectives in the nursing home sector? How many SES officers working in the aged care section of the department received performance pay in the financial year 1998-99?

Senator HERRON (Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) —Senator Faulkner is giving a plug to the Bulletin magazine today and more power to him, but I would suggest to him, in formulating his questions, that he does not believe everything he reads in the press. I would suggest that he check with Senator Ray—he is a bit more careful about these things—before taking things out of the press, formulating a question and coming to the Senate in the afternoon. I suggest to Senator Faulkner that he check with Senator Ray and the tactics committee to see whether it is a good idea to take it without checking it.

The Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency and the delegate of the secretary, those legally responsible under the act, acted entirely properly and expeditiously while observing due process in accordance with legal advice. That is something that Senator Faulkner would not probably understand, but that is the process that was followed. It was followed with legal advice. The minister was appropriately advised that appropriate action was being taken. The Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency is charged with inspecting aged care facilities. The delegate of the secretary is charged with imposing sanctions. The residents of the Riverside Nursing Home were attended regularly from the time of the first inspection by nurses from the Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency and the Department of Health and Aged Care.

Imposition of sanctions and revocation of licences are very serious and grave matters. They cannot be taken lightly or capriciously and will not be made in response to inconsistent baying from the opposition, which is all we are getting. It is the Senator Evans beat-up—the egg-beater on this issue. If they were consistent and if we had done what the Labor Party wanted a week ago, we would not have moved the residents from Riverside at all.

Senator Faulkner —I rise on a point of order, Madam President. Apparently Senator Herron has found some brief to answer a question in question time today. Madam President, of course, as you would appreciate, given the nature of my question about restructuring the Minister for Aged Care's department and the SES officers' performance pay bonuses, the brief has absolutely no relevance at all to the question I asked. I would suggest, Madam President, in this circumstance that either you direct the minister to answer the question or he should sit down and take the question on notice.

The PRESIDENT —The answer is not totally irrelevant to the question that has been asked, even though it has not specifically dealt with all the matters that you have raised. There is still time for the minister to do that, and I ask that he do so.

Senator HERRON —Madam President, I can understand Senator Faulkner not wanting to hear the answer, because he was a member of the guilty party that left this debacle for us, which we are fixing up. Commonwealth expenditure on residential aged care has increased by 42 per cent since we came to government. It has gone up from $2.5 billion in 1995-96 to a projected $3.5 billion in 1999-2000. More importantly, we have delivered that increase without increased taxation—without one cent of increased taxation. We have increased it by 42 per cent. The Commonwealth payments for residential aged care places have increased—

Senator Faulkner —I raise a point of order, Madam President. My question specifically went into the Minister for Aged Care's criticisms of her department and what she might have done with it. Then I asked a specific question about SES officers and their performance pay bonuses. This answer has absolutely nothing to do with the question I asked. Again, I would say to you, Madam President, that this minister should try and answer the question if he cannot take it on notice, but you should not allow him to rave on with this irrelevant answer.

The PRESIDENT —I do not accept that the minister is raving on.

Senator Kemp —Madam President, on the point of order raised by Senator Faulkner: Senator Herron was explaining in detail the reasons why some of these problems have emerged and, of course, some emerged when the previous government had responsibility and we are fixing those problems. So I put it to you, Madam President, that the answer that Senator Herron is giving is entirely relevant.

The PRESIDENT —I think the minister has drifted from the question that was asked, even though he was dealing with the relevant topic. I draw your attention to the substance of the question, Minister.

Senator HERRON —Thank you, Madam President. I would like to respond to the first part of that point of order in the context of the answer, because it was obvious that Senator Faulkner did not listen to the first part. He is correct in a sense that I have not answered the second part of the question in relation to SES officers, but I was getting to that. This is a democracy. We have four minutes to answer questions. It does not satisfy Senator Faulkner's criteria, but I would be interested to look at the Hansard to see how many times he has gone into spurious points of order this year, because I do not think he has taken one valid point of order. In relation to the SES officers, I will take that through to the minister. It is not in my brief and I am happy to come back to Senator Faulkner with the answer to that question.

Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) —Madam President, I ask a specific supplementary question. Will the Minister for Aged Care be requesting the Secretary to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to take into account her department's alleged failures in the nursing home area when evaluating the performance agreement for the secretary to the department? If it transpires that the secretary to the department receives his performance bonus, won't this indicate that the department is not in fact at fault, but it is Mrs Bishop who should get the pink slip?

Senator Abetz —It's hypothetical.

Senator HERRON (Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) —As my friend, Senator Abetz said, it is a hypothetical question. I am happy to refer that to the minister. It is a good try from Senator Faulkner to tease something more out of this issue—let's go off into another little avenue so that we can keep the issue going with the egg-beater. I am happy to take that through to the minister and report back to Senator Faulkner when an answer is ready.