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Thursday, 23 August 2012
Page: 6321


Senator SMITH (Western Australia) (18:55): The American writer Pearl S Buck wrote:

… our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is in the way that it cares for its helpless members.

What is a test of a civilisation must always then, by extension, be a test of its government. By Pearl Buck's measure, this government has failed miserably.

It is so typically Labor, so typical of this government, to produce a nice glossy document called Living Longer. Living Better. with nice pictures of smiling seniors and warm, fuzzy language. All the while, they are hoping that no-one notices that what the minister has actually done is rip $500 million out of the sector over the next financial year. According to Leading Age Services Australia, this equates to a five to 10 per cent cut for every aged-care provider.

Stephen Kobelke, Chief Executive Officer of Aged & Community Services Western Australia, says the government's funding cuts are going to have a devastating impact in my home state, especially in regional Western Australia. Grant Thornton Australia, who are respected analysts in the aged-care field, examined 25,000 cases across Australia and found the government's reforms would engender likely funding cuts of between eight and 15 per cent compared to subsidies achieved using the funding instrument in its previous form.

These cuts have been slammed by a wide range of aged-care providers and community groups, but one of the most eloquent, I thought, came from aged-care providers Amana Living in the Anglican Messenger in Western Australia, which generally speaking is not a political publication. I quote directly from the article:

"Imagine then our amazement and consternation when the Minister for Ageing, Mark Butler, announced in mid June that the Gillard Government was slashing $500 million from subsidies for residential aged care."

At around the same time, the Government found $400 million of unbudgeted funds to support the health system and rail yards in Tasmania, where the Government needs to shore up the vote of independent MP, Andrew Wilkie.

That is the low ebb to which trust in the Gillard government has now fallen, where a generally non-political publication is openly exposing this government's rank opportunism and has hit the nail on the head: the government has administered a swift kick to elderly, vulnerable Australians so it can shore up its own support in the House of Representatives. The same article includes a moving case study which, again, I quote from:

Enid (not her real name) is a 78-year-old lady in residential care, with a range of conditions, including lung disease and osteoporosis. She has difficulties attending to her personal care needs and requires assistance whenever she needs to move from one place to another, or attend to her personal care, including washing and dressing herself. …

Previously, Enid was entitled to $121.50 a day to subsidise the cost of her care—already at an unacceptably low level, only covering a fraction of the real cost of care. Now, if Enid goes to hospital and returns to her residential care home, she will be reassessed at the new level of funding, which means her entitlement can be slashed by more than 50% to $59.43 to provide the same care.

Sadly, Enid's is not a theoretical or isolated example. There will be thousands and thousands of elderly Australians right around the country who find themselves in a similar position. I am especially concerned for those who need quality care in the towns and communities across Western Australia's Great Southern region. How does this government propose elderly Australians pay for their care needs?

In early August in Perth, a large gathering brought together a variety of aged care home providers to talk about Labor's funding cuts. They came together to discuss what they could do in the face of these cuts from the Gillard government. A number of those attending were from facilities operating in Western Australia's Great Southern region. Julie Christensen, who operates Narrogin Cottage Homes, said at the rally:

… most rural providers have no spare money, so there's nothing in the coffers to back up when things happen, as they have this year, with the cuts from the Commonwealth directly affecting them.

So right now, right today, we've got small facilities that have cut hours which means you're cutting the ability to care for the people that we provide services to.

Penny Flett, from the Bridgewater Group, says that this government's cuts 'are going to make the difference for the whole industry between viability and non-viability'. Stephen Kolbeke, chief executive of Aged & Community Services Western Australia, to whom I referred earlier, has noted the particularly harsh impact these cuts will have on Western Australia. He says it is a particularly challenging operating environment in WA already because of the workforce shortages and relative isolation. Mr Kolbeke told the meeting that there are:

… things they'll—

meaning aged care providers—

start to look at; WA providers are deeply concerned about their ability to operate, or in fact their desire to do so. They want to look after older people but they've got to have the tools.

I would add to the concerns I have already raised the concerns shared with me in correspondence just today by the state member for Southern River who said that the federal government's one-size-fits-all approach greatly disadvantages Western Australia, and added that the cuts particularly harm WA because of the number of small and remote community providers, workforce shortages and building cuts.

We know these cuts are having a crippling impact on the sector. Since the government's announcement, the Grant Thornton report found that 'over $3.5 billion in planned aged care development projects have been shelved', because of the subsidy cuts and uncertainty about capital. This industry, the aged care sector, was already suffering from declining investment levels. We know we have an ageing population and we know that we need to plan for it. Yet this government elects to rip $500 million from the sector because it needs to shore up its own political support with the Independents and allow this deceitful and incompetent rabble to cling to office for a little bit longer.

Meanwhile, those who need certainty and quality care in the autumn years of their life are paying a very dear price indeed. This is another example of short-sighted decision making from a government that first lost its way, then lost its majority and has now lost the trust of the people of Australia.

I am pleased the coalition has a plan to better provide for the care of ageing Australians. The coalition is committed to the delivery of a high-quality, affordable and accessible aged care system that meets the needs of older Australians. There needs to be structural reform, which is why we believe our proposed four-year provider agreement, negotiated and entered into in partnership with the sector, will provide the much needed certainty that the aged care sector deserves.