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Monday, 17 September 2012
Page: 7060


Senator SMITH (Western Australia) (16:36): I rise this afternoon to also make a contribution to the very strong suggestions that we have heard here today that Australia's aged--care system is in fact undergoing—and I would like to quote Senator Siewert—a steadily increasing state of crisis. From one of the earlier speakers we heard the suggestion that what this government is seeking to correct is 11 years of neglect under the former Howard coalition government. That is a comment that is simply not true. As many senators would know, I was fortunate to work in this specific policy area during the Howard government and I know its record is a proud one. The Howard government provided more money, more beds and a much greater degree of transparency in relation to aged--care services. The Howard government introduced legislative standards to make sure elderly Australians were receiving quality care.

It is all very well for the Labor Party to pick and sneer, but the fact remains that enshrining standards of care in legislation was something John Howard did. It did not occur to Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke or Paul Keating. Future reform will not take place under the Julia Gillard Labor government.

I would also like to reflect on the comments made by my Western Australian colleague Senator Siewert, who was quite correct in saying that the devil is in fact in the detail in regard to this government's aged care reforms. She went on to say that the aged care industry has been in a steadily rising state of crisis, and that is a fact that has been shared with me by many Western Australian aged care providers. She also quite revealingly made the suggestion that the earlier cautious endorsement by the Australian Greens of the government's aged care package may well have been misplaced. I do, however, disagree with Senator Siewert when she suggests that this debate taking place today may be happening too prematurely. That is simply not the case. Providers are telling me and other coalition senators that action must be taken now, that they want the focus of this government to be on ensuring that a high quality standard of care is provided to older Australians.

We are agreed, though, as a Senate on a number of important things—the importance of aged care in our country as the population ages. We are agreed that we need to have a sustainable system for delivering aged care. We also agree that the opportunity to provide care for older Australians in their homes is a good one. We also agree that dignity of ageing people should be at the centre of all of our policy considerations. We also agree that aged care should be above politics. But on each of these points I am afraid to say that Labor is failing us and failing older Australians.

This government's aged care reforms are among the most cynical actions this government has taken to date. This is really quite a statement given its performance across many other policy areas. I have spoken in this place before about the sneaky way that the Living Longer, Living Better packages were sold to aged care providers and to older Australians. The government simply hoped that everyone would be fooled by the press releases and glossy brochures, laid out in black and white and in colour, and not notice what the Gillard government was doing: taking $500 million out of an industry that takes care of some of our most vulnerable fellow Australians. Those working in the aged care sector, I am confident, were probably too busy emptying bedpans, helping elderly patients shower and preparing meals to read and pay attention to the fine print. That is something this Labor government wilfully and shamefully took full advantage of. The knowledge that this is the case simply compounds the feeling of betrayal that many aged care providers with whom I have spoken feel about what this government has done and continues to do.

It is worth noting the comments of the Aged Care Industry Council in its 2011-12 budget submission. It is a quite revealing and unfortunately accurate statement. It said:

A snapshot of the industry at the start of 2011 does not depict a sustainable system: only 40% of residential aged care services are operating in the black …

What a powerful and accurate assessment of the state of Australia's aged care industry.

The nature of Australia's ageing population means that demand for aged care services will grow exponentially in the coming decades. Over one million older Australians currently receive aged care services, so it is already a significant challenge. However, according to the Productivity Commission, come 2050 over 3.5 million Australians are expected to require aged care services each year. The means we need to be building more facilities and attracting greater numbers of aged care staff. This is a time when we need to be doing more, not less, to support ageing Australians. Yet what the government has announced it will do is just the opposite. It will stall investment so that new facilities are not built and do nothing to remove disincentives for people to work in aged care.

Ten days ago I visited Craigcare, an aged care facility in Albany, Western Australia. I went there with the shadow minister for seniors, the Hon. Bronwyn Bishop, and the hardworking Rick Wilson, the Liberal Party candidate in the seat of O'Connor. We went there because Craigcare, its management and staff are deeply concerned about what the government's funding cuts will mean for them. Let me use this opportunity to pay tribute to John Gillett and the fantastic staff that I met at the Craigcare aged care home. It was great to see young people choosing a career in aged care and great to see the dedication and professionalism of people working in the aged care system.

Albany is not a wealthy community. The residents at Craigcare, a facility which contains a mix of low- and high-level care residents along with a secure dementia facility, are not wealthy. They demand nothing more than that which all Australians have a right to expect: the chance to live out their autumn years in relative comfort and with dignity. Yet at a time of life when people need more certainty than ever, the Gillard government is giving them the opposite. Residents are concerned about being able to pay their way and the cuts now being imposed are making aged care unviable. The Labor senator who spoke before me is quite right: the viability of small regional aged care homes is at risk because of the government's policy.