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Wednesday, 11 December 2013
Page: 1542

Senator POLLEY (Tasmania) (18:19): I seek leave to move business of the Senate notices of motions 4 and 5 together.

Leave granted.

Senator POLLEY: I move:

That the Residential Care Subsidy Amendment (Workforce Supplement) Principle 2013, made under the Aged Care Act 1997, be disallowed.

That theAged Care Subsidies Amendment (Workforce Supplement) Determination 2013 made under the Aged Care Act 1997, be disallowed.

This evening I would like to address both the Aged Care Subsidies Amendment (Workforce Supplement) Determination and the Residential Care Subsidy Amendment (Workforce Supplement) Principle. The principle and determination of course need to be moved separately, but we have agreed to move them together. But really they are both a result of the same trend—that is, the coalition's lack of focus and commitment in the area of aged care.

These instruments, made under the Aged Care Act 1997, will unwind key reforms instituted by Labor to ensure that the nation's aged care workers receive a welcome and overdue boost in pay and conditions. The Gillard government introduced the Aged Care Workforce Subsidy part of the Living Longer Living Better aged care package in order to address workforce pay and conditions. It is important to remember that aged care workers are some of our lowest paid workers in the country yet they are charged with the immense responsibility of caring for the increasing number of older Australians.

We often speak of Australia's ageing population and the challenges that lie ahead as though it were something yet to happen. Those challenges are already here. For the first time in our nation's history there are more people turning pension age each year, than there are turning working age. Yet the aged-care sector has a high turnover of staff, and workers are paid less than colleagues in other sectors such as hospitals. I recognise that many workers in this sector are motivated by compassion and a sense of vocation but they still deserve to be given fairer pay, better conditions and access to training, education and a career path.

The sector faces pressure not only from an increase in the demand for their services, but also from a population that expects more. This workforce needs assistance and now is not the time to be turning our backs on those workers who give so much for so little. Federal Labor understands these pressures, which is why we allocated $1.2 billion dollars across the forward estimates to address significant workforce issues. The workforce supplement is the mechanism through which the wages of aged-care workers caring for older Australians will be improved.

It is extremely disappointing that the coalition does not share our concern. In fact, one of the first acts of the Minister for Social Services was to make a determination through these two instruments to remove the department secretary's power to accept applications for the workforce supplement. This is despite the fact that some 18 providers have already successfully applied for the supplement since 1 July 2013. So what is the coalition planning to do with the remaining $1.1 billion?

All we have from those opposite are platitudes followed by cuts. All we have heard is that the government will reallocate to a:

… general pool of aged care funding.

Not that we know what this means, how they will guarantee that workers will not be worse off or how they will address the demands on this sector. The timing could not be worse. At this time, we need to be doing everything possible to boost the working conditions of aged-care staff and encourage younger people to take up work in this sector.

The Productivity Commission has pointed out that increasing numbers of residents with higher and more complex care needs have added to the workloads of care staff in residential care settings. As we speak, some 50 per cent of the aged-care workforce is within 10 years of retiring, and it is proving particularly challenging to attract young capable people to undertake this line of work.

Labor remains committed to building a new aged-care system built on the principles of respect, dignity and choice. We want to make sure that every single facility can provide quality, affordable, accessible and appropriate care to a rapidly growing population of older Australians. If only the coalition shared our dream. Instead, they want to scrap the supplement and, on top of this, the government has not indicated how the funds will be allocated to providers.

My aim in moving to disallow these instruments is to give workers more time to negotiate better outcomes with their employers and to provide the minister and his assistant minister with more time to provide details on how they will address workforce issues. This regrettable decision by the minister has only added greater uncertainty to a workforce that is already lowly paid while working with some of the most vulnerable and demanding Australians.

During question time this week, the minister who is at least nominally responsible for ageing, Senator Fifield, said that it was a government priority to:

… allow those who work in aged care to focus on doing what they do best, and that is delivering high-quality care for older Australians.

Well, Minister Fifield—it is good that you are here in the chamber—you certainly are not acting like it. Words are cheap. Older Australians and the people who work diligently every day to care for them want a real commitment. I trust the government will take the time to address the pay and working conditions of this vulnerable sector. My honourable colleagues may want to consider who they would want caring for them in their twilight years. Given the choice, would we really want a lowly paid, overworked person caring for us or even for our parents?

The manner in which the minister has moved to turn back progress for aged-care workers is shameful, and you should feel ashamed. Today, Labor is removing the prohibition on workers seeking better pay and conditions. We are clearing the way for providers and workers to sit down and continue negotiating.