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Wednesday, 15 March 2000
Page: 12841

Senator CHRIS EVANS (3:02 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (Senator Herron), to questions without notice asked today, relating to aged care.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —I think only Senator Herron could describe Minister Bishop's performance in handling aged care in this country as impeccable. You have to give him his due: he put on a very brave front with that description. But it is absolutely ludicrous. It is a view shared by nobody else in this parliament, a view shared by nobody else in the Australian community. But what he did do today, which I want to take up in this motion to take note, was defend the government's complaints mechanism, the system by which people can complain about the treatment they receive in nursing homes or the treatment their relatives receive in nursing homes. I think it is a key issue.

The minister would have us believe that one of the great achievements of this government is the current complaints resolution mechanism. First of all, he seeks to deny that there was already a complaints system in place before the changes were made—we all know that is not true. But what we have now on the record is two very clear examples of the government's complaints resolution scheme in operation. We have the Riverside Nursing Home and, in Queensland, we have the Alcera Park Nursing Home complaint. You could not get more serious complaints. In Riverside we have a coroner investigating six deaths. We know from the government's own report that at least one of those was connected to the kerosene bath incident. In their own reports they provide a link between the death of a palliative care patient and the kerosene bath. So we have six deaths being investigated at Riverside. We have complaints of three deaths at Alcera Park from people who came into the public hospital suffering gangrene, dehydration, mouth ulcers, et cetera, where the nurses broke down because they were so upset at the condition of the patients being admitted.

What we want to know and what the government have to defend is how their complaints mechanism works in practice. In the situation of Riverside, the complaints were lodged in the middle of January by nursing staff involved at the home. It took 30 days before it came to light that the complaints resolution office had done nothing with those complaints. I mislead the Senate there. They had done something: they had contacted the provider to discuss the matter. These are the most serious allegations that could be made about serious mistreatment of residents and, in 30 days, the complaints office had done nothing to pursue those most serious complaints. They had not referred them to the agency, as was required under the minister's explanation of the system. They had taken no serious action. So we had to wait 30 days. Nursing staff directly involved complained to the complaints office and to other authorities as well—no action. It is a disgrace. It is a clear sign the system has failed. The resulting evidence subsequent to the investigation reveals what a horror story existed at Riverside and yet, under the government's system and for 30 days, nothing was done to protect those residents.

In the instance of Alcera Park, we had the relatives of deceased residents making formal complaints properly within the complaints system in the middle of November about the deaths of their relatives in October. We also had complaints from nurses who nursed at Alcera Park and also those who nursed at the public hospital where these patients were admitted. The minister concedes that the three died in appalling condition. What happened to the complaints? Absolutely nothing. The daughter of one of the deceased is still waiting for a response to her complaint. She wrote a very disturbing and heartfelt letter. What happened to it? It seems nothing. She still has not had a response to her complaint—this is one made in November—and she has had no report on the death. She rang the minister's office in frustration on 28 February. They said they would get back to her. They never did. They obviously did not consider it serious enough.

The government's complaints system has totally failed. The minister has totally failed. Surely someone raising a serious concern about the death of a loved one deserves better than they got out of this complaints system. There is still no report available on these deaths that occurred in October, deaths of people in appalling conditions, deaths that concern the nursing staff, concern the GPs and greatly disturb the relatives. The complaints system has failed them. The minister has failed them. They still do not know what happened in terms of the death of their loved ones. They still have not had the courtesy of a response. They still have not had a response from the complaints department. This is the complaints system Senator Herron defended today. If he thinks it is not failing, I do not know where he has been. (Time expired)