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Wednesday, 3 September 2014
Page: 6343

Senator POLLEY (Tasmania) (13:47): Can I place on record my thanks to the government's deputy whip for allowing me to incorporate the remainder of my speech if I do not get through it, due to earlier speakers going over their time.

I rise again today to speak about how the Abbott government has abandoned vulnerable Australians living with severe symptoms of dementia. As I have outlined before, on 26 June this year the Assistant Minister for Social Services, Senator Mitch Fifield, rose in this chamber and announced that the dementia and severe behaviours supplement would be unceremoniously scrapped. This $16 supplement paid to approved aged-care providers was designed to assist with the additional costs of caring for people with severe behavioural and psychological symptoms associated with dementia. But, from 31 July this year, aged-care providers have had to shoulder the load without this precious assistance, because it has gone. It was scrapped without warning and without due consideration for what this would mean for aged-care providers. It was scrapped without any thought as to how this would affect people who suffer from this insidious disease.

I think it is clear that I am not going to give up on this issue. I am not going to sit down and allow the Abbott government to escape from the consequences of scrapping this important supplement. I am going to attack Senator Fifield like a honey badger on this so that we get answers. People with severe symptoms of dementia deserve better. Workers who care for them every day deserve better.

The key question that I have for Senator Fifield is: what on earth were you doing between assuming power in September last year up until 26 June this year? It would have been clear early on, from initial projections, that the number of Australians who require extra assistance due to severe symptoms of dementia had been underestimated. In fact, aged-care experts in the field have advised the shadow minister for ageing, the member for Blair, Shane Neumann, and I that the Department of Social Services would have noticed a pronounced spike in the take-up in the first month in August last year.

In February this year, following Senate supplementary estimates, I asked a question on notice about the uptake of the supplement. The answer more or less avoided answering the question, and the future of this supplement lingered. Senator Fifield, you had options. You could have acted. You could have been working with the department as well as aged-care stakeholders to address issues around the original design. You could have analysed compliance with and validation of the assessment instrument. Your Treasurer, 'Mr Popularity', Mr Joe Hockey, could have addressed this in the MYEFO late last year. It goes without saying that you should have addressed this in the budget in May. Instead, you waited over eight months, until after the budget, and simply cut the supplement, with no consultation, no alternatives and no solutions. The Aged Care Sector Committee was left in the dark, providers were left in the dark and the families and loved ones of people with dementia were left in the dark. You walked away without looking over your shoulder, Senator Fifield. By the first quarter you obviously knew it was overblown.

So, Senator Fifield, when exactly did the government learn it had blown out? Is there a working relationship with the department? If not, what processes are in place to ensure better reporting practices between the department and the minister? When are you going to take responsibility? Just what on earth is going on here? You had every opportunity to act before it reached this level and before the budget was announced, but you did not. You waited, you dithered, you maybe even panicked, and then you ripped up this supplement and plunged the aged-care sector into a state of chaos and confusion. We had the head of Leading Age Services Australia, Patrick Reid, saying publicly that your decision represents a government 'turning its back on Australia's most vulnerable people'. We had the CEO of Aged and Community Services, Adjunct Professor John Kelly, labelling the move to axe this supplement a 'travesty'. More recently, Marcus Riley, Acting Chairman of Leading Age Services Australia has said that: 'This funding withdrawal will have a devastating impact on individuals who need extra support. Our research shows that it will also damage industry's ability to invest in training and dementia-specific care environments.'

This government has abandoned aged-care providers who care for people with dementia. This government has imperilled investment in dementia care. It has plunged the aged-care sector into a state of uncertainty and it has abandoned some of the nation's most vulnerable citizens. The Abbott government needs to take responsibility for allowing the supplement funding to spiral out of control by refusing to address the situation earlier. Inaction has led to the problems we face today. It is not good enough to simply blame the previous Labor government and hide under the doona covers. Providers are worried that this government is out of touch and unconcerned about the future of aged care in this country. You are, in fact, so out of touch—and it is good to see you in the chamber, Minister—that when the news came through that the member for Blair and I had spoken to workers and residents at IRT Kangara Waters yesterday, you accused us of 'skulking around' aged-care facilities. You should visit these facilities yourself, Senator Fifield, and listen to what they have to say. Many providers have acquired extra specialist staff, planned for new buildings and facilities, and invested in other support resources—to ensure that those suffering from dementia are not going to miss out. These providers are angry. They need to be listened to, Minister. Their advice must be heeded. Are they expected to just desert the people with dementia who have severe behavioural and psychological problems? When we have asked you about this issue, you and your government have avoided responsibility again and again. On 10 July, you said in this chamber: 'This was not a situation of my creation. This was a situation I inherited.' Well, that is not good enough—and that is not going down well with the sector.

The Abbott government needs to realise that the oversubscription to the supplement highlights the extent of the dementia crisis in Australia. It really is sad that the only response from Tony Abbott's team has been to blame providers—and blame Labor—and try to get political mileage out of the situation. Dementia is not a political football. People suffering from dementia are not political pawns. Aged-care providers are not the playthings of disinterested ministers. The response from Senator Fifield has inevitably been to recently announce new funding for dementia research and say that dementia is a priority. But that is not good enough. You cannot just give with one hand and take with the other. It is baldly hypocritical and shameless, to proudly announce funding for dementia research whilst leaving people who are actually suffering from dementia out in the cold. As the member for Blair has said, this funding announcement is just a smokescreen designed to distract everyone from the heartless decision to axe the supplement. I remind the government, and those in the chamber: there are aged-care workers out there on the front line, caring for people at risk of hurting themselves and others; caring for people who are lost; and caring for people who are confused—people who can no longer look after themselves. This workforce, just like the Labor Party and indeed everyone in this chamber, will welcome new investment in dementia research. But these people need assistance now. The aged-care sector desperately needs that little bit of extra help in caring for people with severe symptoms of dementia.

As I mentioned a moment ago, on Monday I was fortunate enough to join the Leader of the Opposition and the member for Blair in visiting the Kangara Waters aged-care facility in Belconnen. The visit coincided with the first day of September, which is National Dementia Awareness Month. We took some time to talk to the staff members who work at this facility, and to the people that they care for at this facility. We learnt that at Kangara Waters there are some 16 people who qualify under the Dementia and Severe Behaviours Supplement. Now the hardworking staff at this facility will no longer have the assistance of the supplement to provide those people with the extra care and attention that they require—and those 16 people are out of a pool of some 29,000 in residential aged care.

Dementia is not a challenge that is going to go away. Right now, 330,000 people live with dementia, and by the year 2050 that number will have risen to one million people. Our population is ageing and the pressures on the aged-care sector are only going to grow. In 2011, one in 10 Australians aged over 65 had dementia. This increases to three in 10 for those aged 85 and over. The numbers are stark, and the economic costs are considerable. Half of the permanent residents in Commonwealth-funded aged-care facilities have a diagnosis of dementia. The total direct, health and aged-care systems expenditure on people with dementia was at least $4.9 billion in 2009-10—

Senator Fifield interjecting


Senator POLLEY: I know you do not want to listen to the sector, Senator Fifield, so I do not expect you to listen to my contribution. But the stories that I have heard from aged care providers about the people with severe symptoms of dementia that they care for are disheartening, to say the least. One particular facility in Canberra has shared some of the most heartbreaking stories with me recently. The story of one man, who we will for today call Jack, was one of many that I found confronting and sad. Jack was a loving husband and father before dementia took hold, and not long after that he began displaying severe psychological and behavioural problems. He was no longer the person that his family, friends and loved ones remembered. After entering the residential facility he would harass the aged-care staff—slapping one across the face, putting his hand up the skirt of another—and abusing many people who came to see him. Sadly, those visits became fewer and fewer as his behaviour deteriorated. He just was not the same person anymore.

The PRESIDENT: Order! Senator Polley, the time for this debate has expired.

Senator POLLEY: As agreed earlier, I seek leave to incorporate the remainder of my speech in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The remainder of the speech read as follows—

He would refuse to shower; he began to look increasingly frail but was capable of acts of surprising strength. Like many people with severe symptoms of dementia, Jack needed extensive care and support from hardworking staff. Properly looking after people with severe symptoms of dementia is not something that we can shy away from, but that is clearly what this government is doing—it has been over two months since Senator Fifield announced the cessation of the supplement, and we still do not know what his plans are. The member for Blair and I stand ready for this government to act and to work with us to find a solution.