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Tuesday, 7 March 2000
Page: 14033

Mr SWAN (3:47 PM) —In the House today the Minister for Aged Care not only demonstrated that she is incompetent; the thing that she demonstrated for the first time today from her own mouth is that she is grossly negligent. She admitted today—

Mr Reith —Mr Speaker, I raise a point of order. I understood that this was a matter of public importance. If they want to move a censure motion, let them move it. There are forms of the House. But if he wants to make those sorts of claims he should put them in a substantive motion.

Mr SPEAKER —The Leader of the House makes a point about the standard of language in debate. I do not know that what the member for Lilley had uttered was of itself censure material, but I do ask him to exercise some more restraint.

Mr SWAN —There could be no more important task for an opposition than to make the government accountable for the care of the elderly and the most vulnerable in our community. Today in this House the minister walked in and said, `I get regular reports about what is going on at Riverside and Alchera Park and the 29-plus other nursing homes in this country where people are getting Third World treatment.' So it is very important that this opposition keeps this minister accountable for what has not been going on. We know there have been 4,000 complaints—4,000 complaints, Minister—through 1998 and 1999, and not one spot check until the story about kerosene baths at Riverside was blown in the media. Then suddenly in over 24 months we get the first spot check. What we get here is a very great insight into the approach of the Howard-Bishop government when it comes to regulation: the Howard-Bishop government does not believe in it. The minister's policy when it comes to spot checks would be the equivalent of the police commissioner announcing tomorrow that breathalysers will only be placed on a stretch of road if a newspaper writes about it. If a newspaper writes about speeding traffic on a road or drunk drivers, there will be a spot breathalyser out there; but when it comes to the care of our elderly, not one spot check. There have been 4,000 complaints and the first spot check comes in Riverside some time after—in fact, many days after—complaints have surfaced in the minister's office, and months and months after the first report on Riverside was done.

This is all pretty sad, because we have just had the International Year of the Older Person. We had the TV ads. They are still running because the minister could not get them to air last year. They only went to air at Christmas, because she is so incompetent. They are still running. What do they say? That the Australian people and this government value older Australians. Simultaneously on the news when those ads are running we have got children and grandchildren watching shocked and disbelieving as they see the pictures of elderly residents and their families at the Riverside home—a truly shocking and sickening experience for Australians. What is the source of all this distress? Of course, it is the funding cuts of the Howard-Bishop government and it is the deregulation of aged care by the Howard-Bishop government. That is the grim reality of the Howard-Bishop social coalition.

For many Australians, retirement was always meant to be a reward, but what it has become for some Australians is a nightmare—not for all elderly Australians in nursing home care but for those Australians in nursing home care where there are unscrupulous providers or incompetent providers. There is no regulatory framework in place to catch them out when people are not being treated properly. That is an indictment of the government. It is the logical conclusion of all of the government's policies over the last four or five years: the removal of capital funding from nursing homes, the requirement of older Australians to sell their home just to get the basic equivalent of health care, and the final indignity of the Riverside incident. What that demonstrates is that all those quality controls that protect the elderly, that give them dignity in their old age, have simply been ripped away. That is what we see. But what is below the surface? We know there are at least 29 other homes, Minister. How many of those have you received reports on? There are something like 3,000 nursing homes in Australia. How many more reports have passed your desk?

What we know from Riverside is, even if they have been on your desk, you have not taken any notice because they have not come to light in the media. When Riverside was brought to your attention, you took 49 days to actually go down there, culminating in the events of yesterday. The first report that you would have received about Riverside goes back to July last year.

Minister, you have been in power in this portfolio for 297 days and two-thirds of the time that you have been minister and responsible for aged care, you have been sitting on the problems at Riverside because they were brought to your attention in July last year—that is what you admitted today. So for two-thirds of the time that you have been minister you have been aware of what is going on at Riverside. It has taken 50 days for what has been occurring at Riverside to culminate in the events of yesterday. But the truth is, if you had been attentive to your task, if you had been caring for the needs of those older people, if you had read those reports in July, if there had been spot checks at a regular interval, if there had been some action from you, there would have been no need for people to be removed from Riverside, none whatsoever.

Therefore, you have been grossly negligent in your approach because you simply ignored those reports. You were more concerned with playing the A list. How frequently do you see pictures of the minister in the social pages, in Sydney or Melbourne, at the opera? How frequently do you see pictures of her in nursing homes and how often did she visit Riverside? One of the complaints at Riverside is that the minister has not been anywhere near that facility. That is what people really resent. They resent being used by you in some political game to defend yourself against the charge that you have been not only incompetent but also completely negligent.

When you came into this House on 31 August last year, you said to everyone that there were regular spot checks. Yesterday we had the farce of question after question where the word `zero' could not pass your lips. We kept asking you in a variety of different ways: how many spot checks have taken place across the 3,000 nursing homes in this country? Given that you had said you believed in them, given that you had said that they were a worthy tool, given that you boasted about how tough your regulatory framework was, we asked you: how many spot checks have there been? The word `zero' could not pass your lips and that is what condemns you to the charge of incompetence.

What condemns you to the charge of negligence is that you have now told us today that you were reading the reports and still you did not have the spot checks in place. That is a very serious dereliction of duties for which you should resign. But, given that you are such an integral part of the Howard-Bishop government, we will not be holding our breath. We will not be waiting for that, but sooner or later the elderly citizens of this country and their relatives and friends will demand your resignation, and it will surely come. If the reward that people who are living in some of these facilities get for a lifetime of hard work for this country is a shower every three days or a kerosene bath, then we have really come to the depths of despair when it comes to social policy and John Howard's social coalition.

It is simply not good enough for you to say that there does not need to be a regulatory framework. It is simply not good enough for you to ignore the evidence which has been presented to you not only privately but publicly. I would like to quote briefly from the Elite Care report which you talked about in question time today—the one you forgot about, which was given to you some months ago. This is what the Elite Care report says:

Short cuts to save money for proprietors, with no regard for safety of the public, or the law. The ever increasing trend to cut Registered Nurses out of Geriatrics in favour of unqualified people off the street, yet charging the Government, through the RCS, for `Nursing Hours' and `Nursing Work' ... The problem with the ever increasing number of `Retirement Villages' and `Hostels' with no Registered Nurse in the management seat and worse still not even one on the site, is fast becoming a legal issue. The use of any person off the street, with no Nursing or Medical background, to manage and supervise these establishments, is common.

Minister, that evidence is typical of what any member of parliament in this House could tell you from simply moving around the facilities in their electorates. Everyone who has a nursing home in their electorate is aware that many of the providers—who are as generous as they can possibly be, who work as hard as they can possibly work, who have staff who work their fingers to the bone, who have volunteers who make up the difference—know that it is getting harder and harder to provide the quality of care and they sheet that back to funding, as indeed do the members of your own backbench.

When the 24 Liberal and National Party members from Queensland in the last parliament came into this House and voted for your aged care proposals, the proposals of the previous minister, they put their own political futures first and the elderly of Australia last. If members behind you are serious in some of the public statements they are making, they will come into this parliament and join us on this side of the House in supporting this motion. If the member for Groom is serious that what is occurring at Riverside is in fact occurring at institutions or facilities within his electorate, he will put the elderly of Groom first and come and join us on this side in this motion.

What is occurring with the deregulation of the nursing home industry, the cuts to capital fundings and the arrangements for the sale of the family homes basically means that those in the Liberal and National parties are quite prepared to put the elderly last and their political futures in the Liberal and National parties first. And that is something that is going to be explained to people right across this country in the next 18 months, because we desperately need some form of accountability to keep this government honest. Accountability is really only going to come at the next election. We are firmly committed to a regulatory framework which ensures that there is accountability and that the standard of care is provided. Everybody in the industry knows that when you changed the regulatory framework there was no longer any necessity to spend the moneys that were given on the care of the residents. All of that was simply abolished. So we now get to this ridiculous position where you have nursing homes of 60-odd people and possibly one registered nurse in the facility. The Nurses Federation has been talking about it; parents, children, grandchildren of the people in facilities around this country have been talking about it. You have put in place a system of regulation which basically means a problem cannot be exposed unless it turns up in the media. That is the reason why we are not having any spot checks. We are not having any spot checks because it would show the failure of the complete aged care system put together by the Howard-Bishop government over the last four-and-a-bit years.

When the Prime Minister gave his interviews on the weekend, talking about the glorious achievements of the Howard-Anderson-Bishop government, aged care was not mentioned, and we can certainly see why. With aged care, you get a spotlight on something that has occurred in a whole variety of areas in social policy. What has occurred in child care is occurring in aged care—funding cuts. It is occurring across the social security system—the wholesale withdrawal of government from the process, leaving it to the market. What happens is that the most vulnerable in the community suffer as a result of that withdrawal. We need a minister in this government who is committed to a form of regulation which protects the quality of care for the most vulnerable elderly Australians, not one that simply wants to design a system so that the faults cannot be seen by the community. You should be condemned and resign. (Time expired)

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl)—Before I call the next speaker in this discussion, I want to say to the member for Lilley that I deliberately did not interrupt him but he was out of order for almost the complete duration of his speech. `You' is a four-letter word and you must address people through the chair. I bring that to the attention of all members.