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Monday, 5 March 2001
Page: 25008

Ms ELLIS (4:30 PM) —Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2000-2001 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2000-2001 include additional funding in areas such as defence, health and aged care, immigration and the ABC, amongst others. Today I would like to address some issues of concern to me and my constituents, starting with the area of aged care. I understand that part of the appropriation relates to the support of healthy ageing for older Australians, and quality and cost-effective care for frail older people and support for their carers.

I refer to an article in the Canberra Times of last year announcing 126 new places for the ACT. That announcement was made by the Minister for Aged Care, which was Mrs Bronwyn Bishop at the time. The article appeared just after the budget. It spoke in fairly glowing terms of the fact that the ACT was going to receive more than 100 new aged care places, with 126 new places in all. The ACT community got a bit excited about this because the reality is that, even though we have what people would regard as a relatively young community here in age terms, we do have a growing proportion of older folk. It is becoming increasingly difficult for people requiring assistance in their ageing years to gain that assistance when it is required, so I was particularly pleased when I saw that article.

Then, in January this year, there was a further announcement by Minister Bishop. At first I thought that was an additional grant of places, as did many others. In actual fact, it was announcing the decision on how those 126 new places would be allocated. So our second attack of excitement at getting new places abated somewhat when we realised that it was referring to the previous announcement. However, from that announcement we learnt that the ACT had received 78 new residential aged care places and 48 community aged care places, or CAPs packages as they are commonly known.

Again, this may sound terrific for the local community—and on the surface it is something you would never knock back and would welcome warmly—however, I again refer to the fact that, despite these announcements, I am constantly confronted by folk in the community who have enormous concerns about how they can possibly cater for the needs of their older relatives when that need arises. One comment that has constantly been made to me—and I think it is a reasonable one—is that the ACT community is a little different from other communities around Australia in the sense that most of us have come from elsewhere. It is always a joy to meet someone who was actually born in the ACT because they are in the minority.

That leads to many questions. Many people come here having left their families in other parts of this country to set up their families and work in the ACT. That was more the case a few years ago than it is now, but it still occurs. So there is an influx of older folk needing help when they get to the point where they need to join their younger family members. In other words, they migrate into the ACT at a time when they need to be near their families. I am one of them, as my mother migrated, for want of a better term, from another part of the country when she needed to be near younger members of her family when she needed special care.

The question is whether or not that itinerancy or migration is included in the formula that is required to be worked out for the allocation of aged care places. My understanding is that, when you look at per capita head of population, there is no consideration in the formula for exactly how many places there need to be. One thing we have to start to address immediately is the need to recognise the additional numbers of folk who come to Canberra from elsewhere, including the immediate region, to receive aged care accommodation or aged care assistance.

The situation here is far from satisfactory and probably reflects the situation in many other parts of the country. The demand for those CAPS packages is extremely high compared to the number available. The CAPS package process is probably a good one; it offers people an alternative to going into an aged care facility. It means that if they are able to, their circumstances suit and they wish to do so, they can live in the hope of getting assistance at home and staying in their own home for longer than would normally be the case.

However, it is only good if you can get it. My constituents tell me that a number of people, after having waited for allocation of a CAPS package, pass away. More unfortunately, a great number of them have progressed to a point where, by the time it is available, the CAPS package is of no use to them—they have reached a point where their needs are much greater. In many cases, they then go through the process of attempting to find a bed in an aged care facility. It becomes a whole new ball game.

The hostel-level type need—to use the old terminology—is putting pressure on our lists. It is pretty heavy, but it is not as bad as the nursing home or higher level of need where, again, there is a very high level of demand in comparison to the number of places available. I am thinking of the number of families who walk through my door, pleading with me to do something to help them get a place for their elderly relative quicker than they can.

I want to thank the government for their 126 places—78 of them are beds and 48 are CAPS packages. We would never turn one of them down. But I really want the government to think very carefully about where their process in aged care has now got them. There has been an enormous withdrawal of funds, in historical terms since 1996, and the demand is now very great. I have a case on my hands right now of a 92-year-old and an 89-year-old who have been married for 62 years. The husband is in hospital and the hospital desperately wants to get rid of him. He has to get into aged care accommodation. The hospital is counting the dollars, his family is feeling pressured and the CAP team are doing their best to try to find him a place. In the meantime, his wife of 62 years, who is virtually blind and deaf, is under the care of her family. They are trying so hard to look after her, care for him in the hospital and find him a place. It is all too hard.

This is a time when families do not need this pressure; this is when a place ought to be available. I am not saying that naively— I understand how difficult it will be to balance supply when it is required with the stream of that supply through a period of time. I understand all of that. But government, whoever they are, must understand the other end of the process, that is, that waiting lists mean nothing. You can have your name on it forever, but what really matters is that as soon as there is a need for a bed, a facility or the CAPS package it is met. It is not needed in three or six months time. It is a difficult process, but we should be clever enough to do it much better than we are currently doing it.

The strain on the family and friends of these people—let alone them—is huge. If we ever want to make old people feel rough about themselves and feel that they are becoming a burden, this is a wonderful way of doing it. They know that they are also making it difficult for their families. It is not intended, but it is very easy for them to see it that way. We have got to do something as a matter of urgency to try to ease the burden on these people and their families.

In finishing this particular part of my talk today, I point out that the strain on the staff and the facilities in these places is also pretty huge. I know from my own experience that when you deal with these folk they are terrific. They do everything they can to help the families concerned but at the end of the day they have to deal with the realities in which they find themselves as well.

Another area that these appropriation bills cover is the lawful and orderly entry and stay of people—in other words, an area of the immigration department. I have to say again, and it is an understatement, that I am a little bit disappointed with the way the government tends to sometimes categorise folk. I would like to refer quickly to two or three immigration cases today that are outstanding. They stand out so strongly to me that it is very easy to disbelieve that they have actually occurred. Yet, because the people concerned happen to come from a part of the world where the government processes would like to think that they have a high risk of overstaying, the circumstances become secondary; the circumstances in fact almost do not matter. What matters is that for some reason the government believes that this part of the world is high risk. `No, no, no,' is what we are going to say to these people.

Circumstances sometimes really require better attention than that. For instance, there was a family that I was dealing with 18 months or more back. It needs to be talked about. It concerns a husband, a wife, and three children—seven, three and two years of age. The problem was that the father of the family had kidney failure. The mother of the family very luckily was able and willing to donate one of her kidneys. That meant that he would have a prolonged period in hospital but she would possibly have a longer one, at least in the immediate recovery phase. I understand that removing a kidney is almost as rough as getting one. This family was going to be in fairly straitened circumstances. There were two relatives from their home country who desperately wanted, at the request of the family, to come out and help them through this period. The three children all spoke their native language, and only the eldest, at seven, was learning English. They had a cultural problem. We tried to find foster care for them but foster care was going to be nigh on impossible because of the language requirements, the period of time required and the fact that we wanted to try and place these three little people together. That was tried. In the end, we had evidence from social workers, medical people and everybody you could possibly name. I found myself in this amazing position of writing a letter to an immigration official.

The gentleman had come to Australia as an ordinary migrant 10 years earlier. He had become a citizen in 1993. He was employed here at one of our institutions in Canberra and his wife had arrived three years ago. She and the three children were also citizens. The relatives were applying to come to care for them. They had never applied to come here before. Their sole reason was to care for the brother and his family in this situation. They were going to leave their families and children at home. But we kept getting no for an answer. I wrote this letter and found myself saying, `I therefore earnestly beg you.' The minister said at the time—I heard indirectly, not directly from the minister—that there was an approach where members of parliament can give a personal guarantee of some kind. I find that an affront because I do not think that it is my job to do that; my job is to present the circumstances and hopefully have a minister who hears them fairly. I have to say that in the end, the minister, after I personally approached him in the chamber, allowed one of the relatives to come. But it took us months. The family were in terrible stress, and the medical authorities attached to this case still shake their heads when I see them, not being able to believe what had happened in an attempt to try and get some compassionate view of the family.

The other case I want to mention is that of a gentleman and his family here. He was an only child and he had aged parents. They applied and were approved in the aged parent category. But there was a cap on how many people can come in that category per year. We attempted to find out, even roughly, where they were on the list. Were they going to wait one year or five years? We asked the reasonable question, `In their circumstances, how long does their medical and other check last before they have to go through them again?' A lot of emphasis has been placed on making sure these people are relatively healthy—for want of a better term. We could not get answers to any of those questions and, while we were fighting to get them over many months, one of the parents died.

It is distressing, as a member of parliament, to be made to feel pretty impotent when you go out to the shops on a Saturday morning and run into this poor gentleman, who says, `Don't worry, Ms Ellis, mum is dead; and dad is thinking about it now.' I thought, `Well, they came from the wrong part of the world, where figures were more important than people.' The minister can boast of achieving high levels of financial benefit from migrants and so on but, at the end of the day, what does any of that really matter if the families that are already here and who are making a really good contribution to this country are treated in the way that they are? It is rough that they have that feeling put upon them.

I am currently involved in a debate over another case with a different family. One of their three children has a very debilitating and probably terminal illness, and they have cultural reasons for wanting one of their family members to come and help deal with the child's needs. This little one is in a special wheelchair and she cannot communicate. Because we have been knocked back so many times, we are now walking the family through the Migration Review Tribunal process, at great cost to them, but they feel that they have no option but to pursue that track.

Appropriations are made, money is spent and consideration is given to these policies—members on the other side of the political spectrum can have different views to me and I am quite happy about that—but when are we going to resume some form of humanity and start to look at people in terms of who and what they are, rather than as numbers and figures and at where they have come from, and putting them all in the one box so as not to worry about it.

This last point I make is in relation to the ABC. What a sorry tale this has been. These bills also cover some funding to the ABC, I understand, and it is appropriate that we talk about it quickly. We have sold off the Radio Australia transmitter and we have closed the science unit—or it is under threat.

Government members interjecting—

Ms ELLIS —I object to being called a liar, but I will keep going. We have a whole heap of new executives costing goodness knows what, a CEO who declares his belief in the ABC and its charter; yet I do not know what he is talking about because he has failed to convince me, let alone anybody else, that he intends to do anything other than continue down the path he is going down.

I was very grateful to receive a publication recently from the ABC which outlined their production and broadcast programs for the year. I looked at that with great interest because unfortunately, while some of the programs that are coming up are terribly exciting, the Australian produced content is not in the majority. That is a bit sad. I confess that I do not mind some of the old BBC shows, as I think they are quite funny, but the problem is that that is what they are: old. When we think about the creative thought behind the purchase of the British youth music show, Top of the Pops, which I understand is the substitute for the award winning, and now discontinued, Australian programs such as Recovery and the 10.30 Slot—both of which promoted new and emerging Australian musicians—we really have to think pretty seriously about what is happening to the ABC, and to the artistic and cultural development in this country. I think also of those people who got a start in their careers and therefore enriched our lives through any connection, distinct or close, with the ABC.

When, along with 8,000 to 10,000 other Canberrans, I participated in a demonstration a few weeks ago in Canberra the feeling was unbelievably strong. Without any risk of misrepresenting the community at that march, right across the spectrum, as far as you could see, the community was there: from grandparents to little people, from blue-collar workers to professionals. They feel very strongly about children's programs, science programs, drama, the production of music and the promotion of young musicians, and of the arts and culture generally, let alone community affairs, news and sport. We own such a rich asset in the ABC and we need to do more to make sure that we stop absolutely any more denigration of it and that we work to promote it. If it was not for the ABC, many years ago my dad would not have sat up until four or five in the morning listening to Bradman from Britain—just to give it a current thing—and I think that we need to remember that and preserve it all as much as we possibly can.