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Thursday, 24 June 2021
Page: 8


Senator MARIELLE SMITH (South Australia) (10:16): I rise to speak on the Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment (Royal Commission Response No. 1) Bill 2021. This bill is in response to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, which handed down its final report in March this year. While Labor supports this bill, it has to be said that the government's broader response to the royal commission has been inadequate. I want to use this opportunity today to speak to that.

The Liberals have failed to provide an adequate and sufficient plan to provide the reform to the aged-care sector that we know we need. They've failed to listen to Australians in aged care and their families and to the workers in our aged-care sector. They are not stepping up to deliver all of the enduring improvements we know are necessary to ensure that all Australians live out their later years with the dignity that they deserve. Let us be clear: aged care is a responsibility of the federal government. This makes aged care Prime Minister Morrison's responsibility. The Prime Minister, as we've seen time and time again, likes to shirk his responsibilities. There's always someone else to blame. It's always someone else's problem. But on aged care he cannot shirk his responsibilities. The job of regulating aged care and the providers within it falls squarely on the shoulders of our federal government.

For eight long years the federal government has presided over a system that the commissioners evidently felt, in handing down their interim report, could be summarised in just one word: neglect. The royal commission heard absolute horror stories of the treatment of older Australians, of black and blue bruises from falls ignored or dismissed, and of the abuse of chemical and physical restraints. We heard that an appalling two-thirds of aged-care residents were malnourished or at risk of being malnourished. That's two-thirds of our elderly fellow citizens in residential care not getting enough to eat. We heard of people being fed on just $6 a day. It's absolutely grotesque. In the last two years alone, of 100,000 people, we've had 28,000 Australians die while waiting for home-care packages which would allow them to enjoy some independence while they remain well enough.

We owe so much more to older Australians. In many ways, they built the society that we share now. Everyone knows someone in aged care, has a loved one in aged care or expects to have a loved one in aged care at some point. All of our elderly—everyone, every Australian—in aged care deserves so much better than what this government has presided over.

While Labor supports this bill, it has to be said that the government's broader response to the royal commission has not been good enough. Through the term of this government they've received 22 reports about the state of aged care. Now they are ignoring or failing to fully accept key recommendations of their royal commission. The government's failure is particularly pronounced when it comes to workforce issues in our aged-care sector. They have ignored, delayed or outright rejected key recommendations designed to address the poor wages, conditions and job security of workers in this sector.

Labor knows the vast majority of aged-care workers are dedicated individuals who go that extra mile to do what they can with already stretched time and resources to care for people's loved ones. I know many of them suffer immense distress when they're not able to provide the level and standard of care they know residents deserve, because they are not being supported to do so. These workers are truly essential to our society and to our economy, and how incredibly important and essential that their work is has been on full display these past couple of years. But you would never know that from the way that they've been treated by this government and the way their needs as a workforce have been ignored. The government has failed to implement the commission's recommendation of minimum standards for the amount of time qualified staff spend each day with residents, and the Prime Minister needs to explain why he has failed to accept this recommendation and also the recommendation that a nurse be on premises at all times in residential facilities.

Labor has been consistent in arguing that nothing will change in aged care without better support for the workforce. The Productivity Commission estimates Australia will need 700,000 additional aged-care workers by 2050 due to our ageing population. It can and should be an opportunity for well-paid, secure and profoundly meaningful work for hundreds of thousands of Australians, yet the government has no plan to increase wages of nurses and carers. Can they name just one meaningful thing they've done to provide genuine and meaningful support to workers in this industry or to make it an attractive industry—one that matches the level of importance to our society that it deserves? It is for these reasons, amongst others, that Labor is moving a second reading amendment to the bill, calling out the government's broader failures in aged care, and I hope it enjoys the support of this chamber. After eight long years of neglect of our aged-care system and our older Australians, it is only Labor who can be trusted to design and implement the real reforms necessary to ensure every Australian gets to age with dignity, comfort and respect, unlike this government, who has taken a bare-minimum approach rather than implemented the deep structural reform required to fix residential aged care.

Before I conclude my remarks, I want to take the opportunity to acknowledge the incredible aged-care workers in my home state of South Australia, some of whom I was lucky enough to meet when they came on a parliamentary delegation recently. They were in all sorts of roles, not only caring for residents but also working in more behind-the-scenes roles in our aged-care facilities: working as cooks and attendants, supporting our elderly in need. These workers had harrowing stories for me of the things they wanted to be able to do and the support they wanted to be able to provide to the residents in their care, but they felt so under supported and undervalued.

Particularly during this pandemic, where their work has become incredibly dangerous, they've feared what might happen if they contract COVID and pass it on to residents within their care. They've been very distressed about that reality, and they're very distressed about failures in the vaccine rollout, failures that mean that they're not protected at work, that they're not able to provide the protection for the residents they care for and that the residents they care for aren't protected to the extent that they should be. It's very distressing for these workers. I just want to acknowledge them and acknowledge the incredible work they're doing. They're waiting for more support from the federal government. They're waiting to be heard and to be given the reforms in their sector which mean they can go into work each and every day and provide that care and assistance to those that they look after. Labor supports those workers. We're listening to them. We understand how very, very tough it has been. We will continue to raise these issues in this chamber to make sure that aged-care workers' voices are heard and to make sure that residents in aged care are heard and supported. It's just not good enough to let these workers and these residents be ignored.

The royal commission's findings were absolutely harrowing. I know everyone in this chamber found them deeply distressing and disturbing. So now, as legislators, it's our opportunity to act to get it right, to look at the recommendations and to not do the bare minimum to just get by but to do everything we need to do to ensure that we are doing the absolute maximum to support our workforce and those living within aged care.

In conclusion, Labor will be supporting this bill. We are supporting this bill because it goes some of the way towards fixing serious problems within our aged-care system. But we do not stand here pretending it fixes everything. We think it does the bare minimum that it needs to do, and that's simply not good enough. It's simply not good enough for workers in residential aged care; it's simply not good enough for residents, who need genuine and meaningful reform. But, that said, we will support it. We need some action. We will be moving amendments to try and get this right, to get it done better.