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Monday, 6 March 1989
Page: 487

Mr COWAN(9.16) —Australia can rightfully claim to be fairly well down the track so far as the care of our aged people is concerned. I think the Aged or Disabled Persons Homes Amendment Bill 1988, which we are discussing this evening, is just another step in what the Government sees as being needed to keep up with the advancement of aged care. As the honourable member for Berowra (Dr Harry Edwards) pointed out, we agree with the Bill in relation to which the honourable member for Dawson (Mr Braithwaite) has moved a second reading amendment. But I wish to point out certain factors relating to it that are of some concern to the Opposition. From listening to this debate, I believe that certain Government members also see problems in respect of the Bill.

We have to realise that taxpayers' money is being used for the care of certain people within our society. Today over five million Australians are drawing a pension of some kind-principally the age pension. Commonwealth and State governments have a commitment to contribute towards certain care. I do not think there is any great objection to this in principle, but there are certain things that we have to be careful about in this respect. Both governments and oppositions must realise that when taxpayers' money is being made available for the care of certain groups within the community, governments must keep some control. The legislation before the House is a typical example of a government on the one hand trying to keep control of taxpayers' money and on the other hand protecting certain people, such as the underprivileged, low income earners and other people in the community who need help. None of us object to this because we have hearts that are that way inclined. I am sure that the privileged in our community want to help those who are less fortunate. But we have to appreciate that the standards of care must be kept up, particularly so far as health is concerned. We have to make sure that what we are doing, with good intentions-and the legislation before us is an example of this-does not ultimately mean that somebody or some group within the community will be disadvantaged. I particularly refer to financially, physically or mentally disadvantaged people who want to be and should be in a nursing home or institution. These people should not be further disadvantaged.

People are living longer today. If there is one thing that aged people do not want, it is stress. They need health care. I am concerned that aged people from the metropolitan areas have turned up in my electorate office and have told me that they have worked for a lifetime just to put a bit of money aside so as they can care for themselves. But because of asset testing and the high costs of living today they are unable to live the lifestyle that they would like to in retirement or meet their demands for housing and health care. This is a tremendous stress upon many Australians.

One thing that members of this House, whether in government or in opposition, should seek to avoid is placing continual stress on aged people within the community. Each one of us will eventually reach the stage where this problem arises. Australia has the problem of inflation. It is not the only country in the world with that problem. In addition we have so many regulations that today one almost needs to be a bush lawyer to cope with the demands of the social security system, with its regulations and requirements dealing with aged care. One needs to have a legal mind or the assistance of somebody such as a member of Federal Parliament whom one can consult and ask, `What does all this mean?'. Even honourable members need expert assistance in understanding the requirements of the social security system. We are fortunate that officers of the Department are available to assist us to advise constituents about these matters.

Many aged persons are coming to my electorate to live, having retired from the metropolitan areas. They are attracted to the electorate because homes are cheaper, the geography of the area is good, the atmosphere is marvellous to live in. It is because of my experience with these people that I sound the warning to the Government that it is dealing with taxpayers' money. That is an important thing that should not be forgotten. In any legislation that comes before the Parliament there must be flexibility. We must consider the foundation of legislation that comes before us to see what its effect is going to be on the ordinary people of Australia. We must ensure that the legislation is flexible so that aged people can be cared for properly.

Let honourable members never forget that private enterprise has contributed immensely to aged care in Australia. The greatest contributions have been made by community groups and churches, organisations that over the years have displayed greater foresight than any government ever has. These organisations have raised the money for aged care establishments. I can point to people who contributed, beyond their means, sums of $2,000 and $3,000 and even up to $100,000 to support the establishment of a nursing home in their own community. I can cite the example at the moment in the Great Lakes Shire of people at Bulahdelah who have responded in relation to the 40 nursing home beds that were advertised as available within the shire. Within one week the people of that small township with a population of just over a thousand raised more than $300,000, with the support and backup of the surrounding rural community. These people, who have good hearts, said that they wanted a nursing home to accommodate aged people within their community-men and women who are not being cared for. They have said to the Government, `We will comply with your policy and we will put up the money'. They will put up double the fee, if need be, to provide their share of the cost of a 40-bed nursing home. They will equip the home and run it.

I remind the House that farming community groups grow the vegetables and fruit that are needed in the nursing homes. They come in with their baskets full and the ladies of the group cook cakes for the aged people. They are an example of the wonderful cooperation that this nation needs. I mention this matter because it is so important and the Government should never overlook it. These local citizens cook the cakes and grow the vegetables and fruit; they also provide butter and milk and other things to assist the local community nursing home or hostel and units. The important fact is that the people of the local community are part of the provision of aged care accommodation.

Never let us reach the stage in this country where we, as members of Parliament, do anything to take away any of that pride from these local people or discount in any way the generosity that they display in contributing to the atmosphere and environment of every individual within the aged care establishment. I am not dealing with the technicalities of the legislation, I am dealing with the principle of what people want. The average Australian citizen wants to care for his mother and father, his uncle or cousin, or the poor old person who lives next door or down the road. Those are the people we have to think about and that is why I speak again about flexibility. Like the honourable member for Page (Mr Ian Robinson), I visit the nursing homes in my electorate as often as I can. I do not know of one person in a nursing home in my electorate who should not be there. I do not know of one person who could genuinely be taken out of a nursing home in my electorate and put into a hostel. I do not think any of these people could care for themselves. They need a maximum of care. They need care 24 hours a day because they are ill and aged. They cannot get out of their beds for most of the time.

I cannot see the position that Government members talk about when they say that there are aged patients in nursing homes who could be in a hostel. Where does one draw the line within a hostel? At what stage does one bring in nursing? These are all matters that are categorised in the Bill that will have to be worked out as time goes on. At the moment two or three nursing homes are being constructed in my electorate. Already there are a dozen or more nursing homes and hostels within my electorate. As I said, from a geographical point of view the area is an ideal place to go to live. I have been involved with these establishments not for one year but for 35 or 40 years. I helped to start one in the days when people said, `There will be nobody to occupy the beds. Who are we going to get to occupy them?'. We started with 18 beds and such was the demand that three months after they were opened there were 70 people waiting for beds.

When it comes to categorising these people, I would not like to be a member of the assessment team. It will have great difficulty fitting in with the requirements of categorisation that the Government is placing within the legislation. I have not attended the seminars to hear these things spoken about. It may be that the method of categorisation has already been worked out very thoroughly, but the existing nursing homes and hostels want to know a lot more about categorisation and particularly about the reimbursements they are going to receive. It is important for the administrators of a nursing home or hostel to know these things.

Today there are many different designs of hostels and nursing homes. I give full credit to the Department of Housing and Aged Care for adopting and approving new types of designs. I mention the example of Harbourside Haven at Nelson Bay within my electorate, which accommodates almost 300 people in the units, the hostel and the nursing home. It is a marvellous place. The Department has recently approved another 40-bed hostels. The administrators would like to build another two- or three-storey building. What is the matter with that, so long as a lift is installed in the building? This is the sort of change that is coming into these establishments today. Clusters are also becoming a feature of nursing homes and hostels, which I think is a good idea. There are excellent designs. I pay tribute to the churches, the community groups and the lodges that over the years have gained tremendous experience in the design of these institutions for the convenience of the guests in them and the nurses and administrative staff who have to cope with the demands of the running of the establishment. It is important that we look at these designs to know in what direction we are going. The honourable member for Lowe (Dr Woods) made an important point when he spoke earlier about categorisation. We do not want the stage to be reached where an aged person, who has over a lifetime contributed to the well-being of the nation, will be categorised as one, two, three, four or five, and known as such. We do not want this. I hope it never happens to me.

Mr Braithwaite —It happens.

Mr COWAN —As the honourable member for Dawson said, it happens and he pointed this out when he led for the National Party in the debate. We do not want this to happen to any Australian, whether he or she be Aboriginal, poor person or the wealthiest person in Australia. I do not care who the person is; he or she should not be categorised. I ask the Government and the Minister for Housing and Aged Care (Mr Staples) in particular to be careful to see that this does not happen, for the sake of the people of Australia. We do not want to see such a situation arise.

What is wrong with a pensioner paying more than 87 1/2 per cent of his pension towards his nursing home accommodation? If the pensioner has some money set aside and wants to help with the running of the home, or assist in getting more nursing home or hostel beds, what is wrong with his being able to contribute more? The Government says that by 1990 nobody will pay more than 87.5 per cent of his pension towards the cost of accommodation in a nursing home. I know what it is directing its attention to; we all know about that. But what is wrong with a person who wants to contribute more, to assist the home or hostel, doing so if he wishes?

We all know-both the Opposition and the Government-that in aged care in Australia we have a tiger by the tail. We have a great responsibility in this area. We hope that the Government will be able to meet this responsibility. We hope, in the process, that future governments will give encouragement to community groups, churches, lodges and other private enterprise groups, to cater for this need. The provision of beds is important. We do not want to socialise this country and present the Government with a fast track method completely to take over and control these community groups.

The States will say that they have nursing home patients in hospital beds around the States. They are scattered here and there. We know that that is so. They have some responsibility to look after them, too. But the fact is that the planning that we do in the short and long term I am sure will be very good. We do not know whether there may be a hidden agenda. The honourable member for Dawson referred to this point. He knows what I mean. What is the hidden agenda? We hope that there is not one. We know that we are only at a certain stage with regard to aged care in Australia-and rightfully so, because we must be flexible. We have to adjust the situation as time goes by. We have to meet the extra demands that we will have.

I do not want to be parochial and I have not been since I was first elected to this place. As a Federal member of parliament I can say that the only money that we get directly for our electorates is for aged people accommodation and private schools-unless a community employment program grant is available around the corner.

Mr Ian Robinson —Or a road or two.

Mr COWAN —That is right; perhaps a road or two.

Mr Porter —We used to get that money.

Mr COWAN —We used to get it. I will look after my electorate in terms of aged care. I will fight any legislation that is considered by this House that I do not believe is in the interests of the 20 to 25 per cent of my total constituency who have retired in my electorate, in one of the best parts of Australia. Those people have had enough worry in regard to the assets test and many other matters. We do not want to see aged care become a problem.

I appeal to the Government to think of the matters that we have spoken about in this debate . I spoke earlier about the Nelson Bay Harbourside Haven. Legacy provided funding for three beds there. Those beds have been in place for a year or so, yet they are still empty as they have not been approved. I hope that the Minister will soon approve those three beds and make them available to people who need them. I spoke of Bulahdelah. I can talk about Taree, Tuncurry-Forster, Port Macquarie--

Mr Tim Fischer —Port Macquarie-Riverwood Village.

Mr COWAN —That is right; very good. Bushland Place now for Taree; Dungog, Stroud and Gloucester. All of those communities have gone out of their way to raise money. They have initiated it. Nobody has said to them, `You people should have this'. The communities have said this. They have sought the respect, support and cooperation of the churches, the masonic lodge or some other body. They are on the way to providing this accommodation. The ladies are cooking cakes and the farmers are growing fruit and vegetables, and providing milk. They are all involved in the fund raising.

Mr Ian Robinson —Milk and honey.

Mr COWAN —As the honourable member for Page said, they are providing the milk and honey. Is that not the atmosphere that we have to retain in Australia? This is the bread and butter stuff that the people of this country want. I am sure the honourable member for Parramatta (Mr John Brown) would agree with me on this point: the people want meat, too. They like fillet steak. I know my good friend will help the aged; I have no doubt about that. Those are just some of the comments I wish to make in relation to the legislation. I think they are very basic. If ever we get away from the basics of aged care, goodness help Australia.