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Tuesday, 10 December 1974
Page: 3333

Senator WHEELDON (Western AustraliaMinister for Repatriation and Compensation) - If I may say so, without being in any way offensive to anyone, Senator Sheil I find a very puzzling figure. When one speaks to him outside the Senate he is a very amiable fellow indeed. But once he enters the Senate chamber he seems immediately to subscribe to a most extravagant conspiracy theory of history. He sees dangers lurking where none have otherwise perceived them. In fact he told us tonight in his own, I would say, inimitable phraseology that the fiery fangs of the Federal Government have brought the nation to its financial knees. What he is telling us in order to establish this point about the fiery fangs of the Federal Government bringing the nation to its financial knees is that the Federal Government has decided to pay quite substantial subsidies to religious and charitable nursing homes. In the past- I think this is where Senator Sheil 's conspiracy theory comes in- he has detected a conspiracy. In the past there have been the extreme left wing parties like the Australian Labor Party. Here he differs with Senator Hall who told us earlier that we were the most conservative and reactionary Party in Australia. Senator Sheil cannot go along with that; he can see only our fiery fangs. Senator Sheil is of the opinion that there is a sinister plot and that instead of deliberately setting out to persecute the religious and charitable organisations, we are much more subtle and sinister- that what we do is to pay substantial sums of money to religious and charitable institutions in order to conduct their nursing homes and this shows how much opposed we are to religious and charitable nursing homes. Apparently the way we should show our support of religious and charitable institutions would be to pay them no money at all. The less one gives them, on Senator Sheil 's doctrine, the more one shows one's sympathy for religious and charitable institutions.

I do not know whether he puts this view forward with regard to Government aid to private schools. Does he also argue that by giving state aid to church schools we are setting out to subvert the churches, because it would seem to me that if one is subverting religious and charitable institutions which conduct nursing homes by paying them these substantial sums of money, the same would apply to the schools which are conducted by religious and, if not charitable, then non-profit making organisations? However, that is what he tells us. He tells us also that we are interfering with the nursing homes industry. I must say that I was a little startled to hear, even from Senator Sheil, that the provision of nursing homes for sick and incapacitated people is an industry. I would have thought that this was a public service, and was recognised by all people as being a public service, and hardly an industry. I can only infer from this that Senator Sheil would have an ideological disagreement with religious and charitable institutions which do not conduct their nursing homes as an industry but conduct them not to make a profit. Apparently Senator Sheil would tell us that nursing homes should be an industry, a profit-making industry, and should be asking the maximum amount that the market will allow them to ask in order to extract as much as they can from the unfortunate people who have to live in them and from the relatives and friends of those unfortunate people who have to look after them.

We repudiate that proposition. We do not believe that nursing homes should be an industry. We believe that they are a social service which ought to be provided by the community to the people of Australia. We do not say that they ought to be provided solely by the State or solely by the Federal Government with or without fiery fangs. We say that if religious and charitable institutions are to provide those services to the sick, incapacitated and aged people of Australia they should be supported in doing so by the Federal Government and this is what we are proposing to do by the Bills which are before the Senate tonight.

It will be entirely open and entirely optional for the religious and charitable institutions to take the aid which is provided by the Bills. It is not in any way mandatory upon them to take it. It is entirely optional. If Senator Sheil is able to convince any religious or charitable institution that it should not offer competition to the private entrepreneurs in the nursing homes industry, that it should fear the fiery fangs of the Federal Government which has brought this country, as he puts it, to its financial knees and if he is able to convince it of these dire threats then it does not need to accept this assistance which is being offered to it by the Federal Government. It is entirely up to the institutions whether they take it or leave it. The Government does not believe that there are many religious and charitable institutions which would be so silly as to reject the assistance which is being offered to them by the Government.

With regard to the position of private nursing homes about which Senator Sheil is so agitated, I am informed that there has been a decline in the number of approved beds operated by private gain entrepreneurs over the past financial year. However, this decline has been covered by an increase in State and voluntary non-profit homes, the latter being the sort of homes which are being assisted by the Bill we are discussing, resulting in a net gain of some 1,100 nursing home beds throughout Australia in 1 973-74.

There are a number of factors involved in the decline of nursing home beds in the private sector of the nursing homes industry, as Senator Sheil would call it. In Queensland, the main reason has been the closing down of premises which have been the subject of adverse fire reports. In other cases, closure has largely been due to the dissatisfaction of individual proprietors with their profit margins- the growth of which has been limited by the controls imposed over the fees charged by the proprietors. I think that at this stage I should remind honourable senators that the supervision of fees was introduced, not by this Government, but by the previous Liberal-Country Party Government, in amendments to the National Health Act in 1972. We did not introduce these restrictions. They were introduced by the previous Federal Government which felt so embarrassed by the private nursing homes that they had to take some action to regulate their fees.

This Government, however, does recognise the role of the private gains sector in the nursing homes industry, in that it does provide care and accommodation for some sick aged people. The Government has no intention of forcing the closure of private profit nursing homes which are operating satisfactorily and which are fulfilling a need in the community by providing a good standard of nursing care and treatment for our aged people. We do not believe they are entitled- as they are in the industry for the purpose of making a profit- to the same sort of financial assistance that we are giving to religious and charitable institutions which are conducting nursing homes without any thought of private profit by way of service to the public.

Possibly it is in the spirit of Christmas, or maybe it is because of the fact that the title of the Bill- The Homeless Persons Assistance Billaroused some sympathetic spark in the breasts of honourable senators, that we are still here when everybody else has gone home. The Opposition spokesman on this matter, Senator Guilfoyle, agreed to the passage of the Bill and, in fact, supported it. Senator Guilfoyle did raise one small point and that was to the effect that it would be advantageous to provide for a percentage increase in the patient contribution rather than a flat rate fee. The view of the Government is that this would impose intolerable administrative burdens on the provision of these contributions. For that reason, as Senator Guilfoyle suggested herself, this provision has not been introduced. However, the Bill does provide for the patient contributions to be varied by regulations having regard to movements in the pension rates, which is very much the same sort of thing that Senator Guilfoyle was talking about without making provision for an actual percentage. The Opposition, I am told, is supporting these Bills. There seems to be some division in the Opposition as I take it that Senator Sheil is opposed to the Bills.

Senator Sheil - No. I am not opposing them.

Senator WHEELDON - I thought he was opposing them. When one hears the references of Senator Sheil to the fiery fangs of the Government, it sounds as though he is opposing the legislation. But I am told he is not opposing it. I can only say that if that is support, it is the strangest support of which I have heard. But we are prepared to welcome any support. I commend the Bills to the Senate.

Bill read a second time, and passed through its remaining stages without amendment or debate.

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