Our aged care system

By Terri Butler MP

20 October 2021

I listened closely to the contribution from the previous speaker, the member for Moncrieff. I thought it was really odd that she started off by complaining that Labor are all doom and gloom. I think anyone who has been paying attention to the question of aged care, particularly in the context of the royal commission, over the past term of parliament would understand the serious challenges and the reasons why, in fact, Labor have been so concerned about aged care and why we have been so consistent in pressing the government to take real action.

The Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment (Royal Commission Response No. 2) Bill 2021, of course, arises from that royal commission. Like so many of the things that this government does, this bill seems to just fall short. That's the case with the government's actions generally and it's the case with the government's actions in relation to aged care. So I'd say to the member for Moncrieff: instead of trying to police the tone in which Labor is talking about aged care, perhaps take on board some of the criticisms—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms Claydon ): Sorry, Member for Griffith; I'm taking a point of order.

Mr Howarth: Thanks, Deputy Speaker. I'd just ask that the member address her comments through the chair, not to the member for Moncrieff.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: She's making them through the chair. It's fine. It's not a point of order, and I overrule you. Back to you, Member for Griffith.

Mr Howarth: She said 'the member for Moncrieff', Deputy Chair.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: She was using the member's proper title in the course of a debate.

Mr Howarth: She was speaking to her.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: No, she was using the member's title in the course of the debate. She is going through me. I am overruling you and I am giving the call back to the member for Griffith. Sorry for that interruption, Member for Griffith.

Ms BUTLER: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. So I would invite her, instead of trying to police the tone in which Labor talks about aged care, to really reflect on the substance of the serious issues that have been raised through the royal commission. I'm sure she remembers that the royal commission's interim report had a one-word title, and that word was 'neglect'.

We all know—everyone in this chamber is well aware—of the importance of aged care to our constituents, in our communities and in the course of our own lives. We also, I think, have all had experience with aged care. I'm certainly grateful to the people who took good care of my grandfather, who was in aged care until he passed away a few years ago. My uncle, who we lost only a couple of weeks ago, was in aged care in the Atherton Tablelands, and I say again to his immediate family how sorry I am for that loss. In my own case, my grandmother is presently in aged care in Far North Queensland. We're grateful to the carers.

I've met with so many aged-care workers, carers and nurses—the ones that my family has experienced—and I know how much the carers, nurses, other care staff and support staff in the facilities that are in my electorate and in the facilities all across this country really believe in what they're doing. They're doing this work because it's a vocation. They believe in the importance of caring for elderly Australians. They understand that the people who are in aged care are the people who really built the nation that we have today and who are really in need of good, appropriate, high-quality care. While we can all reflect on the importance of improvements in the aged-care system, of improvements in aged-care regulation and of developing proper responses to the recommendations of the aged-care royal commission, we should also make sure that we are acknowledging that the people working in this system are absolutely doing it because they care. Given some of the conditions, the workload and some of the remuneration conditions that people face, they wouldn't be there if they didn't absolutely believe in what they were doing and really have that vocation where they're drawn to care.

I say to all of the carers in our aged-care facilities, and particularly the ones in my electorate, thank you so much for the work that you are doing to look after people. I know that they've had a particularly tough time—they had a tough time during the royal commission and they had a tough time during COVID. I've spoken in the House before about one of the aged-care facilities in my electorate that was given a complete run-around in relation to the supply of vaccines for elderly residents. They were told there would be only a few, then it turned out there were about 45 vaccinations but they had about 90 residents, and then they had to work out who didn't get the chance to have the vaccination that day. It was absolute nonsense that occurred in relation to that facility, and I've covered it in the House before. But all across this electorate and across this country I know that aged-care facilities have had a really difficult time in relation to the vaccination rollout. Of course, it was one of Scott Morrison's two jobs, wasn't it? Scott Morrison as Prime Minister had two jobs—quarantine and the vaccine rollout—and he botched both. We certainly saw some of the consequences of that in aged-care facilities in my electorate, and even more strongly and upsettingly in aged-care facilities elsewhere.

It's important that we acknowledge that it has been a difficult time in relation to aged care. It's one of the reasons we so strongly support any action to fix the aged-care system, but it's also why we're concerned that this bill seems to fall short. As is so often the case with the Morrison government, they make big announcements but then they don't deliver. In this case, the situation is one where they have basically fobbed off, delayed or in some cases just outright rejected some of the key recommendations from the aged-care royal commission. Of the 148 recommendations, over half are not being implemented or aren't being implemented properly.

This bill is no different, with a number of items missing that came from the original royal commission recommendations it claims to be addressing. It's also really worrying that older Australians, aged-care peak bodies, providers, workers and unions were not consulted in the drafting of the bill that we're talking about today, despite the impacts that it will have on them in the sector. Residential aged-care funding, workforce screening, provider governance, banning orders and the code of conduct are not small changes and they need proper consultation.

It's Seniors Month this month, and I'm looking forward to holding a roundtable of stakeholders this coming Friday to talk about issues facing seniors. I expect that issue No. 1 will be aged care and the implementation of the recommendations from the aged-care royal commission.

I'm really looking forward to meeting with providers, with stakeholder groups, with senior citizens organisations and with representatives of other seniors groups in my electorate to get their views in relation to the aged-care royal commission, the way that it's been responded to and some of the moves that are included in this bill. I'm looking forward to doing my own consultation, but, of course, we're not the government. It's up to the government to consult on their proposed legislation, and there ought to have been significant consultation in relation to the drafting of this bill. It's disappointing that that has not been the case.

In my state, some of the best knowledge and experience in relation to aged care and the aged-care system—I'm sure this is true across the country—comes from the workforce who are at the front line of aged-care facilities, the people who, day in and day out, are managing the workload, are managing the demands, are dealing with people who are sometimes in distress or at least are vulnerable. Some of the best expertise and history comes from the people in that situation. In particular, when it comes to consultation, I have found it very valuable to meet with some of those frontline workers through the agency of the representative organisations—the union movement—whether that's people who are members of the United Workers Union, the Queensland Nurses and Midwives Union or others. There are a range of organisations that have membership amongst people who are working in those frontline occupations and caring for older Australians. I want to give a shout-out to those unions and to say to them, 'Thank you for the work that you are doing.'

I have been fortunate to have had delegations from unions—and there are others in aged care, of course—across many years, visiting me to talk to me about the issues that they face in those sectors. I have also been very fortunate to do some work for some of those unions in my previous life as a lawyer. I know, Deputy Speaker Wallace, you were a barrister. You did a lot in the construction sector. I did some work in the construction sector as well, but I will always have a very special place in my heart for the legal work I did for members of those unions who were working in aged-care facilities and who could tell me, through the prism of what was happening in their lives, the direct impact of some of those systemic issues such as workload. I remember talking to someone who was saying to me, 'The facility is physically too big for the limited number of staff we have to get around to make sure'—she was talking about nursing—'there is sufficient support for those residents.'

I know that, as I said, the people we're talking to through the agency of their representative organisations and are doing this from a sense of vocation, from a sense of duty and from a sense of responsibility to their community. I want to acknowledge the work those unions are doing. It is the same with the national unions. We've certainly held briefings with union members in parliament. In fact, I think people might remember—I do because I started crying during it—the member for Grayndler's budget reply speech, in which he talked about aged care and aged-care workers. I remember looking up in the gallery, and there was a delegation of aged-care workers, and they were crying. I started crying. I'm sure there were lots of other tears in the House as well, because that's the level of emotion wrapped up in this question of what should be done to improve the aged-care facilities and system in this country. It's the level of emotion because a lot of the workers will tell you they feel like they're at breaking point. They feel like they need to know that they'll have a government that will actually make sure that the residents in their care—the people who we're all actually focused on—get the best possible care and a reasonable level of care. That's really something that I think we should all be able to agree on.

Those workers know that the residents in aged care rightly expect that the government will look after them when they're frail, when they're vulnerable in those later years. It's obvious that after eight long years of Liberal-National government in this country, you can't trust the Liberals and Nationals to fix the aged-care system and you can't trust them to deliver good-quality aged care in this country. We all need to see a government that will stand up for older Australians—that will make sure that we have a good, high-quality aged-care system and that people who are vulnerable, particularly, have their interests protected. That's why this bill is really important.

I really want to encourage everyone to take a close look at how the Morrison government is responding to the aged-care royal commission. As I said, I've got a number of concerns about the fact that the government is, yet again, falling short when it comes to the implementation of the recommendations. Some are being kicked off, some are being delayed and some are just being outright denied. We actually want to see a strong, sensible and considered approach to aged-care reform, as needed. Most importantly, I think we all want to see an aged-care system that puts residents, older Australians, at the heart of the system—one that's about care, protection and actually making sure that people have dignity towards the end of their lives. That's what I want to see.

I really encourage the government to engage with the community, to speak with stakeholders and to consult further in relation to their response to the aged-care royal commission, and I'll really be looking forward to meeting with local stakeholders when I hold a roundtable at the end of this week in relation to issues facing seniors and older Australians, including aged care.