1 August 2022

Second reading speech

Senator Payman, who also made her contribution earlier this afternoon about her personal experience as a member of the UWU, over in Western Australia, and placed on the record her experience in terms of the aged-care crisis that this country, sadly, has had to confront and, thankfully, now the Albanese government is taking seriously, to fix.

It’s no secret that aged care is in crisis and has been for the last decade, but over the past several years the terrible state of Australia’s aged-care system has been, sadly, a recurring headline. As we’ve heard, advocates, unions and the Labor Party, when we were in opposition, were, for a number of years, calling on the coalition government to take serious action to address the issues that the aged-care sector was facing. They were eventually dragged, kicking and screaming, to establish a royal commission into our aged-care industry. By the time we got to the federal election this year it had been well over a year since the royal commission had handed down its report. I would like to quote a particular aspect of that report for the benefit of the Senate and those who might be listening this evening. The commissioners said:

The extent of substandard care in Australia’s aged care system reflects both poor quality on the part of some aged care providers and fundamental systemic flaws with the way the Australian aged care system is designed and governed.

They went on to say:

People receiving aged care deserve better. The Australian community is entitled to expect better.

It’s important to pull out that recommendation from some of the commentary from the fine commissioners, because it does shine a light on the core issues we are facing now as a parliament. Thankfully, the Albanese government is prepared to roll up its sleeves and tackle the aged-care crisis head-on. We saw awful standards of treatment of those who needed so much from their government in desperate times in care. We saw examples, sadly, where maggots were in the wounds of residents. Two-thirds of residents were malnourished or at risk of being malnourished. This is absolutely shocking evidence that should have driven the previous government to take urgent action. But, no, what we saw was denial—heads in the sand, pretence that there was no crisis. Again, they were dragged, kicking and screaming, to finally set up a royal commission and take the issue seriously, but today, more than 16 months since the royal commission handed down its report, you would struggle to find an aged-care resident or worker who would say the situation had actually improved. Sadly, we have a lot of work to do. The government has no qualms about it; we will address the issues and address each of the recommendations that were put forward by the royal commissioners.

Sadly, those opposite, the conservative side of politics, were so resistant to a royal commission into aged care because they knew it would show a very ugly picture. Even without a royal commission, there were horror stories in the media every week. It was completely shameful that the coalition resisted calls for a royal commission because they knew it would be politically inconvenient, but that was always the approach that those opposite, the coalition, took. The crisis was never a call to action; it was a political inconvenience, and that was how the Liberals and Nationals treated the report that was handed down by the royal commission. There were maggots in wounds, there was malnourishment, and in 2020 11,000 people died while waiting for an aged-care package. This situation was laid out in front of the coalition and they failed.

So it’s great that those opposite expect to vote for this legislation today, but I think it’s important that we all remember how we got here—what it took to finally get real action to improve our aged-care sector. It took a change of government. A Labor government has brought forward this legislation, one of our first pieces of legislation. This bill, the Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment (Royal Commission Response) Bill 2022, responds to several of the recommendations from the royal commission into aged care. It makes a series of important changes that will improve the health, safety and wellbeing of older Australians. People have paid taxes all their lives, and all they expect is that if they’re ever put in a vulnerable situation the government will be on their side.

These changes that the Albanese government is proposing will, I believe, assist older Australians and their families. It’s not just about those who are in aged-care facilities. It’s also about trying to take some of the burden off those families who are helping their loved ones while they are in the care of our fantastic aged-care workers, who do an outstanding job and have done so in the last couple of years in particular, in the midst of COVID. I also want to give a shout-out to those who are looking after my aunt and uncle, who are currently in an aged-care facility. I know there are continuous outbreaks of COVID, and those workers do an outstanding job, particularly with what they’ve had to go through in my home state of Victoria. I can’t thank them enough for the great work that they do day in, day out.

The changes before the parliament that the Albanese government is proposing are introducing a new aged-care subsidy calculation; providing a legislative basis for the star rating system; introducing a code of conduct and banning order scheme; extending the Serious Incident Response Scheme to aged care delivered in home settings; strengthening the governance of approved providers, and I think that’s a very important area of concern that we saw play out over the last couple of years; enhancing information-sharing across related sectors; increasing financial and prudential oversight; broadening the functions of the renamed Independent Health and Aged Care Pricing Authority; and addressing the issues with the informed consent arrangements in respect of the use of restrictive practices in residential aged care.

I don’t propose to go into any greater detail. I just wanted to provide a very brief contribution today in the Senate. I know there have been others, as we heard earlier today, from those who have been very involved in this sector. I want to stress that it is important and good to see that colleagues on the other side of the chamber are looking at supporting the legislation that the government has put forward. These are very, very important changes and reforms, and many were recommended some time ago by the royal commission into aged care. But, now that we have a Labor government, I’m glad that we are finally getting on with the job of implementing these essential changes, and I hope that everyone in this chamber can support this necessary and urgent legislation, because, quite frankly, older Australians deserve so much better than the neglect and the abuse that they’ve experienced over many years.