21 June 2021
One hundred and twelve days after the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety report was handed down this is the first—and small—step that we have seen from the Morrison government towards fixing our broken private aged-care system. The Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment (Royal Commission Response No. 1) Bill 2021 implements an urgent recommendation made by the royal commission to prevent the use of restraints and restrictive practices in aged care except for in the most extreme cases and only as a last resort. But you wouldn't know that this recommendation and its implementation were urgent based on how the Morrison government has prioritised it. Since this bill was first tabled on 27 May, it has been pushed back seven times. This bill has sat there collecting dust while older Australians continue to be abused and neglected every single day in our private aged-care system. What could be more urgent than protecting the health and wellbeing of older Australians?
Too many people experience the aged-care system as uncaring, unkind and even inhumane in its response to their basic needs. As I mentioned, this bill seeks to prevent the use of restraints and restrictive practices in aged care except for in the most extreme cases, because the royal commission specifically heard about the excessive use of physical and chemical restraints in residential aged care, which robs older Australians of their dignity and of their autonomy in their final months. Older people with mental health issues, particularly those suffering from the later stages of dementia, are often heavily medicated or physically restrained. In the final three months of 2019-20, residential aged-care services made 24,681 reports of intent to restrain and 62,800 reports of physical restraint devices. Frail older Australians whose hard work created the country that we love are being treated inhumanely. They are being neglected and they are being malnourished in a widespread scale across the country. And, when they turn to this federal government for help, they are being told to wait years and years for the services that they desperately need. It isn't good enough, and I will not stand by and watch this Morrison government pat itself on the back for doing the absolute arguable bear minimum after eight long years of doing absolutely nothing.
The aged-care crisis has not been created in a vacuum and it hasn't appeared out of nowhere; it has taken eight long years of policy decisions that prioritise profits over people. The Treasurer announced $3.5 billion a year for aged care, and, as a flashy headline, that sounds good; but, as always, the devil is in the detail, and this falls desperately short of what senior Australians actually need. It's just one-third. That funding commitment is only one-third of what the royal commission into aged care found had been cut by this government over the last five years. It's less than half of the funding boost that was recommended by the royal commission. Why have a royal commission if you aren't going to implement the recommendations? We've had 19 reports commissioned since 1997 to investigate the problems in our aged-care system, 11 of which have been commissioned while Scott Morrison was the Treasurer or has been the PM. Apparently this latest report is the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to effect change, and yet somehow they've managed to provide only the bare minimum—and they've pushed back the bare minimum seven times.
The royal commission report recommendations have not been actioned. This budget doesn't include any immediate funding to solve the malnutrition crisis. It does not guarantee a nurse in every facility around the clock. It does not clear the home-care package waitlist, despite the fact that 26,000 people have died while on that aged-care waitlist over the past two years. They died waiting for a home-care package. Australia still lacks a detailed plan to value and to pay aged-care workers or a plan to deal with the huge recruitment and retention challenges that this sector has ahead of it. There are no strong accountability or transparency safeguards to stop price gouging or money being wasted on management fees.
In the last federal budget, the Morrison government handed over $3 billion to private aged-care providers with no strings attached. There is no requirement that this money is tied to improving care, or even to providing food. There is no guarantee that these funds will even be used to implement the recommendations put forward by the royal commission. We need to demand that providers prove that the $13 billion they receive every year from taxpayers isn't just going to shareholders, isn't just going to management bonuses, but is actually going to the older Australians that they are duty-bound to provide for. We should start by stipulating that public funds given to private aged-care providers are conditional upon minimum staffing ratios being introduced to all facilities. Or we could demand that providers prove public funds are being spent to improve the wages of the overstretched, undervalued aged-care workers in our country. We could demand that the private aged-care facilities prove that public funds are being used to improve care or to provide better food. I'm not plucking these ideas out of thin air; these are recommendations that I have heard from aged-care workers who work in my community on the north side of Brisbane. They are also recommendations that were provided by the commissioners of the royal commission itself.
The simple fact of the matter is that you cannot fix a private aged-care system whilst aged-care workers are underpaid and overworked. It is impossible to argue that the work aged-care workers undertake—caring for our most vulnerable, bathing them, assisting them with movement, helping keep them up with their hygiene needs—is even remotely commensurate with the wages that they receive at the moment. An entry-level aged-care worker is paid $21.09 an hour under the award, less than someone stacking shelves at a supermarket. But the real outrage is further up the skills scale. If we look at aged-care workers who have reached classification 4, the award provides roughly $15 an hour less than their equivalent in disability—and disability workers aren't exactly on the best wicket either. Even a nurse with the exact same qualifications is paid less to work in aged care than they would get in a hospital setting.
I recently spoke to an aged-care worker from Queensland who told me she thinks she has had one pay rise in the last seven years, and that pay rise was 25c an hour. What an insult! Aged-care jobs should be good jobs. They should be properly paid. Aged-care jobs should give workers financial independence. Their conditions shouldn't just be tolerable; they should be desirable. Aged-care workers love their residents, our family members; they just want to care for people. But providers depend on that compassion, and some of them exploit it. Love doesn't pay the rent.
I recently spoke to another aged-care worker who works for a major home-care provider. Her workday starts at 6 am and finishes at 10 pm. She is expected to pay for her own work travel costs because her boss refuses to pay. She doesn't get paid for travel time, but can be expected to drive up to an hour to see a client. She's not paid for that time spent on the road. And when she clocks off, she goes back to her office to do paperwork. And possibly the biggest kick in the guts is that she has a minimum of 15 contact hours per week. How can anyone expect to pay their bills based on 15 hours of work per week? When I asked her what she thought of this Morrison government federal budget response, she said, 'Too little, too late.' The budget increased care hours, but we have to wait over two years for care hours to come in. We can't wait that long. The sector is in crisis now, and 'crisis' means it's a problem that needs to be fixed now, not in two years time.
Aged care is a bigger employer than mining in Australia. When we put aged care in with health, disability and social services, it is the biggest employing sector in Australia without question. It is only going to get bigger. The Productivity Commission has told us that we need roughly 7,000 more aged-care workers in the sector in the next 30 years. We need to properly invest in the aged-care workforce now, because our reliance on these workers is only going to grow as our population continues to age.
We have three days left of parliament before we begin the winter break and go back to our electorates to work in our communities. I challenge the Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Treasurer to use this time to reflect on their priorities and to create a real plan to actually fix this mess.