A sitting week dominated by questions about the integrity of the Morrison government – which Crikey’s Bernard Keane describes as the “most corrupt federal government since the 1970s, and possibly much longer” – has ended on a sad note. Counsel assisting the aged-care royal commission, Peter Rozen QC, said in his closing address that one in five Australians in nursing homes have received substandard care, and levels of abuse are “a national shame” (in 2018–19, there was an average of two sexual-assault allegations per day). Rozen outlined 124 recommendations to reform aged care, saying that the current system is not fit for purpose and should be abandoned altogether, to be replaced with a new system by 2024. We’ll come to the substance of the recommendations shortly, but another sign that the Coalition is unhappy with the commission’s direction came when Liberal senator Amanda Stoker grilled officials in estimates about three-year-old musings on Twitter by the commission’s media officer, former journalist Kate Hannon. Shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally questioned why the Coalition was more concerned with a few old tweets than the 683 deaths that have occurred in aged care during the pandemic, and accused federal cabinet of “disdain” for the commission. She was shut down, but the contrast between the gravity of Rozen’s address and the childish partisan politics of the Morrison government is appalling.
Labor’s opening gambit in Question Time was to take Keneally’s question – about why the government cared more about a few tweets than those 683 deaths – straight to the prime minister. Scott Morrison responded that every death was a tragedy, saying: “It’s important that the commission engage in its work in a way that is completely non-partisan and completely independent, and I see it as the job of Senate estimates to probe into matters regarding integrity.” When asked about the substance of Rozen’s closing submission, Morrison responded by telling porkies about how his government had increased funding for aged care by a billion dollars every year, and had given the single largest increase to in-home aged-care places, now three times the level of 2013, in the most recent budget. “We will keep responding,” he said, “and again, in next year’s budget, in a comprehensive response [to] the royal commission recommendations handed down next year. I thank them for the work they are doing.”
Both the Coalition and Labor came in for criticism, in the wake of the budget, for failing to respond to the disaster in nursing homes exposed by COVID-19. And both parties share responsibility for the privatised model of aged care, which has resulted in the decline of care standards over the past two decades. Having appointed the inquiry, Morrison should arguably be given the benefit of the doubt until the commission hands down its final report. So far, however, his government has shown no sign of an appetite for the kind of fundamental reform outlined by Rozen today.
The most significant reforms recommended by the commission are: a new Aged Care Act based on human rights; a new planning regime that provides demand-driven access rather than the current rationed approach; a new and independent process for setting aged-care quality standards; a new enforceable general duty of care on approved providers; mandated staffing ratios, including compulsory registration of personal care workers; an independent pricing authority that will determine prices appropriate to the provision of high-quality and safe services; and an independent aged-care commission that will be responsible for administering and regulating the system.
United Workers Union aged-care director Carolyn Smith said that the sector was stretched to breaking point, and workers and residents should not have to wait years before the recommendations unveiled today are implemented: “Minimum staffing levels – as recommended by the counsel assisting the royal commission – is a necessary first step to addressing chronic understaffing across the sector.”
It’s hard to argue with that.