Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

‘Political purposes’
Scott Morrison can’t duck the hard questions on aged care

Facing a barrage of hard questions from Labor about the COVID-19 aged-care crisis, and with another 21 Victorians dying in aged-care settings overnight, Prime Minister Scott Morrison played the sympathy card in Question Time today, talking about how “those of us who have had to make decisions about putting our own family, our own parents, into aged care, we have known that, when we’ve done that, we are putting them into pre-palliative care”. Morrison then purported to take offence at (inaudible) interjections from the Opposition, asking them “to show some respect on this very personal, sensitive issue”. When asked whether the government had cut funding to aged care by $1.7 billion, or when questioned about the aged-care royal commission revelation that half of residents are malnourished, Morrison pleaded that “aged care not be used for political purposes”. But the PM, his treasurer and other members of the government are themselves playing politics as they seek to blame the Victorian Labor government for failures in hotel quarantine and contact tracing, which allowed community transmission to get out of control. Morrison is ducking responsibility for a rising death toll, while arguing sotto voce that aged-care victims were going to die soon anyway.

A serious flaw in the Morrison government’s argument is that, in the face of widespread community transmission of the virus, Victoria’s publicly run nursing homes have proved to be overwhelmingly capable of protecting staff and residents from COVID-19. If they have been able to do so, why haven’t the privately run nursing homes?

The health department secretary, Brendan Murphy, told the Senate COVID-19 committee last week that there was no evidence of a higher risk in non-government aged-care facilities in Victoria compared with public-run facilities, saying that while there had been no systemic examination of their difference in preparedness, “the government facilities are in the regional areas, where there is not much community transmission”. 

Maybe, maybe not. There are 19 public-run nursing homes in Melbourne, of which only two have active cases according to publicly available data compiled by Dr Sarah Russell of advocacy group Aged Care Matters. Bill Crawford Lodge has five cases (three associated with staff and two with residents), while Boyne Russell House in Brunswick has one staff member infected. Premier Andrews said today there were 1487 active cases in aged-care settings in Victoria, but did not specify how many were in government facilities. At a recent briefing he said only six out of 1929 aged-care cases were in government homes, and it would be surprising if the proportion had changed radically in a fortnight.

One key reason for the success rate of state-run nursing homes in Victoria is that the state has ensured its nursing homes are staffed with – surprise, surprise – nurses! As Russell has written previously, state-owned aged-care homes operate under the Safe Patient Care legislation, which mandates that qualified nurses be employed, and specifies the ratios of staff to residents. “Private nursing home providers looking to cut costs are bypassing registered nurses and employing less-skilled personal care attendants (PCAs) who aren’t adequately trained for the job,” Russell wrote.

A second reason, says Russell, is the casualisation of the workforce. In privately run facilities, carers may get only a few shifts, which is not enough to live on, so they are forced to work at multiple nursing homes. Workers moving around between facilities equals much greater spread of the virus.

A third factor is the greater propensity of privately run operators to build big homes with more than 100 residents. “They’re like cruise ships,” Russell says. 

Russell has recently written a string of scathing articles for Guardian Australia and Michael West Media arguing that Communicable Diseases Network Australia’s guidelines were most emphatically not a plan to protect staff and residents from the virus.

There is plenty of blame to go around, and the Andrews government will certainly have to face the music on hotel quarantine. The Morrison government, however, must also face the music on aged care. Today’s back and forth in Question Time – with Labor insisting the government had cut funding by $1.7 billion, and Morrison insisting that the government had increased aged-care funding by $1 billion a year – is on a hiding to nothing for the government. Whatever has been spent so far, whatever the government has done, it has not been enough to stop the foreseeable and preventable deaths of some 350 older Australians in aged-care facilities – let’s call them nursing homes again, and make sure they have nurses in them – which the federal government funds and regulates. 

Morrison said today: “Whether it’s public, private or not-for-profit is not the issue. What the issue is, is ensuring that we get the funding to where it needs to be done, [so] that we can continue to train the workforce and continue to lift the standards, and ensure the clinical training is there so that people who are in aged-care facilities get the care and the dignity and respect that they deserve.”

That’s true, but it’s been true for long time, and for hundreds of Australian families it is now too late. 

“All the government is doing is making it harder and more expensive to go to university. We’ve got massive youth unemployment at the moment … What sort of government would rather see young people join the dole queue than get an education?”

Shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek slams the Morrison government’s university funding reforms.

“We are not trying to turn Australia into the People’s Republic of China … we are not trying to replace your system with a presidential system. We’re not asking Hungry Jack’s to sell Chinese dumplings … democracy is a word and empty political slogan and a very outworn political cliche.”

Wang Xining, the deputy head of mission for the Chinese Embassy, explains the Chinese Communist Party’s views on democracy to the National Press Club.

Bob Brown and the end of the environment
As the federal government tries to hand power over environmental regulations to state governments, parallels have been drawn to the battles fought between activists and big business during the Howard years.


The number of people killed each year by air pollution from Australia’s 22 coal-fired power stations, according to a new report from Greenpeace Australia.

“The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission [will inquire] into the domestic fresh food and dairy supply chain, from the farmgate right through to the retailer, including examining the treatment of farmers in the marketplace … Critically, this inquiry will examine whether the new Dairy Code should also be extended across the entire domestic supply chain to include retailers.”

Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud announces a three-month inquiry into the supply chain for fresh foods, which will accept confidential submissions from farmers who may fear retribution from major supermarkets.

The list

“To combat COVID-19, a Japanese amusement park asked thrillseekers to ‘please scream inside your heart’. Oslo Davis offers a primer on this surprisingly common response to intense events.”

“Since the reforms of the 1990s, which saw hospital beds repurposed, wards shrunk and asylums replaced by the laudable goal of ‘community mental health’, the focus of our concerns has shifted from individual liberty to public safety and security. This shift has occurred at a much broader cultural level, and it hasn’t only affected mental health … People charged with violent crimes on flimsy evidence spend months on remand as magistrates, petrified of releasing another Adrian Bayley, refuse more and more bail.”

“While it still incorporates hallmarks of Bright Eyes’ sound – pedal steel, a spoken word introduction, references to all manner of deities – Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is a more visceral, clear-eyed experience than Bright Eyes albums of yore. Death is no longer a spectre in Oberst’s life but a fully realised character, a hawker knocking at the door looking for a way in. Its presence here is not in the form of the world going black, but in the form of bodies in a nightclub in Paris or Tiananmen Square, cancer scares, suicidal ideations neutralised by pills but always one missed dose away. The years since The People’s Key, it seems, have been a period of awakening.” 

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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