The Politics    Thursday, August 27, 2020

Albo steps up

By Paddy Manning

Albo steps up
The Labor leader has a plan to fix aged care, but how far will it go?

After another 22 elderly Australians died of COVID-19 contracted in privately run, federally regulated nursing homes overnight, Anthony Albanese gave an important speech to the National Press Club today. The Opposition leader gave clues about Labor’s appetite for ambitious policy reform in the lead-up to the next election, and there were also signs that he is getting the measure of the prime minister. Albanese’s speech, titled “Government by neglect”, featured some choice barbs directed Scott Morrison’s way. The PM has “the smirk of someone who is convinced he knows better, and then sits on his hands,” said Albanese, adding, “If actions speak louder than words, Scott Morrison is truly the quietest Australian of all.” Albanese spoke constructively, offering an eight-point plan to fix aged care, but there was also some fire in his belly when he said: “Part of where it has gone wrong is that we have turned looking after our older Australians into just one more source of profit. We have let humanity and dignity become subordinate to the bottom line.” He presented a dark picture of the elderly deceased being put into body bags without refrigeration, while the founders of Regis Healthcare share in $35 million in dividends and regularly turn up on the BRW Rich List, and BUPA pays nearly $15 million to its executives. He sounded almost Shorten-esque.

The post-speech Q&A session was intriguing. Asked whether Labor would consider a sweeping restructure to end for-profit aged care, Albanese did not say no. He said Labor would wait on the recommendations of the aged-care royal commission, but added it was obvious that the problems now being experienced in aged care are almost exclusively in privately run facilities. “What’s very clear is that once you moved from essentially a public system into the privatisation of a whole section of the sector,” said Albanese, “that needed to be accompanied by very strong regulation, by strong inspection processes, by making sure that there was transparency.” As is now patently obvious – and as the aged-care royal commission has underlined – that hasn’t happened. When Albanese was later asked to clarify whether Labor had an appetite for structural reform, he confirmed that it did.

Those questions contrasted with a second set of questions about whether Labor under Albanese had learnt the lessons of the last election, of failing to appeal to a notional middle Australia, defined as “aspirational workers and small business owners”. Here, Albanese fell back on how he embodied aspiration – having grown up in public housing with a single mum – and talked about how Labor would certainly take less policy to the next election. So, if Labor squares up to the failings of privatised aged care, and takes that fight to the government, will it come across as anti-business and anti-aspiration? Could “socialised nursing homes” form the basis of a right-populist scare campaign? 

It seems far-fetched, particularly when the aged-care royal commission appointed by the Morrison government is itself putting its finger on the same problem. Today, the commission released University of Queensland research showing that state government-run and smaller nursing homes of 30 beds or fewer are delivering better-quality aged care than larger private facilities. The research estimated it would cost an extra $621 million per year to bring all Australian nursing homes up to a high standard, and $3.2 billion to universally adopt the small-sized home model.

Albanese took this up in Question Time this afternoon, citing the royal commissioners’ finding that 96 per cent of private, for-profit aged-care facilities were failing to deliver the highest quality of care. He asked the prime minister: “Why is this seven-year-old government failing to ensure that frail and vulnerable older Australians get the care they deserve?” Morrison’s response was sector-blind: “Whether it’s private operators, to which the member has referred, whether it’s non-profit operators like at St Basil’s, or public operators like at Oakden that sparked the royal commission, wherever the care needs to be provided, the system needs to support that care in the funding and support that is delivered by the federal government and the regulation that sits over that, which is our responsibility. And that’s why we’ll continue to increase our funding and support and to learn the lessons that need to be learnt and apply them, particularly those that will come to the royal commission.”

The prime minister’s attempts to shift blame over the ongoing crisis in aged care – whether onto the Victorian government or the pandemic more generally – suggest he is not ready to learn the lessons that need to be learnt. Nor, for that matter, is the embattled Richard Colbeck – the government’s seventh aged-care minister in as many years – who scurried out of the Senate today rather than defend his performance in his portfolio.

Certainly, the government failed to apply the lessons of Dorothy Henderson Lodge and Newmarch House. And Morrison’s stubbornness is especially dangerous because, unless the federal government correctly diagnoses the problem, the public can have no confidence either that it will be fixed or that nursing homes in states outside Victoria will not suffer the same fate. 

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The list

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“The Day family’s lawyers have a way of describing the relationship between the statistic and the act: when we zoom out, the data shows a massively disproportionate arrest rate that can only be explained by racial profiling, but when we zoom in on any individual case the bias seems to disappear. Every officer who interacted with Tanya Day claimed to have behaved just as they would have with a white prisoner. They also declared they’d do nothing differently if they had their time over.”

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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.

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