Government abandoning Australia's ageing population

It has been said earlier by the member for Blair, in his fine contribution to this debate on the Aged Care and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014, that the motto for Labor in government when it came to aged care was 'Living longer, living better.' That motto encapsulated the various policies and the spending priorities of Labor when it came to aged care. If we were to collect all of the policies and initiatives of the Abbott coalition government under one banner in its one year in office, the true and accurate slogan—which should be emblazoned across that banner—would be 'Working longer and you are on your own.' If you look at the lamentable facts about the Abbott government's contribution to the aged-care sector after one lonely year in government, it is a very sorry record indeed.

What have they done? They have cut pension benefits, to start with. They have changed the method of indexation. We know, through independent research, despite the protestations of the Prime Minister, that this initiative alone is going to see the average pensioner worse off over the next 10 years by around $80 a week. They have cut benefits for people who are residing in aged-care facilities—and I will have something more to say about that in a moment. They have cut benefits for people who care for people in aged care. If that was not enough, they have cut the agency which plans for workforce issues when it comes to health and the aged-care workforce in this country. It is an absolutely atrocious record after one short year in government. We can only begin to contemplate the horrors that beset the sector if this is allowed to run for another two years.

We do face some challenges in the sector; there is absolutely no doubt about it. We know, as every speaker in this debate has identified, that we have an ageing population. That is actually a sign of success. It is a sign of the success of our healthcare policies and of Australia as a country that we have one of the greatest life expectancies of any country in the OECD. Australians born today can expect to live nearly 25 years longer than those who were born at the beginning of the last century. Close to 15 per cent of Australia's population is now over the age of 65. That is expected to be about 24 per cent by mid-century. We know that we have some significant issues that we have to deal with when you put all of these demographic facts together.

Seized of the issue, Labor in government did what any responsible government would do: we went to the experts in the area and commissioned some research. The starting point for any analysis of aged care and aged-care policy has to be the excellent report of the Productivity Commission Caring for older Australians, which was commissioned by the Labor government and tabled, including in this House, in June 2011. I take the trouble of going to some specific parts of the Caring for older Australians report, because they are very pertinent to the legislation before the House today. I am particularly reminded of some of the observations that are made at page xxvii of the overview of that report where the Productivity Commission observes that:

The aged care workforce will need to expand considerably at a time of 'age induced' tightening of the overall labour market, an expected relative decline in family support and informal carers, and strong demand for workers from other parts of the health and disability systems.

What the Productivity Commission is putting up in lights is that we have an issue here. We have an ageing population. We have a tightening of the labour market. We have a demand for carers and professional staff within the sector and tight competition within the sector, particularly because of demand from other parts of the aged-care and healthcare workforce in health and disability. They go on to say later in the report:

As the number of older Australians rises and the demand for aged care services increases, there will be a commensurate increase in demand for a well-trained aged care workforce. The Commission anticipates that the aged care workforce will need to more than quadruple by 2050, at a time when the overall employment to population ratio will be declining.

They then give some pretty clear instructions for what a responsible government needs to do, working hand in hand with the industry, to ensure that we meet these challenges. They say this:

Improved employment terms and conditions are the foundation for building a larger supply of workers in the aged care sector.

It is worth repeating:

Improved employment terms and conditions are the foundation for building a larger supply of workers in the aged care sector. The most notable shortcoming is the low wage rates for personal carers and the long standing disparity between the wages paid to nurses employed in the aged care sector compared to those employed in comparable settings, such as the public health system. The fiscal impact of increases in wage rates would be felt equally on the current system or the reformed system as proposed by the Commission.

But wage increases alone will not be enough to set the industry on a sustainable path. A coordinated approach to improving the attractiveness of the aged care sector is necessary …

And the commission goes on to make a range of other observations. It is a very clear instruction to a responsible government about what is needed to meet the impending challenge of aged care in this country. They could not be clearer:

Improved employment terms and conditions are the foundation for building a larger supply of workers in the aged care sector.

Seized of this information, you would think that a responsible government would act. But I have to say, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you would be hard pressed if you went back over the last 110-odd years since Federation to find a bigger collection of members on that side of the House who are committed to the rare arts of the ostrich in sticking one's head in a bucket of sand when confronted by a problematic situation than what we find in the 44th Parliament. That is exactly what those opposite are doing.

Collectively, they are putting their heads in a bucket of sand and denying the obvious steps that need to be taken to deal with the impending problems that we face in the aged care sector. One of their first acts when given the opportunity to confront this issue was to axe the $1.2 billion aged care workforce supplement. What is the history of this supplement? Quite simply, it was one of the many measures put in place by the Labor government in response to the Caring for older Australians report. We focused our attention on the recommendations of the Productivity Commission, knowing that addressing employment terms and conditions was the foundation of improving the workforce and therefore services in the aged care sector. We put this in place, amongst other measures, as part of our Living Longer. Living Better reforms.

When confronted with this proposition, and scrabbling around for an argument to justify their egregious attacks—their mindless cutting of this important workforce initiative—what are we met with? Their opposition comes in two lines: firstly, there is a risk that people who are union members might benefit from better wages and conditions in the aged care sector. So if somebody who might be a union member is facing the prospect that they may benefit from this, it must be bad! Nothing blinds like bigotry, and speaker after speaker have stood in this place and tried to justify these egregious cuts on the basis that somehow providing a benefit to somebody who may or may not be a union member somehow equates to compulsory union membership in the aged care sector. Never has a more ridiculous notion been put before this House to justify these egregious cuts. They do not know their own legislation; they simply do not know their own legislation.

The second proposition I have heard put in justification really does not fall very easily from the mouths of these Liberal members of parliament. I heard it from the member for Lyons and I heard it from the member for Ryan. They say, 'Well, we are not taking money out of the sector; we are merely giving it to the aged care sector so that they can distribute the additional money as they see fit.' I have to say that this does not fall very well from the mouths of coalition MPs who, in the very same budget, removed the education bonus because in the mind of the Treasurer and other members of the government there is the risk that people may not be spending that money for educational purposes. That is to say, that they could not guarantee that that money was going to be spent for educational purposes. These are the people who say we should just hand the money to the sector without strings attached. That is their justification. Well, if the sector were able to meet the needs of the labour market and if wages were sufficient to attract people into the industry and retain people in the industry then the Productivity Commission in its 2011 report would not have made the observations that it did and we would not be facing the labour market crisis in aged care that we are today.

So it is a nonsense argument. They know it is a nonsense argument. It is a product of their blind bigotry, that a benefit provided to a sector which may or may not benefit somebody who is a union member must automatically disqualify it as somehow illegitimate. It just goes to show that there is nothing which is cohesive, nothing which is based on evidence and nothing which is fair about the changes that are being proposed as part of the Liberal government's approach to the aged care sector.

We are talking about aged care, and the shadow minister has proposed a second reading amendment to the motion before the House. I want to take the opportunity to address an issue which is contained in that amendment, because the parliament needs to know about it and the Australian people need to know about it. It goes to the dementia and severe behaviour supplement. It was a supplement introduced by the former Labor government in August 2013 and it provided $16.15 per day as a supplement to approved aged care providers in recognition of the additional costs of caring for people with severe symptoms of dementia.

We all know the statistics; we all know the fact that dementia is one of Australia's fastest-growing diseases and that there are currently somewhere in the vicinity of 330,000 Australians living with the disease, that by mid-century there will be close to a million people living with the disease and that he aged care sector and families throughout the country are struggling with the caring needs of people living with dementia. So, against that backdrop you have to ask yourself, 'If you are committed to improving the caring needs of older Australians and meeting the dementia challenge, why would one of your first acts be to remove this payment?' When put together with the other cuts we see in this budget, what is quite clear is that whereas Labor's approach to this was to ensure that as a nation we are living better and living longer, the coalition's motto is 'work for longer and when you are getting older, you are on your own.'