Parliamentary speeches

Aged care and COVID-19

August 25, 2020

It's often said, and rightly so, that the measure of any society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. Some of the most vulnerable members of our society are older Australians, older Australians who have made a great contribution to this nation, who find themselves in their later days in aged-care facilities. They are people to whom all of us owe a debt and an obligation—all of us, but particularly, of course, those of us who are empowered to make a difference, and we have failed on this count. The attitude of some in this government, including this Prime Minister, to aged-care residents does not paint us in a very favourable light. Indeed, the contribution of the previous speaker, who talked about really good outcomes, I find very challenging. That's not a contribution that comes, of itself, in a vacuum. From this government, in recent weeks we have seen, when it comes to the crisis in aged-care facilities, a litany of failures followed immediately by a litany of excuses.

This matter of public importance has been brought before the parliament by my friend the shadow minister, who's done an extraordinary job in holding the government to account. He's been constructive, identifying solutions and not simply pointing out problems. In making my contribution to this matter of public importance, I want to address my remarks in this context: how we treat people who are particularly vulnerable at a particularly challenging time. As the member for Franklin said, it is to not regard these people as statistics or justify our actions or inactions by reference to numerical arguments, but to give them the humanity they deserve and to embrace the responsibility we have, particularly those who serve in Australia's government—those who have an obligation that is clear.

There's dissembling by the Prime Minister. There's dissembling by the Minister for Health, who wants to invent theories and arguments to respond to when he's got a big enough job to be getting on with. He could have played a role, and the Prime Minister should have played a role, in putting in place a plan. There were warning signs everywhere. It's extraordinary that the Minister for Health talks about some overseas example, as if seeking congratulations. What happened in Canada? What happened in the UK? What happened in Sweden? What happened in France? It's not a compare-and-contrast contest. These were warnings we should have heeded, which demonstrated the particular vulnerabilities of institutional aged-care settings.

We had the interim report of the aged-care royal commission, a document entitled Neglect. That's a pretty powerful symbol, you'd think, to members of this government. We had the experience of two facilities in Sydney and still no action. It's a litany of failures followed by a litany of excuses. We have a regulator nowhere to be seen. We have a Prime Minister who, on Friday, engaged in the most extraordinary acts of dissembling about the fundamental role of the Commonwealth when it comes to aged care. It's dissembling that continues today.

In question time today I asked about Epping Gardens, one of several affected facilities in my electorate but the one which has been most affected. It's a facility in which 28 residents have died. The Prime Minister could have started with a simple 'sorry' on behalf of the Australian government and expressed his condolences to the families of those affected, as I do now. He could have recognised the confusion and distress that was at stake for them and for so many others. Down the road, in the electorate of Jagajaga—whose member can't be present today—with the experiences of Estia in Heidelberg and Aurrum in Plenty, we saw, again, this confusion: issues about information, issues about access to PPE and issues about testing. These are issues that could and should have been dealt with. In the other place today, in question time, we heard the minister say, 'Aged care is in a very good position.' I ask members opposite: what would a bad position look like now?

There are so many things that could and should have been done, and it's right, in this place, that we draw Australians' attention to them. It's our job as the opposition to highlight the failings of the government. But my fundamental plea to members opposite is to focus on what can be done now. That has to start with something that's been sorely absent. It has to start with the Prime Minister taking responsibility.