Aged Care Legislation Amendment (Serious Incident Response Scheme and Other Measures) Bill 2020

The safety of older Australians has never been more critical than in the past year or so, with the revelations of shocking abuse and neglect, as outlined by the shadow minister. Australians know we need to do more to protect our elderly in residential aged care—in home care as well—and they expect government to act and to lead. Older Australians have spent their lives contributing to this country. Whether as workers, homemakers or volunteers, they have built our communities and nurtured our young people. Older Australians deserve respect, dignity, comfort and support; they do not deserve neglect and abuse. The country's aged-care homes should be the best that our nation can afford, not the least worst that is legally possible. Tasmania has the oldest population of any jurisdiction in Australia, and my electorate covers the three areas in the state with the oldest population. This bill comes four years late, but I am pleased to support any measure that seeks to ensure older Australians, their families and aged-care workers are provided with a comprehensive set of protections.

The bill introduces a serious incident response scheme for residential aged care, amending previous legislation to clarify and add further protections for both victims and advocates. Under this scheme, approved aged-care providers will now have to manage and take reasonable steps to prevent incidents at an organisation-wide level. Additionally, all serious incidents will have to be reported to the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, which will be given greater powers to enforce the requirements of the scheme. Those powers will include a more graduated suite of responses to ensure the commission has the flexibility it needs to address a wider range of issues, and additional information-gathering powers to ensure the commission does the best job it can to protect residents. The bill expands the definition of an incident and consolidates the expanded definition under one regulation. Incidents will now include neglect, psychological and emotional abuse, unexplained absence from care and unexpected death. Additionally, the bill removes the exemption that allows the nonreporting of abuse where a perpetrator has cognitive and mental impairment. It is crucial that every incident is reported.

A gaping hole in this legislation is its failure to include home care in the safety provisions. More than one million older Australians receive care in their home, and there is an equal risk of a serious incident occurring in that setting as in an aged-care facility, yet such incidents will not be captured by this bill. It's a serious shortcoming, and it's a serious shortcoming from a government that already has a woeful track record on aged care. In 2018-19, there were 5,233 reported assaults in residential aged care, more than 100 a week. But, in November 2019, KPMG told the government there were 50,000 unreported cases of assault across Australia every year—10 times the reported number. Discovering the true number of assaults will help inform better resourcing and better staffing. Closing this exemption is essential.

We know that the challenges that come with aged care fall too often and too disproportionately on aged-care workers, who are understaffed, underfunded and most definitely underpaid. The shadow minister mentioned how in this country we've got a situation where you can be paid more for working behind a check-out or stacking groceries in a supermarket than you can be paid for looking after older Australians in residential aged care. It is a disgrace.

Aged-care staff are doing the best job they can with the limited resources they have access to. I know aged-care workers, many of them women in their 50s and 40s, who are distraught at not being able to provide the care they know their residents deserve and need. Staff are practically running between jobs, with only a few minutes to provide meals, a few minutes to remove dirty dishes, a few minutes to wash and a few minutes to assist with toileting. There is never enough time, certainly not to sit down and just talk, be with and comfort often lonely residents desperate for human contact, a hand to hold or a chat.

The expanded definition of 'incidents' will appropriately place more focus on providers, their systems, their governance and their resourcing. Importantly, this bill will provide enhanced protection from civil and criminal liability for staff and other people who disclose abuse and neglect. This will include current and former staff members as well as current and past aged-care clients, their families and their volunteers.

We know that aged-care workers are often the first line of protection against abuse, and we need to ensure they have the protections and systems in place to allow them to safely advocate for themselves and their clients by having the confidence to speak up when things go wrong. When aged-care workers see problems in their workplace that impact the care of older Australians, they should never have to worry about the impact on their job. When so many workers are part time or casual, it is all too easy for aggrieved managers to put staff on blacklists and to cut their hours. It is just one of many reasons why there should be less casualisation in aged care and more job security and permanence.

Labor supports this bill, but Labor does not support the government's frankly appalling record on aged care and elder abuse. In 2017 two separate reports recommended that the government enact a serious incident response scheme, which this bill now seeks to introduce. It has taken this government nearly four years to act. How many older Australians have died in substandard care because of this government's unconscionable delays? The government failed to act again, in 2019, when it budgeted for the scheme but then failed to follow through. All announcement, no delivery. It failed to follow through after receiving the KPMG report on rampant, unreported abuse in aged-care facilities. That report and its findings were not released until 2020.

All this, of course, is in addition to the interim findings of the aged-care royal commission. We will see the final report in the next few weeks, and I'm sure it will not make for good reading. The title of the interim report, Neglect, tells us all that we need to know about this government's frankly incompetent management of aged care and its woeful disregard for the dignity of older Australians. These are Australian lives. You do not lose your human rights just because you get old. So we support this bill, but attention must focus on this government's woeful, incompetent handling of aged care, and we will see what the aged-care royal commission has to say in a few weeks.