Coronavirus Response Bill

House of Representatives
9 February 2022

I commend the member for Lalor for her strong advocacy for aged care. For people on this side of the chamber, this is what we are here for. There has been a lot of discussion and debate around things like text messages, the trust that the Prime Minister has lost amongst his own cabinet colleagues, and former premiers giving full and frank character assessments about the Prime Minister of the day. We've all read that in the headlines. We've all seen that in our social media. Whilst that may be great for the commentariat and some sections of the media, that is not why we are here. That is not why we have been elected to this place. We are not here for the sledges across the dispatch boxes. We are not here for the parlour games or political machinations. We are here to make a difference in the lives of the people of this country.

Sadly, aged care is in crisis in this nation. I want to spend my time for remarks today putting on the record my concerns on behalf of local residents, aged-care providers, aged-care workers and loved ones who are dealing with the trauma of not being able to see people in aged-care facilities. People, sadly, have lost their lives in my electorate and right across the country this year due to the COVID pandemic, and it frustrates me enormously that, whilst there are a lot of words being said in the last 10 days of this term of parliament—we're in day 2 of this term this week—the government doesn't seem to be addressing the real crisis that is unfolding before our very eyes. I am astounded that more members of the government haven't jumped to their feet to defend, explain or understand their position.

Let me say, from the outset, that we will be supporting the Appropriation (Coronavirus Response) Bill (No. 1) 2021-2022 and related bills today. I am here today to strongly support the second reading amendment, because I want the House to note that we are dealing with the appropriation of $5.2 billion simply because of the government's failure to properly plan for the COVID-19 pandemic. I want to go through, pretty clearly, what that looks like and why that is the case in my argument today.

Of course, the last-minute, urgent nature of this bill—we are at five minutes to midnight in terms of making sure we can approve this expenditure—really underlines the sheer lack of preparation that this government did for the latest variant. Once again, tragically, it is the vulnerable, older Australians in aged care that have borne the brunt of this failure to prepare. I listened to the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health and Aged Care waffle on about where Australia ranks and how it could be worse, as if the hundreds of deaths that we've had this year somehow weren't as bad as it could be. These deaths were unavoidable because the aged-care sector in this country is in a state of complete and utter crisis.

I want to use my time in the House to condemn the Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services. I can understand that it's a big portfolio. I totally understand the importance of this within the role of government and the huge pressures that bureaucrats, members of the department and the minister himself have been under. But, really, to declare that the sector is performing exceptionally well doesn't cut it. In the midst of one of the worst crises and death rates that we've seen since the pandemic began, for the minister to go to the cricket for three days—honestly, I mean, really, members of the government know that it's completely indefensible. The excuse he gave was, 'Well, it was the first time the Ashes were played in Tasmania.' That doesn't cut it. What he needs to do is look at the people in my electorate, the families who've lost loved ones at aged-care facilities over the summer, and explain to them why the government has failed a number of aged-care facilities and apologise for inaction and the fact that the government didn't get this right.

With over 600 deaths in aged care this year—and we're barely into February—that's already double of last year in just over one month. There are approximately 1,176 outbreaks right now. The other issue that providers and family members have told me about is a little way away from my electorate in Jeta Gardens, which has been the scene of national media coverage due to the booster shortages and the tragic deaths. My heart goes out to all of the families on the south side of Brisbane who have lost loved ones and who are dealing—some have told me on an hour-to-hour basis—with fear about what loved ones are going through in isolation, with people being locked up alone without having contact. They fear for the tens of thousands of aged-care residents who haven't got their booster shots. We knew this variant was coming. We knew there were runs on the board in terms of how to deal with the pandemic. This is not month one or two of the pandemic. This is heading into the third year of the pandemic.

I want to spend a little bit of time on the aged-care workforce. Half the workforce have not received their booster shots, with 12,000 residents and workers infected as we speak and between 20 and 25 per cent of the staff off each and every day. Whilst I acknowledge the ADF coming in at a time of crisis, that should have happened ages ago. The sector was calling out for that. I spoke to aged-care providers over the summer who were at wits end. Medical waste couldn't be collected, because there were supply chain issues. They were setting up containers to put the medical waste in and hoping that it wouldn't be a contaminant.

This is not something that had to happen. This was in our control. There are many things out of our control, but this is what we are responsible for. The reality is that loved ones, grandparents and parents are languishing in rooms, unable to access food and water, unable to get wounds attended to and sitting in soiled pads because there aren't enough staff. There are staff issues. I understand that this is a complex issue, but we knew this was coming. We knew that aged care was looking down the gun barrel of a horrific summer, yet the government responsible for this didn't do the planning work to ensure that lives weren't lost.

Both my parents, who have passed, lived in aged-care facilities. I've said this to the House before: in 2019 my mother was taken to hospital, after living in an aged-care facility, with malnutrition and dehydration. She was in terrible pain and terrible trauma. That was no fault of the aged-care facility that she was residing in. They simply didn't have the time or resources to do that. This is a very personal issue for me. As a member of parliament and as one of her children I was able to take action. But for those people who don't have access to resources, information, power, money—it's a terrible situation to be in when you have no control and you want control to help a loved one, and that is what we have seen over this summer. I am disappointed that we haven't seen stronger, more resilient action from the government.

More importantly, my local residents have been writing, emailing, contacting me in sheer desperation about their loved ones as well. The workforce, the workers, have been absolutely worked to the bone. They are exhausted trying to provide that level of care that residents deserve with a fraction of the resources. When it's a crisis, when it's all too hard, we just see a bandaid solution. The method of operation for the government, in this dying period of this parliament, is just to try and get through the media cycle. I know there's a lot going on, I know there are competing interests, but this issue of how we treat our most vulnerable and frail has to be at the top of the agenda.

We know the one-off payments of $400—one to be given in March and one to be given in May—have been received very poorly by the workforce themselves. It's a cynical move on the eve of the election. This is no plan to deal with structural reform in the workplace. This is no plan to deal with the long-term, chronic underfunding of aged care in this country. The fact is that you can earn more working in Bunnings than you can working in an aged-care facility. Working at Bunnings is a great job. We all love Bunnings. But what it says to me is that we aren't paying our aged-care workers what they deserve. That is not responsible economic management. It shows incredible disdain for the value of the work carried out by aged-care staff that this hopeless, rotten government can't even bother to lift a finger to argue and fight for an increase in aged-care salaries. They would be having the same conversations that we would. They would be getting lobbied by the same people. Why isn't the government doing it? Why isn't the government stepping up and saying: 'We have been through a pandemic. This system is in crisis. We want to make sure that the aged-care workforce is properly funded'? They're not.

It might've been a terrible summer for the Prime Minister. He didn't get his reset or whatever. I don't care about that. I don't care about the fortunes of this government or the fortunes of the Prime Minister or who has leaked what text or who hates who. It's the same thing. It's so mind-numbing and frustrating. It's just the same thing day in, day out, headline after headline. This person hates this person. 'I hated them last year. They're an idiot. They're hopeless or they're a liar. I didn't think it then but I think it now. I don't think it now but I thought it then.' Through you, Mr Deputy Speaker, do you know how ridiculous this government looks to the Australian people? They're always talking about themselves and always fighting amongst themselves. They're never fighting for Australians. They're certainly never fighting for aged-care workers. It is embarrassing when we are making headlines across the world because the now Deputy Prime Minister, when he wasn't the Deputy Prime Minister, thought the Prime Minister now couldn't be trusted. But then he revised that and said, 'Well, you know, I didn't really know him back then. But now I do trust him.' This is despite the fact that he had served in the cabinet in his former role as Deputy Prime Minister when the current Prime Minister was the Treasurer of Australia—sitting next to him. But that's okay because, as the Prime Minister said, he was in a different headspace then. It's all just rubbish, and this government is not dealing with the crisis right under its nose. The Australian people are sick of it and I'm sick of it. The local residents that I continually speak to, almost on a daily basis, are totally over it, because this government isn't doing the right job when it comes to the booster, the RAT purchases, and on it goes.

This issue that we're talking about today goes to the heart of what's wrong with this government. There's a lot wrong with this government, but it goes to competency and delivering what we're here for. We are here to provide leadership services and answers to the problems of Australia. What we're finding with this government is a toxic culture within its own ranks. We know all that, but it's not actually delivering the competent government that Australians need, particularly when it comes to things like the booster rollout, adequate PPE, making sure that aged care is properly resourced, making sure that the workforce is included, making sure that people who need in-home care are receiving home-care packages—all of those things. You can sum up the neglect and failure in this portfolio alone.

I stand ready to continue to support and advocate for more improved aged care in Australia. So do my residents, and I'll do it every time that I'm in this parliament.