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Chasing the gold, we trade away rights of the old

by Dr Sarah Russell | Nov 8, 2021 | Business

Australia has signed on to one of the world’s biggest ever trade deals with most of the Asia-Pacific. We negotiated a suite of exemptions to look after our social compact, but guess who was sacrificed? Dr Sarah Russell reports.

Where to start in listing the deceitful behaviour of the Coalition government regarding aged care?

Is it that the government continues to throw large amounts of taxpayers’ money at aged-care providers but refuses to tackle the systemic changes that are needed? That Greg Hunt, the Minister for Aged Care, gave his word that all residents and staff in aged care homes vaccinated by Easter and then failed to do so? That Senator Richard Colbeck, Minister for Aged Care Services, was unable to recall how many residents had died from Covid? And on it goes.

The latest deceit is the signing, in secret, of a regional free trade agreement. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement could prevent the Australian government from making regulatory changes to improve staffing in aged care.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement is one of the biggest free-trade agreements in history. Signatories are Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and the 10 members of ASEAN (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam).

The Morrison government refused to release the text of the agreement until after it was signed, preventing public scrutiny.

Australia included in an annex to the agreement a list of services to be exempt from its rules. The list includes income security or insurance, social security or insurance, social welfare, public education, public training, health, childcare, public utilities, public transport and public housing.

The Coalition did not include aged care in the list of services to be protected.

Why include childcare but not aged care? Both cover the most vulnerable people in our society.

Several organisations lobbied for the text of the agreement to be amended to exclude aged care. However, Parliament passed the enabling legislation on October 21, with only the Greens and Senator Rex Patrick voting against it.

Without granting aged care an exemption, RECP agreement rules on trade in services will apply to the aged-care industry. This may prevent the government regulating standards of care in aged-care homes owned by multinational corporations such as Opal. That corporation currently operates 80 residential aged care homes.

A 2018 study showed that international investment in aged care is growing rapidly. The RCEP may encourage more overseas investment.

The government has also refused to commission an independent study of the economic or social costs and benefits of the RCEP in Australia. One of the biggest social costs could be on residents of aged care homes owned by multinational corporations.

Although the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety highlighted an urgent need for tighter regulation of the aged care sector, the RCEP agreement contains provisions that would “lock in” existing regulations. The agreement requires signatories to “not adversely modify existing regulation in particular services sectors”.

A report on the RCEP agreement by Joint Standing Committee on Treaties raised concerns that it made no sense to protect childcare services but not aged care. It noted the public would be understandably concerned by such inconsistencies.

Notwithstanding the assurances provided in relation to Australia’s capacity to regulate in the national interest with respect to aged care, there was no clear explanation as to why Australia made a specific reservation under List B of Annex III with respect to childcare but not for aged care. It is understandable that such inconsistencies give rise to public concern, and it would be better if they were avoided. (Report 196, P 27).

Labor, in supporting the enabling legislation, accepted the Trade Minister’s word that the general health exemption in RCEP covers aged care. According to the shadow minister for trade and resources, Madeleine King: “This ministerial assurance was an important factor in Labor supporting the enabling legislation.”

Will an “assurance” mean anything in a battle against multinational aged care providers? I reckon the French would say “non”.

This secret agreement can be added to the long list of the Coalition government selling out aged care.

Dr Sarah Russell is a public health researcher. She is the Principal Researcher at Research Matters and Chair of Progressives of the Peninsula. She was formerly the Director, Aged Care Matters.

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