Attempts to stage-manage the Aged Care Royal Commission report by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt underline the government’s failure to tackle the problems in aged care. As laid out in the report, its “market” based approach is the problem, not the solution, but is the government listening? Dr Sarah Russell and Elizabeth Minter report.
The government’s stage-managed release of the final report of the Aged Care was top drawer. Call a press conference at short notice, don’t give journalists any time to read the recommendations to ensure no hard questions, don’t make any promises and reframe any obvious criticisms.
Moreover, that it was released on Monday afternoon after the public had been told it would be released “mid week” pointed to a public relations exercise to divert attention from the rape allegations against a Cabinet Minister and a Liberal Party staffer.
The Aged Care Royal Commissioners handed their Final Report to the Governor General last Friday. On Monday afternoon, the media was given 30 minutes notice to get to a press conference. Journalists had no opportunity to read the report or the recommendations before the press conference.
Listening to the press conference was excruciating. The Prime Minister began by announcing the issue of aged care was “personal” because he and Health Minister Greg Hunt had “parents who had been through the system”.
When Hunt took the microphone, he began by saying:
“As a son of a father who spent his final months in age care, let me start by thanking all of our carers and nurses, the cleaners, the cooks, the doctors, the pharmacist, the volunteers and the providers have been taking care of our loved ones. They do a great job. They do a great job.”
It had clearly not occurred to either the Prime Minister or the Health Minister that of course their fathers would be treated well in a 5-star aged care home. Their privileged positions simply didn’t occur to either man.
Such comments also showed a complete lack of respect to the numerous residents who have been neglected, abused, sexually assaulted or chemically restrained or to the families whose loved ones died of Covid.
Setting low expectations
In the media conference, the Prime Minister laid the groundwork to ensure the public does not expect any improvements in aged care too soon.
“We can’t be glib about these issues, and think they are just simple to deal with. These are knotty problems. They are hard to solve.”
The Prime Minister also said the changes would take time.
“It will take quite considerable time to achieve the scale of change that we want to.”
Herein lies the problem. Older people receiving aged care services do not have time to wait. How long does it take to write a new Aged Care Act?
Recommendations entirely predictable
Furthermore, many of the recommendations were not new and were entirely predictable. There have been dozens of inquiries, reviews, and reports in the past 20 years that have spelt out in detail what is needed if the government only wanted to listen.
A number of recommendations could be acted upon immediately, without delay. For example, the registration of all personal care workers should have been done several years ago.
Morrison said he welcomed the royal commissioners having different views about how to fix the aged care sector, saying: “Aged care is complex … Life is complex.”
This is disingenuous, as both commissioners Tony Pagone and Lynelle Briggs were completely on the same page that the government had been the central problem in aged care for a very long time.
And while the Prime Minister described the report as “positive” about aged care, the Royal Commissioners’ report is, in fact, damning of government failures in aged care.
As the report states:
“There are two main problems with the governance of the aged care system – that successive governments have misunderstood and not fulfilled their responsibilities, and that the institutional structure is inadequate to ensure the delivery of high quality aged care.
At times in this inquiry, it has felt like the Government’s main consideration was what was the minimum commitment it could get away with, rather than what should be done to sustain the aged care system so that it is enabled to deliver high quality and safe care. This must change. (P 46, Vol 1)
As to discussions about increasing the workforce, the Prime Minister said:
“We cannot just take people off the street and put them into people’s homes and ask them to start caring for people. That would be irresponsible.”
Yet that is precisely what is currently happening. A government initiative has put people who lost their jobs during the pandemic into aged care homes after just 10 hours of training.
Morrison also described the Royal Commission as setting out a “very important roadmap” that will establish generational change.
What is it with this government and roadmaps?
The most recent government aged care roadmap, Aged Care Roadmap, was written in 2017 straight from the providers point of view. The roadmap supported “a lighter touch approach to regulation”, which is one major reason the aged care sector is in such a mess. The roadmap focused on how to make the aged care system “market based” and consumer-driven.
The royal commissioners make it clear that the obsession of successive governments with neoliberalism is the root cause of the aged care crisis.
“The aged care system has suffered from sequential attempts by governments to define it as a market in its own right…
Unfortunately, these market-based reforms that redefine the people who use aged care as ‘consumers’ who ‘direct’ their own care by purchasing services from businesses in a ‘competitive market’ have resulted in more confusion than before and certainly have not improved quality or transparency.” (P 26, Vol1)
While Minister Hunt announced $450 million in immediate initiatives, with the Prime Minister noting there would “be more”, at no stage did he discuss introducing transparency or accountability for the $21 billion already given each year to the aged care sector.
Experienced ABC journalist Anne Connolly came to the media conference fully prepared with detailed, pertinent questions. But the Prime Minister was having none of it. After one too many searching questions, Morrison simply interrupted Connolly, saying:
“I’m the Prime Minister. This is my minister … I think I’ve answered your question. Thank you.”
And with that he, along with Health Minister Greg Hunt and Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck turned their backs and walked away.
Dr Sarah Russell is a public health researcher who specialises in qualitative research. She has been the Principal Researcher at Research Matters since 1999. She is also the Director, Aged Care Matters. She believes the aged care system requires greater scrutiny, accountability and transparency.