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Labor had the chance to achieve reforms to aged care before the election but opted to wait and claim credit for the changes once in government. By Karen Middleton.

Why are we still waiting for aged care reform?

Anika Wells introduces the aged-care reform bill on Wednesday.
Anika Wells introduces the aged-care reform bill on Wednesday.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

When the new Albanese government chose an aged-care reform bill as its first to pass the 47th parliament this week, the praise from at least two pro-reform politicians – one current, one former – was laced with cynicism.

Independent MP Rebekha Sharkie and former senator Rex Patrick both welcomed the much-heralded measures to improve standards in residential and in-home care.

But they also questioned Labor’s claim to being the party of care, pointing out that, like the Coalition, it deliberately passed up the chance to legislate the same changes four months ago, choosing politics instead.

On March 30 – his last sitting day as a senator – Patrick persuaded Labor to help him amend the then government’s aged-care bill to require facilities to have a registered nurse on duty at all times and make providers reveal how much of their budgets was spent on salaries, food and care.

Before the vote, Patrick got on the phone.

After the senate, the bill would go back to the house of representatives before it could become law. Passing it there against the government’s wishes would need the backing of all Labor MPs, plus a couple more. He called Sharkie and asked if she could persuade any Liberals to defy their leader and cross the floor.

Sharkie made some calls and said she thought four Liberals were prepared to do it. When the senate passed the bill that night, Patrick contacted Labor’s then shadow minister for Aged Care Services, Clare O’Neil, and told her the amended version was coming back to the house in the morning and there were Liberals who might cross the floor. She thanked him.

But Sharkie and the would-be rebels never got to vote. When the amended bill went before the house just before 12.40pm the next afternoon, Labor joined the Coalition government to shelve it.

“I had four interested Liberals,” Sharkie told The Saturday Paper this week. “You can never tell, but one followed up with me later in the day – they were awaiting the bill.”

An hour after the bill was deferred, Queensland Labor backbencher Anika Wells rose to blast the government over aged care.

“It is an absolute disgrace that you are failing to fix this,” Wells told parliament, adding that nurses were “begging” for change. “And you are squandering the seven hours left that you have in power by doing nothing.”

She said the budget had been silent on a catalogue of needed changes, including more nurses in nursing homes and spending transparency. “Older Australians, their carers and aged-care workers deserve so much more than you.”

Much of what Wells listed had been in the amended bill that her party had just deferred. That night, the centrepiece of Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s budget reply speech was a promise to ensure every aged-care facility had a “registered, qualified nurse on site, 24 hours a day, seven days a week” – something his party could have tried to legislate seven hours earlier.

“Unbeknownst to me, they had another plan,” Patrick says. “There’s no question they had the opportunity to pass it and they didn’t … They didn’t even try. Politics was clearly more important than outcomes for people in aged care.”

This week, the Albanese government reintroduced a version of the unamended bill and passed it. The measures contained in Rex Patrick’s amendments were bundled up in a second bill, to be debated and passed next week.

With Clare O’Neil promoted to the Home Affairs portfolio, the new minister for Aged Care was an MP just starting her second term in parliament: Anika Wells.

“This isn’t the first parliament that has needed to take action on aged care,” Wells said this week, introducing the bills. “Too many parliaments, too many governments have shunned the hard work needed to support our aged-care system … We must confront the missed opportunities. We must see change.”

Both Rex Patrick and Rebekha Sharkie are glad change is now a priority. “But it could have been addressed four months ago,” Sharkie says. “For people in the aged-care system, that’s an agonisingly long time.”

Wells rejected the criticisms.

“So if I understand this correctly, the critique is that in the last days of the Morrison government, the Labor opposition didn’t usher Liberal MPs across the floor in order to pass a Liberal bill the Liberal government didn’t support,” she said. And in a reference to the TV series Stranger Things, she asked: “Are we in the upside down?”

In question time on Thursday, Wells ignored her own party’s role in the delay and blamed the Coalition.

“In the dying days of the Morrison government, one of the very last things they could have done was legislate 24/7 nurses for older Australians across the country,” Wells said. Addressing those opposition directly, she added: “But you didn’t. You didn’t. So now we will.”

Sharkie and Patrick were not alone in accusing Labor of being disingenuous. The deputy Liberal leader, Sussan Ley, told parliament on Wednesday that it was “a shame” Albanese and Labor had “played politics with older Australians”.

Ley also criticised the new government for removing a provision for pre-employment staff screening, accusing it of bowing to union demands.

Wells told The Saturday Paper the Coalition’s proposed screening had not been due to start for two years. She said she was following the recommendation of the aged-care royal commission and consulting on a “robust” national registration scheme instead.

“I can see how talking to people to implement a policy would be confusing to the Liberal Party,” she said.

The accusation that actions aren’t always matching rhetoric was extended to other issues this week, including government changes to how parliament is run.

The government has given crossbenchers more question time opportunities at the expense of the Coalition, but trimmed their duration and introduced a provision for ministers to declare a bill “urgent” and rush it through. The Coalition and crossbenchers protested they received very little notice of the detail.

The manager of opposition business, Paul Fletcher, called it “an extremely problematic way to proceed, particularly by a government that talks about a new kinder, gentler approach to politics”.

Leader of the house Tony Burke accused the former Coalition minister of hypocrisy, suggesting he was suffering a sudden memory loss reminiscent of the movie Men in Black.

In his first address to the full Labor caucus, Albanese vowed to break “the inertia that the former government was stuck in”.

“We often came to the parliament without much to do in terms of an agenda,” he said. “The Labor government will not be like that. And we will hit the ground running.”

Albanese had vowed to introduce 18 major pieces of legislation in the first week of parliament. Among them are bills to entrench new climate change targets, provide tax concessions for buying electric cars, introduce paid family violence leave, replace the national skills commissioner with Jobs and Skills Australia, and abolish the cashless debit card.

But as the 47th parliament settles into both its agenda and tone, crossbenchers are expressing surprise at the new government’s slightly passive-aggressive approach to relations. Some are still angry at having previously boosted staffing allocations cut.

Also this week, Treasurer Jim Chalmers’ economic statement was both a curtain-raiser for the coming early budget in October and an exercise in severely lowering expectations. Following confirmation that inflation was now at 6.1 per cent annually, Chalmers warned on Thursday that inflation was now likely to reach 7.75 per cent by December.

He said there was “no use tiptoeing” around the truth. “You didn’t send us to this place to bury the bad news or gloss over the glaring issues or wish away the warning signs. Or to pretend that our problems will somehow solve themselves with more waiting and more wasting time.”

Chalmers said while growth would slow, Australia would likely avoid recession. But the pressure on real wages – how well wages keep up with inflation – would continue for a while yet.

Labor is aware there is only so long it can blame its predecessors for the state of the economy, especially after running on a message of taking responsibility. But it considers that time isn’t up yet. “The fault lies with a decade of wasted opportunities, wrong priorities and wilful neglect – that Australians are all now paying for,” Chalmers said.

The new Labor speaker, Milton Dick, reminded the treasurer that a ministerial statement was to outline policy, not for politicking, and warned all ministers that they should “think forwards, not backwards”.

Shadow Treasurer Angus Taylor said while no government could control all circumstances it faced, “for this government to suggest it didn’t know any of these challenges were there before the election is false”.

While the attacks indicate not everything has changed, Albanese remains insistent he wants “the tone of politics” to be different.

“We want to be more inclusive,” he told Labor MPs. “We want to make sure there’s less shouting and more delivery.”

But there was shouting in the senate, and more accusations that the practice wasn’t matching the preaching.

Independent senator Jacqui Lambie blasted the government for refusing a request to allow Greens senator Jordon Steele-John, who has a disability, to be elected chair of the joint committee on the National Disability Insurance Scheme, of which he is a long-time member.

“When are you going to learn?” Lambie asked. “When are you going to start paying merit to people who deserve it? ... It’s not the best person for the job in here; it’s whether you’re mates with someone or you’re in a certain faction. This has to stop.”

When they voted, only the Greens, Lambie and her Jacqui Lambie Network colleague, Tammy Tyrrell, supported Steele-John.

Over in the lower house, Rebekha Sharkie is trying to keep an open mind about the promised new politics.

“We’re not going to really know what the culture is of this government for some time because the proof is always in the practice,” Sharkie says. “And I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. In this job, if you are not optimistic at least in the beginning of a parliamentary term, it bodes for a sad three years.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2022 as "Aged reforms".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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