Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia—Australian Greens Whip) (10:43): I wish to outline our support for the measures proposed in the Aged Care Amendment Bill 2011 and then talk about some of the situations facing the provision of aged care in this country, and particularly in my home state of Western Australia. As Senator Fierravanti-Wells pointed out, Western Australia is ahead of the curve of the problems that are facing the provision of aged care and I agree with Senator Fierravanti-Wells: it does need urgent action.
With respect to the amendment that is currently before us, my understanding is that there has been consultation with the sector and with consumers, that the sector is relatively comfortable with the changes being made and that the government has taken on board their comments. The phase-in period is appreciated and the concerns of the sector have largely been met. With respect to the bonds and the improvements and changes to the complaints system, I understand that the concerns of the sector have largely been taken on board. There are a few remaining concerns, but I think that we should see how this new system works and then make any refinements if those are necessary. Of course, this needs to be seen as the beginning of what should be very significant aged-care reform, because there is absolutely no doubt that aged care does need urgent reform in this country. That was evident to anybody who took part in the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee inquiry that Senator Polley chaired. It was unanimous across the chamber—the government, the opposition and myself, in terms of representing the Greens. All of us expressed our concern about some of the issues that were raised with us during the Senate inquiry. It was disappointing that the government did not act sooner to start dealing with these issues and making the reference to the Productivity Commission. However, we are pleased that the referral was eventually made. The Productivity Commission draft report has come out and comments have been made on that. That Productivity Commission draft report was fairly well received in the main. Of course, there were a lot of comments, but it has been fairly well received.
Urgent reform is clearly highlighted by the issues that are being seen in Western Australia. They are also reflected around Australia, but, as I said, we are at the head of the curve on these issues. For a number of ACARs we have seen WA not taking up the number of beds that were released. The sector has not taken up the number of beds that were applied. Consistently, around half of those beds are taken up. In the last ACAR, the government made a sensible decision, and that was to transfer some of the bed licences across to community care. I have a couple of comments to make about that. The failure of the providers to take up the bed licences in the last ACAR is strongly reflective of the state of the sector in Western Australia, and that is that they cannot afford to take up those beds under the current funding model. In other words, at the moment they cannot build and provide the facilities into the longer term because they know that they will not be viable.
It has taken the government a long time to take on board what the providers have been saying for years: 'We are not going to be viable and we cannot continue to provide these services.' There is the level of funding that has been provided to build facilities, particularly in Western Australia, where construction costs have been going through the roof. I will get to the workforce in a minute. Those costs have been going through the roof
and they simply cannot afford to build the facilities, and funding levels for care—particularly high care—are falling below what enables these providers to be viable.
In terms of transferring through to community care, that was a good emergency response, but we cannot continue to have these emergency responses. There is only so much care that can be provided by community care. It is not only that; we are also seeing that the funding levels for community care are not sustainable at the moment and those services will not be viable into the future. In the case of Western Australia, there is a difference between HACC services and community care packages. There are differences with what is available and funding. Some people want to remain on HACC provided services in Western Australia because they feel they get better service and support than they do from the community care packages. That is another area that needs to be looked at.
In WA—and this is going to happen in the rest of the sector—viability and funding is not what is needed to make these services sustainable. It is hard to get people into the workforce, firstly because of funding and low wages—and I will come to the need to fix that in a minute—and, secondly, because of the forthcoming mining boom in Western Australia. If you have a choice between working on low wages in aged care or making a massive wage in the mines, guess what you will choose to do? You will choose to leave that sector to work in the mines. Not only are we losing experienced workers in aged care to higher paid employment, like mining, but we are also not attracting new workers. Of course, you have the issues around poor wages and the pay equity case that needs to be resolved. Government needs to incorporate the need for increased wages into the funding rounds.
As I said, the government is waiting for the final report of the Productivity Commission—I can understand that—but the message from us is very clear: the government will need to act with a sense of extreme urgency once that Productivity Commission report is released, because this sector is in crisis. You can talk to anybody in the sector. I do not just talk to Western Australian providers; I talk to Australian providers, and I know that what is happening in Western Australia is starting to be reflected in other states. We are ahead of the curve. I always say that WA is special, but in this instance, because of the special circumstances that are operating in Western Australia, we are the canary in the mine that highlights what is coming down the track for the rest of Australia. These issues need to be dealt with urgently.
We know that our population is ageing, so we know there will be increased pressure on our aged-care services and health services. We also know that the demographic of those who are ageing expects different things from the aged-care services and the way they are supported in their old age. We know that people stay at home longer and are shifting into high care later. We know that the services people will need in high care will be different to the way it is now. We also know that the current balance between low care and high care is at a kilter. That is affecting the finances of some providers. We also know that some people do not want to stay home; they actually want to make an orderly transition into high care, but not everyone does. Overwhelmingly, I have been told that people want to stay in their home longer. Therefore, we need to look at how we provide community care into the long term. These are issues that the government urgently needs to respond to. We will be looking for a very timely response by the government to the final Productivity Commission report. I presume that the government has already been preparing very carefully its response to the final report. It has no excuse. I doubt there will be that many surprises in the final report by the Productivity Commission. It knows the direction that the Productivity Commission is going in. I would have thought that it is not beyond the wit of the government to respond in a timely manner to the final report. It then needs to set out actual plans for urgent action, because if it was not for the fact this issue had been sent off to the Productivity Commission there would be a lot more people banging on the government's door right now saying, 'We need change.' The government must not hold off responding to this report. We are most definitely expecting a quick response from the government to the recommendations in next year's budget and we are also expecting to see the long-term planning for how it is going to deal with this crisis. The government has a short time frame in which to respond before we see more and more aged care providers go out the back door because they will simply not be viable.
I put on the record that the Greens will be supporting this bill but urge the government to quickly and urgently respond. By urgently, I mean they have had time to respond so they cannot use the excuse of, 'We do not want to urgently respond because we need time.' The government have had time. They knew this crisis was coming. They finally acknowledged it. They have had their heads in the sand for a long time. Now we need to see them respond in a timely, comprehensive manner with an action plan about where to from here so that we can fix this crisis before it goes even further, before we lose the expertise from the sector and lose those providers that are providing excellent services in trying circumstances to people ageing in Australia. We need to not only fix the current situation but put in place a framework for how we are going to improve the provision of aged care in this country and how we can build a quality system into the future where we support all Australians as they age.