Aged Care Opportunity For Labor?

As the death tolls skyrocketed on the eastern seaboard, we’ve seen Australians accept lock-downs and roll up their sleeves for vaccines in the name of protecting our most vulnerable.  At the same time, COVID-19 has revealed the structural deficiencies in the aged care system for all to see.  Once it would have seemed inconceivable that we would have the government sending soldiers into our nursing homes or making mass calls-outs for (untrained) volunteers to staff them – and yet, here we are.  It could have been better, the sector’s longstanding challenges are nothing new.  It wasn’t, it isn’t and I think Australians know this.

Of course, we’ve known for a long time that the aged care system is broken (through 20 major reviews and a Royal Commission) but a little pain closer to home tends to sharpen one’s focus.  Over the past two years many of our Gen X and Boomer sons and daughters have wrestled with the conundrum of whether a residential aged care facility, in fact, the best place for their parent during a pandemic– adding an extra layer of guilt to the already difficult decision to place their loved one in care.

Will voters be prepared make this an election issue?  Quite possibly.  Independent polling group RedBridge Group has found that 50% of the swing seat voters polled would be prepared to change their vote in response to aged care policy.  Unsurprisingly, most of them think the system is not adequately funded, that the sector is unsafe and that the federal government’s response to the Royal Commission has been too little, too late.

Both parties have adopted a small target strategy to date.  For the Liberals, this makes sense.  The Minister went MIA at the cricket and has generally been an uninspiring and powerless leader and there is a perceived lack of progress in implementing the recommendations of the Royal Commission and the funding committed is widely acknowledged as a drop in the ocean of what is required.  This combined with the deaths of over 900 nursing home residents this year, a disastrous cash incentive scheme for aged care workers which providers are now being asked to subsidise and an illusory government “surge workforce” in circumstances where up to 25% of shifts are going unfilled.  One can understand why the Liberals might not be prepared to make aged care an election issue.

What I can’t quite understand is why Labor is not jumping at this opportunity?  Whilst there have been some lukewarm statements of support in the media and a lot of righteousness in Question Time and in the Senate about the federal government’s handling of the aged care crisis, we have seen no concrete commitments from Labour in respect of the reform and funding of the aged care system. 

This is an issue which transcends politics, particularly for middle Australians, caught between the right and the left and looking for way though.  Those voters will go to the party who looks after their health, their wealth and that of their families.  They’re not asking for the government to simply hand over more money to the sector, they’re asking for a commitment to reforming the aged care system (including the way in which it is funded) that sits outside of the three-year election cycle.  They’re asking for a system that pays workers what they are worth (and at least as much as the equivalent roles in the next poorly paid sector, disability – a story for another time).  The issue of ‘user pays’ needs to be de-politicised and considered on its merits.  Australians are ready to engage with the idea that people who can afford to pay for their care should do so and that, as I’ve written previously, aged care delivers social and economic impacts that far outweigh the initial government investment.

In the world we live in, aged care needs to be firmly on the election agenda for meaningful reform.  The question is, will the voters drag the political parties kicking and screaming to the issue or will they rise to it?  I suspect the former but Labor has an opportunity to lead the conversation as well.  The question for the parties then becomes, do you have an actual plan?  For all its stumbling, the Liberal party is further along the this road. Labor would do well though to heed our poor besieged Minister Colbeck’s warning, [if] “You don’t have a plan, you aren’t the future”. 

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