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The people the government left behind

Oct 13, 2020 • 16m 36s

Experts have accused the government of failing to properly fund the aged care sector in this year’s federal budget. Advocacy groups are also concerned about the lack of support for young people, women, the unemployed and migrants. Today, Rick Morton on the groups left behind by the Morrison government’s recovery plan.

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The people the government left behind

330 • Oct 13, 2020

The people the government left behind

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

‘Unsurprising but devastating in it’s arrogance’ - that’s how some experts have described the federal government’s unwillingness to properly fund the aged care sector in this year’s federal budget.

And it's not just aged care - advocacy groups are also concerned about the lack of support for young people, women, the unemployed and migrants.

Today, Rick Morton on the groups left behind by the Morrison government’s recovery plan.

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RUBY:

Rick, we know that the aged care sector is desperately underfunded and that's having a huge impact on quality and on safety. So did the government use the budget as an opportunity to fix that at all?

RICK:

To put it bluntly, no, not really.

So just six days after we got this blistering report from the Aged Care Royal Commission about the government's Covid-19 response in aged care - and almost a year after the inquiry's interim report, which was titled Neglect - last week's federal budget contained almost no new funding for nursing homes and certainly no urgency for their reform.

The budget allocates scarcely more than $200 million to nursing homes. And while that might sound like a big figure, it's a drop in the ocean compared to what's actually needed.

More importantly, it's going to be drip fed over three years with no increase in subsidies for elderly residents. There is also nothing for worker conditions or pay in an industry that is one of the most dangerously low paid and insecure. And there's not even funding to increase the number of staff in homes.

I was chatting to multiple sources within the royal commission and they told me that the federal budget is a thinly disguised rebuke of the inquiry's work, and I'm quoting here, ‘unsurprising but devastating in its arrogance and extremely concerning as a statement on the value of older Australians’.

RUBY:

Those are strong words and a pretty damning assessment, Rick.

RICK:

Well, it is, and they've seen the evidence. They have sat through every single day. They prepared the documents and the submissions and the whole kit and caboodle. They’ve seen it all, and so as everyone who has any kind of attachment to the sector. So I spoke to the architect of the new kind of funding tool that the Australian government is trialling, and that was one of the few things in the budget that actually got some money. So this new tool is going to be called the Australian National Aged Care Classification Tool, and it was created and designed by University of Wollongong professor Kathy Eager. And she told me that she was expecting more from the budget.

Archival Tape -- Kathy Eager:

“I think the aged care sector was expecting to see, in the budget, a recognition by government that government understood that the aged care sector is in crisis, and that there is not enough money to deliver the quality of care that Australians expect.”

RICK:

She actually said she was stunned by the lack of investment in residential care, as was I, to be quite honest, because I had spent the week beforehand telling everyone they can't possibly not put some funding in for nursing homes, given everything that we've just gone through.

Archival Tape -- Kathy Eager:

“The Covid crisis really highlighted that the care we’re delivering now is just not good enough, and I was expecting that the government would use this budget, not to fix the whole problem, but to make a downpayment, to start to particularly address the inadequacies in staffing.”

RICK:

Safe quality residential aged care requires a big increase in overall staff numbers, this includes a substantial increase in registered nurses and allied health staff, and this budget doesn't have any of that. She also warned that the lack of funds could continue to have dire consequences, that people would die waiting for the sector to be properly funded.

Archival Tape -- Kathy Eager:

“Covid isn’t a crisis because of the virus itself, aged care was a disaster waiting to happen, and there’s a real risk that residents are going to continue to die waiting for adequate care without better staffing.”

RUBY:

Rick, let's talk about home care - so that's elderly people who want to have workers come to them at home rather than having to go and live in a residential setting. This is one area of aged care that was actually addressed in the budget. So can you tell me about that?

RICK:

Yeah, it's actually the best news in the budget across all of the social sector, really, is there's $1.6 billion over four years to create 23,000 new home care packages. But even if they delivered all 23,000 packages in one year, it still would only reduce the waiting list, which is about a hundred thousand people now by less than a quarter. So the fact remains that in residential aged care, where more than 670 elderly Australians died as a result of a failed Coronavirus response, there are longstanding and critical problems in the sector that just have not been dealt with still.

Interestingly, the only state run nursing home in the entire budget, they got any funded at all - and it's unusual for the Commonwealth to directly fund nursing homes anyway in terms of capital costs - there was one facility that got $700,000 in this financial year and that was in the Strathalbyn District Aged Care facility in South Australia to expand the number of places there. Now, interestingly, or curiously, depending on your bent, the facilities in the election of Mayo, which is held by MP Rebecca Sharkey from the Centre Alliance. Now, you may recall that that party and her negotiations specifically secured the passage of the government's controversial higher education reforms also last week. So Sharkey has lobbied both state and federal governments to rebuild and expand this Strathalbyn home, and she says as much on her own website, she actually makes it a point of pride. So there was a bit of a win in there for Rebecca Sharkey.

RUBY:

Rick, if we take a step back, how does the government's aged care response fit more broadly within the themes of this budget?

RICK:

We know so much about these sectors now, right? So in aged care, as with other areas overlooked by the budget, the people most affected are women, particularly those over 40. These women make up the vast majority of the paid and unpaid caring workforce, both in aged care and in disability. They're one of the fastest increasing segments of the homeless population, and now the majority of JobSeeker recipients. Certainly that was from the data in 2019 before we had this massive influx of people who were laid off.

It's also the first recession in Australian history where women have been the most affected.

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Rick. Is there much in the budget aimed at helping the groups who need support the most right now, marginalised people and those who had the most affected by the pandemic?

RICK:

So, beyond aged care, there is little in this budget directed towards supporting other marginalised groups like First Nations peoples, migrants, refugees and the unemployed. And the people who suffer most in any of those groups almost without fail are women.

There's almost as much money in a single year to support the delivery of Covid-19 Safe Australia Day 2021 events as was provided in a single year for the indigenous specific health programmes - so it’s about $50 million and $60 million each. So the government beyond that is also slashing the humanitarian intake, which is the number of refugees we accept. That's coming down from 18,750 people each year to 13,750. So 5000 people gone each year, which will save the budget almost a billion dollars over the forward estimates.

And the one group that really does need support right now is young people. We know that they've been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. We know that if you suffer in those first years out of school, if you don't have opportunities or access to work experience or jobs, you suffer for a very long time throughout your life. Those effects have a really long tail. And one of the biggest budget measures outside of the tax cuts is this JobMaker Hiring Credit. Now, this, to put it kindly, I guess, is the government's attempt to deal with those well-known issues around youth unemployment. It's supposed to be about helping young workers under the age of 35 to find a job, but there are really some serious questions about how effective that will be.

RUBY:

Right, so what are the issues with that scheme?

RICK:

Well, I mean, it's essentially a wage subsidies scheme for businesses that employ young workers. So it will provide $200 a week to companies that create a new job for workers aged 16 to 29, and that falls to $100 per week for those aged 30 to 35, in a one year period. So you can get up to a maximum of $10,400 dollars per new person. Now, that's all well and good, but I was talking to Ben Phillips, the director of the Australian National University's Centre for Economic Policy and Research, who says that he's really got a lot of scepticism about wage subsidies in general. Traditionally, according to him, schemes like this just don't perform the way that the government hopes. They never taken up in large numbers.

But even more importantly, it may actually create a disincentive to hire older workers. So if you're aged between 36 and 49, there's actually nothing there for you. And that covers one of the biggest unemployed cohorts in Australia, most of whom are women.

RUBY:

And Rick, what about people who are unemployed? Those who are looking for work but are struggling to find it because there's a recession?

RICK:

This one is a bit murkier because there is nothing in the budget that suggests that JobSeeker will continue beyond December. The federal government has already reduced the rate of the Coronavirus supplement - which is in addition to the JobSeeker payment - from $550 per fortnight to $250, and it's currently scheduled to finish at the end of December. So obviously that means unemployed people will just have less money to survive on and find themselves closer to the poverty line once again, in fact, below the poverty line once again.

Archival Tape -- Kristin O'Connell:

“People did hold out hope that there would be something to help them in this budget, and they've looked at it and found nothing…”

RICK:

This is actually something that the Australian Unemployed Workers Union is very concerned about. And I was talking to Kristin O'Connell, the spokeswoman for the union, and she said, we are not thinking about the bigger structural problems over the longer term.

Archival Tape -- Kristin O'Connell:

“Unemployed people that we've heard from in the union have really just expressed an outpouring of grief about the failures of the government to make decisions that will actually care for the millions of people who are currently on unemployment payments and who, many of whom have only scraped by for the past six to eight months because of the increased rate of those payments.”

RICK:

Now, Scott Morrison says that obviously we’ll review that rate when we get closer to December because things are changing and we're shifting gears in the recovery from immediate support to longer term thinking, but they will have to do something.

JobSeeker is actually the single most important mental health measure that we have right now in this country because employment conditions and housing are two of the biggest predictors of mental health in Australia. So those two things are actually crucial.

Archival Tape -- Donna Stolzenberg:

“So my name is Donna Stolzenberg, I’m the founder and CEO of National Homeless Collectives...

The JobSeeker payment being pulled back is going to be disastrous for many, many people. We have not given people enough time to recover from the economic crisis caused by Covid-19, especially people in Victoria who are still in lockdown…”

RICK:

And that's interesting because there's more bad news in the budget for people actually experiencing homelessness.

Archival Tape -- Donna Stolzenberg:

“The budget was really bad news for people who are currently experiencing homelessness and those who are slipping into it…”

RICK:

So in Tuesday's budget, it actually shows it's a $41.3 million drop in funding through the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement.

Archival Tape -- Donna Stolzenberg:

“And those who are experiencing chronic homelessness or who are about to experience chronic homelessness are just being forgotten…”

RICK:

Now, that's the national partnership, and as part of that agreement, that is meant to prioritise women fleeing domestic violence. It's meant to prioritise children and young people, people leaving institutions who are at risk of heading into homelessness, and that money drops pretty much at the end of June next year.

RUBY:

And Rick, you've been reporting on, I suppose, social issues more broadly for a long time. So, aged care, and unemployment, and homelessness. So can you tell me a bit about how it feels to go through the budget papers and see figures like this?

RICK:

It's...it's scary. I mean, I come from that world, to a degree, and it's really scary. I mean, we are facing a cliff. The most terrifying thing for me as someone who's got some really lived experience in this area is the absolute paucity of mental health funding. They just do not understand nor care to find out what it takes for people to get by and to survive. And every economist, bar, you know, the craziest ones, agrees that if you want to stimulate an economy, give the money to people who don't have any because they will spend it. They have pent up demand. There are things they need. They need clothes for job interviews. They need maybe a new computer to do their university assignments. Maybe their kids need some stuff for school. You give it to middle class people, they whack it in the bank account because they worried about not being able to afford their next holiday or something like that.

And it's just incredibly disappointing to see round after round after round of area that is neglected. I thought even... I mean, this is just...my whole life really is just ricocheting between optimism and cynicism and trying to get the settings right, because I went into this thinking that this was the time to do some really important things that would benefit the economy, but more importantly, benefit people. And they haven't done it.

RUBY:

Rick, thank you for talking to me today.

RICK:

Thanks, Ruby. Thanks for having me.

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RUBY:

Also in the news today…

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has told the state’s Independent Commission Against Corruption that she had been in a "close personal relationship" with an MP under investigation for using his position for personal gain.

Telephone conversations between Berejiklian and the MP, Daryl Maguire, were played to the inquiry, highlighting the close relationship between the pair.

The premier said she had been in a relationship with Maguire since 2015, which ended a few months ago.

And the most senior public servant in Victoria has quit after phone records requested by the hotel quarantine inquiry contradicted evidence that he had initially given.

The Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, says he was "shocked" to discover that Chris Eccles called then-police commissioner Graham Ashton on the day the hotel quarantine program was set up.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see ya tomorrow.

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Experts have accused the government of failing to properly fund the aged care sector in this year’s federal budget. Advocacy groups are also concerned about the lack of support for young people, women, the unemployed and migrants. Today, Rick Morton on the groups left behind by the Morrison government’s recovery plan.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

Budget 2020 does little for the vulnerable in The Saturday Paper

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Subscribe in your favourite podcast app, to make sure you don’t miss out.

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330: The people the government left behind