The current aged care environment is gloomy, but it may present one of the best possible opportunities for a successful campaign, writes Pat Garcia. 

This week the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety received its final submissions.

It was a royal commission designed to finally jolt the nation into confronting our huge aged care challenge. For generations, aged care has been treated as a game of pass-the-parcel in Canberra, with governments giving the sector a little shake before quickly handing it off to a successor. The royal commission was hoped to be a means of making the music stop.

Pat Garcia

In some respects it has worked. The public has been shocked by the exposure of individual incidents that have occurred in our system and discussion has been provoked.

But let’s be frank. Up until a few months ago most Australians didn’t actually know there was a royal commission into aged care, unlike the inquiries into institutional abuse, the trade union movement, and banking – all of which earned constant coverage.

Indeed, the central problem at the heart of our national inaction on aged care remains undressed: politicians see little political advantage in taking action on aged care.

They understand voters have a deeply ingrained aversion to grappling with the problem for any length of time. Ageing and death are not topics we handle well in our youth-obsessed modern culture.

So while we may tut-tut for a day at a media story stemming from the royal commission, politicians also know we’re eager to move on and forget it. And there’s virtually no such thing as a swing voter in a marginal electorate who considers aged care policy to be pivotal on deciding where to cast their ballot.

Catholic Health Australia actually put this to the test with polling during the most recent federal by-election in Eden Monaro. While a sizeable majority of voters considered aged care to be in crisis, virtually none were willing to nominate it as important to deciding their vote.

I know it’s a gloomy picture I paint. But should those of us who care deeply about reform for the sector give up hope? I think not.

For a start, the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the recent experience in Victoria, has brought aged care into much sharper focus. For the first time opposition parties are raising the issue, knowing it will get coverage. Governments are feeling more pressure than ever before to address the issue publicly.

Which bring us back to the royal commission and it’s crucial historic mission: how to convert the ephemeral shock the public has felt from moments in this Royal Commission into concrete policy action.

D-Day will arrive in February, when the royal commission will hand down its final report. This will be the one opportunity to reboot public interest. It will be a critical moment for the sector.

The report must set out a viable path forward – something the average person believes will improve care, something the public service believes is implementable, and something politicians believe can be funded.

From a Catholic Health Australia perspective I believe this should mean making substantial resourcing available to better skilled and better remunerated aged care workers in much larger numbers. These workers should be governed by appropriate regulation – not mandated staff ratios, the benefits of which are dubious, but rather registration arrangements, minimum qualifications, continuous professional development, and screening.

The recommendations should also focus on providing seniors with better access to the wider health system, including primary care, palliative care, and other specialists, along with acute care, mental health, allied health and oral health services.

We also need consumers to have access to timely and reputable advice and information on aged care services, and independent guidance for the most vulnerable, so they can easily and soundly make a choice about the service provider and type of service they need. To fully realise the potency of exercising informed choice, the current rationing of services which has 100,000 older Australians on a waiting list for home-based care, must also be abandoned.

Given that most political pundits predict the election will be held in the second half of 2021, there will be twelve months to keep aged care on the radar instead of allowing it to slip down to its traditional spot at the bottom of the national priority list.

That’s a big ask. So the sector needs to do something as well. Drawing inspiration from the ‘Every Australian Counts’ campaign that gave rise to the NDIS, the aged care sector must develop a similarly impactful campaign for aged care.

The hard truth is that the current environment may present as one of the best opportunities we’re likely to get for successful campaigning.

Pat Garcia is executive director of Catholic Health Australia 

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