Minister for Aged Care and Sport – Interview on ABC Insiders – 11 June 2023

Read the transcript of the Minister Wells' interview with David Speers about the Aged Care Taskforce, workforce and labour agreements.

The Hon Anika Wells MP
Minister for Aged Care
Minister for Sport

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DAVID SPEERS, HOST: Anika Wells, welcome to the program. So as we saw there, Labor certainly wasn’t considering an aged care levy before the election. Now you are. What's changed, why are you now open to the idea?

ANIKA WELLS, MINISTER FOR AGED CARE AND SPORT: I think what I've put forward in the Aged Care Taskforce this week is that we need to have an honest, responsible and mature discussion about what aged care is going to look like in this country. And if I'm setting up a Taskforce that is going to answer the question of how do we sustainably, equitably, fund aged care in Australia moving forward, we need to deliberate on the recommendations to aged care funding that were handed by the Royal Commission.

SPEERS: Which was two years ago. And in the years that followed Labor, as we just saw, was very cool on the idea of a levy was that because you had an election to win?

WELLS: I would say we're still not advocating any particular proposal. What we are saying is that we're opening up a Taskforce, like you said, short, sharp, to deliberate for six months on how to move forward. I would say that proposal, along with plenty of others have been suggested in about 20 years' worth of governments not acting on the future of aged care. And now it is the time to look at everything that has come before, deliberate and adjudicate.

SPEERS: You are right, this has been talked about for a long time, many would argue there's a real need to fix the funding of aged care one way or another. You have only been Minister for one year and here you are having a crack at this. Why is that? Why have so many been so reluctant to go down this path and you're now willing to do it?

WELLS: Well, for me, it's really personal. I spoke at the National Press Club about my mum working in aged care for the last 15 years before she retired. I worked in aged care alongside her for a few years at uni and I saw then some of the problems that I saw, again, walking back into facilities becoming the aged care Minister this year. I think this is just one policy area that has been allowed to drift as too hard for decades and decades. If we can't act after a Royal Commission that had an interim report titled ‘neglect’, genuinely when are we going to do it?

SPEERS: So the two Royal Commissions had slightly different views on the best way to do it a levy, what do you think? I suppose where do we need to start here, do you tell the taskforce what funding is needed, is that important to begin with? How much money is aged care going to require?

WELLS: I think that would be putting the cart before the horse I think we're coming at this from the perspective of how do we lift the standard of care in this country? I said some guiding principles for me chairing the Taskforce are going to be how do we get better care into the system? How do we get better clarity into the system because people tell me every Saturday morning it is almost impenetrable. So a bunch of work for the Taskforce to do is on what the different proposals are and what they'll raise.

SPEERS: But if you need to, if you need to raise so an extra 10 billion a year to deliver the services people want in aged care. Well, some options are gonna look better than others. Right? You know, a levy, across the board, all taxpayers, might be where you have to go?

WELLS: I think what we need out of this is for people to genuinely feel like they have a choice, whether that's a choice to stay at home for as long as possible, whether that's a choice to enter a particular model of residential aged care and there's some really innovative models out there in other countries starting to come into Australia but how do I make policy settings that encourage investment and make it an environment that people want to invest in innovative care?

SPEERS: So what are those models, those innovative models from overseas that you're talking about?

WELLS: Yeah, so there's the village model which initiated out of the Netherlands the Hogeweyk, apologies for my Dutch, model where it's based around a village where people live in sort of houses that might occupy six or seven people, like it's called a Hearth in the Netherlands. And then they have a restaurant or gym or village green and there is one down in Tasmania that uses cargo bikes to get people around. And they speak to much higher visitation rates of residents from their families, because it's an environment that people want to come to, that grandkids want to come to, because it doesn’t feel as institutional.

SPEERS: So is this the future of aged care? Because we've heard you talk about what we don't want to see, is this more home style in between shared accommodation and in home care, is that sort of the future you're envisioning envisaging?

WELLS: I hope so. And I think what people have told me is that innovation has been pretty stifled. There's no reward or incentive to do it apart from the goodness of your own heart and there's other models for people where they've created inside a main street village environment that is very similar to a small town where the hardware store is in the same place in relation to the grocery store. People have a house front, a porch and then all of their healthcare practitioners operate through back corridors discreetly and that creates efficiency as well if you can do that quickly.

SPEERS: It sounds wonderful, but it does sound expensive. So it gets us back to this issue of how you how you fund it. Are you open to a Medicare style levy on all taxpayers?

WELLS: As chair of the taskforce, I do think we have a genuine duty to deliberate on the two particular recommendations of the Royal Commission, whether or not that's to rule them out immediately. I think we owe them the respect of considering them. There are plenty of other proposals out there too, the sector itself called together a summit last week and they're going to put a white paper up to the task force, can't wait to read that. So I think it's just too soon.

SPEERS: Is this a way, particularly if you put a levy on higher income earners, to pay for this, is this a way of clawing back some of the stage three tax cuts benefits that will flow to the top?

WELLS: That is not my guiding principle setting out to do the Taskforce. But the point that I think is the thrust of your question is that Australians are already paying more for aged care at the moment. Taxpayers are contributing huge amounts for good reason. We've got to lift the standard of care, we put a $36 billion injection into aged care in the May budget and on existing settings, because there already is means testing in aged care.

SPEERS: Well there is but I wanted to ask you about this too. It's it seems a bit of a light touch, really. I think at the moment the government currently takes into account up to $186,000 of property wealth so if you live in a $4 million house, you get the same subsidy as someone who lives in a very modest flat.

WELLS: Yeah. And I think that speaks to the reason for a Taskforce to reform aged care funding because it speaks to the equity of the system.

SPEERS: So more user-pays for those who can afford to?

WELLS: I think we need a system that people feel like they've got a choice about where they go and if they have the means to pay for it. In the terms of reference there is a safety net so people who do not have means will still have options, choice.

SPEERS: Options and choice are important but I guess my question is, will you require those who have wealth to use it?

WELLS: I think it's too soon to say what the Aged Care Taskforce will recommend to government. But I think what people have told me and my test here is not just what do people come and meet with me in Parliament about aged care proposals but it's also about what people tell me outside the IGA on Saturday morning and Lilley and they have made very clear to me that they want more options. They're prepared to pay the higher-quality care but they can't find it. So my job is to create the policy settings that allow those things to be built so people can find it.

SPEERS: I want to ask you about some of the workforce challenges. You said this is some of the biggest challenges right now in aged care. Labor promised all aged care facilities would have a registered nurse on deck 24/7 From July 1. So just a few weeks from now, you've even made this a legal requirement. But as this deadline approaches, we know some providers are struggling and they're now being told look, as long as you can show you're genuinely trying, that's okay. So simple question. When will this promise be fulfilled?

WELLS: As soon as I can possibly muster it, David.

SPEERS: When's that?

WELLS: Well, like you say workforce shortages are the number one issue in aged care. That's not new. Like I said National Press Club that was the number one issue for mum in the early 2000s. And it's also not just us in Australia. We are in global competition for care economy workers. The ageing population is an issue being faced by every single rich country across the world.

SPEERS: We've known this for a long time. You guys have set the deadline. You made it a key election promise. So when's it going to happen? Could it be another 12 months?

WELLS: I think it speaks to the seismic shift happening in the sector at the moment. Yes, we legislated it within months of coming to Parliament because we wanted people to understand that we were going to go about aged care differently. And yes, I've admitted for some months we're going to fall short come 1 July.

SPEERS: So when is it now looking toward it? Could it be July next year?

WELLS: Well, what will happen come 1 July when the legislation kicks in and people are required to provide nursing 24/7. And like you say where people aren't able to do so they will still have to tell Janet Anderson, our regulator, that they have alternative care arrangements in place, and she will have to be satisfied with those alternative care arrangements.

SPEERS: But you’re reluctant to put any date on when this will now happen.

WELLS: Yeah, because like you say it's a systemic crippling shortage that we inherited that other countries like us face, but that shouldn't mean that people have to accept a more feeble standard of care and wait. And I'm sure people are watching us from nursing homes this morning, David, we made that promise. I don't regret making that promise because come 1 July, even where we fall short, there will still be many, many more nurses providing many, many more hours of care in nursing homes than they ever would have been had we not done something.

SPEERS: How many foreign workers will be required to meet these commitments, both the nursing requirement and the 200 minutes per resident per day commitment that has to be met by October?

WELLS: Well, thousands are required. The aged care workforce as it currently stands is about 50% of migrant workers. So that is the environment that we've all been operating in for some time.

SPEERS: Will that be higher as a result of these changes?

WELLS: I couldn’t speak to whether or not that's likely to be the case. Just to say that one of the measures that we put in place is Labour Agreements, which is a huge development. No Liberal government could ever have done that.

SPEERS: This is to fast track more migrants into aged care?

WELLS: It's a tripartite agreement between business government and unions, the first one that was signed in Perth a few weeks ago now with Minister Giles has 559 workers coming in across a five-year agreement.

SPEERS: Some immigration experts are worried. This is now the fastest way to get a permanent Australian residency. You can come here for six-weeks training to work in aged care for two years and you can be a permanent resident, right?

WELLS: The six-week training I'm not sure where that's come from, I think that might speak to that Howard-era cooks and hairdressers rule.

SPEERS: What do you need to do?

WELLS: If you are part of a Labor agreement coming here you have either maybe a Cert III qualification, which is about a six-month course or you have 12-months equivalent experience in order to participate in the first instance.

SPEERS: Will the government's same job, same pay rules apply in aged care because a lot of labour higher is used in aged care?

WELLS: These Labour Agreements are a unique beast, they're a massive deal. Minister Giles tells me that he's got people queuing out the door of his office to line these up because they do, they achieve for everybody what they need to do.

SPEERS: They pay $51,000 a year for those migrant workers in aged care.

WELLS: Depending on the agreement and the award and the 1 July pay rise.

SPEERS: Will it be same job, same pay in aged care?

WELLS: In the same way that all federal laws apply that the various different awards, there are three, that sit on to the aged care sector apply to workers.

SPEERS: So will the migrant workers get the same pay as the Australians.

WELLS: Yes, the labour agreements in no way to undercut the rigorous labour laws that we have in this country.

SPEERS: The government has now addressed I think it's 69 recommendations from that Royal Commission. Will the other 79 be implemented or are there some you now won't proceed with?

WELLS: There are some that directly contradict one another like we've already spoken about two different proposals about how to reform aged care funding. So it is the case we're not going to hit 148. They come now really in tranches. So there's another I would say 30, 40 tied up in to the new Act, which we're hoping to do next year. There's another couple of dozen tied up with delivering the new Support at Home system so we will keep working through them.

SPEERS: One of the recommendations was to review the regulator, the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission to assess whether it's doing its job properly. That review has been done. It's been sitting on your desk for well since April. As I understand. So when will you release that?

WELLS: I’ve had a read of it. Some of those things are attached to what will be decisions of government in forthcoming budgets. So we will release it and we'll release it with the government responses as soon as I can manage.

SPEERS: All right, and look a final one just on the issue we're going to talk about shortly. Katy Gallagher, she's denied misleading Parliament when she said and I quote 'no one had any knowledge about Brittany Higgins’ rape allegations'. She now says though she was made aware, how has she not misled parliament?

WELLS: Well, she said that on the night in Senate Estimates where this all blew up, that she wasn't answering questions as a Minister. She was the person asking the questions in the first place. She's had this interaction with Linda Reynolds, they've taken it offline. They've had a discussion about it. They put that to one another. Linda Reynolds accepted that at the time, and two years on, I accept that now.

SPEERS: But she did say no one had any knowledge, and she did.

WELLS: I think she said yesterday that she was aware of some things and she didn't act on it. She didn't do anything with that information. And honestly, David, the political conjecture that has gone on this week about this issue I find pretty horrifying and failing to see a really awful forest for the trees. These people who are, at this point, fairly craven political operators running around, having never concerned themselves with answering public interest questions one through 86 about what happened here in their government to now say that we need to answer public interest questions 87 through 88… totally beyond the pale in my book, particularly when it comes to Katy Gallagher. There is not a soul in Parliament has done more for women and the safety of women, either inside or outside the building, then Katy Gallagher.

SPEERS: Anika Wells, thank you for joining us.

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