When profits come before people

Australia has an ageing population and a free market economy. What does the former mean for the latter? The September 2014 edition of the ASX investor update newsletter spelled it out: “Old could be gold for companies that benefit from this powerful demographic trend”.

Don’t adjust your eyes, you read that right. The Australian Stock Exchange’s advice to the rich in 2014 was to jump on the aged care cash cow. The hot tip for “ageing-related stocks” was Japara Healthcare, one of the biggest owner-operators of residential health care facilities in Australia. 

Fast forward to the September 2018 revelations of rampant abuse and neglect by some of the richest companies in Australia. Almost $500 million was wiped off the share prices of the nation’s four largest operators. Shares in Japara dropped 17 percent. 

It seems confidence in the market’s ability to provide a humane level of care to people in their older years is not as strong as free market ideology suggests it should be. 

But still a true believer is prime minister Scott Morrison. When Morrison was treasurer in 2016, the Productivity Commission released a report advising that specialist palliative care, public dental services, family and community services, social housing, services at public hospitals and services in remote Indigenous communities should be opened to market competition. That is, privatised. 

Morrison had been spruiking the merits of privatising every conceivable area of social need even before the report’s release. This is the blunt way he put it to the Australian Council of Social Services in 2015: 

“Private capital investment in addressing social needs – charity must continue, and I believe it will – but real commercial investment is needed in addressing social challenges the country faces.” 

Not content with offering up Aboriginal people, the sick, children, families, the elderly and the homeless to the sacrificial altar of the market, Morrison also dreamed up a scheme for the rich to profit from welfare via an investment bonds scheme. 

Pitching it to ABC radio’s PM program in June 2015, he explained: “What I’m basically saying is that welfare must become a good deal for investors, for private investors”.

Experience has shown that as social services become “a good deal for investors” they become a rotten deal for those who rely on them. 

Every scandal associated with privatisation, from utilities to public transport, exposes the lies about how market competition will provide better services. 

Too often, “more choice for consumers” means less choice. For those who can’t afford to pay top dollar, it means ending up in a facility that cuts corners to maximise profits and treats people like objects on a production line. 

It means being served “minced moist”, the now notorious and repulsive meal routinely served to older people in nursing homes. 

This includes nursing homes owned by corporate health giants such as BUPA. BUPA is just one of several large aged care providers shifting billions of dollars in profits offshore, paying little or no tax and receiving millions of dollars in government subsidies. It does so with the assurance that no government agency will bother to check up on its experiments in human neglect.

The privatisation of essential services has been a project of both Labor and Liberal governments over the last 30 years. Recently, the Liberals accelerated the pace with policies that open up social services to the market and slash funding to public services. 

Where funding is available, competitive tendering means that big businesses are increasingly taking the lion’s share of public money. Because they employ fewer workers, pay them a pittance and demand they work doubly hard, corporations frequently offer the cheapest contracts. 

And what do “consumers” get? Not much, as the recent aged care scandal demonstrates. A two-year study looking at the cost of feeding aged care residents found that the average aged care “consumer” gets about $6 worth of food per day.

Privatisation is the opposite of what we’re told it is. The market values only profit, not proper care of human beings.