Be sceptical of aged care royal commission

The state of Australia’s aged care sector is worsening every day, with overstretched staff forced to work harder and faster than ever before, inadequate training and stagnant wages. Residents’ expectations of what living in an aged care home should be are constantly being lowered. All the while, profits are tidy and the industry is booming.

The media have been full of stories of residents being handled roughly and sometimes abused and assaulted by frustrated aged care workers. These stories have made their way to the top of the news cycle, with politicians who care little about the welfare of the elderly attempting to generate much-needed political credibility by taking up the cause.

The best example of this is prime minister Scott Morrison, who last month announced a royal commission into the aged care sector. “I think we should brace ourselves for some pretty bruising information about the way our loved ones, some of them, have experienced some real mistreatment”, he said, “And I think that’s going to be tough for us all to deal with. But you can’t walk past it.”

This is an unpopular government, cynically feigning concern for aged care residents in order to get a bump in the polls. It was under this same Liberal government, when Morrison was treasurer, that funding to the aged care sector was cut, and conditions for workers and residents so shamefully deteriorated.

In last year’s budget, Morrison as treasurer proudly announced that the government would “achieve efficiencies” in the aged care sector of $1.2 billion over four years.

These “efficiencies” have not come at the cost of CEO salaries. Regis aged care provider CEO Ross Johnston won’t be suffering with his $1 million annual pay, nor will Japara CEO Andrew Sudholz, who comes in a close second with a $950,000 salary. These efficiencies will come, as they always have, from suppressing the wages of aged care workers and drastically increasing their workload.

Any talk in the media or by the political class of mistreatment of aged care residents by staff needs to take into consideration the incredibly stressful and dehumanising environment in which they work. To do otherwise is disingenuous and a deliberate attempt to avoid responsibility.

Blame must be laid squarely at the feet of the governments and CEOs who have deliberately starved the sector of adequate staffing and funding.

A touted “solution” to the crisis in the sector is to install cameras in the rooms of every resident. This idea has been floated by the current aged care minister, Ken Wyatt. How Wyatt might feel about having a camera installed in his bedroom to film his activities 24 hours a day is unclear, but it is telling of the political climate that such a punitive solution to a quite simple problem of understaffing is being taken seriously at all.

Working in aged care is hard. The work is heavy, it is physically and emotionally demanding, the pay is terrible, and the workload is increasing. The Nurses Federation, the Health Services Union and the Australian Medical Association have been arguing for years now that the sector needs better staffing, better pay and better training.

The recently announced royal commission will not tell us anything that we don’t already know. It will only seek to shift the blame and focus of this debate on to individual workers, while allowing cost-cutting governments to portray themselves as the good guys.