Morrison can’t bluff his way out of the aged care crisis

Aug 18, 2020

I will turn 80 next year, which means that the issue of aged care is rapidly assuming more than academic significance.

I still hope and expect my last years peacefully at home, but given my declining health I have to accept that it may not be possible – I will have to go into some sort of home. And the prospect leaves me with gloom and apprehension.

This is almost certainly unfair – almost all aged care facilities are doing their best and most are managed and managing very well. The ABC’s wonderful series about bringing four-year-olds into one of them for regular visits shows that with ingenuity and diligence an aged care home can be a place of joy and hope.

Some of my older female friends have taken the plunge and after a usually brief period of assimilation have found the transition both comfortable and beneficial. I can’t say the same for my older male friends, because they are almost all dead. That is another article altogether.

But there is more than enough anecdotal evidence to demonstrate that some are clearly dysfunctional, with neglect not uncommon and even willful murder occasionally revealed.

And sometimes not revealed – covered up so that the homes can operate to the satisfaction of their owners, often rich entrepreneurs who have built financial empires over the graves of their victims.

So it is not surprising that they are regarded as places of last resorttwilight homes, God’s waiting rooms where the frail and helpless are left to die. Or that there is community outrage at the lack of adequate supervision from wither the industry or the government.

This was the case long before Coronavirus inveigled its way in, but the rate of deaths in the last months has forced matters to something of a tipping point. There is a royal commission underway with the likelihood of reform, although given the complexities of the area it may take quite a while to implement.

And Australian politics being what it is, the blame game is well underway: is this ongoing disaster the fault of the states, and particularly Victoria, the socialist dictatorship of Daniel Andrews who is axiomatically responsibility for everything, or does the buck stop with the commonwealth, who, as Scott Morrison once admitted with unwonted candour, the people who can dole out the money?

Well, as is almost always the case where disputes over federalism erupt, a bit of both. Andrews is stuck with the day to day running of the institutions, which has seldom been optimal and at times catastrophic. But he can pay for whatever Morrison is willing to fund beyond the fees (frequent exorbitant) levied on the hapless residents. and obviously it just isn’t enough.

It wasn’t before COVID-19 emerged, and it certainly isn’t now. And it is more than disingenuous for the feds to claim that they had a plan ready in the event of a pandemic and that it was in the process of working. There wasn’t and it isn’t,

Sadly, Brendan Murphy, the newly minted head of the health department, has been drawn into the deception. Having been promoted, presumably on the strength of his credibility in his role as the government’s chief health officer, he is now pushing spin rather than substance.

His extraordinary intervention in the commission, demanding the right to defend Morrison’s plan, has been more than embarrassing. His line was that the plan must be working because the death rate in aged care homes in Australia compared with the rest of the population was less than that in England.

And it may be, but it is still more than the rate anywhere else – Australia ranks among the worst in the developed world, depending on how you do the numbers. To claim that as some sort of triumph is as mendacious as anything coming out of Morrison’s office. Even The Australian wasn’t buying it.

But what The Australian was buying, indeed vigorously promoting, was the distraction: the reason for the stuff up in hotel quarantine restrictions was not only entirely Andrews fault, which goes without saying, but could have been avoided: Andrews knocked back an offer from defence personnel who were willing, and probably eager to take over.

Instead, he installed private contractors who bonked their way through the buildings while the stir-crazed detainees surged out to spread the virus across Melbourne, across Victoria, across the nation. Criminal negligence, if not deliberate sabotage. The man must resign, or better, suffer ritual disembowelment.

According to this theory, the gallant. diggers were ready with every assistance, and Andrews had churlishly refused them: no ifs, no buts. And ScoMo’s  Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, had a timeline to prove it.

Except that she didn’t. What the timeline, in fact, shows that there was certainly an understanding between commonwealth and state officials that assistance would be forthcoming if and when it was required and that Emergency Management Victoria commissioner Andrew Crisp was well and truly in the loop, discussing details of how it could be implemented with the officers of the ADF.

Initially, that was to be limited to transport, specifically collecting those bound for isolation from the airport to their hotels but extending that to using defence personnel as security once they got there was also on the table. But Crisp is firm that those negotiations did not involve Andrews or his office and that neither the premier nor any of his ministers actually made a request.

This can be dismissed as plausible deniability – or even somewhat implausible deniability. And in hindsight, the decision was unwise, although Western Australia pursued the same strategy without unleashing the horrors of the garden state’s second wave. But there is no smoking gun: as is so often the case, we are looking at a stuff-up rather than a conspiracy.

And the same can probably be said about Morrison’s handling of the aged care crisis, which makes his stubborn insistence that his government really did have a plan to prepare for it all the more puzzling. He says he is sorry if his plan did not meet community expectations. But if there was a plan at all, it has self-evidently failed, and he would do better to apologise unreservedly than to continue to try and defend the indefensible.

To admit to an honest oversight makes better political sense than attempting to bluff his way out of it. And it would help to reassure those likely to become the reluctant clients of the homes, which is considerably more important.

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