ABC Radio Adelaide Mornings with David Bevan - 02/03/2021

02 March 2021

SUBJECTS: Aged Care Royal Commission; Allegation of rape against a Cabinet Minister.

DAVID BEVAN, HOST: Senator Simon Birmingham, good morning to you.

SENATOR SIMON BIRMINGHAM, GOVERNMENT LEADER IN THE SENATE: Good morning, David and good morning to your listeners.

BEVAN: And Senator Penny Wong, good morning to you.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LABOR LEADER IN THE SENATE: Good morning, David. Good to be with you.

BEVAN: Senator Simon Birmingham, Finance Minister, we can start with you. This Royal Commission into Aged Care. Your Government, your party, the Coalition has been in government 18 out of the last 25 years. Do you accept your party, your Coalition, has failed the nation's elderly?

BIRMINGHAM: Well, David, I think we have clear issues in aged care. It’s the reason why we commissioned the Royal Commission, it’s the reason why we’ve been investing significantly more over a period of time, be that growing support for residential aged care from $14 billion or to $14 billion this year from $9 billion back when we last came back into government, there’s the trebling of home care places from 60,000, when we were elected in 2013, to 195,000 home care places now, but this is one of the big challenging issues of our time, with an aging population and the pressures that come with that. And so this report will be a landmark upon which we now build major policy reforms to go further than what we have done over the last few years.

BEVAN: So is it a case of building on what you've done? Or is it a case of saying, ‘well, that didn't work, we've got to start again’. And I'd like Penny Wong’s thoughts on this in just a moment: do we just need to start again? Simon Birmingham?

BIRMINGHAM: We don't, we don't have the luxury of starting from a blank piece of paper. So we build upon what we've done and where we are. Australia's aged care system has many good service providers in it, doing good work, doing hard work, providing fabulous care for many Australians. But it also has let too many people down and failed in terms of the quality of care in too many instances. And that's why we've got to have the type of reforms that have been announced in the Royal Commission. And we're going to work through that across each of the different pillars that it identifies, be it what needs to be done to train and skill, the aged care workforce. And yesterday, we announced an initial response of $92 million to create a further 18,000 places for training, or be it of course, the quality and safety components. And again, yesterday, we made an initial response of $32 million into the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission. But of course, then there are questions around the availability, the funding into into different services. And we're going to work through all of those very carefully over the period of time between now and the budget. And indeed, over the years to come as well in ensuring this change is effectively implemented.

BEVAN: Penny Wong, I think it was Paul Kelly, who said when governments and opposition disagree we have news; when governments and opposition agree we have history. Will we get history out of this?

WONG: I hope so. Well, let's be clear what this Commission report demonstrates. It demonstrates that the aged care system is in crisis. It demonstrates tragic neglect of our elderly. It demonstrates half of residents being malnourished. I mean, the system is a national disgrace.

What needs to start is a demonstration of Federal leadership and an acceptance of Federal responsibility. And regrettably, I think we've seen too much over these last years, including in the face of tragic deaths in the aged care sector during the coronavirus outbreak, is insufficient leadership and insufficient responsibility from Scott Morrison. Now, if he is willing to demonstrate that, well, we will put our shoulder to the wheel too. I mean, this is a system in crisis and a system which is unacceptable in terms of the treatment of older Australians. It needs to be fixed.

BEVAN: But neither party comes to this debate with clean hands, do they? I mean, this was sparked by the Oakden Royal Commission hearing in South Australia, that debacle. And that was a state run facility, and it was run for the last 16 years by a state Labor government. So do you have to put your swords down, Penny Wong, in order to look at…

WONG: …And I’ve just said to you that we are willing to put our shoulder to the wheel on this. But I do say to you I have questioned Senator Richard Colbeck, as have members of the Labor Party and the crossbench, through the crisis we saw in aged care over this last period and the tragic deaths, and over and over again, we see that minister, reflecting the government's approach, which is ‘oh we’re working with the sector, we're giving the sector this, we're giving the sector that’ – but not actually taking responsibility for the system. Well, I hope that time has passed. And if Mr Morrison is prepared to demonstrate leadership, and take responsibility and come forward with a plan that genuinely resolves this, we will look at that, because you're right. This is a system, whilst people have been – what is it? - 18 over the last 20-something years the Coalition has been in government. We know that all governments can do better on this. And we all should.

BEVAN: At 29 minutes past 9. Simon Birmingham, you're the Finance Minister, have you been preparing to find a mountain of money to pay for this? The Prime Minister said ‘here’s a half a billion dollars, but wait till the budget’. You're gonna have to find a lot more money.

BIRMINGHAM: The types of changes talked about in this report do come at enormous cost, and there’s no shirking away from that. So decisions will have to be made about how such care is funded in the future. And, yes, I have been bracing myself if you like for the release of the report. But knowing that we will seriously need to, to invest in aged care, that we’ll need to have a genuine conversation with Australians about how that occurs. This report has some 148 recommendations within it. But in some cases as differing views between the Commissioners, and that includes differing views around the questions of how age care services are funded, to what extent individuals potentially make contributions versus the tax system, make the contribution. And so we'll work through the eight volumes and the 2500 pages carefully. And, of course, my department will be very busy costing the different options, the Department of Health and Ageing will work in relation to how we respond to this report. It's one of the reasons why government can't just receive a report of this scope at the end of last week, and at the start of this week say we accept and we’ll implement absolutely everything it says, when we haven't even got clear costings as to what it would cost. We have to work through exactly how it will be funded, how we'll be able to deliver it, the timing and stages necessary to scale up the workforce, the quality aspects, the availability aspects, but they're all the hard yards that we will do. And we will certainly have more to say in the context of this year's budget.

BEVAN: And is one of the options that you'd be modelling some sort of Medicare, aged care tax?

BIRMINGHAM: We've been at least cautious not to take anything off of the table in this stage of the response. I think people would appreciate, we don't like to put any additional taxes or levies in place. And indeed, most recently, we've had sweeping reforms to the income tax system to try to make sure that the vast majority of Australians don't face a marginal top marginal tax rate of more than 30 cents in the dollar. But we're going to keep the options on the table to carefully look at how we deal with this sector and ensure that Australians can have confidence, be it in home care, which is a huge part of what we do nowadays and has been a big growing part lately, or residential aged care is just the type of quality and availability that people expect.

BEVAN: Right, Penny Wong do you take some comfort from that? Everything's on the table in terms of funding, and the budgets are a few weeks away really. What is it, May?

WONG: And we hope that some leadership will be shown in that budget. And an understanding that that leadership is not only through funding, but through driving reform of the system. One of the issues that has been raised in the Royal Commission report is the current way in which this is privatised, decentralised, the contracting model, the way in which that impedes Federal Government's capacity to drive reform and change. So I hope the Government does respond fully to this.

BEVAN: What do you think of the tax? And I'm not asking you to lock it in, just should it be on the table?

WONG: The Prime Minister himself said that additional, finding funding means that additional levies, additional revenue measures may be necessary. And I think the Prime Minister is right. Now, how the Government works through that and how we respond before the election, will be things we will work through. But I do say this to you. We are a party that is committed to reform in this area. And if the Government is not prepared to step up to the task, I think Australians will see in the next election, a future Albanese Labor government will be.

BEVAN: Penny Wong, is the person who's in the Government who's been accused of historical rape entitled to the presumption of innocence?

WONG: Can I start - I'm happy to respond to that, David, but I do want to say a few things about this tragic matter. It is a tragedy. I want to say that my thoughts are with this woman's family and her friends. I know what it is to lose someone you love. And I know what it is to lose someone you love to suicide, and it never leaves you. So this is not something I want to make a political issue of.

I did make a full statement over the weekend. And the reason I did was I thought was appropriate to be transparent about something which is of acute public concern, since I had received the correspondence and I’d met the woman in a chance encounter in the street. That occurred in 2019 and as you know, from my statement, I didn't raise it with political colleagues, because there was no role for them, given had said she was going to the police. And if I'd done that it would have been seen as politicising her case, which could have impeded her chance of justice. Now, tragically we’re in a situation where she's no longer able to speak for herself and to say how she wants this to be handled.

On your question, what I'd say is that this. Yes, this case requires the balancing of a range of range of principles and judgments. And it's not easy. And yes, you're right, the presumption of innocence is one of the principles of our legal system. But Australians also need to have confidence in the Federal Cabinet. Australians need to have confidence that each minister is a fit and proper person to hold that office. Now, with this person having died, it may be that the police decide an investigation to determine the veracity of the allegation cannot proceed. And if that is the case, I think the Prime Minister will need to determine how he gives both himself and Australians that confidence.

Now, ultimately, it's a matter for him to determine. Making these sorts of decisions is ultimately what leadership is about. But I think people will not feel assured if nothing's done.

BEVAN: Are you saying that the presumption of innocence is something that is given to people before they stand trial? And that option, because of these circumstances seems extremely unlikely. So we have to we have to do something else. And the follow up to that because we're going to quickly run out of time is does the High Court show way through this problem?

WONG: Well, the High Court obviously had the Chief Justice commission an inquiry when allegations against former justice Dyson Heydon were made. I'm simply making this point. I think Australians want to have confidence in their Cabinet. These people sit at the apex of the nation, and they want to have confidence that ministers are fit and proper people to hold office. And ultimately, this is a determination the Prime Minister needs to make. How does he give Australians that confidence? It may be that the police investigate. Or it may be the police say we can't proceed because the person has died. In which case I think that does, as a matter of leadership, sit with the Prime Minister.

BEVAN: Simon Birmingham, what do we do?

BIRMINGHAM: David, we do have to back our system of justice in Australia, everyone is equal before the law. And it doesn't matter whether you're a Cabinet minister or anybody else, living in our society, and so these allegations are rightly with the police. I trust them to do their job in handling these matters. It is very difficult for such serious allegations that go back some 33 years to be assessed by anybody other than our appropriate judicial systems. And that's why we have those systems built up over many, many decades, hundreds of years, in fact, of precedent to put in place, the right type of process.

BEVAN: But in this case, it appears as though that system that we normally rely on the criminal justice system, it's not going to be able to provide us with an answer. And so what Penny Wong is suggesting, okay, if the police can't sort this out, as they normally would, then there's still a conundrum left for the Prime Minister to sort out. And does the High Court show an answer to this because there were allegations made against a judge. And the court held its own investigation and made its own findings. And if anybody knows about due process, it's the High Court.

BIRMINGHAM: There's no doubt the allegations and the circumstances that we're dealing with here are difficult and terribly, terribly tragic. They're also somewhat different from what the High Court faced - allegations against former justice Heydon were workplace harassment allegations, and it was a circumstance where complainants were able to participate in that inquiry that was conducted into those harassment allegations. These are clearly very serious criminal allegations. And the only…

BEVAN: Doesn’t that make it even more important, doesn't that make it even more important?

BIRMINGHAM: It does make it very serious, David, but the only bodies equipped in our country to actually come to a conclusion about whether a crime has occurred, are our courts processes. I’m not, I'm not sure from anybody that I hear speaking on this matter that they have a firm idea as to what alternate pathway can make a determination as to whether a crime happened 33 years ago or not.

BEVAN: People like the idea of rough justice. And what I mean by that is the low burden of proof, it's swift. But nobody wants it when it's them. It's like a suppression order. Everybody wants a transparent court until it’s them, or one of their loved ones, gets hauled up before the court and then suddenly, all this is terribly unfair isn’t it? And that's the balancing act that ultimately the Prime Minister is going to have to sort out and Penny Wong ultimately, Anthony Albanese is going to have to come up with an answer too because, frankly, saying to David Speers on Sunday morning, ‘oh well, you know, it's up to Scott Morrison what he wants to do. And this is a hypothetical’, it's not a hypothetical, it's a real question. And Anthony Albanese wants that job. He's not gonna be able to ring up Scott Morrison, if he gets to be prime minister say, ‘Hi, Scott, I had a difficult day today can you give me some advice’.

WONG: David, I don't think that's a reasonable way to frame that question. I mean, these are very serious allegations, it is a very difficult situation, because whilst it's currently with the police, there is a possibility that they may determine that an investigation can't proceed because of the death of the complainant. Now, in those circumstances, I think we do have to say, the Cabinet sits at the top of the nation. People, Australians, are entitled to have, to seek to have confidence in that Cabinet and the only person ultimately that can determine that in the absence of the police dealing with it, and maybe they can deal with it in and this may all be unnecessary. But ultimately it is a matter for the Prime Minister, and I think in fact, Anthony and the Opposition we’re seeking to be quite responsible about this. We understand, as you can see, from the timeline of my engagement, we understand that these are not matters that are best dealt with through the political sphere; they’re best dealt with through the legal sphere. Regrettably, for a whole range of reasons including tragically, the death of this woman, the usual way in which these matters might have been dealt with for members of the community are not available to us.

But you know I was disappointed I have to say, with Mr Morrison’s approach yesterday. He seemed, if you looked at the press conference, just to get irritated by the questions which were being reasonably asked. I hope he fully appreciates the gravity of the question that hangs over the standing of the Cabinet. And I hope he reconsiders his approach.

BEVAN: Thank you for your time.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.