Elements within the aged care industry are perplexed at the rift that has emerged with Ageing Minister Justine Elliot’s office.

It’s a couple of months since Crikey revealed that her office had been staffed up with NSW ALP figures by chief of staff Walt Secord. At that point, the aged care industry was still giving Elliot — appointed to the position over Jan McLucas, who carried the portfolio in Opposition — time to settle in, and acknowledged that Secord and his office were trying hard to understand the sector’s issues, which all of them were new to.

Crikey reported a rumour earlier this week of an explosive meeting last week between Secord and a new Queensland alliance of aged care providers, who copped a blast from Secord. A press release and a Courier Mail article on the inefficiencies of Queensland aged care operators followed in short order. A number of sources have since confirmed the blow-up, although accounts vary.

Industry attendees at the meeting — initiated by Elliot’s office while Queensland providers were in Canberra to address Caucus’s Social Policy committee — say their attempt to raise long-term funding issues was met with angry criticism from Secord despite their making it plain they regarded the previous Government as having failed to properly fund the sector. Other industry sources also complain of a Minister — personally quite affable and engaged — whose primary output seems to be press releases, and that Secord has retained his famous boots’n’all style from his days as Bob Carr’s communications director.

However, Government sources say the conflict arose because industry representatives complained about the regulatory burden on the sector and the requirement for police checks on staff, which the Government strongly supports and has unapologetically strengthened. Government sources also point out that Elliot and her office have met with a range of profit and non-profit aged care providers in recent weeks and no one else has complained about their treatment. Elliot is also said to have successfully lobbied ERC ministers to overturn cuts in the May Budget.

Either way, both the industry and the Government agree that the aged care sector, despite record funding from the current Government, faces a major challenge in dealing with an ageing population. This week’s release of figures showing Australians now have second longest life expectancy after the Japanese (over 81 years) illustrates the magnitude of the challenge in finding aged care facilities for the coming wave of baby boomer seniors. Currently, there are 2.7 million Australians aged 65 and over, but within 40 years that number will almost triple to around 7.2 million.

Aged care already requires massive taxpayer funding — $40b over the next four years. Funding the expansion necessary to cope with growing demand is a major problem facing a sector that industry sources say already has some major providers in administration. A new funding model — almost certainly one that requires greater user funding — will need to be developed if demand for quality aged care is going to be met — especially when the industry is already to attract staff in a tight labour market. The Government and the industry are in the same boat in trying to deal with one of the most expensive problems Australia will face in coming decades.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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