Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (20:04): I have some concerns with the proposed amendment, but before I deal with those can I just take a couple of seconds to congratulate the minister, Mr Wyatt, on doing what I think is a magnificent job in the aged-care area. I've seen a lot of aged-care ministers over my time here—some of them have been very good and some of them ordinary. But Mr Ken Wyatt has really demonstrated an understanding of aged care and, particularly, of the facilities that look after the elderly in our society. I'm delighted to say that Mr Wyatt particularly understands the need for aged care and the problems associated with looking after the aged in rural and regional Australia.
The amendment that we're dealing with may well be appropriate in the capital cities. I'm not quite sure that it's appropriate in a small community. Just last week, the Lower Burdekin Home for the Aged Society called to see me. That operates in the town where I live, Ayr, in North Queensland, about 100 kays south of Townsville. It has facilities both in Ayr and in the twin town, Home Hill, across the Burdekin River.
I know the facility quite well. More than 40 years ago I was a member of the Apex services club when we were invited to a meeting to set up a community aged-care facility in the Lower Burdekin—that's Ayr and Home Hill. My club sent someone along. I was president of the club at the time and I still remember promising the person we sent: 'Can you go along to this meeting? It's only one meeting. It won't take you very long. You can go along and hear what's being proposed.' It turned out that he then became the chairman of the society for about 20 years and did a wonderful job there.
But this was a community aged-care facility built, at the time, as I recall—and this was confirmed to me just last week—entirely by donations from the community. There was no government assistance back in those days. Obviously, the daily payments of the inmates—the patients; the people cared for—make a contribution, and the government contributes to them. But after almost 40 years of operating on the basis of community support, the home is now finding that it's having some difficulty in continuing to operate. They're applying for a capital grant. It's the first time, I might say, they've ever done this in the 40 years that they've been operating.
Their issue is that the home is now 40, 30 or 20 years old, as they built extensions. A lot of the accommodation was appropriate 40 years ago, but is not quite so acceptable today. Of course, with the changes that we've seen in aged care over time, nowadays, those who used to be low-care patients are now being encouraged to stay in their own homes. The government is providing very considerable support to people who want to live in their own homes. They really can't look after themselves in their own homes, but they're getting support coming in. I've had experience of this; my brother-in-law is now a recipient of that. I know the aged persons homes in my home community; my mother was there 20 or 30 years ago. My mother-in-law was there and my sister was there relatively recently. I've seen what happens.
Why I'm concerned about the amendment is that what might work in a unionised workforce in Melbourne, Sydney or Canberra may not work in country areas. I think that the Lower Burdekin Home for the Aged is the second-biggest employer in my community. It's a country town—I say it's a small country town, but by Australian standards it's a country town of about 10,000 or 12,000 people. The district is about 20,000, so it's a big small country town—and it's one of the big employers there. A relative of my wife actually works there. She provides care and does that not as a professional but as one who helps in the various things that need to be done.
The important issue, particularly for community-run facilities, is that they are able to balance the books and make things pay and it sometimes means that the staff have to be multiskilled. They have to be prepared to enhance the productivity to make sure that the home keeps operating, because if the home is experiencing some difficulties it means that for the first time in 40 years it might have to be taken over by one of the corporate aged-care places, who, appropriately, I guess, run these things for profit—otherwise, often, why would they be involved? But this is a community that is local; it's done by local money and local people. It's part of the community. I'm concerned about ratios and particular prescriptions of staffing ratios, because whilst they may be appropriate in one area they may not be in another area. I think Senator Siewert was alluding to the same thing in her, might I say, mild support for the amendments.
I don't want to delay the Senate too long except to say that there are a number of these community run aged-care facilities in the north of Queensland, where I basically operate. I give a shout out to the Bowen aged care operations, situated around the community of Bowen, which is an hour south of Ayr—where I live—which is two hours south of Townsville. They have a wonderful reputation. They've done enormously significant work for their local community. They've operated the books very well. I'm hopeful that the government will be able to support them in some of the very significant capital works they're undertaking.
I mentioned also the Warrina Innisfail aged-care facility, a bit north of Townsville, who've done a wonderful job. They were the recipients of some significant Commonwealth grant money in the last round. They are able to put in place a whole new facility that will be very significant in the community of Innisfail. It's about the same sort of size and atmospherics as the community I live in. It's a sugar town. It's in north Queensland, about four hours north of Townsville. There are about 20,000 people in the surrounding areas. They do a wonderful job. It enables long-term residents of those areas—in Innisfail, Ingham, Ayr, Home Hill, Bowen and every community facility—who in the past might have had to leave the place they've lived all their lives and go to one of the capital cities to get good aged care, to stay in these towns that I've mentioned.
The significant thing about all the towns I've mentioned is that they're community-run facilities. I don't know, but my guess would be that the union has very little influence there, which means that people are paid well but they work harder. They work that extra mile where it needs to be done. That's what a community facility is about. I'd hate to see this approach in these smaller country towns—and I mentioned some towns in North Queensland that I'm aware of but I'm sure a similar situation applies in many, many parts of Australia—so we have to take this into account. I'm delighted that Mr Wyatt understands the importance of aged care in remote communities.
I go even remoter than the towns I've mentioned, to talk about Hughenden and Richmond—west of Townsville—which are much smaller towns, but even there the local councils are doing their own bit for aged care and getting assistance from the Commonwealth government. I look forward to having Mr Wyatt come north again, as he indicated he would do, when he was up in the north about six or eight months ago. He does a wonderful job. He is caring. He understands the issue. Whilst, of course, he doesn't have a bottomless pocket of money, he does understand that all parts of Australia need to be looked after, and I'm delighted that he does that wonderful job.
On the amendments before the chair, I have my concerns, for the reasons I have mentioned, so I probably won't be supporting them at this time.