“The Liberals just don’t get it!”

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The not for profit sector owns and operates approximately 1,100 of the 1,750 retirement villages across Australia. Combined with their domination of the aged care industry, they are the major force when it comes to the politics of older Australians. They are also the force (especially with their church and community affiliations) when it comes to being able to influence local and family kitchen table political opinion.

Fortunately for the Liberal Party this sector is not well organised (yet) in wielding their potential electoral power, because if they were the Liberals would be annihilated by an even greater margin than polls currently predict.

“The Liberals just don’t get it”! was the comment to me by one Board member of a large West Australian community aged care and village facility. She was commenting on Christopher Pyne’s 20 minute rapid fire speech that was obviously written by someone else, with little content and no empathy with the audience.

This was an audience that is passionate about its role in the community and caring for older Australians. The Minister looked sharp but sounded hollow.

His three major points that got through his clipped delivery (and the general response) were:
• The Liberals believe the role of government in this sector is to ‘facilitate choice and encourage free enterprise’. Response: but where is the emotion and caring?
• The Liberals will have increased spending on aged care to $10 billion by 2010/11, which is 3 times the expenditure when they came into office. Response: why talk about 2010/11 in 2007 plus what about the massive and expensive administration costs they have created at the same time?
• The Liberals will be ‘encouraging people to be healthier in their older life’. Response: great; how?

He did mention retirement villages; the Liberals see them as an important interim housing option that can stall older people going into aged care and he suggested that the Federal Government will become active in the operation of this sector.

Jan McLucas was a stark contrast. She knew her audience and pitched her delivery perfectly. She also noted that she wrote her speech herself. Her style was softer, slower and empathetic. She established she understood the challenges by naming them. They were:
• Who will care for the aged in the future – the manpower crisis. She discussed that wages was part of the problem, plus the nature of the work and the esteem the community gives to staff in aged care. She also acknowledged the paperwork has to be reduced to free up staff.
• What will aged care be like in 10-15 years time. Clients will want to stay out of aged care and she promoted that retirement villages will be encouraged under Labor
• How do we fund our aged care services. She gave no answer but stated that the biggest challenge is to engage the community and explain who funds getting old and gets the service. This infers more ‘user pays’.

There is no escaping that there was little detail of Labor policy. Mimicking Kevin Rudd, there will be ‘Advisory Groups’ established, an ‘Ambassador for Ageing’ appointed and other ephemeral actions. But there could be no escaping she both understood the challenges and was prepared to talk about them.

To be fair to Christopher Pyne, he has been the Minister for Ageing for just 6 months. But as was frequently pointed out in the conference, he is the 7th Minister in 11 years in the Howard Government.