Kenneth Hayne says COVID has shown Government and society can work together to achieve change – can it happen with aged care?

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The former High Court Justice and Banking Royal Commissioner delivered a stern rebuke to the country’s leaders this week, suggesting Royal Commissions are a result of distrust in the Government to deal with problems in society – but said the COVID-19 pandemic could create opportunity for a reset.

Giving the annual Sir Zelman Cowen Centre Oration on the topic of Trust, Confidence and Public Institutions on Wednesday, Mr Hayne urged politicians to defend their institutions rather than prioritise partisan self-interest.

The former Justice said the pandemic had shown that countries did better when their leaders told citizens the truth, and that societies could still “engage in a common public space on the basis of shared values and facts”.

“But governments have very quickly made radical changes in the ways we live and work. They have done that by telling society the facts as simply and clearly as they can. In telling those facts, governments have repeatedly acknowledged the limits of their knowledge – this is a new disease and science has much still to learn about its transmission, its effects and what can be done to reduce the harm that it brings.”

“But society has responded to being trusted with the facts that are known and has recognised that difficult judgments have had to be made. And government has brought about great changes so that, together, we can pursue shared purposes.”

We can’t help but think that this argument could be applied to the current situation in aged care.

After 20 years of reviews and enquiries with few transformative changes, COVID has shown that decisions can be made quickly to improve the sector when they need to be.

COVID has also put the sector in the spotlight – and the Government can’t ignore it any longer.

The trust of the community in providers to care for their loved ones was on shaky ground prior to COVID thanks to Four Corners and the Royal Commission – the outbreaks in Victoria are unlikely to restore confidence.

This week’s Senate enquiry evidence by the Aged Care Minister and Department of Health has also underlined the failure of the Government to take a proactive approach to protect residents and staff.

If the Government wants to regain the trust and confidence of families and the wider community, it will need to work together with providers – and be honest and upfront with the public about what it will cost to improve the system.

As Mr Hayne concluded: “Those who lead must educate, and if they will not, others must take on that task.”

You can watch the full one-hour address here.

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