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How John Howard contributed to the aged care crisis

In 2000, when Bronwyn Bishop was the minister responsible for aged care, a horrific story came to light where residents of an aged care home were subjected to kerosene baths in order to control an outbreak of scabies. Several suffered second-degree burns and blisters. One woman, aged 84, died two days later.

Reports of similar horrors across the country followed as health workers, relatives and pensioner groups seized on the rare media attention to speak out.

Prime Minister John Howard adamantly defended his minister, Bishop, and denied the existence of any nursing homes crisis. “I don’t accept it’s a crisis,” he said on the ABC Lateline TV program. “I mean that is just a ridiculous exaggeration. It is a very sad and regrettable incident concerning one nursing home.”

Yet a litany of reports surfaced in the media about conditions in other nursing homes, indicating that the problem was systemic. Bishop acknowledged that her department had received over 4,000 complaints in the previous two-and-a-half years but had not withdrawn any licences.

So how did this situation come about?

In the 1996-97 budget, the Howard government slashed $1 billion from aged care funding and introduced its Aged Care Act, claiming that higher fees and bonds would provide the incentive for investors to expand and improve the industry. Instead, conditions in nursing homes deteriorated and average waiting time lengthened significantly.

Under the Act, nursing home operators no longer had to allocate a set proportion of government subsidies to patient care. Links between the level of funding received and the number of qualified staff employed were removed. In 1998 the previous requirement for a registered nurse to be on duty was scrapped.

Homes and hostels were to be licensed for three years, with standards monitored through spot checks. Yet no such checks were ever conducted, Bishop admitted. According to Tim Burns, the general manager of the Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency, its ability to carry out monitoring was severely compromised due to insufficient funding. He stated during Senate estimates hearings that the agency was 60 to 65 external assessors short in New South Wales and Victoria alone.

The Aged Care Act specified that audit reviews of nursing homes be made public on a regular basis. However, in late 1999, a list rating nursing homes was removed from the Aged Care Standards and Accreditation Agency’s web site in order “not to put undue pressure on homes, which may be rapidly moving to improve their situations”.

The government’s changes made the industry a more lucrative target for corporate takeovers. Under the headline, “Golden Oldies,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported on 2 March 2000 that “Nursing homes are big business, with handsome profits, for some”. American-based corporations were “moving into Australia to capitalise on a growth industry protected by an assured flow of government funds”.

Managing director Kevin Moss said:

“Once you are in the business you have a guaranteed government income. It’s a very good business. It’s been a cottage industry in Australia … and some have milked the cow. But we are trying to get it more corporatised and professional.”

Having been given cash to spend as they saw fit for the previous three years, business operators were free to exit the industry before January 1, 2001, the next accreditation deadline, without having invested a cent in improvements, and then sell their bed licenses for up to $35,000 each, the going price on the Sydney market at that time.

The doctors’ organisation, the Australian Medical Association, and the nurses’ union, the Australian Nursing Federation, warned that between 600 and 2,500 beds would close on January 1 in the state of Victoria alone, intensifying the crisis.

In 2000, Regina Lohr and Mike Head ended their article about the aged care crisis with a chilling warning:

Like every other aspect of life, aged care has become an increasingly two-class system. High quality homes with modern facilities, strict medical and hygiene standards, fresh and nourishing food and tranquil surroundings exist—but they are reserved for the wealthy who can afford fees in the order of $900 a week and entry bonds around $250,000. For lower middle class and working class retirees, the conditions have become Dickensian.

Increasingly stripped of all protective and regulatory remnants of the post-war welfare state, the unleashing of the “free market” is producing conditions where the majority of elderly people are treated as so much unwanted refuse. Medical science has significantly increased life expectancy, but, under the imperatives of the profit system, those who suffer the misfortune of being poor are simply being disposed of as cheaply and quickly as possible.

Twenty years later, we are paying for a Royal Commission to try to clean up the mess caused by Howard’s funding cuts and the tragedy of sacrificing our elderly to appease the Liberal Party’s obsession with deregulation, corporatisation, and profits for big business.


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  1. Baby Jewels

    Of all the many reasons, what better reason than this, to get rid of the LNP for GOOD!

  2. Jack Cade

    To conservatives, criticising John Howard is like reporting Francis of Assisi to the RSPCA.
    I know you can’t help the way you look, but these days, the Lying Rodent looks like something that pops out at you on the ghost train.

  3. totaram

    Jack Cade: In my view, he now looks as evil as he truly is.

  4. John Lavery

    evil can exist in in banality said one observer and when I see Howard it truly hits home. He was and still is, a moral vacuum and empathy-free. Brandis had hit the nail on the head when he called, the little lying Rodent.

  5. MöbiusEcko

    Just another Howard policy failure with consequences to be paid for a long time to come.

    There is hardly a major policy of the Howard era that was a success, yet I have to constantly argue with the Howardistas that he wasn’t the greatest leader Australia, and indeed the world has seen.

    I keep getting the gun buyback thrown in my face but delve into that and you will find it was also a flawed policy made more for political gain than any societal benefit, as was the case for all of Howard’s policies.

    My forlorn hope is that history will show Howard for the sham and the failure he was, and chronical the damage he did to this country and its society.

  6. Jack Cade

    John Lavery. The other day I watched a film called ‘I, Daniel Blake.’ It is about a sick man at the mercy of the welfare authorities, all doing things ‘by the rules.’
    Evil persists in the banality of hordes of ordinary people ‘just following orders.’ People who participate in acts, enforcing orders, that they would not personally condone or honour. Conservatives use that human instinct as the cornerstone of their edicts. A mob will perform acts that not one individual among them would imagine doing. Armies are built on this concept, and we see it in action every day in the army of public servants carrying out ‘rules’. Immigration, for example. And the serfs in Newscorp, ‘just doing my job.’

  7. Alcibiades

    Howard ? And the rest!

    Morrison To Spend This Week Campaigning In The Cayman Islands – Situation Theatre

    It’s important to meet your constituents where they are … His first stop will be a tour through this building which houses more than 12,000 shell corporations … Angus Taylor has kindly agreed to be Mr Morrison’s guide for the trip.

    Coalition under pressure over $4.4 Billion hospitals sale to Cayman Islands entity – The New Daily

    Government approved the sale of the new Northern Beaches Hospital, and 42 other Australian hospitals, to an obscure company in the Cayman Islands … Brookfield, a Canadian asset management group, has a track record of tax avoidance.

    Its entities have been identified in the Panama and Paradise papers data leaks and, in Australia, it pays little corporate income tax as its assets are structured through trusts, and profits are siphoned offshore to tax havens … Moreover, as Cayman Islands is a secrecy jurisdiction, the identity of the directors of the entity that controls the hospitals in Australia remains a secret. Every state and territory has a Healthscope hospital.

    Labor’s Bowen questions FIRB approval for Healthscope takeover SMH

    Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen has questioned government approval of Brookfield’s $4.4 billion foreign takeover of Australia’s
    largest private hospital operator, Healthscope, over the Canadian investment giant’s use of the controversial Cayman Islands tax haven…

    Lots of talk of multinational tax avoidance lately. Chris Bowen has expanded on Labor’s plans – The Graund

    Labor will introduce a tax haven blacklist to appropriately vet investments from countries that fail to comply with international standards.

    Under Labor, companies that operate out of the most notorious tax havens will be prevented from engaging in tax avoidance activities in Australia.

    The following hot spots will be put on Labor’s blacklist: Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Guernsey, Monaco, Mauritius, Liberia, Seychelles, Brunei, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, British Virgin Islands, Grenada, Montserrat, Panama, St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Kitts and Nevis, Turks and Caicos, US Virgin Islands.

  8. andy56

    The liberals just dont understand whats in front of them. Its all ideology, the market will provide. Yea thats worked well everywhere.
    NBN, Electricity, Water, OS Detention centers, Aged care, Education, Medical and many others .
    Know the cost of everything but the value of nothing. Old saying but very apt.
    They have burned this country on so many levels. They have managed to disguise this turd of an ideology but boy is it coming back in a hurry.

  9. DrakeN


    Permit me to disagree – they know very well what they are doing and rubbing their greasy hands with delight that they have managed to repeatedly dupe the voting public through endless attacks and support by the commercial mainstream media.

    They know what the consequences are for the country and the general population but for them we are merely commercial dross; material and labor to be utilised and cast aside when exhausted.

    Sociopathy runs freely through the veins of the IPA, its propaganda arm the commercial media, and their political wing, the National and Liberal Parties.

  10. Glenn K

    My 89 yr old Australian mother, first diagnosed with dementia when she was 82, lives in an aged care facility (they don’t call them nursing homes any more) in western Canada. I felt slightly guilty that she would not be living her final days in the country she loves, Australia, but from the very first day she moved in i have been counting her blessings for the exceptional high quality care she gets in Canada. Exceptional. The facility is a public private partnership with the government, but with very strict government guidelines around care. It is not means tested and we did not need to sell the family home to fund her accommodation. Her care is exceptional. Her Canadian pension and old age supplement covers 90% of the fee, including all medications. The actual patient fee is the supplement the private provider is allowed to charge and actually represents about 35% of the total cost. The rest is picked up by the government directly.
    As her legal guardian, i am kept informed of everything. For example, if she has a fall in her room and hurts herself, even just a minor injury, the RN on duty provides me with a report via email. There is always an RN available, and my mother’s doctor visits her every month.

  11. Perkin Wetkecks

    Glenn K.
    Yes. In many ways we delude ourselves, about how wonderful Australia is, almost as much as the Americans. When you travel – anywhere – you find that our pre-conceptions are way off the mark Scummo can pontificate about how good we are, but our infrastructure is ratshit and just about everywhere has better transport services than us. I have no great hopes for Labor, but they are making the right noises. The problem is, since Howard got to be PM, everything that wasn’t nailed down got sold off for a pittance to their mates, and profit us their only criterion.

  12. Paul Davis

    You just gotta have faith, the marketplace will always find a solution.

    For example, the head of Soylent Corporation said to the owner of Whispering Glades cemetery “i know how to get those stiffs off your property”.

    Because there were no forest for wood and coal was expensive, the early Egyptian railway fired up their steam engines with the thousands and thousands of old mummified corpses which were in abundance.

    Rising sea levels means new beach front properties.

    Food security, desertification, forced migrations, millions starving? Buy amament shares.

    A million species becoming extinct? Hum, that’s a tough one….but someone will make money.

  13. Harry

    Another in the long line of fails of neoliberal, free market, deregulation ideology!

    I think the answer is much more regulation of staff ratios, amenities, nutrition standards and better pay for staff, etc.That will inevitably increase costs which the operators will want to pass on in higher fees to maintain profitability.

    The solution I advocate is to set the rate of return the operator is allowed to earn so they can earn a reasonable return but not an open ended return that would reward them for cutting standards.

    And there needs to a strict oversight, monitoring and enforcement regime to police standards of care, staffing etc. with increasingly severe financial penalties for each infringement.

  14. Judith

    Every few terms the coalition puts up a feeble show of wanting to win the election, secretly wishing the ALP will take over and fix up the chaotic mess they’ve found themselves in.
    Just like when I was learning to knit, and my grandmother would fix up the dropped stitches, and hand it my knitting back to me until I messed up again.
    The difference is that I really did want to learn how to knit.

  15. CB

    See, I knew Howard would do this long lasting damage. The proof is here. Why were people so stupid to vote him in and keep voting him in? He was never the best pm at all and never will be! Anyone who says he was is very deluded. Thanks Howard for destroying people’s lives, like Glenn above having to send his mum overseas for good quality care. Nasty Howard, I hope you get dumped into a rough hospital when you get too old to function.

  16. Patricia

    The liberals free market ideology is a sham. There is nothing “free market “ about it when whole swathes of multinational corporations depend on government subsidies and tax breaks to pad out their profit margins A free market should mean that businesses compete on a level playing field for their customers dollars, not that business and corporations have free rein to do whatever they want to without and government oversight and also have free access to public money so their unviable business model (see private health insurers) continues to be artificially supported.

  17. Simon

    John Howard’s legacy will be completely undone, as it should be.

  18. Josephus

    It was Howard introduced the RAD payment, which demands a huge up front interest free payment if your income affords it, while underpaying the far too few staff. Having paid 550 k up front I often arrived at the institution to find the dementia ward unattended, so that my delusional partner was able to attack vulnerable others unheeded. The food was awful, all sugar and white flour with never a salad, eggs or fresh fruit. The inspectors turned up ; I asked them if they were going to visit the dementia ward. They admitted that they never visited that ward, whose amenities and food were very inferior to those of the ward they did visit, though the fees were the same. I complained in one such hellhole that my partner was pumped full of drugs that merely zombified him, and from then on, my having refused open ended such medication because the form was unsigned and most of its entries blank, (which is illegal) they sent him off to hospital at my expense . It was hell unending for him and for me. His kidneys were damaged thanks to the drugs and he died, a frightened but healthy man physically, at age 74.

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