The Morrison government will establish a royal commission into the aged care sector in response to damning incidents of neglect, abuse and negligence in nursing homes across the country.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, said incidences of older people being hurt by failures of care could not be excused and he was determined to know how widespread the problems were.
Making the announcement on Sunday, Morrison said there was a “disturbing trend” of abuse and non-compliance across the sector, with the Department of Health shutting one aged care service “every day”.
His announcement comes nearly 12 months after South Australia’s Oakden aged care facility was closed following horrific evidence of elder abuse and neglect.
It also comes a day before the ABC’s Four Corners program begins airing a highly anticipated two-part investigation of the treatment of elderly Australians in aged care homes.
The ease with which Morrison has announced a royal commission into the aged care sector stands in contrast with his long-standing opposition to establishing a banking royal commission.
But the immigration minister, David Coleman, said Morrison was “getting out on the front foot” with this decision, and the Business Council of Australia’s chief executive, Jennifer Westacott, said it was a “spot-on call” by Morrison.
Morrison justified his decision by saying he had learned from his experience of opposing the banking royal commission for so long.
“In politics, in public life, you’ve got to learn from the things you’ve been involved with in the past,” he said.
“It has been my learning that it’s important to go forward with a royal commission in this area, because I can see the value that it will create in addressing these serious issues.”
No date has been set for the royal commission and the government does not know how much it will cost. But Morrison said it would begin before the election and run until the second half of next year at least.
He said it was yet to be determined whether or not there was a crisis in aged care.
“That is the point of holding a royal commission,” he said. “The evidence shows that the problems are not restricted to any one part of the aged-care sector, whether it is for profit or not for profit, large or small facilities, regional or major metropolitan.”
The royal commission will focus on the quality of care provided in residential and home aged care to senior Australians but will also include young Australians with disabilities living in residential aged care settings.
It will investigate residential, home and community aged care, which includes home support packages and services such as social support and meal delivery. About 1.3 million Australians access these services each year, including 240,000 people in residential care.
Morrison said the terms of reference would be determined in consultation with the community, including residents and their families and aged care providers, and hopefully be finalised over the “next few weeks.”
However, he expected it would cover:
The quality of care provided to older Australians, and the extent of substandard care
The challenge of providing care to Australians with disabilities living in residential aged care, particularly younger people with disabilities
The challenge of supporting the increasing number of Australians suffering dementia and addressing their care needs as they age
The future challenges and opportunities for delivering aged care services in the context of changing demographics, including in remote, rural and regional Australia
Any other matters that the Royal Commission considers necessary
On Sunday, Morrison dismissed suggestions that Coalition budget cuts to the sector in recent years may have contributed to the crisis.
Ken Wyatt, the minister for aged care, was also forced to defend comments he had made last month that taxpayer money would be better spent on front-line services than a royal commission.
“There are a set of circumstances that I’ve seen in aged care since that time that takes me to the point that it is a crisis issue that individual families face, when a daughter wants to get her father into aged care, has him placed and then the aged care provider in that circumstance [says], ‘We can’t take him’,” Wyatt said. “She went through incredible emotional experiences in trying to accept the fact that her father had been rejected.
“On that basis, I gave reconsideration to the need for a royal commission.”
Labor has welcomed the royal commission but says it should not be rushed nor used as an excuse to neglect carrying out necessary reforms immediately.
“There’s been 20 inquiries,” Shorten told the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday.
“I bet that there are people right now watching the show who have been calling for reforms, and we actually know a lot of what we need to do.”
In April, when Shorten declared aged care in Australia was in a state of national crisis, it prompted fierce attacks from the government who accused him of fearmongering. In July, he said he was still unconvinced a royal commission into the sector was needed because there had been dozens of inquiries into the sector and everyone knew what problems needed fixing.
The Carnell-Paterson report, which was released in July, was initiated by the aged care minister, Ken Wyatt, in May last year, following revelations of failure and abuse at the Oakden facility run by the South Australian government. It recommended an independent aged care quality and safety commission be established.
And last week, the government announced it would pull forward $90m in funding for aged and residential care services, and release $15.6m in extra funding for the new Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, which will take over the aged care regulatory functions of the Department of Health.
On Sunday, Patricia Sparrow, the chief executive of Aged & Community Services Australia (ACSA), said she welcomed the royal commission and ACSA would participate fully and transparently.
Ian Yates, the chief executive of Cota Australia, also welcomed the royal commission but said the government must also focus on implementing recommendations from the string of inquiries over recent years.
“Chronic systemic failures in our aged care sector must be addressed to prevent any repeat of the tragic events at Oaken and ensure older Australians get the support they need, when they need it,” Yates said. “Both the Tune review and the Carnell/Paterson report into our aged care sector made significant recommendations on how we can and must improve regulation, funding and transparency in our aged care sector.
“Some of those recommendations are in train and must not stall – such as the new Quality and Safety Commission, funding for even more high-level home care packages and a strategy to improve the quality and sustainability of the aged care workforce to appropriately meet current demand.”
The Australian Medical Association, Disabled People’s Organisations Australia, Leading Age Services Australia and Dementia Australia also welcomed the royal commission.