Aged care, the ABC and the important things in life

by on September 22, 2018

IN A week in which the ABC exposed yet another scandal resulting from corporatisation, privatisation and deregulation of public services – this time aged care – forcing the Government to launch an inquiry without admitting any blame and in which the ABC continues to play promos on the esteem it is held in the eyes of the famous and not so famous, I must relate this story which links them all.

It was 2000, my sister and I had taken my mother, suffering dementia, to a secure nursing home, 90km away.

We had to dupe her into believing she was going to see a new dog, otherwise she never would have got in the car, so we could hardly load up the car with all her essential things.

Anyway, we got her there. On my first visit later, my mother had one of her lucid moments.

“Crispin, you have to get me out of here. You have to take me home.”

Me: “I can’t.”

Mum: “You must. Just put me in the Subaru and drive me home to Chiltern. I drove you and your brother with your boat to Lake Sambell when you were boys, you can drive me to Chiltern.”

Playing on guilt was perhaps her only weapon. And it was an especially lucid moment because she remembered the make of my car.

“The coffee is never strong enough. And look what I have to put up with,” she said, pointing to an old man bashing his foot repeatedly on a table leg.

By then, the Howard Government had essentially contracted out aged care. People had to pay large bonds and fees, but “no-one was going to have to sell their family home”, the apologetic political refrain went, not daring to trespass on Australia’s holy grail of home ownership. The profit motive might well have delivered “efficiencies” but it was never going to deliver better “customer service” through competitive forces or through “self-regulation”.

There were so few nursing-home places that the corporations had the old people and their families over a barrel. Moreover, the hassle and fees involved in transferring the bond made competition an illusion.

We were lucky. In my discussions with this nursing home I had dropped hints that my mother’s bond would be a fairly large one. She “owned her own home” – in fact a rundown dump in Chiltern that you could hardly give away. It sold for $24,000 in 2005. She had been married to a canon of the Anglican Church – in fact there was no Anglican clergy pension fund then.

The manager’s jaw dropped when I told him after it was too late to reverse the decision to let my mother in that she was in fact an aged pensioner. No fat fee this time. But also no chance of the “choice” the privatisation was supposed to deliver.

Back at the home, my mother was not going to let up.

“It gets worse. Look at that,” she said, pointing to the television in the communal lounge. It was tuned to a commercial channel’s mindless morning talking-heads advertorial show.

“I have to put up with that. Crispin, can you imagine life without the ABC?”

Ayyyaaahhh. She had hit a major guilt button. Her clapped out old TV had been left in Chiltern. Sure, we should have been more thoughtful, but you would think the nursing-home staff would have mentioned it to us, if they had been giving the attentive care that all the advertisements for the private-sector nursing homes boasted.

Obviously, straight after the visit I went to the nearest shop that sold TV sets and bought her one.

So, as yet another betrayal of trust by the corporate-political world is exposed by our public broadcasters and outlets like Fairfax Media, the answer is: “No, Mum, I can’t imagine life without the ABC.”

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From the time of the first wave of privatisations and deregulations until quite recently, our regulators have like baleen whales. Big, toothless, scary for small fry but completely useless at catching big fish. Some regulators are still like that.

Often with privatisation, unresponsive public entities were turned into rapacious private monopolies.

Deregulation has not led to greater efficiency and better service. Rather it has often led to greater profits generated from poorer service.

Replacing independent government-run regulation with self-regulation has allowed big corporations to get away with an array of malfeasance, as the banking royal commission and other inquiries have revealed.

There is nothing like the chill of the possibility of an unannounced spot audit by an independent government official with big penalities attached to encourage compliance.

And spot audits are far more efficient than trying to inspect everything. Remember annual vehicle registration checks? They were a waste of everyone’s time and money because tyres and brakes can wear out between checks. The threat of random roadside checks are just as effective and cheaper.

It is sad that the undoubted benefits of privatisation and deregulation have come at such a cost because of early over-exuberance verging on religious zealotry untempered by acknowledging obvious human weaknesses such as greed and exploitation.

The competition and market forces that generate efficiency and better goods and services are driven by the profit motive – the same profit motive that causes people to cut corners and cheat.

A look at some of the public utterances of the chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Rod Sims, over the past five years is instructive.

In 2014 we see an almost unbridled champion of privatisation. By 2016 he sounds warning bells that privatisation without competition is harmful to consumers and then sounds warning bells about the need for tough regulation and enforcement to make sure corporations behave themselves and consumers do not suffer.

Politicians and regulators have to take the same attitude that most consumers have about big corporations: they cannot be trusted to do the right thing; they have to be cajoled into it. Market forces and competition will not automatically result in a better deal for consumers, such as the aged-care “consumers” featured in the ABC’s Four Corners program this week.
CRISPIN HULL
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Fairfax Media on 22 September 2018.

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