First of all, let me start by saying that every Australian with an interest in the well being of older people should be forever grateful to the ABC. 

The national broadcaster has a long history of churning out insightful TV reports with the power to incite change, and their bruising exposé into aged care which aired on Four Corners in  September of last year was no different.

The week before part one of the ‘Who Cares’ investigative reports were aired, word had gotten around quickly within the aged care space about just how damning this program was going to be, so it was no surprise when PM Scott Morrisson announced a Royal Commission into aged care the day before the program hit our screens. 

With the significance of this in mind, and the ABC’s continued willingness to hunt for truth in the aged care space, many were very excited when it was announced that Q&A was going to be holding an aged care debate featuring some of the most influential people in the sector.

For members of the general public, it was hoped that this episode would provide viewers with unscripted candid answers to the long-burning questions that are usually met with pre-written statements that fail to satisfy.

But those of us who went in hoping to see a hot-topic debate were instead witness to a non-inflammatory discussion that had virtually no probing or opposing views among panel members.

In fact, those on the panel were so unwilling to take each other to task on anything, it actually felt like a joint committee troubleshooting enquiries.

The five-person panel consisted of Minister for Ageing, Richard Colbeck; Shadow Minister for Ageing & Seniors, Julie Collins; LASA CEO, Sean Rooney; celebrity chef, Maggie Beer; and Sarah Holland-Batt, whose father suffered abuse in aged care. 

In some ways, this was Minister Colbeck’s introduction to the audience as the current aged care minister, as four months into the top job his presence is still yet to be felt.

Minister Colbeck’s appearance did little to instill faith in those hoping for immediate and positive change, and the fact that he used the term ‘blunt instrument’ to describe proposed staff ratios is evidence enough that he has no idea of public perception. 

Sadly, Minister Colbeck was allowed to dish up the same kind of long-winded non-committal answers that the public has grown accustomed to hearing, with no resistance or rebuttal to the glaringly obvious.

Many of the Minister’s responses were met by shaking heads from audience members, who realised that they were in for an evening of well-rehearsed rhetoric. There were audible groans and laughter in the crowd when Mr Colbeck refused to say what acceptable staffing should be and declared that providers were responsible for making that decision.

LASA CEO, Sean Rooney – who has clearly had some media training since his notorious appearance on the ‘Who Cares’ investigative program – managed to traverse the line of questioning in a more succinct and likeable way than previously seen.

Mr Rooney, who previously told a Royal Commission hearing that he could not recall one single occasion where he advocated for changes that were in the best interest of residents at what might be the expense of the providers, seemed far more empathetic on Monday night but also had a point to prove regarding funding.

Mr. Rooney’s declaration, “If we want a world-class aged-care system it’s going to require world-class funding,” received support in the room. But Mr. Colbeck’s vague reply that he was ‘cognisant of the industry’s needs,’ was not overly promising.

Both Shadow Minister Julie Collins and Sarah Holland-Batt made great points throughout the evening, but any hopes that the audience may have had of them taking the opinions, Mr. Colbeck or Mr. Rooney to task dissipated very quickly.

Maggie Beer’s appearance turned out to be a topic of debate online, with some wondering how the celebrity chef managed to secure a place on a panel that was completely bereft of anyone who had actually worked in an aged care facility.

Although Maggie’s thoughts on food were well regarded, people online were quick to point her business interests in the aged care industry and question her contribution to other topics outside the realms of food.

Another issue that seemed to hinder the discussion was the questions that were being asked by members of the audience.

Q&A host, Fran Kelly, made mention during the broadcast that they had received 100’s of proposed questions from members of the public for this debate, which is why it was so disappointing to see many of the questions posed didn’t get to the heart of the debate that needs to be had.

If anything, what this episode really managed to do well was display the incestuous and convoluted nature of the aged care sector in Australia, and showcase why real accountability for failings has been so hard to come by.

The last, and perhaps most important, observation from Monday night’s program was the glaring omission of anyone who works or lives in residential aged care.

There should be no public discussion about what is needed in aged care without the opinion of those that deliver care and those who receive it. Because, if all of this discussion is really about them, then practice what you preach, and stop doing these things without them.

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