When a minister reacts to a damning royal commission report by attributing the problems revealed to wider social issues rather than to government neglect, she/he can be criticised for just trying to shift blame. After all, governments are meant to be held accountable, aren't they?
Yet that is what Health Minister Greg Hunt did in responding to the damning interim report from the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. In his words: "What the commission found, which went beyond anything that I had expected, was a national cultural issue."
He went on to describe Australian society as ageist and called on both government and the community to draw a line in the sand against ageism. That was the cultural issue.
Despite the fact that the government had no right to be "shocked" (in the words of Aged Care Minister Senator Richard Colbeck) by the extent of failure, given what was already in the public domain about the extensive failings of the aged care industry, I have some sympathy with Hunt's view. It should be applied also to the revelations of other royal commissions and inquiries, such as those into banks and financial institutions and into other institutions, including churches, trade unions, developers and, shortly, the disability sector. The same applies to media inquiries into industries such as the racing industry. It should also be applied to other -isms, as well as ageism.
There will be justifiable calls for greater government funding and tougher regulation. Such regulation is already happening across the board, as state regulators get tougher with nursing homes knowing the light is shining on them during the royal commission. There are also many calls for increased funding. Seniors groups, like the Council on the Ageing and the Older Persons Advocacy Network, are putting the figure initially in the range of $2 billion to $3 billion per year. They want other initiatives too, including workforce development to address staffing problems.
At the same time, spreading the blame to wider society as Hunt has attempted to do through citing cultural factors such as ageism is also legitimate. There is a tendency in society to shift the blame away from individual or social responsibility towards governments, or in some cases towards large corporations and other institutions. Individuals and the community at large should sometimes share the limelight and the blame.
With aged care this would include not just the providers of care - public, private and not-for-profit, which are relatively easy targets - but also general social attitudes towards those needing care. There are broader issues which voters must take responsibility for, including appropriate levels of taxation and government expenditure, and choosing priorities between different sectors in the community. There are many other competing legitimate calls for government funding, including from the disability sector and from all those sectors, including farming, suffering because of the extreme drought. The government's fragile surplus is endangered.
But if we accept Hunt's right to spread the blame, the approach must be bipartisan. The opposition must resist the attraction of focusing just on government failures and lack of funding and admit that bigger issues are at stake. In turn, the government must admit that in the past it too has been guilty of neglecting social and cultural factors in criticising Labor governments.
When the Rudd Labor government was criticised during the global financial crisis for failing to properly regulate its emergency spending on pink batts and school halls, for instance, the then-Coalition opposition was unwilling to spread the blame to unreliable contractors and greedy small businesses. There were endemic cultural issues at play then too.
Furthermore, ageism is not the only cultural factor which is contributing to social failures. The list is a long one, include sexism, racism, family violence, consumerism and corporate greed. These cultural factors help produce the failures which governments must address.
Hunt's approach must be applied to these other areas even when it is politically uncomfortable to do so. The issue of large-scale wage theft is another case. The number of large corporations, including Woolworths, Bunnings and other institutions, including the ABC, which have been found guilty of systematically underpaying workers also suggests cultural factors at play. Industries at fault range from the agriculture sector underpaying international backpackers to restaurants underpaying chefs and waiters. The undervaluing of workers through underpayment is a cultural problem too.
None of this excuses governments from playing their part nor from being called to account. Governments should be held accountable when lack of government funding is the main issue in social failure, or when they have failed to regulate an industry effectively. Under our political system, community reaction against governments is the main lever by which it can fight back.
Ironically this comes at a time when the government is trying to shut down community activism against corporations and private institutions. The Prime Minister is surely not trying to limit reaction against government itself.
Perhaps we also need to draw a line in the sand on a wider range of cultural factors, even when it is uncomfortable to do so. Ageism causes terrible crimes against mainly powerless people, but so do other -isms.
Calling for greater or more effective government action is relatively easy. Even calling for more government funding is relatively painless for most of us who don't have to make the hard decisions.
The benefit of such an additional "cultural" approach is that it makes us all feel a greater personal responsibility not only for our own actions but for those of our community.
- John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.