Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide with Ali Clarke and David Bevan
Topics: Oakden ICAC report; Coalition agreement; Bill Shorten; Murray-Darling Basin Plan
Ali Clarke: Good morning to the Labour Member for Port Adelaide, also the national president of the ALP and Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Mark Butler.

Mark Butler: Good morning.

Ali Clarke: Good morning to Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator and Education Minister.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning.

Ali Clarke: And Rebekha Sharkie, NXT Member for Mayo. Good to have you along as well.

Rebekha Sharkie: Thank you. Good morning.

Ali Clarke: Mark Butler, you have a strong policy background in the area of ageing. You’re a former minister of that portfolio. At the same time, Jay Weatherill is a really good mate of yours. He even launched your book about the topic. Should this upcoming election hinge on the Oakden ICAC report?

Mark Butler: Well, we don’t know what’s in the ICAC report. What we do know, though, is that what happened at the Oakden facility was awful and deserves the attention of really everyone with influence in South Australia, but also at a federal level, because I think what it’s demonstrated is some system failures at a state level and a federal level as well. They’re not issues isolated to South Australia. We saw on the front page of Brisbane’s Courier Mail last week very similar issues across a number of state-owned facilities and privately-owned aged care facilities…

David Bevan: But this was a state-run aged facility. So it was actually run by the South Australian Government.

Mark Butler: Yeah, and a number of facilities on the front page of the Courier Mail were also state-run facilities. So there’s…

David Bevan: Yeah, but this is a South Australian election. Mark Butler, this is a South Australian election, this was a state-run facility. So the question is: should the election hinge on the ICAC report?

Mark Butler: Well, we don’t know what’s in the ICAC report. I think though everyone will take the ICAC report very seriously. Just as they did Aaron Groves’ report last April, which had a range of recommendations about the clinical models of care in Oakden and, more broadly, through the system that were accepted by the Government. But, I imagine that the ICAC report will point to some substantial system failures at the state level, as Kay Patterson and Kate Carnell’s report pointed to some substantial failures at a federal level around Oakden and through the system across the nation.

David Bevan: So, if it’s happening around the country, that let’s Jay Weatherill off the hook.

Mark Butler: No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t. What I’ve said is, I think there will be- it will be clear that there have been failures in systems at a state and federal level, and federal and state governments, and oppositions, who have the ambition of becoming a government, should treat this very, very seriously. I mean, I’ve said for many years, that there is nothing more important, I think, for a government, than making sure that seniors, at the most vulnerable part in their life, are treated with decency, with dignity and with good care. And I think the events at Oakden have shocked all South Australians and should be treated with the highest priority by everyone in this upcoming state election.

David Bevan: You held the portfolio, didn’t you; in the Gillard Government. Is that correct?

Mark Butler: Yep, for three years.

David Bevan: And did anything ever come to you saying, you know, that Oakden place – it’s really not up to standard?

Mark Butler: No, nothing ever came to me about Oakden. Occasionally I would get reports about one of the 3000 or so facilities across the country that had failed their accreditation. We made a range of changes while I was minister to improve the [indistinct] …

David Bevan: Okay, so nothing ever came to you. Did you ever visit Oakden?

Mark Butler: The fact that it didn’t, the fact that it didn’t, David, I think reflects the fact that there are failures in the system.

David Bevan: Did you ever visit Oakden?

Mark Butler: No, I’ve never visited Oakden.

David Bevan: Okay. Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia, and Education Minister, do you think that if there are adverse findings in the ICAC report the election should hinge on it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I think Jay Weatherill deserves to lose this election, if you like, on the Oakden failure alone – the catastrophic failure in terms of caring for aged people in a State Government-run facility. But of course, if Oakden isn’t enough for people, well there is a similar litany of failures in the child protection system. Again, failing to care for some of the most vulnerable South Australians. And that’s before you move onto, of course, the streams of South Australians who leave the state every year in search of job and opportunity elsewhere and the declining share of population and all of those other factors. So, people have got a smorgasbord of reasons, frankly, to get rid of Jay Weatherill and this 16-year-old government. But the Oakden issue is very serious, a real indictment upon this Government, and Jay Weatherill has, up until now, sought to completely evade any responsibility for this himself.

David Bevan: Can you also see, though, this is why there’s such a strong vote for the Nick Xenophon SA Best team? Because governments of both complexions at a state and federal level have failed aged care. And it’s examples like this- that’s why we’re about to go to Rebekha Sharkie. That’s why she’s got a position in the parliament and that’s why Nick Xenophon’s polling between 20 and 30 per cent.

Simon Birmingham: Well David, you made the very wise point there in questioning Mark before and emphasised that this is a State Government-run facility. Now, are we really saying that the State Government can’t look after vulnerable elderly citizens without a federal regulator looking over their shoulder?

David Bevan: Well, that’s what the federal regulator is there for.

Simon Birmingham: Well, the federal regulator is there to maintain standards, but in most cases, you would hope that state governments don’t need a federal regulator looking over their shoulder. That yes, the federal regulator is also looking over the shoulder of a whole raft of other non-government run facilities across the country, and…

David Bevan: So you’d let the federal government of both complexion, Coalition and Labor, off the hook? It’s not really their fault. I know we’ve got a police force…

Simon Birmingham: No, I mean- we’ve already taken action and announced reforms following the Oakden saga, so we’ve taken action to ensure that there are unannounced reaccreditation audits that will now be undertaken, and other changes to really lift the quality of federal regulation. But we should not be letting a state government that is there to serve the people of South Australia and that is there to help look after vulnerable children, vulnerable elderly citizens, off the hook, when they leave a situation in place that it appears, and we’ll see what the Oakden report says, but it appears government officials and ministers had clear warnings along the way that there was real cases and instances of abuse happening here. Not just a failure to live up to standards, but actual abuse of elderly citizens happening in this facility, and Jay Weatherill should not be allowed to dodge responsibility for it.

Ali Clarke: Rebekha Sharkie, you’ve been listening to this, NXT member. Returning to my original question, should this upcoming election hinge on this ICAC report?

Rebekha Sharkie: Well, I think it’ll be a critical issue for the election, sure. But really, this is a plague on both houses. Absolutely, the State Government is responsible for Oakden, but at the same time, earlier this week we had a motion in the Parliament – 100,000 Australians, elderly Australians, vulnerable Australians – are waiting for Commonwealth Home Care packages. So yes, this is very much a State Government issue, but the Federal Government is doing very little to support our most vulnerable Australians.

Ali Clarke: Well on that, returning to you, Mark Butler. Earlier I spoke to Neil Baron. He performed evaluation on Oakden in 2008 and then he actually had to walk away from the process because he couldn’t abet any movement out of state or Commonwealth people that he’d gone to, to try to raise the alarm. Are you confident that, while you were the Minister for Ageing from 2010, that you looked into the reasons why there were those roadblocks and failures?

Mark Butler: About Oakden in particular, or the system generally?

Ali Clarke: Well…

Mark Butler: Well, nothing ever came to me about Oakden in my time as the minister, but there were a number of recommendations about beefing up the quality accreditation that I received and acted upon. For example, making sure that every facility in the country got at least one unannounced visit per year. Now, I think Simon Birmingham alluded to the fact that last year’s report at a federal level recommended that that system be beefed up, and apparently the Government has accepted that recommendation, though it hasn’t yet introduced legislation that would be necessary to implement it, to actually see it happening on the ground. I also received recommendations to establish an independent system for families to be able to make complaints about what was happening at facilities across the country.

So there were a number of recommendations about how to improve the accreditation system and complaints system, and I accepted all of them. But I didn’t receive anything about Oakden in particular. And I want to make the point that I think what’s been happening over the last 10 to 20 years is that people in aged care facilities across the country are becoming far more frail and far more dependent than they used to be as they enter these facilities, and it’s incumbent on all governments – state and federal – to make sure that the accreditation systems, the protections in place for a group of patients or clients that are much more vulnerable, more dependent than they used to be 10 or 20 years ago, are up to scratch. And I think what this and a range of other cases across the country show is our systems aren’t up to scratch.

Ali Clarke: Simon Birmingham, Bill Shorten has given an interview to GQ Magazine and in it, he says: the sheer vacuous of this current government is breathtaking and Malcolm Turnbull is just vacuous. Great guy to have a dinner party with, though he’d do most of the talking, but just vacuous. Has Malcolm Turnbull brought this up at all?

Simon Birmingham: No, he certainly hasn’t brought up Bill Shorten’s GQ interview in my company at all and I doubt any of them care terribly much about Bill Shorten’s GQ interview. I continue to care, firstly, just to be clear, because Mark was implying there in his response before that the Oakden issue relates seemingly to failures of regulation and standards.

Let’s remember very clearly as this ICAC report is released today, this was about active abuse of elderly citizens. This wasn’t just a failure to meet standards of care. There were actual instances of abuse. Now, in terms of Bill Shorten …

Mark Butler: The ICAC report didn’t talk about federal systems. We’ll have to wait and see, but I’d be astounded if Bruce Lander doesn’t talk about federal systems as well.

Simon Birmingham: In a state government-run facility that Jay Weatherill should take responsibility. But look, back to Mr Shorten. I think the big news of the day here is that Mr Shorten has been caught out by Geoffrey Cousins; saying one thing in one part of the country – saying he’d tear up deals or approvals in relation to that Adani coal mine, but then of course when he’s in Queensland, he says something completely different and says that he’s for jobs. And what we see there is a pattern of behaviour. The same on company tax, where he said previously that he recognised that company tax cuts would drive investment and jobs, lift wages. Now he campaigns and says exactly the opposite to what he said in government and it is a track record that you can see again and again. In my portfolio, in childcare reforms where …

Ali Clarke: Okay, well he’s also- Bill Shorten has also said and I’m returning to this interview to you, Mark Butler. He’s actually also used the words: what the f-word, and he said it out loud and it’s when he’s talking about thoughts on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Am I being a bit prude, or is that really language we want and you want from your leader?

Mark Butler: I have to confess, I haven’t read the GQ article. From the description I have …

Ali Clarke: It’s been quoted. He says: what the …

Mark Butler: Look, I mean I think- look, I just don’t know. I haven’t read it and I think there’s different levels of language used in different magazines around the place. I’m not a regular reader of GQ, Ali, so I can’t really comment.

Simon Birmingham: It says something if that’s the depth of his trade policy analysis though. That the TPP, which provides enhanced access for South Australian winemakers, South Australian aquaculture industries, South Australian businesses to be able to get into export markets and Mr Shorten sits there with GQ and uses the F-word to describe it.

David Bevan: Rebekha Sharkie, should we see the Coalition agreement?

Rebekha Sharkie: Oh absolutely we should see the Coalition agreement and also if Michael McCormack decides to change the agreement with the Prime Minister which has been alluded to.

David Bevan: Particularly because it could affect South Australia if it has anything to say about irrigation.

Rebekha Sharkie: Particularly because Michael McCormack was not a supporter of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. He’s been very clear that he’s a supporter of irrigators in his electorate, but I’m not sure that he realises that there’s farmers further down the river.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, isn’t it passing strange that the foundation document between the National Party and the Liberal Party which creates the Coalition is not made public?

Simon Birmingham: No, not really. It’s an agreement between the two parties. In the end, of course, there’s nothing particularly special about it. For 90 years we’ve operated in Coalition [indistinct] …

David Bevan: What do you mean there’s nothing special about it? It cements the two of you together. And wouldn’t South Australians – the people you represent – have a passing interest in that document, especially if it’s got anything to say about a deal over irrigation rights?

Simon Birmingham: I think they have a far greater interest, because it’s actually a document that really just goes to how it is we function together as two parties, the responsibilities, the ministerial arrangements …

David Bevan: Oh, okay, so you just release it.

Simon Birmingham: … it’s not something that is a policy- it’s not something that is a policy document. Now the policies of the Government are there for everybody to see. The policies of the Government are generated …

David Bevan: Following up Mark Butler’s question. Have you seen them?

Simon Birmingham: No. I have no particular care or desire to, because I know that it doesn’t impact on me getting on with doing my job as Education Minister. It doesn’t impact on the Government’s ability to generate – as we have – more than record numbers of jobs. What have been …

David Bevan: It might impact on Anne Ruston doing her job looking after South Australian irrigators.

Simon Birmingham: No it doesn’t. The only person …

David Bevan: Well how do you know; you haven’t looked at it?

Simon Birmingham: The only people getting in the way of seeing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan implemented in full and on time are the Labor Party and the Nick Xenophon Team who took the very destructive step of disallowing in the Senate, a component of the plan that the Labor Party had put in place and in train when they were in office and that is just back-peddling on the agreement that had been struck between all of the states. We’re committed to getting the plan back on track, but it’s Labor’s destructive actions there, with Nick Xenophon joining in, that is really threatening the future of the plan.

Mark Butler: This is the height of arrogance. Malcolm Turnbull admitted in the Parliament yesterday that the Government has spent $87,000 of taxpayer money in defending our court actions that we’ve been taking to have this agreement released so that everyone – opposition parties, crossbenchers and the community – can see exactly what Malcolm Turnbull signed onto. Now, Cabinet Minister after Cabinet Minister have said that they haven’t seen it. The only information we have about what’s in the agreement were National Party MPs bragging after the fact – a couple of years ago when Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister – that they’d squeezed these commitments out of the Prime Minister in the agreement around policy issues, not about who becomes Minister for X or how many ministries that National Party gets.

What they managed to was get Malcolm Turnbull for the first time, to hand the water portfolio away from Environment to the Agriculture Minister. Now John Howard recognised that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan should be implemented by the Environment Minister, as did Tony Abbott, as does Labor. Malcolm Turnbull was the first Prime Minister to hand over responsibility for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to the agriculture portfolio rather than the environment. And what we also know is that National Party MPs bragged that they got a commitment in the agreement from Malcolm Turnbull, that he would not touch one element of Tony Abbott’s destructive climate change policies.

David Bevan: Mark Butler, thank you for your time this morning …

Mark Butler: Thanks very much.

David Bevan: Labor member for Port Adelaide, national president of the ALP. Before that, Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia and Federal Education Minister, and Rebekha Sharkie, NXT Member for Mayo.