QUESTION: Elder Abuse

During Question Time Mark asked the Minister for Health and Wellbeing about progress towards state legislation to deal with  elder abuse.


The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: The topic of elder abuse has been prominent in the media and in public consciousness over the last two years, including scandals involving the Oakden nursing home and other aged-care institutions. Part of the parliament's response was the creation of a joint select committee into elder abuse, which reported in October last year, and I understand that the minister was an active participant in that inquiry.

Many of the recommendations involved putting pressure on and working with the federal authorities to ensure consistency of standards and appropriate funding levels. However, one recommendation that lies squarely with the responsibility of the state government and the state parliament is recommendation 4, which calls on the South Australian government to introduce a bill to develop a new South Australian adult protection act. The report notes that this was also a key recommendation of the previous report to parliament in 2011, entitled 'Closing the Gaps: Enhancing South Australia's Response to the Abuse of Vulnerable Older People'.

My questions are:

1. Is the minister able to inform the council about progress towards state legislation to deal with elder abuse?

2. Will the government commit to broad community and stakeholder consultation in the preparation of a bill, which I would expect would have widespread public and political support?

The Hon. S.G. WADE (Minister for Health and Wellbeing): I thank the member for his question. The Marshall Liberal government made a pre-election commitment to adult protection legislation. The member is quite correct to highlight that the previous government ignored the recommendations of the 2011 Closing the Gaps report, which specifically recommended that South Australia have adult protection legislation and an adult safeguarding unit. The report of 2011, written by Professor Wendy Lacey, has been reiterated by the report of the Australian Law Reform Commission. I think it was tabled in May last year. Again, as the honourable member highlights, it was a specific recommendation of the joint select committee.

Mr President, I am classified as an older worker, but I am currently not yet eligible for a Seniors Card; nonetheless, I will continue my answer in relation to elder protection. As I have highlighted, the former government failed to take up the recommendation of the 2011 Closing the Gaps report and enact elder protection legislation. This government made a commitment leading up to the last election that we would do that as an early priority. One of the drivers for it being such a priority was the fact that the Oakden case may well have been brought to the attention of the authorities earlier if elder protection legislation was available.

I do want to stress though that elder protection legislation is not fundamentally about residential aged care. There is a series of systems in place to try to protect people who are in residential care, particularly residential aged care. Elder protection applies to them, but it applies much more broadly. It is the understanding of those who study this field that the prevalence of elder abuse is much higher in the broader community and we shouldn't diminish awareness of this issue by not recognising its broader application.

If I can recall the member's question, you were particularly concerned about whether the government was going to deliver on its commitment and what consultation would be involved. The issue of consultation was something that exercised my mind when I was appointed as the minister: when to do the consultation, whether to put out options and then put legislation into the parliament or to take another approach.

After consultation with stakeholders, my department and fellow colleagues in the government, I have decided to bring a settled bill, if you like, to the parliament. A bill has been drafted, relying significantly on the advice of Professor Wendy Lacey, the author of the 2011 Closing the Gaps report. Cabinet has authorised me to have a bill drafted. That bill has gone to what I would call targeted consultation, both within and without government. I can't vouch that each of these stakeholders were actually involved, but I can give you an indication of the clusters of stakeholders that we are envisaging, some or all of whom I trust were able to be involved.

Obviously, there are South Australian government stakeholders, such as the Attorney-General's Department, SAPOL, the Office of the Public Advocate, the Legal Services Commission, the Department of Human Services (DHS), the Public Trustee and the Office for Women, as well as community organisations, such as COTA and the Aged Rights Advocacy Service (ARAS), and UniSA. We also engaged people who were engaged in the Oakden process, both people from the oversight committee and also people affected as friends and carers of people in relation to Oakden.

That targeted consultation process is coming to an end. I will then be taking a cabinet submission forward with the finalised draft, and it is my hope and expectation that that bill will be tabled towards the end of June. I think the honourable member referred to the fact that there is likely to be broad support. I certainly hope that is the case, and I certainly hope that the council, and for that matter the house as well, sees the wisdom of the model being put forward.

It is very important that we have a body that has the powers to investigate issues and to pursue information, but the advice that is reflected in the community discussion up to this point, and will be reflected in the bill, is not that we don't need another police force. One of the reasons why we need an investigation agency like this is that older people and other vulnerable adults often feel very uncomfortable calling the police in on a matter that may involve one of their own family members. We need to have an approachable body. We need to have a body that is both approachable and empowered, that actually has the capacity to investigate and pursue matters but that can work in a positive multidisciplinary way to protect vulnerable adults and, if you like, try to restore the relationships.

In many of these relationships, people want the abuse, financial or otherwise, to stop, but they don't want to lose the relationship. As I said, the government is very committed to delivering on its commitment. That work is in progress. I recognise the need for consultation. We have done some targeted consultation, and we would be very keen to have the general community consultation that comes with the parliamentary debate.