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Australia’s Utopia moment is here

Recent policy looks more like brilliant satire than effective change. By Michael Fine.

I don’t know if you watched the brilliant satire Utopia on ABC recently. It is a wonderful tongue-in-cheek Australian series in which Rob Sitch and his gang of comedians present what they call “a satire about the difficult process of taking grand, uncosted, inadequately planned, fundamentally flawed schemes and passing them off as nation building”.

The running joke in the series is about the way so much government does these days seems to be about nothing more than publicity seeking and self-promotion. No need to do anything. Just lean on the PR team, rely on publicity and marketing, call in the community relations staff and wheel out the minister to find big dramatic releases and opportunities to present exciting images about all the new changes going on.

Sound a bit like what’s going on in aged care at the moment? ‘Let’s give them more choice. Better lives. Let’s tell them they’re going to live longer and it’s all thanks to our help. Tune up the band and roll out the fanfare. Gosh, maybe we can even get a new logo and a new name for what we do.’

Is this Australia’s Aged Care Utopia Moment? No, it can’t be. There isn’t a minister for ageing or aged care to wheel out anything.

Yet behind the scenes, we read about an unprecedented new rush of financial equity schemes lining up to invest in residential and community care ventures through takeovers and buyouts of existing providers and through the establishment of new ventures. In residential and community care we hear about all kinds of new providers offering services, about new measures of quality, and about wonderful new websites and entry portals that will transform the way consumers obtain information and gain access to care services.

We also hear about the new world of consumer-directed care, and know that waiting lists for high-level CDC services have grown. Not much consumer choice if you can’t get anyone to help you.

Some things, like more choice, get big announcements. Other items get buried. Those who are attentive to news released on the weekend may even have heard that the largest community care provider in the country – and perhaps the world – is about to be sold off. The NSW Home Care Service will, sadly, be no more. This will no doubt provide more options for consumers. And if you’re not from NSW, don’t worry. Perhaps something similar is being planned in the state in which you live.

As we know, good policy takes time and is worth waiting for. But we also need to be able to plan for it. Things are changing and if we have patience one day we’ll know where it was all leading.

But for those involved here and now with the extremely successful, extremely low-cost Home and Community Care program, the future seems uncertain. It’s about to be changed, renamed and slimmed down, opened up to more competition. It’s going to be a real home support program – and there’ll be no more of this silly community business to worry about.

If that were not enough, imagine you’re a case or care manager employed through HACC. That part of the scheme is about to be abolished. Appendix C of the wonderfully informative discussion paper Key Directions for the Commonwealth Home Support Programme, released in May, provides a wonderfully detailed graphic in full technicolour explaining what will happen to the existing programs when they are absorbed into the new one. But the case manager services (Community Options in NSW, Linkages in Victoria) don’t go anywhere on the diagram. The text refers readers to the My Aged Care program, but I’ve not been able to find any further reference there.

That’s a lot of social capital to lose. There’s an entire profession across Australia about to be, as they say in PR, let go. But there’s no need to worry. No need for plans. This is Australia’s Utopia moment.

Photo: Hayley Butcher and Rob Sitch in a scene from the TV series Utopia. Supplied by ABC TV. Photography by Hwa Goh.

Michael Fine is an adjunct professor in the department of sociology at Macquarie University.

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