Originally published in Canberra Times on March 6, 2021

We all wish to be treated with respect and dignity.

This column was supposed to be all about the aged care royal commission, but I’m so furious about the way the Prime Minister and his cabinet have dealt with multiple rape allegations, I must begin there. Dignity and respect – or lack of it – are at the heart of both issues.

Frankly, Christian Porter should stand aside as Attorney-General because it has become clear he does not understand what the rule of law means.

Firstly, the rule of law will be perfectly safe if the Attorney-General stands aside while an independent investigation is conducted into the rape allegations against him. Porter and his matter do not personify the rule of law. It was wrong of him, as the first law officer of Australia, to say so.

Secondly, the Attorney-General was wrong to claim the onus of proof would be reversed for him in this case. In any criminal case – not that there will be one – the burden of proof lies with the prosecutor to prove beyond reasonable doubt, as Christian Porter well knows. In a civil matter, cases are proved on the balance of probabilities, but the burden of proof is not suddenly reversed.

No less than the Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia used an exemplary civil process to deal with sexual harassment claims against former justice Dyson Heydon – claims that he denies, but were upheld. Remember, if a similar investigation determined, on the balance of probabilities, that Christian Porter was not a fit and proper person to be the Attorney-General, he would go to the backbench, not to prison.

Thirdly, simply saying this is a matter for the police is also inadequate. Most rapists are roaming around free in Australia. Research shows only about one-tenth of sexual assaults are reported to police, and of those, only a fraction result in convictions – some estimates are as low as 3 per cent. What if Brittany Higgins chose not to report her alleged rape to police? Would it then “cease be a matter that required [Morrison’s] immediate attention”?

Porter asked people to imagine the allegations weren’t true. But imagine they are true. It simply cannot be that the Attorney-General of Australia is accused of rape and the matter drops after a simple chat between him and the Prime Minister.
That this sordid and untenable situation has been allowed to fester to this point is a profound failure of leadership from Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

A failure of leadership was also identified as the reason behind the abuse and neglect that the aged care royal commission, in its final report, found characterises Australia’s aged care system.

By now Australians have all heard about the appalling abuse – by staff who are supposed to be caring for residents – of people suffering the indignity of being left to sit for hours on end in their own faeces, or medicated to keep them compliant, or malnourished and dehydrated because there are only two staff to feed upwards of 70 patients or residents with a meal budget of $6 a day.

In part, this is due to the Howard government’s privatisation of the sector; Howard ditched dignity and respect in favour of budget savings (for the government) and profits (for providers). But now, it’s up to the Morrison government to fix Howard’s legacy of shame.

It does not have to be this way. Australia is one of the richest countries on Earth, even post-recession. As my colleague Richard Denniss always says – we can afford to do anything we want, but not everything we want.

The royal commission did not put a dollar value on how much implementing the aged care royal commission’s recommendations would cost, but a good estimate is that it would cost about $20 billion – which would double the $19.9 billion the government currently spends on aged care. Among the recommendations is the call for an effective 1 per cent increase in the Medicare levy, or a new Medicare-style aged care levy which could be applied progressively based on income. Though the commissioners differed slightly on the mechanism for raising revenue, they were united on the idea that more revenue must be raised.

In little more than two days, the Morrison government has disrespected two years of work by the royal commission by immediately ruling out a new tax or levy. Instead, the Treasurer will fund aged care by “growing the economy” – an announcement of pure politics. What happens to aged care funding if the economy does not grow fast enough? Tough luck, I guess.

Decades of permanent tax cuts and generous tax concessions mean Australia is haemorrhaging revenue, and it’s time we talked about it.

The government’s income tax cuts package, for example, comes in at a whopping $302 billion over 10 years. The income tax cuts, when fully implemented in 2024-25, will cost the budget about $35 billion in that year. We could simply ditch that final stage now and no one would be worse off than they currently are.

Scrapping tax concessions is also a potential source of revenue. Excess franking credits and the capital gains tax discount are worth about $15 billion per year and mainly go to older wealthy people.

The Coalition government’s tax cuts slash revenue and then inevitably lead to calls to cut spending on public services – like aged care – because “we can’t afford it”. But of course, we can.

Let’s think of it this way: if we cannot afford an aged care system with a meal budget of more than $6 a day, we certainly cannot afford to give already wealthy Australians the lion’s share of $300 billion in permanent income tax cuts.

Indeed, what is the point of GDP growth and budget savings if our aged care system neglects and abuses older Australians? What do platitudes from the Prime Minister about believing survivors mean, if the Prime Minister honestly believes there are “no matters that require my immediate attention” regarding the allegations against the Attorney-General?

Ultimately, it boils down to dignity and respect. It seems the Morrison government thinks this treatment is reserved for its ministers and its budget position above all others.

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