ABC Investigations journalist Anne Connolly has spent the past three years looking into the state of aged care in Australia.
The federal government called a royal commission the day before her first in-depth story on Four Corners went to air and her reporting on the issue has won several awards — the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year award, the Kennedy Journalist of the Year award and the Australian Human Rights Commission award.
In this interview with ABC Backstory, Connolly says aged care is an issue that’s been neglected in media coverage but she sensed there was widespread suffering that needed to be exposed.
How did your long-running investigation into aged care come about?
When I joined the ABC Investigations unit in early 2018, I suggested the idea of a crowdsourced investigation to our editor, Jo Puccini, because I was convinced — based on other stories I had done on aged care — that there were many people suffering, that they had nowhere to turn as the complaints agency and the regulator were ineffective, and that they were desperate to tell their stories.
It was the first big, crowdsourced investigation for the unit and it turned out to be one of the most successful for the ABC and probably the country.
I made a video for Facebook asking people to contact us and we distributed it through many channels and by the end of the week more than 4,000 people had responded, which was phenomenal.
That’s when we realised how widespread the problem was, that it was not just a “rotten apple” here and there as the industry and government had always maintained.
We still have a dedicated email address which appears with any online story on aged care and it still receives hundreds of emails every year which is why we’ve continued to report on the issues throughout the royal commission.
It means I’ve been reporting on aged care for almost three years now and unfortunately there’s no shortage of issues to cover.
It’s an area that has been largely ignored by other media because it’s not considered “sexy”.
How did you go about the investigation?
I had actually been reporting on the sector on and off for a decade before.
It started with a Four Corners fly-on-the-wall documentary called Journey of No Return in which I followed three people with dementia over the period of a year.
That was in 2009 and it was my first experience being inside a nursing home.
It wasn’t a particularly awful facility, which is why they had allowed us in to film, but I saw people just sitting in a row in front of the TV and then an elderly woman calling out for help but being ignored.
Nobody there thought any of that behaviour was unusual.
In 2012, my colleague Margot O’Neill produced a lot of stories for Lateline about sexual abuse, poor food standards and how families who complained were banned from visiting.
Both Margot and I were inundated with emails each time we broadcast stories and that was a clear indication that something was very wrong.
Neither political party campaigned on it because it wasn’t considered to be an important electoral issue.
Yet, we could tell that people were genuinely suffering and that it was widespread.
After we launched the callout in May 2018, the response was overwhelming and it was myself and my colleague Josephine Tovey who sifted through them.
Many of them were current staff who were too scared to be identified and who were just pleading for help.
In fact, it was the stories from aged care workers which convinced me that the understaffing, the lack of training and the use of drugs to restrain people was systemic.
The staff came from different states and both for-profit and not-for-profit facilities and they all told the same stories, like rationing continence pads, the $6 a day food costs, the frauds carried out to get more funding from the government, and the intimidation which stopped workers from speaking out.
I had heard those stories from families but I could never be sure if they were isolated cases.
What were the stories you heard that resonated with you?
We asked people to provide evidence to support their claims and so there were thousands of pages of complaints and coroners’ reports but it was the photos and the video footage which was truly disturbing.
There were hidden camera videos of abuse and rough handling which formed some of our two-part Four Corners series.
However, it was often the simple neglect — which is a much more common experience — that stayed with me much more.
One woman had filmed her grandmother Catherine over a period of months.
This elderly woman was blind and — because the staff never changed the batteries in her hearing aids — she was deaf as well.
She was stuck in a small room not even knowing if a staff member had entered.
They didn’t shower her, they left her food out of reach, she had a commode next to her bed which they didn’t empty.
She told how she held her cup out in front of her in case someone walked by who could pour her some water.
She was a devout Catholic in a nursing home owned by the church and they did not even call a priest for her last rites.
So we had thousands of people complaining about this type of neglect yet despite all the evidence, the aged care provider would always deny it.
Even when the families pursued it with the federal agencies who take complaints and regulate the sector, the families were rarely believed and there was no penalty even if there was video evidence proving it.
There are thousands of people who have been traumatised by the aged care system — first by what they experienced and witnessed happening to loved ones and secondly by the federal government regulator which took the word of the provider over that of desperate families.
What’s changed since you started reporting on aged care?
I was absolutely thrilled when the royal commission was announced the day before the first of the Four Corners programs went to air.
I had always believed a royal commission was warranted because the evidence was overwhelming.
Unfortunately, the inquiry didn’t stop the problems.
Our inbox was still filling up with horror stories and then COVID hit in Victoria and that’s when all the gaps in the system were revealed.
I was disappointed that the royal commission didn’t receive the same political or media attention which occurred with those inquiries investigating the banking sector and the churches’ responses to child sex abuse.
I believe the government and the industry know that very well and take advantage of it.
For example, the Prime Minister gave the media just half an hour’s notice for his press conference when he suddenly decided to release the royal commission’s final report on March 1.
With all the other most recent royal commissions there’s been a two-hour lock-up to allow journalists to read the report and ask informed questions.
With aged care, the government tabled the report just as the press conference was beginning.
I see it as a clear indication that the government wants this issue to go away.
Despite this, I am encouraged that there will be change in the most important areas — staffing, training and funding.
There’s a blueprint now for this government and those in the future which cannot be ignored.
Both commissioners proposed a Medicare-style levy to fund aged care properly and, just as crucially, a requirement that aged care providers reveal how they spend over $20 billion in taxpayer funds each year.
At the moment there is no transparency on this issue.
It’s been the highlight of my career to have contributed to raising awareness and hopefully some change in this area.
It’s also been incredibly rewarding to receive such heartfelt feedback from families and staff.
My only hope is that the royal commission recommendations are adopted by the government because, whether we like it or not, many of us will need care as we age and it should be much better funded, regulated and transparent than the system we have right now.