The mark of a politician is often not what their team say of them but what their opponents think of them. When he retired in 2002 as an ALP senator, Liberal opponent Senator Robert Hill said: ‘‘Barney sets a standard to which most of us seek to aspire, but rarely reach, in terms of his personal demeanour, his commitment and his values … He is always fighting for the underdog.’’
Days after his death, former Liberal senator Amanda Vanstone wrote in these pages: ‘‘Colleagues of all persuasions come and go but rarely ones like Barney. If you want an example of what a decent, hard-working, committed parliamentarian looks like, you couldn’t do better than him.’’
He was banned from taking the lead during Question Time because he sought constructive answers rather than cheap political points. Formerly a handy amateur boxer, he refused to land a low blow.
In his final chapter the ex-senator became one of those he had once championed — someone virtually helpless. A little while ago, as he lay in his reclining chair-bed that had become his prison, he gathered his strength to whisper his final legal submission to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, for he knew he would not last until its first sitting date.
His faithful transcriber, leaning forward to catch each husky word, was former Supreme Court judge Frank Vincent. They have been great friends for six decades.
‘‘When I came from Tasmania to Melbourne University I knew no one. I mated up with Barney and we were close friends ever since,’’ says Justice Vincent.
Barney had cancer in a leg. They didn’t get it all, came back for another attempt and eventually had to amputate. Still it didn’t stop and for the last few years he has been in care.
‘‘As he physically deteriorated his mind remained incredibly active,’’ says Justice Vincent. His wife, Lillian, was in the same care facility but they were too ill to meet.
Frank would visit his old mate once a week and after the royal commission was announced, Barney said he wanted to make a submission. After all, he had become an expert in the most dreadful circumstances.
He was in one of Melbourne’s best facilities and was not mistreated — his family stress that the staff were diligent and committed — but he wanted the commission to know that the very process stripped the elderly of their dignity and left them to die miserably.
Here is Senator Bernard Cooney’s final submission. He was 84 and died on February 9.
“’Here is your coffee.’ There was no greeting or even mention of my name as the staff member placed the cup on a stand well beyond my reach.
“She did not inquire as to how I would reach it or assist me to do so or indicate that she would arrange for another staff member to help me, although I was clearly incapable of moving the bed-like chair to which I am confined.
“There was a straw in the cup that had been placed there, because it was understood that I would experience difficulty in holding it and drinking the coffee. In fact, this would have been impossible without assistance even if it had been within reach, as I am unable to move my head sufficiently and have a very limited range of hand movement and control.
“The responsibility of the particular kitchen staff member was only to deliver the afternoon coffee to my room, and she had done that. I do not criticise her for her performance of this limited role and she was not a carer, but rather want to draw attention to the deeper issues with which residents like myself are confronted. These can be manifested by something as simple as the drinking of a cup of coffee but they are evident in almost every interaction with staff and every day on several occasions.
The operators of the aged care facility could truthfully assert that afternoon tea was available and provided to all residents. If challenged about the practical impossibility of drinking the coffee when it was placed beyond my reach, they undoubtedly would have responded that I could have simply pressed the call button placed on my chair and assistance would be provided.
“The absurdity of this statement arises from the fact that, as those responsible for my care are well aware, I simply do not have the strength to press it.
“It also assumes, of course, that my call would be answered some time before my coffee had become stone cold. However, in my experience, even when it is pressed by visitors on my behalf for one reason or another, there is often a considerable delay.
“I do not hold the staff members responsible for their frequent failure to respond within a reasonable time to such calls. There are often insufficient numbers on duty to attend to the needs of residents. Unsurprisingly, I often experience considerable discomfort and require repositioning in my chair to secure relief. Unless I have a visitor at the time, I will have no means of communication. Staff assistance is irregular and lengthy periods will elapse before anyone comes to check on me. My voice is very weak and I cannot call out. I experience such times as a form of torture.
“I make no complaint about the physical conditions in the facility, which are fine, nor generally in relation to what could be described as compliance with the required formal standards. My concerns arise from the essential depersonalisation of very vulnerable residents.
“The systems and structures are clearly designed for their cost-effective management and handling rather than the provision of personalised care. The staff members at my facility try their hardest to fill this gap, but they lack adequate training and the support required to enable them to do more than quickly attend to the resident’s specific requests when time permits. From whatever perspective this situation is viewed, it is clearly very unsatisfactory.
“I am not being overdramatic when I state that I sit here slowly dying. It is a process that is neither physically comfortable nor emotionally easy to cope with. But I am not dead yet and I have not given up on life. I am not alone in this experience, as there are others in this home and thousands across the country who share it. I want our position understood.
“Inevitably, as our physical and mental situations deteriorate, our universe becomes smaller and smaller, until it is eventually confined to a few rooms in a single building. Slowly, for many, our circle of visitors who bring the outside world to us declines the longer we remain here, until finally there are family members and a few long-term faithful friends.
“Fortunately, I am not in the position of many who are largely isolated in this way. Mentally we may be quite alert but are still infantilised when spoken to by some staff. There are some programs and residents welcome them to help pass the time, but few provide any stimulation. They are generally tired and unimaginative.
“The obvious and continuing failure of our system to address seriously the mental and emotional wellbeing of our aged population shames our community. Neglect at this level can be as destructive as physical abuse and contribute to great distress.
“As I understand the situation generally across the country, there are few social workers or other trained personnel to assist residents who are often experiencing a powerful sense of separation and loss of their homes, associations and social and other activities.
“This type of support and assistance has not been given anything approaching sufficient significance. It should be integral to all such services and not treated as a kind of add-on and its provision generally left to some good-hearted community groups and limited chaplain services.
“There must be recognition and support to assist us at this level as we struggle to maintain our human dignity and involvement in life when, in consequence of our physical circumstances and diminishing personal autonomy, it is constantly being stripped from us.’’
They buried Barney yesterday. For God’s sake let’s not bury his final message.
John Silvester is a Walkley-award winning crime writer and columnist. A co-author of the best-selling books that formed the basis of the hit Australian TV series Underbelly, Silvester is also a regular guest on 3AW with his «Sly of the Underworld» segment.