THE HON ANTHONY ALBANESE MP
LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY
MEMBER FOR GRAYNDLER
RESPECTING AND VALUING OLDER AUSTRALIANS
ADDRESS TO QUEENSLAND MEDIA CLUB
BRISBANE CONVENTION CENTRE
WEDNESAY, 19 FEBRUARY 2020
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When I look at older Australians, I see the generation that built this nation.
The generation that built our economy and shaped our society.
The generation that did the hard yards.
They have shown aspiration at its most fundamental. Aspiration not just for themselves, but for a better life for their children.
For their grandchildren. Their neighbours. Their community. Their country.
In them I see what I hope we all see – the strength and the spirit of our nation.
You see it everywhere you go.
During this terrible bushfire season, I visited many fire zones to see directly what was going on.
One was Cudlee Creek in the Adelaide Hills. Among the volunteers with the Country Fire Service there was Mike. He’s 82. He has been in the service for 57 years.
He is still making his contribution, still doing administration work for the CFS and, importantly, he is sharing his knowledge with cadets as young as 10.
He is still doing his bit for an organisation he loves. And those young people are getting one of the most priceless gifts of all – the wisdom drawn from a long life.
What an inspiration.
For so many Australians their later years are an incredible opportunity.
Some travel. Some perfect their golf swing. Some throw themselves into community work. Indeed, they are the life blood of our local clubs, associations and fire brigades.
Without them civil society would simply grind to a halt.
And so many throw their love and energy into their families, not least their grandchildren.
But having done their bit to build the country into what it is today, they’re not going to let it fall apart. Not on their watch.
As with the rest of society, we cannot speak of older Australians as a homogenous group.
Older Australians live in our regions, outer suburbs and inner cities.
After long lives of working and providing for their families and contributing to their nation, older Australians deserve a fulfilling and secure retirement.
If we acknowledge the importance of our older Australians, we need to make sure that their later years are good years.
That’s why in government Labor will move quickly to develop and implement a Positive Ageing Strategy.
It will outline a plan to help Australians in their final years of paid work, to build the nest egg that will let them retire when and how they want.
A plan that makes sure that when Australians do retire, they have access to quality healthcare.
That makes sure our urban environments work for them.
That gives all older Australians a roof over their head.
That lets them access quality aged care when the need arises.
They are, after all, our grandparents. Our parents. Our brothers and sisters.
And eventually, us.
For their part, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government has no strategy, no plan to deal with the challenges and reap the benefits of an ageing population.
Current policy settings are simply inadequate.
Australia’s lifestyle has long been the envy of the world. But when it comes to supporting our ageing population, we fall far short of our reputation.
As well as addressing the material needs of older Australians, our Positive Ageing Strategy will above all confront the way we as a society have come to view ageing, a cultural shift away from reverence for our elders that has accelerated under this Government.
The Government talks of the elderly as though they are a burden – an “economic time bomb”, to quote Josh Frydenberg.
When Scott Morrison was Treasurer, he tried cutting the age pension in every Budget – and he succeeded in cutting it for 370,000 Australians in 2015 by changing the assets test.
The failure to take timely action on deeming rates has reduced the income of older Australians.
And this is a Government that is also presiding over an economy characterised by stagnant wages that hit older workers and undermine their retirement incomes.
While it is typical for this Government to have no plan to tackle the big challenges we face as a nation, the demographic trajectory is clear and irreversible.
In 1927, 5 per cent of Australia’s population was aged over 65.
In 2017, it was 15 per cent.
By 2057, it is projected to be 22 per cent – more than one in five Australians.
Labor knows there is more we can and should be doing for older Australians. Our older years should be good years.
Just as Australians are living longer, they are staying in the workforce longer.
For some this is out of necessity.
Others simply love what they do, their job an intrinsic part of their identity.
But it isn’t possible for everyone. Older workers in blue collar industries should not be expected to put in even more years of physical slog.
It is also concerning that a growing number of mature-age workers can’t get the work that they seek.
Today, over 170,000 Australians aged between 55 and 64 are on unemployment benefits just when they should be building their nest egg.
For too many Australians over the age of 45, if they become unemployed they will struggle to get another job and instead spiral down towards a pretty lean retirement.
The announcement by Holden this week in response to the Government daring them to leave Australia should be viewed in this context.
The answer for some of these Australians is to upgrade their skills, which underscores the urgency of rebuilding our TAFEs and vocational education and training sector.
That’s why in the first of these Vision Statements, I announced a future Labor Government would establish Jobs and Skills Australia to drive improved outcomes in this sector.
But having the right skills has not always proven to be enough. Age discrimination persists.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard tackled this by appointing an Age Discrimination Commissioner.
But government cannot legislate the cultural change that is essential.
Ageism needs to be called out by each and every one of us.
Employers in particular must play their part.
They should value them. They should retain them. They should hire them.
According to Deloitte Access Economics, a 3 per cent increase in workforce participation by Australians aged over 55 would generate a $33 billion boost to the economy each year.
Volunteering is great.
But to build a stronger economy, we must harness the talents of everybody - and that includes older Australians who are sources of wisdom and experience for their employers and co-workers.
When the time comes, everyone has a different vision of retirement.
But every Australian should have one thing in common: they should have dignity in that retirement.
The crucial ingredient is the retirement income system. On this, Labor’s record over more than a century speaks for itself.
In 1908, the Labor Government of Andrew Fisher – a great Queenslander – introduced the old-age pension, ensuring for the first time that working Australians could retire with dignity.
We were one of the first nations in the world to do it.
In more recent times, the Rudd Labor Government delivered the most significant boost to the age pension in a generation, lifting a million older Australians out of poverty.
But the system needs improvement.
Older Australians should not have to wait months for their pension to be processed.
Nor should people be left on hold for hours trying to talk to a human being at Centrelink.
The pension is just one pillar of the retirement income system.
The second pillar was built by the Hawke-Keating Labor Government, which is universal superannuation.
This further extended Australians’ financial independence in retirement, extending over time access to the financial security that was once the preserve of business executives and high-ranking public servants.
Our political opponents don’t share our aspirations for our fellow Australians.
That’s why we established and entrenched superannuation – to empower Australians and bolster their independence.
Superannuation was never designed to be a mere safety net. We established superannuation to give working people a fuller and richer retirement.
It is also working for the Australian economy: $3 trillion worth of superannuation savings is being invested both here and abroad, creating jobs and ensuring Australians get more of the wealth of our great country.
Like Medicare, universal superannuation is a great Labor legacy. Sadly, support for it is not universal.
At the moment we are witnessing an unholy coalition attacking the increase in the Superannuation Guarantee.
They want to see super wound back or abolished.
The prescriptions of ACOSS and others play into the hands of the Liberal and National parties.
The parties of trickle-down economics, lower wage growth and less security.
Labor supports the legislated increase in the Superannuation Guarantee to 12 per cent by 2025.
With economic growth and productivity you can have both higher super and higher wages.
Having established the universal superannuation system we will not stand by and see it chipped away.
We want to make it better.
Women retire with just half the average super of men. Many have none at all.
This imbalance must be addressed.
Another key to a good retirement is good health.
The great news is we are living longer.
Over the past century we have added two decades and now have an average life expectancy of 82 years.
Our healthcare system must meet the demands of that change.
At present, it isn’t.
Older Australians are facing record costs and waiting times.
Take dental care.
Many older Australians are entitled to dental services in the public system.
But the Government has cut public dental funding by hundreds of millions of dollars a year – and is set to axe it completely in July.
As a result, older Australians are forced to wait months or even years for public dental care. Here in Queensland, the average wait is 21 months.
Often that means months of pain, stigma and shame.
For many, private dental care simply isn’t affordable.
The Government’s own data shows that every year more than 200,000 older Australians can’t see a dentist because it’s too expensive.
So it’s no surprise that 1 in 2 have gum disease; 1 in 5 have no natural teeth.
That’s why Labor went to the last election with a Pensioner Dental Plan.
And we hope the Government will follow our lead.
But dental is not the only area where older Australians are struggling to access health care.
Out-of-pocket costs and private health insurance premiums are at record highs.
So are waiting times for cataract surgery, hip and knee replacements, and other so-called “elective” surgeries.
And with fewer GPs and registered nurses now working within residential aged care facilities, many older Australians struggle to get even basic health services.
We must respond to these existing health care challenges at the same time as planning for the emerging ones.
The silver lining of our longer lives brings with it the cloud of diseases that, in earlier times, we were unlikely to live long enough to experience.
Dementia, for one, now affects nearly half a million Australians directly.
It is the second leading cause of death – and the leading cause for women.
And of course it sweeps up the families and loved ones of sufferers.
Few things can induce such a sense of helplessness as watching dementia make its remorseless inroads into the mind of a loved one, taking one memory after another.
Our Shadow Assistant Minister for Carers, Emma McBride, came to understand dementia as a granddaughter and daughter caring for her grandmother and father.
For six years she helped care for her dad, Grant McBride.
When she was elected to Parliament, she made a promise to her mum Barbara that she would do everything she could to help people living with dementia and their carers.
Her mum put it beautifully when she said that in caring for someone with dementia you learn that they are more than their memories.
Unless there is a medical breakthrough, it is expected that in the next 40 years that number will increase to over one million.
But as we wait for that breakthrough, the experience of dementia can be softened.
Emma tells me that one of the best ways to improve the life of someone with dementia, and by extension their family, is to have dementia-friendly spaces in our communities.
It allows those living with dementia to remain connected to family and friends.
It is encouraging that work has begun on Australia’s first dementia village – Korongee Dementia Village in Hobart.
It gives residents a sense of normality while keeping them safe. They can go shopping, dine at the restaurant, or cook their own dinner.
It’s about humanity and dignity.
Ideas like this are what we need to look at if our health care system is to keep pace with demographic change.
Urban Planning and Housing
Growing old challenges us in broader ways.
When we think about how to best support older Australians, we must apply more than a purely financial lens.
Clearly, the physical environment matters.
Urban design and housing must help older Australians remain in their homes and in their communities if they choose. It must be adaptable.
Governments must work together on long-term planning to ensure our transport networks, homes, shops and community facilities are accessible and fit for ageing.
This includes culturally appropriately facilities and support services, such as the Vietnamese Information Session I visited yesterday in Inala with Milton Dick and Jim Chalmers.
Smart urban design brings people together, making it easier for people to know their neighbours and strengthen their sense of community.
Older Australians are increasingly experiencing loneliness.
As they get older, their children may have moved cities, and their social networks – which are critical to their wellbeing – aren’t always there.
For an alternative vision, we can look to Toyama in Japan. It has adopted the principle of a compact city, eliminating the urban sprawl that is such an ingredient in isolation amongst older people.
People live close to each other with good access to services and public transport. They have a more ready sense of community.
I want us to build a society that sees ageing as a positive stage of life.
Like many of you, the ABC program ‘Old People's Home For 4 Year Olds' made me laugh and made me cry – but it also made me imagine a future of intergenerational care.
Imagine a future where we co-locate aged care facilities including day respites with kindergartens and preschools?
Day respite for our elderly is a missing piece of the puzzle. For many families, they want mum or dad to stay at home or live with them, but they worry about the long days when they are at work.
Imagine being able to drop your child and grandmother off at the same location.
Imagine knowing their day would be enjoyable and safe, with activities led by well-paid staff.
The benefits of intergenerational care are immense. It can help our elderly re-engage with the world, minimise their isolation and the effects of their health issues.
Smart urban design also helps mitigate the worst effects of extreme weather events.
Heat waves have a particularly significant impact on older Australians who are more susceptible to heat stress.
I’ve often quoted Jan Gehl, an architect who highlights the importance of not just buildings themselves, but also the spaces in between.
Incorporating greater vegetation. Making the most of waterways. Considering thermal design. Ensuring shading in public areas. That’s what makes our cities cooler and more comfortable and improves mental health.
Our housing must also support an ageing population.
Housing must be well designed, adaptable and energy efficient so as to cut the electricity bills that make many older Australians shy away from heating and air-conditioning.
And we also need more affordable social housing. Not least for older women, who are more at risk of homelessness – many for the first time in their lives.
Right now, the fastest growing group of homeless Australians are women aged 65 to 74.
Old age isn’t synonymous with aged care. But for some older Australians, it will become necessary in their later years.
But our aged care sector is broken.
Look no further than the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, where desperate families and exhausted, under-resourced aged care workers are telling their stories.
The Royal Commission’s Interim Report described Australia’s aged care system as “cruel and harmful”, “shocking” and “all too often, unsafe and seemingly uncaring”.
They found that “many of the cases of deficiencies or outright failings in aged care were known to … the regulators … before coming to public attention.”
There have been a quarter of a million instances of substandard aged care reported in the past five years.
How could we let this happen?
For too long governments have turned a blind eye. It is a collective failure.
There has been a lack of reform and investment in aged care – in both home care and residential aged care.
For those Australians who can and want to stay in their homes, a home care package provides the support they need.
There are more than 100,000 Australians on the waiting list for such a package.
Older Australians waiting for their high level package are waiting almost three years to get the care that they have been approved for.
In just two years, nearly 30,000 older Australians have died waiting.
The median waiting time for older Australians going into residential aged care has grown by more than 100 days under the Liberals and Nationals – from just over a month to a five-month wait.
At the Royal Commission we heard stories of degradation, suffering, abuse, neglect and systemic failure.
We heard that up to half of older Australians in residential aged care are malnourished.
People are literally starving. It is shameful that in a wealthy country like ours this is happening.
We heard that the major quality and safety issues are “inadequate prevention and management of wounds, sometimes leading to septicaemia and death” and aged care residents often “sitting or lying in urine or faeces”.
Part of the answer to this crisis must lie in our aged care workforce. Those we trust to care for our most vulnerable, our parents, our grandparents, eventually ourselves.
There are too few aged-care workers, and they are paid too little. They have begged the Government to do something.
Labor is listening.
Our aged care workers need proper pay and proper training.
The aged care workforce must also be able to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate care.
Staffing numbers, qualifications, skills mix and experience, all affect the ability of aged care workers to provide safe, quality care.
Under a Labor Government, solving this will be one of the priority tasks for Jobs and Skills Australia.
As I outlined in my first Vision Statement, it will be tasked with strengthening workforce planning, particularly in the growing sectors of our economy like aged care.
At the end of last year, after the shocking Interim Report was handed down, the Government announced its plan to privatise aged care assessments.
Aged Care Minister, Richard Colbeck, even claimed the privatisation was supported by the Royal Commission, a claim that drew a public correction from the Royal Commission chair.
The first interaction the elderly and their families have with the aged care system is through an aged care assessment or ACAT. It is the first step to getting a home care package or entering a residential aged care facility.
Our aged care system is broken – and this Government wants to make it worse by subjecting ACAT to the indifference of the market.
There is a role for the market. But markets have no conscience.
The Government must abandon its plans immediately. It must act on the Royal Commission recommendations.
Our elderly deserve nothing less.
I began this speech with an inspirational older Australian. Let me finish with another one.
More specifically, an older Queenslander – Everald Compton.
He is a passionate advocate for nation-building projects and for those who’ve made those projects happen. The nation-builders with whom our older generations abound.
On his Twitter biography, Everald describes himself as “a young Aussie in his 80s”. When we reach the 80s part of our extended youth, we can only hope to have a fraction of Everald’s energy.
Labor will have that energy to carry out our positive plans for older Australians.
Having grown up in council housing, I have a deep appreciation of the difference governments can make to the lives of Australians.
Having seen what my Mum went through in her later years, I want to be able to make a difference for older Australians now, and the older Australians of the future.
Mum raised me on her own. She was a strong woman with a great mind and a huge heart. She gave so much.
But she experienced years of sickness and struggle. She died too young at just 65.
If Mum had got the care that she needed earlier, her later years would have been so much better.
I don’t want us to all shrug our shoulders and resign ourselves to this simply being the way that it is. That change is all too hard.
We have in our hands the power to make a difference and to seize the opportunities that are before us.
The change and the challenges the future holds can be unsettling, but we see the opportunities – as long as we are prepared for them.
This is all part of Labor’s vision.
I can’t go back in time to fix things for Mum.
But, with planning, vision and just some of the spirit that defines our older Australians, we can take care of the future.