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Rachel's Speech to COTA's National Policy Forum

Rachel Siewert 23 Jul 2013

I'm glad to see that human rights are on the agenda in the lead up to this election and congratulate COTA for leading this debate. By focusing on the rights of older Australians, this forum highlights the need for a new deal for older Australians, that is based on the UN Principles for Older Persons, a deal based on the principles of Independence, Participation, Care, Self Fulfilment and Dignity.

There are a lot of important issues raised today that need to be considered by Governments. These are all issues that the Greens would like to see progressed further.

However, as I only have short time to speak, I want to focus my remarks on the right to a basic income as well as the right to appropriate, affordable, dignified care.

The right to a basic standard of living, through 'the provision of income, family and community support and self-help, is the first principle of the Principle of Older Persons but of course isn't limited just to older people. This is also an article of that overarching guide to human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sets out that everyone, young or old, regardless of education, race or gender should have the access to an adequate standard of living. This principle drives how the Greens assess legislation in Parliament.

Yet even in a rich country like Australia, some older Australians are under extraordinary pressure and are at risk of not being able to afford even the basics such as housing, energy, transport, food, healthcare or medicine.

They are excluded from employment. Poverty and discrimination is undermining their opportunity for a positive, independent life (or as the UN says, undermining their ability 'To add life to the years that have been added to life').

An adequate disability and age pension and targeted concessions such as reduced fees for health care and transport is one way that a Government ensures that people have the financial security they need to age well. But I think we need to look beyond the pension for a moment.

An adequate income is also important in the decades before people seek to retire because the broader policy settings have ensured that the sort of life that most retirees can look forward to is reliant on how much they saved and whether they bought and pay off their own home. Therefore, I think one of the biggest issues that Governments need to tackle in ageing is actually exclusion from the workforce.

There has been a strong focus over the last few years on the economic potential of older Australians, and programs aimed at keeping people in the workforce beyond the official retirement age of 65, which I welcome.

However, there is also a growing number of older Australians, including a significant cohort in their forties and fifties who find themselves outside the workforce and unlikely to re-enter it.

This exclusion makes a bit of a farce of the saying that 40 is the new 30 when it appears that if you are looking for work, 45 is effectively the new 65.
A third of all the people on Newstart are over 45 and these older recipients are often long term unemployed and while costs of housing and living are increasing rapidly, the base single rate of Newstart is still less than $250 a week (or $269 for over 60's).
Which is why I have been campaigning to raise the base single rate of Newstart by $50 a week. Although we secured an increase to the pension in 2009, the Government left allowance payments behind and while we acknowledge the pension is still too low at least it is slightly above the poverty line.

These other payments are now completely inadequate to survive on for even a short period of time. For over 55's, average length of time on the Newstart allowance is 72 weeks. The Long term unemployed are often trapped in a cycle of poverty that not only has an emotional and physical toll, but also makes it harder to stay job ready.

This is particularly hard on older workers because there is growing evidence that both age discrimination and a lack of appropriate job services makes it even harder for older workers to access jobs. I have heard many firsthand accounts from older Newstart recipients who have been rejected over and over again by employers.

Now with many industries such as manufacturing in decline in Australia, there are an increasing number of ageing workers who do not have a strong set of transferable skills to take into the job market.

As well as the immediate effects of poverty, given that homeownership and superannuation have become critical to a comfortable retirement, the fact that many over 55's on Newstart only leave the payment because they are old enough, or physically unwell enough to qualify for a pension means that a significant number of people are seriously disadvantaged right from the beginning of their retirement.

Of course to qualify for Newstart if have to have virtually exhausted your savings.

This is why the Greens propose that as well as immediately addressing the poverty that people are facing right now by lifting the base rate of the allowance payments, job services funding should be aimed specifically at helping older workers re-enter the workforce by:

• Providing all eligible mature age job seekers with more intensive support (such as a minimum of Stream 2 assistance through Job Services Australia) as soon as they enter JSA system as well as ensuring that specialist job services that can address other barriers such as partial disability or low educational achievements are available to older workers.

• Ensuring that all job seekers over 45 are able to access re-training through their job service provider and are fully informed by their JSA of opportunities and benefits of re-training and of the funding that is available through JSAs to support the development of new skills. I have heard so many accounts of older people being told that they have been denied retraining opportunities.

• Securing the right to flexible work for all carers, which will particularly benefit older women who are highly likely to exit the workforce due to caring responsibilities[1].

• Establish an expert panel to build on the work of our Senate inquiry into the adequacy of Newstart, by investigating the current trends in unemployment and effectiveness of current system to achieve outcomes for older workers and the integration of jsa's with other training, work experience and social services.

Ensuring that all of these initiatives were taken up would ensure that older workers have the best possible chance at re-entering the workforce quickly, rather than becoming trapped on Newstart.
Given that most of the complaints that the aged commissioner receives are in the area of employment (68% of complaints in 2011-12)[2], these initiatives will also need to be reinforced by:

• the continuation of current programs to tackle age discrimination, including the perception held by older Australians themselves that they are 'too old' to learn new skills or re-enter the workforce[3] and that one in 10 Australian businesses has said that they will not hire anyone over the age of 50[4].

Although there are programs are in place to help break down the stereotypes held by employers about older workers and incentivise them to take on an older person, but Government still needs to break down practical barriers for employers by:

• Working across jurisdictions to implement changes to workers compensation and work-related insurances, such as those recommended in the recent Australian Law Reform Commission report 'Access All Ages', to remove unnecessary legal barriers to employing an older person, especially someone who may have experienced a workplace injury or is living with a partial disability.

By undertaking these changes, many more older people who are currently unemployed will have an opportunity to improve their income and in doing so, be more likely to like a fulfilling, independent and dignified life in retirement.

I also want to touch briefly on how important the right to care is too. Not just residential aged care and primary health care in a hospital, but also access to:
• Preventative Health Care
• Mental Health Care
• Palliative Care
• Home Care
• DentiCare
• DisabilityCare
• Dementia Care

The living longer, living better legislation, which passed the Parliament in June has delivered some wins for dementia and home care, but there are also still some significant gaps in what care is available to older Australians.

I remain concerned about how the requirement to make a contribution to the cost of care, which could be up to 25% of income, will affect part-pensioners.

Given the unwillingness of the Government to contribute new money, and the special treatment of the family home, there is no flexibility to adjust the payment regime without cutting packages, but this is an area of the reform that I believe needs to be monitored very closely. The issue of aged care is far from resolved.

While the supplement for dementia care is very welcome there is a considerable way to go before we can say that people with dementia have adequate and dignified care.

I'm currently chairing a Senate inquiry into dementia care and the experience we are receiving highlights the need for change and also best practice.

Older Australians with a disability may also be excluded from the national disability insurance scheme depending on how and when they try to access supports, due to the scheme's 65year old cut-off. Australian Greens tried to secure access to DisabilityCare for over 65's however this was not supported by the other parties.

We also tried recently to put mental health care into the aged care legislation as a separate supplement but this was not agreed to. The Greens also came up with the idea of universal access to dental care, and we've secured some wins in this area but we're still campaigning for a full DentiCare scheme to be properly funded. In the meantime I know some older Australians are missing out on dental health services.

We're also seeing failures in the delivery of care, sometime very shocking failures as was reported on Lateline last week. So I would add that the adequacy of care is not just what services are offered, but how they are delivered.

If the care is not person centred, or undermines independence and dignity, then it risks violating the human rights of ageing Australians. There are some fantastic examples of good care being delivered in Australia, and this doesn't have to cost more to deliver, but does demonstrates how critical training and staff retention are to the provision of care.

In conclusion, the Greens believe that Government should tackle poverty, directly through the provision of an adequate safety net and indirectly by removing barriers such as age discrimination, and lack of job services that keep people out of work.

Only by doing so will we have a strong, rights basis for a strategy of positive ageing. If we don't, many older Australians will be left behind and will experience significant financial, physical and emotional pressure as they try to maintain an adequate standard of living.


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