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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 706

Mr IRONS (8:23 PM) —I second the motion. I congratulate the member for Shortland for bringing this motion to the House. I know her passion for the seniors in our society is strong. It is great that we share a role in the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health and Ageing, as we do with the member for Hindmarsh, who is sitting in the chair at the moment. It is great to be able to rise tonight and speak to this motion. Obviously, as the Deputy Chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health and Ageing, I am pleased to speak on this motion. It provides a welcome reminder of the crucial role that seniors play in Australian society.

Australia has an ageing population. There is no doubt about that. The 2010 Intergenerational report, produced by Treasury last year, shows that Australia’s population of over 65s is set to increase from three million in 2010 to 8.1 million in 2050. Proportionally, this represents an increase from 13.5 per cent to 22.7 per cent. Almost one-quarter of Australians will be aged over 65 by 2050, and this should focus the attention of all members in this place. I think all of us would agree that the government’s current systems and structures are not capable of coping with such change. We are running out of time to get the structures in place. The demographic change is happening now. The Intergenerational report shows that by 2020 there will be an extra 1.2 million seniors and the proportion of over 65s will rise to 16.4 per cent of the total Australian population. We must prepare now. That is why I have kept a close eye on this government’s policies on ageing and, in particular, its aged-care policies.

It is important to discuss aged care when considering this motion because pressure on the aged-care system is perhaps one of the most talked about consequences of our ageing population. The distinction between community and residential aged-care concerns, as outlined in Grant Thornton’s Aged care survey, is well known and understood by the public. Most of my constituents tell me that they want to stay in their homes for as long as possible. I think the Howard government recognised this, acknowledging that the investment in community based aged care was as important as investment in residential aged care. Residential aged care is usually divided into low care and high care.

For a long time, controversy has surrounded the subject of issuing bonds for aged residential care. The recent crisis has stemmed from the fact that the government funding mechanism for residential beds no longer reflects the real cost of providing a bed in the 21st century. Year after year, government bed offers remain unallocated despite unprecedented demand for beds. This is because aged-care providers simply cannot afford to provide even basic care at the government subsidy rate. The situation is worrying seniors across my electorate of Swan and, I am sure, across most of Australia.

Recently an aged-care provider in my electorate, Swan Care, circulated a petition calling for residents to let Canberra know about the right of Australians to quality care. I support this petition and am pleased it has had a good response from residents in Victoria Park in the heart of my electorate of Swan. I understand this petition is currently with the Petitions Committee and the government will soon be required to respond.

Whilst there is certainly plenty for the government to do in relation to aged care, we must resist seeing an ageing population as a challenge or a problem. Instead we should see it as an opportunity. In the Intergenerational report the government used negative language, seeing seniors as a burden and a challenge that the government must find a solution to. We in the coalition take a different approach. We believe that people living longer and healthier lives should be a cause for celebration. Far from being a burden, all seniors are taxpayers, paying the GST and many other hidden taxes, and continue to contribute to the economy and to the welfare of all Australians. I note that the member moving this motion has acknowledged that the positives of an older population should be recognised and promoted by the government and I congratulate her for that.

The second part of this motion acknowledges the potential of older Australians to provide an enormous contribution to the economic prosperity of Australia. There are many seniors in my electorate of Swan that continue to work after the retirement age. This is commendable and a sign of things to come as we live longer and healthier lives. The Assistant Treasurer is in the House tonight. One of the things that many of the seniors in my electorate talk to me about is the fact that there is a disincentive for them to do part-time work. That is something that perhaps the Assistant Treasurer could look at. Seniors avoid doing work at universities and schools at exam times because of the penalties they face after earning a certain income over a certain amount of time. That work is not being done by seniors who are quite capable of doing it. I get the sense that many seniors do not re-enter the workforce, however much they might want to, because of a combination of age discrimination and regulations, which I just spoke about.

Age discrimination is a genuine problem that requires a genuine solution. During the 2010 election, the coalition announced the seniors employment incentive payment policy—a good initiative to tackle age discrimination in the workplace. The policy would provide a one-off payment to employees to help overcome their initial reluctance to appoint older job seekers. This was a genuine attempt to tackle age discrimination. The coalition should rightly take some credit for taking this proposal to the electorate and the government should take note of it.

Most members in this place would agree that if seniors want to work and contribute to Australian society they should be free and able to do so. Many retired people say to me that they are reluctant to get involved in the workplace again, however much they want to, for fear of losing their entitlements. This means that in some circumstances it makes no economic sense for some seniors to contribute to the workforce, even if they are available and willing to do so. At a time when skills shortages loom again, this seems a great shame. An example of what we could be missing comes from the work of Inge Dahners, a lady I nominated for the WA Senior of the Year awards. Inge’s efforts working for Southcare in Manning earned her the runner-up award. I also spent time with Maggie Richardson, who won a seniors award last year. Maggie is an important contributor to the local communities and associations in my electorate. The member for Shortland spoke about the value of volunteer work by the seniors in our population.

The overall complexity of the government system is a point that the member for Shortland has also picked up on, with part of her motion suggesting that the government consider aged-care accountants for all workers to fund their needs as they become older. This may well be a good idea: many elderly people come to my office for help in completing government forms. The complexity of getting older is perhaps something that the parliament needs to address.

The motion goes on to acknowledge that most volunteer work is undertaken by older Australians and recognises that seniors provide a significant amount of child care to the nation. Both these points are valid, especially within my electorate of Swan. As the federal member, I am fortunate to be able to visit many voluntary and charitable organisations in the electorate. The majority of the volunteers who put in the hard yards at these organisations are seniors. In fact, it would be fair to say that many voluntary organisations would not be able to function without seniors. It is certainly true that seniors play an important role with child care as well. This is plain to see at meetings of the Grandcare group, which supports grandparents who, for one reason or another, have the duty of raising their grandchildren. I always try to attend their events and am always impressed by their absolute and unquestionable dedication. Grandparents who have taken on the role of parenthood, some of whom are in their 60s and 70s, are not compensated by either the state or federal government.

In conclusion, I thank the member for Shortland for putting this motion before the House. Barring an unprecedented baby boom, Australia’s population is going to age. The fact that people are living longer and healthier lives should be a matter for celebration. However, we must plan for the future to ensure that all older Australians can live fulfilling and active lives and, most importantly, can live with dignity. I call on the government to provide this to senior Australians in my electorate of Swan and across Australia.