Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Select Committee on Work and Care

MCALLUM, Prof. John, Chief Executive Officer, National Seniors Australia

CHAIR: It's my pleasure to welcome Professor John McCallum from National Seniors Australia. Professor McCallum, would you like to make a short opening statement before I invite members of the committee to ask questions?

Prof. McCallum : I would. I and our board thank you for the opportunity to address the committee. National Seniors Australia is a not-for-profit advocacy organisation that surveys views and experiences of older Australians, and advocates in national policy formation on the basis of only those views and sentiments. Our submission to the committee was drawn from very recent research involving over 4,000 older Australians. They expressed facts about their lives and their sentiments about unpaid informal care giving, and a number of categories within that. National Seniors is advocating for four policy actions related to work and care based on that evidence. We have that evidence as a basis for the issues we're advocating for.

First, we support extending eligibility of carer payments, increasing the rate of that payment and increasing the earnings allowed before losing that payment. Carers who participated in our survey spent an average of 26 hours a week caring—that's across the whole lot of people caring. Over half provided medium-to-high care, with 1/6th providing very high-level care at home. Yet most carers have not accessed care plans or government support, despite their need for this. People undertaking unpaid care often face financial stress because of loss of earning capacity, and these measures are needed to help alleviate that stress. The current eligibility criteria are, we think, too narrow. Some respondents who had accessed government supports specifically called for changes to the carer payment eligibility to enable them to work while being able to rely on payment as well. Senators may be aware we are also working on that issue for pensioners. The royal commission initiated a shift from caring for older people in residential facilities to caring for them at home, and that will come with a very large increase in unpaid care labour among family and friends. We acknowledge the initiatives in respite care, but professional home-care services will not be able to cover all that is required, and it is of even more concern in the current significant workforce shortage, which shows no sign of ending quickly. Expanding and increasing carer entitlements would recognise this reality and would be a useful way to repurpose government funds, which would be saved in the future because the increases in requirements for residential care would be slower.

Second, we support increasing paid care leave entitlements for carers who work by separating care leave from personal leave. I think this one's a fairly clear case. The current system of combining sick leave and care leave under personal leave disadvantages carers. If they use personal leave for care responsibilities, the amount of paid sick leave they have for themselves is reduced compared to non-carers. That's of concern because we know carers are more likely to have illness because of the stress and physical nature of the work they're doing, and the lack of respite in certain phases of life.

Third is about compensating carers, especially women, for forgone earnings and superannuation. We do a lot of work on superannuation, jointly with Challenger, the large annuity firm, which is a benevolent funder of that research. The case for this is pretty clear again—if you miss out on work, you miss out on super. Super is not a welfare benefit. Something else has to be done to cover that base. I don't think it can be done through super, even if we wanted that. I think super is better as it is, and we have to work around that to support people who miss out. Often, people providing care to an adult such as a partner or parent are themselves older and, therefore, at the peak of their working lives in terms of earning capacity and capacity to accumulate super. On leaving work at that time, their financial sacrifice is greater and the punishment is later in life—seriously, and particularly for women. Solutions must be found to this disadvantage, and the loss of individuals to the Australian economy is a real concern.

Finally, we want to talk about grandparents, who fall into a slightly different category. Grandparent care often enables parents of younger children to work, therefore benefiting the economy and the children. Many grandparents undertake unpaid care very willingly, but some survey responders reflected on the financial cost to them, and the time demands of minding care. These costs are especially high when the children or parents have high-need levels. Caring puts a financial strain on grandparents, especially when grandparents leave paid work to provide unpaid care. So we should remember that people do work in later life. Our survey participants have reported instances of all of these scenarios and their struggles with them. Again, there's a gendered dimension to this, with multiple care roles disadvantaging older women.

The committee might consider whether or not the high levels of care provided at the extreme end of the grandparenting spectrum warrants some financial support. But there are other options available, including expanding some of the call centres and helplines that are there. One applies to parents and children, and not to grandparents. There is also a small option that the Queensland government have set up, which is a call-centre-type option for grandparenting.

We support these changes with a longer view on social targets, which we want to see in future intergenerational reports. This is not just a governmental spending exercise; it's essential to achieving social wellbeing as well as economic wellbeing. I will stop my statement there.

CHAIR: Thank you for being here, Professor McCallum, and thank you for the rich resource you've provided to the committee in terms of a very recent, large research report. As a grandparent, I have to say I found it a very interesting read, to see the contribution of carers to the economy, including grandparents but other people as well. I might go to you first, Senator White.

Senator WHITE: Do you think that the childcare policy that the government has announced is likely to help grandparents because it's likely that more children will go into child care?

Prof. McCallum : That's a tricky question for someone who's dealing with the elderly. Possibly, yes. If it works in the right way and people are substantially funded to do it, to make it worthwhile, that would be good. I think grandparenting is a little bit of a different category. It's very much in family and in community, and I think people don't expect to be paid for that. The troubles begin when they have too much pressure on them or the family itself is in distress and there's a lot of pressure on the grandparenting that is not healthy.

Senator WHITE: I noticed that in your submission you said that grandparents often take up the slack out of hours when there are shift workers and a range of other things involved and that there aren't often services that cover that. It wouldn't be all of them, but it might be that they take up the slack in more difficult, non-conventional circumstances. Is that right?

Prof. McCallum : Definitely. That's the evidence we have. People do that willingly, but there's a burden and a cost.

Senator WHITE: Yes. I read your submission and some of the comments—the subsidy for people on pensions to their grandchildren is pretty significant.

Prof. McCallum : It is.

Senator WHITE: It's a burden but a delight. It's both ways, I can see.

Prof. McCallum : I think that, as I said, grandparenting takes us into a slightly different domain, but the expectation that older people are not working is not helpful, and people do leave work to help with grandchildren.

Senator WHITE: They do. Or they take less work to help.

Prof. McCallum : Yes.

Senator WHITE: If I switch to carers more generally, I think the point that you made about breaking up personal leave and carers leave is a significant point because it's sort of one and the same. Have you got any statistics from your membership or from the research that you've done that suggests what percentage of carers would use their personal leave for carers leave?

Prof. McCallum : That is probably largely out of my domain of research, which is 50-plus and typically a median age of over 70. So I think we'd have to look elsewhere for that.

Senator WHITE: Okay. In relation to the policy shift to in-home care, again, you made a point about service shortages and workforce shortages. The trouble is: you've got workforce shortages in residential care and in-home care, haven't you? What do you think are the main drivers of those shortages? Do you have an opinion on that?

Prof. McCallum : The unions say it's pay—and that's right, if you're being paid $22 or $23 an hour doing home care, which was all that was required. Many providers certainly don't pay that low wage, or they wouldn't have care workers. So there's that side of it—that it's not well paid. I think there is a pay increase coming. Also there's really been a very negative perspective on the whole aged-care sector following the royal commission, which, in a way, is justified. But the cost of that is that people don't find it attractive as a form of work.

There's a range of other factors. The training system behind it is not working. VET and other trainers need to be brought into play. Anything we think we are going to change, unless we have trained people doing it, it's not going to be for the best. It's a whole range of things. I am on the Aged Care Workforce Industry Council. The issues are very significant. They're not everywhere. They're in certain places. Within the same organisation it will be going okay somewhere and terrible somewhere else. So a range of local circumstances makes that very difficult.

Senator WHITE: I would presume that it's desirable that the paid carers are consistent and know the person they're dealing with because it's a very personal job you have to perform, hence why often, as you've highlighted, family members do it. What other measures are needed? You've said higher pay. Are there other measures for the paid care workforce that you think are incredibly important to supplement and ease the burden on the family carers?

Prof. McCallum : This is not at all being negative, but I think all of us would want to have the same cleaner coming in rather than a different one every week. It's that sort of thing. It's only natural. It becomes critical when people are frail or have dementia or various kinds of illnesses in that category. That then becomes a significant problem. The problem is with the workforce. If you can get somebody on the job, then that's who you get. We're going to have to work further on that. I think we have not done the training at all well. I think that's in part because of frailties in the VET system. Some of the major providers—I know, for example, Australian Unity have—have set up their own RTOs. Australian Unity's is an effective one because they can do their on-the-job training, which is critical. We will always lag in getting these things right until the workforce is there.

Senator WHITE: I'm interested in the points you made about superannuation. The effect on the carer is not just losing income but in 20 or 30 or years hence they'll have lost a lot of money in superannuation because they weren't in the workforce. Can you expand on the sorts of things you think are required in the superannuation system to even up the situation for carers?

Prof. McCallum : It's 30 years in July since super started. It was designed to be your money that you earned put aside for you. So it was a guarantee for later life. There were no other qualifications in the sense that, if you weren't able to work or didn't work, you would get something else. That's the starting point. The differences between men and women, in our most recent survey, are in the order of 10 per cent in terms of their capacity to have enough money to work. So that's a very significant penalty for providing care in later life and through your life. That's really the critical thing. At the point of time when you're saying, 'I will help with the kids and take a bit of time off,' I don't think people think too hard about that. None of us think too hard about superannuation; it just sort of happens. I really don't know what a simple solution to that is, but it's unfair and something has to be done.

Senator WHITE: As you say, people take on the caring responsibilities and then realise what the impact was some years later. I'll quickly turn to the Jobs and Skills Summit. Is there anything that came out of that summit that the government is committed to that you believe will help carers?

Prof. McCallum : There was a very strong women's dimension to that. I think if that goes to work it will really help. But it will, then, cause a requirement to meet other sorts of issues, which we're raising—so the workplace is a place where carers can be a carer and have a reasonable life, for example—and other factors, of course, that are negative for people who are providing care.

Senator WHITE: If I can quickly turn to people in the workforce who are seniors doing care work, what are you hearing from those people about the flexibilities in the Fair Work Act and how easy those are to access?

Prof. McCallum : I'd have to take that on notice, because it's aligning with the Fair Work Act and I'd have to really think about it. Generally speaking, people in that category are very active, so it would align with the fact that most people who are volunteers are also working. That's the sort of personality you've got working in that category. But if you get into where the children are in need or there's a child with very significant needs, that changes the scenario.

Senator ASKEW: Thank you very much for your time today, Professor McCallum. It's interesting to hear from you, especially from the seniors' perspective. I'd like to continue on with the grandparents theme. You were talking about the emotional impacts they feel, not just financial, and I notice in your papers and submission you talk about 'emotionally and physically exhausting' and there are some pretty heart-wrenching comments quoted in those. I wonder if you could expand a little bit? You talked about expanding the call centres and helplines that are available. What would you like to see them providing for grandparents?

Prof. McCallum : I think I started out my conversation on this one that it's a different domain of caring, in many ways. It is in-house, it's in-family and it's in-community. I think people do get trapped, people do get caught up in things that are making them unhealthy, so there's got to be some sort of point. People don't ask for government help, typically, either, which they can get in some of those circumstances.

Maybe the first port of call is making people aware of what is available and to be able to use that so that they can balance a 'fair work grandparenting'. I think the call centre idea and some contact is that when you are at a point of criticality, in that balance of your life and grandparenting, there is somewhere to call and talk. I think that's being recognised in very minor ways at the moment. The digital world is not necessarily the world of grandparenting either.

Senator ASKEW: That's a very good point. Would you envisage that there'd be some sort of counselling available to them or advice, in regard to what other services are available to them?

Prof. McCallum : Certainly. That's what people are not doing, so they're suffering along about things they could actually get help with.

Senator ASKEW: I'm not sure what brief respite is available for grandparents—there doesn't seem to be a lot at this point—to assist them have that downtime or rest. Is there anything you'd like to see in that area?

Prof. McCallum : I don't know of any respite care for grandparents. I do know respite care for people of above age and who are in need of care. That's where I think trying to work this through with the family and community, in some sort of way, where there's some outside advice and help, even just changing some of the routines that people have and so on, can help.

Senator ASKEW: That makes sense. There are certainly benefits that come from this type of care, and, as we can all reasonably suspect, it's having that extra time with your grandchildren. Is it more women that are doing this, the female support roles, than males? What are your thoughts there?

Prof. McCallum : That is interesting. Men are, more or less, slightly less involved. But you'll find that, when men are solo in later life, they are less likely to be the carers. So it's women leading as a couple, if you like. I think men do different things, and some of those things are not entirely valuable when that's all there is.

Senator ASKEW: That's interesting. Have you got some statistics around that that show what the percentages would be?

Prof. McCallum : Yes, it's in our grandparenting report, and I think it might be in one of the papers we have.

Senator ASKEW: I have had a quick look through the brief of that report, but I haven't gone right through it, so that would explain that. From a perspective of grandparents then, do you think that there should be some sort of remuneration, because they are saving, in most cases, the childcare budget? What would your thoughts be around that?

Prof. McCallum : I think there's virtue in volunteering for grandparenting as a grandparent. I think people value that. When it's working well, it's a rewarding thing for people to do. It does take time. When it's not working well, that's where we need to bring some things into play. I think it's hard to disturb the nature of grandparenting, with payments and so on—probably not the highest priority in terms of that care-giving category for payments. There are other areas where they're probably more critical. That's why I think the obvious starting point is with advice and help, particularly in the case that people don't apply for things they can get. So I'm not negative to that; I'm just saying that there have to be priorities in this game.

Senator ASKEW: That's fair enough. Some grandparents do still work part time or on reduced hours, which does make it a lot harder, so is there some sort of recommendation in that area with regard to increasing the amount of work that they can do without actually losing other benefits, like carers payments?

Prof. McCallum : This will be only my own personal view. I think there are people who can balance that, and they buzz around and that works fine for them. It's when the case becomes difficult, in terms of the demand for the grandparenting being higher than reasonable, and that's where we need to bring other things into play.

Senator ASKEW: Thank you for that. Just going away from the grandchildren, there are still a lot of seniors that are looking after adult children as well, in some cases people with disability and so on. I know that in that realm there is a huge concern: 'What's going to happen to my child when I'm no longer here?' So is there some sort of suggestion that you think we could put forward to support those sorts of carers?

Prof. McCallum : That cuts across the NDIS territory, and I don't think there's any simple answer to that at the moment. I don't know of one. I have to confess that it's not an area that I've done research in, because it's a little bit out of our domain, because they're looking after disabled younger children, typically. I guess we all know people that are doing that.

Senator ASKEW: That's exactly right. It's quite a common thing, and not everybody is supported through the NDIS, so they're still dealing with the impact with the community involvement but also worrying about their children long term.

Prof. McCallum : Yes.

Senator ASKEW: That's probably all I have in the seniors area. Thank you very much for your time today.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Askew. I'm assuming Senator Bragg will come online if he wants to add a question. I wonder if I can just offer a couple of things, recognising that our time is limited. Are there any insights you can offer us around First Nations communities and the role that older First Nations people play in the care of families—grandparenting, parents—on any particular issues that we should know about?

Prof. McCallum : I can only comment on this indirectly. I haven't directly run surveys on that, because it's something that has to be done properly and done well. In the category, particularly in more remote communities, older First Australians are community leaders, regardless of their physical health and state, and that typically is something that's respected and gives them a status. One of the problems that we know that the banks, particularly the Commonwealth Bank, have been dealing with is the humbugging of older people and their pensions or their payments for child abuse in previous times. That's something that is being dealt with pretty well by banks, in a way, who are recognising that. Beyond that, unless you're in that domain, it's a little hard to make comments.

CHAIR: I do take from your submission a really clear message about the level of care that's being provided by seniors in Australia. It's very large and it has a huge economic impact. You're clearly arguing that, from your survey and your materials.

Prof. McCallum : Yes.

CHAIR: And you're also, in your verbal evidence, distinguishing between voluntary and conscript grandparental care. Those two things seem very distinctive. Your propositions around separating personal from carers leave, is part of that proposition an expansion in the overall level of leave—so 10 days of each. Is that implicit in what you're saying?

Prof. McCallum : For people who qualify, necessarily that would have to be.

CHAIR: Okay. In the superannuation system, is it your proposition that it's built around not caring, over the life cycle, because as soon as you step out into part-time work to care, or out of the labour market, the penalty cuts in. Is it your view that that system is anti-caring, in a way, in its economic impact?

Prof. McCallum : I think it is, in that particular domain of it. But it is a system set up that it's your money, it's your working money, it's a guarantee you're not going to do that yourself, so we'll do it for you until you get to later life. I think the burdens on the public if we didn't do that would be quite enormous, and the need that would be unmet, because people haven't saved money, would be very high. So, yes, it is what it is, if you see what I mean.

CHAIR: Is it your view, then, that the pension for many people who won't accumulate enough super over their working life, that maintenance of a liveable pension is an important part of our architecture for working carers?

Prof. McCallum : Yes, it is.

CHAIR: I think that's our time. I want to thank you very much for the very substantial submission you've provided for us and to thank you for your appearance. If there are any questions on notice that arise from what we've asked you, if we could have your answers by 29 September that'd be much appreciated. We thank you for your time.

Prof. McCallum : It's a privilege to be here. Thank you.