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We need to care for the carers: piece for weekend Sun Herald.

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Senator the Hon Helen Coonan Shadow Minister for Human Services

An important measure of a civilized society is how well it treats those with disabilities, the frail aged, and those who care for them.

Judged by the current fragmented and piecemeal approach to their plight, Australia has a long way to go.

It may not be widely known that another 2020 Summit kicked off in Australia this week. However this time it is headed up by Carers Australia, this time it is online, and this time it is dedicated to not just talking about problems, but actually generating solutions for Australia’s 2.5 million carers and their charges.

The Australian Online 2020 Summit, which was launched on Friday, has been designed to spark debate and discussion, producing new and innovative ideas to meet the needs of carers.

The Australian 2020 Summit convened in April to help shape a long term strategy for the nation’s future, raised many of the problems faced by carers and their charges, but failed to generate any new direction or forward-thinking ideas to meet the challenges identified by the carers who have over the years struggled to be heard.

Let’s not beat about the bush! At the heart of the problem is the failure not only by governments but the community more broadly, to properly acknowledge and recognise the pivotal role and importance of carers and the economic contribution they make.

Access Economics has estimated the opportunity cost and value of carers to be in the vicinity of $30.5 billion annually. For carers themselves, generally family members, who willingly assume much of the enormous burden of caregiving at great personal cost, it is also about facing the daily rigours of trying to balance the budget from meagre fixed incomes, struggling with the ever increasing pressure of paying higher prices for petrol, groceries and services. Carers incomes and their financial futures must be put on a more sustainable basis.

The distress caused to carers and their charges by uncertainty as to whether they would receive their lump sum Carers Bonus in the last Budget, must not be allowed to happen again. And it is not just about financial security, it is also about dealing with exhaustion, lack of access to available respite services and flexible options, and the need for training and counselling.

Few would dispute that it is time for a new approach to this intensifying problem. We must “think outside the square” and come up with new and innovative ways to look at these challenges on a national level with whole of government and community solutions.

Our carers deserve nothing less, and we must aim for nothing less.

For all the talk about social inclusion, nothing has been decided on the topic of carers. In fact, nothing has even been debated. And it is the carers and their charges who are left in the lurch.

Rather than the current grab bag of measures that are administered by federal, state and local agencies, Australia urgently needs a National Framework for Carers, involving concepts such as Consumer Directed Care.

This key initiative is currently being utilised in the United States and in Europe and involves greater consumer choice through access to cash, vouchers or budgets, in place of agency directed services.

A significant objective for reform should be to further develop the concept of consumer centred care and services - putting carers and their charges in the driver’s seat, enabling them to live more independently by directing their own care needs.

Consumer Directed Care recognises that people want to stay in their own homes for as long as possible, with necessary services being provided at home and made available in the community. This could, for example, extend the concept of the lump sum Carers Allowance which allows autonomy in the purchase of what is needed in the way of goods and services.

Cashed out subsidies allow a capable dependent or their carer to choose the services they receive, who will deliver them, and when.

A familiar theme challenge facing carers is the foregone opportunity to save for their own retirement through a paid job. There is a compelling case for carers to have access to superannuation so they too can have some dignity in retirement and do not need to rely entirely on the pension.

There are many issues to be considered in the development of a more coherent and responsive approach to carers. These ideas only scratch the surface.

The aim of the 2020 Online Summit is to do what the 2020 Summit failed to do - develop a response that carers, their charges, and Australians can be proud of.