This article currently appears in the September-October 2013 edition of Australian Ageing Agenda.
“Industry needs to come to government with solutions that are thought through; not pleas for assistance or ‘thought bubbles’.”
How does an arts-law graduate from ANU who dropped out of a PhD in English literature at Oxford University, worked on a human rights project in East Timor and then spent ten years as a ministerial staffer in Canberra, end up advocating for retirement villages?
For Mary Wood, inaugural executive director of the Retirement Living Council at the Property Council of Australia, it’s all part of life’s interesting journey.
“I did arts law and I loved the arts part but I realised very early on after I got there, that it was completely the wrong choice for me,” confesses Wood, reflecting on her brief PhD experience at Oxford University.
“But there are many ways to learn and grow. Even a mistake can teach you a lot about yourself and it is all good experience,” she says.
Putting aside the aborted PhD, when it comes to understanding government and influencing social policy around housing, human services and aged care, Mary Wood is a credentialed blueblood. At 39, she is already a Canberra ‘veteran’.
Wood spent most of her ten years in the ministerial corridors of Canberra’s Parliament House with the Member for Sydney, Tanya Plibersek, both in and out of government. She started with Plibersek in 2004, was a senior advisor when she was Minister for Housing; then became her chief of staff when she was Minister for Human Services.
“Tanya was a terrific person to work with in every sense. She is extremely smart and hard working and a pleasure in every way,” she says.
Wood left Plibersek’s office in 2011, keen for some time out following the birth of her second daughter.
“Staff often need to spend as much time in the office as their minister,” says Wood. “I continue to be amazed by Tanya’s energy to do her job with three children but I didn’t feel able to do that.”
The aged care factor
As it happened, Wood didn’t feel able to resist a bit of part-time work either.
The CEO of Goodwin – Canberra’s largest and longest established aged care and retirement living operator – offered Wood a new role helping with the commissioning of a new aged care facility.
“I’d met [CEO] Chris Lamont when he was managing the implementation of the $5.6 billion public housing initiative during the stimulus program.
“So last year I worked part-time for Goodwin, assisting to operationalise a new residential facility in the south of Canberra,” says Wood.
“I had never worked at the coalface before, but I was part of a team. I sat around with aged care workers and others to see everything through the eyes of the people who would live and work there at some stage.”
A recipe for ageing well
The role of the inaugural executive director for the newly minted Retirement Living Council at the PCA was advertised just at the time Wood was beginning to think about returning to full time work.
She says she was attracted to it for several reasons, some of them quite oblique.
“I’ve always been interested, as many people are, in how people can age happily. It seems sad and also avoidable for people to be lonely and unhappy in their final years. So I was interested in a sector where the satisfaction levels and happiness of residents are very high.
“Retirement villages are a way that people can get all the benefits of a community and be able to help each other, while retaining their independence, and not living in each other’s pockets,” she says.
A key point she makes about life in a retirement village is that people choose to move there as a positive step in their life.
“Nobody is forced to live in a retirement village. But for many people it is a lot more attractive than an aged care home or an oversized family home that’s no longer suitable.”
Like all maturing sectors wanting a say in policy, the retirement village industry needed a base in Canberra and a sound understanding of policy-making and political process. The RVA’s leadership and board could see clear benefits from representation by a bigger advocacy body.
“The RVA has served the industry well for a long time. But the industry is changing rapidly and it is no longer a cottage industry; it has big publicly listed companies and many large members with complex businesses,” says Wood.
“Governments are increasingly large and complex too and it makes sense to bundle up advocacy into a big organisation like the PCA in order to get an audience with the ministers when you really need it.”
The RVA, she says, just didn’t have the resources to devote to advocacy. It was an unsustainable model for an industry that is highly regulated, and not a recipe for successful government relations.
Another issue for the RVA has been a lingering image problem around Gold Coast-style property investor stereotypes.
Cynics may have seen last year’s merger of the RVA with the Property Council of Australia (PCA) – a peak body whose stated mission is to champion the interests of the property sector – as a final blow for the place of retirement villages in social policy.
But cynics wouldn’t be right. On the contrary, Wood says, the Retirement Living Council was set up precisely to advocate for retirement villages, and frame them as part of the policy solution to the shortage of affordable, age-appropriate housing.
“The retirement village sector is never going to prosper or grow without a nuanced understanding of how governments make decisions.”
The government enigma
Wood says the retirement village sector is never going to prosper or grow without a nuanced understanding of how governments make decisions, whether on regulation or tax or community care funding.
She says people who run businesses – whether for profit or not – can mistakenly think that the government sector operates on similar decision-making structures and processes to their own.
“It’s just not the case,” says Wood. “There is a gulf between them. They’re really very different with entirely different modus operandi and decision-making apparatus.
“I know CEOs of organisations can feel very frustrated and assume the government is not interested or is inefficient or irrational, but senior public servants and the ministers are often just as time poor as the CEOs. Ministers are not just sitting there working out how industries can have their particular needs met.”
She also warns against assuming that governments will be interested in internal differences within an industry or will want to take a position on turf wars.
“Getting obsessed about the differences between operators or operating models is a strategic error when negotiating with government,” she says. “When I worked with the childcare sector, there was always some tension between private operators and not-for-profits. There is potential for tension and internecine battles in many industries, but there are also plenty of common needs and problems and government actions that can benefit the industry as a whole.
“Ministers are incredibly busy people who need to hear the headline problems and wish list in five minutes. They’re not interested in personality differences and geographical splits. They’re not interested in the relatively minor differences in corporate structure or tax status,” she says.
It’s practical advice, borne of experience and it leads Wood to another observation about the mistakes industries and their representatives often make in trying to have their voices heard.
“Industries need to come to government with solutions that are well-thought through; not just pleas for assistance or ‘thought bubbles’,” she says.
A solution, not a problem
A particular challenge for the retirement village sector, according to Mary Wood, is that proactive advocacy is new ground because retirement villages have never been regulated ‘for’ in any policy sense in the past. Rather, she says, they have been seen as a potential problem needing regulating against, so their profile and association has been largely limited to consumer protection and departments of fair trading.
“In the past, the approach of fair trading ministers has been to limit the bad; not to promote the good,” she says.
“The industry has a huge contribution to make but if it is only seen by government as a problem, rather than a solution, it will always remain in the narrow remit of consumer law, rather than part of human services, aged care or housing policy.
“And there has never been any one minister responsible for retirement villages,” she adds.
Wood acknowledges that she lives in interesting times and says she is enjoying the challenge. After six months, she is celebrating her first major milestone: the launch of the new Lifemark Village Scheme, a comprehensive new accreditation scheme for retirement villages, run by one of Australia’s largest auditing organisations, BSI Australia.
“The accreditation scheme has nothing to do with bricks and mortar and everything to do with ensuring that residents are treated with respect and dignity.
“The reality is that no retirement village business can prosper with an exclusive focus on property and construction and metrics. Residents are the best sales force for any retirement village. If the residents are unhappy then you are on a losing model and it is only a matter of time.”
She says there is no doubt the retirement village market is changing and will continue to change as baby boomers begin to make decisions about their own housing requirements in their later years.
“Money talks so the market will listen. What people want will be what the market offers and the expectation is that baby boomers will want more things and will possibly demand them more vocally than previous generations did,” she says.
Part of that demand will be around greater diversity of village type and location. Wood says it is inner city and middle ring suburban growth in villages that is needed and more diversity of housing types. Achieving this will involve addressing some of the current barriers to investment.
One consistent factor that comes up in talking to operators and residents, she says, is that people want to know that there is more extensive support and care services available if they need it.
“We have the accreditation scheme in place. Now we’re working on getting better industry data and building relationships with government,” she says.
“The government can’t do it all and I am optimistic that they will recognise that retirement villages are part of the solution and not the problem.”