The dawning of the age of (older) activists!

A UN convention on the rights of older people; the abolition of a retirement age; tough age discrimination laws; holding the health system to account – the activists of the 1960s sexual revolution have a new social revolution in their sights.


Anyone in any doubt about the impact that baby boomers will have on the fabric of society in the coming decades should think again if the experience of this year’s COTA National Policy Forum is any indication.

It was very much a theme of power to the (older) people when advocates, academics, policy makers, legislators, politicians and activists came together at the National Press Club in Canberra for the annual forum event.

In the same way that it is argued that the baby boomer cohort forged the new social freedoms of the 1960s and the culture of money and excess of the western world in the 1980s, baby boomers are now forging a new understanding of growing older.

From a UN convention on the rights of older people, to ‘inclusionary’ urban zoning, to the practicalities of dying well at home, the interests of the baby boomer cohort continue to influence and capture the zeitgeist of another decade. The title of the event, ‘Rights, respect and recognition: a new deal for older Australians’,  said it all.

Topics highlighted in the forum this year were age discrimination, employment, housing, health and the right to a good death.   Underpinning all the themes was the issue of whether the Australian government should support a new UN Convention on the Rights of Older People.

Above: Professor Simon Rice presenting. MC, Peter Mares at right.

My age is my concern, not yours

Human rights lawyer, Professor Simon Rice challenged the need to ask for anyone’s date of birth in all but a few key legal contexts.

“Why do you need to know my age?” he asked, noting that many online forms are rejected unless a date of birth is given.

“It’s not because of my actual age but because of attributes and characteristics imputed to be associated with that age.

“We need to abandon the reliance on chronological age and demand that these organisations make explicit their reasons for wanting to know.   If we did that, the answer would be that it’s not your chronological age that they care about, it’s the associations and assumptions they make based on that age.”

Professor Rice said there was a need to move the policy debate around age discrimination into new territory.

“We need to recharacterise the needs of older people as entitlements,” he said. “We need to shift from the language of desire to rights.  To move from being supported and assisted to being entitled; from being reliant on charity and welfare to being entitled to a dignified life.”

You are what you say

Language was a recurring theme throughout the day’s presentations although what became clear was that it’s complicated.

Brian Howe said he rejected the term ‘seniors’, referencing it as American and somehow pejorative.  Instead he said ‘older’ was his preferred term.  Senator Bronwyn Bishop, speaking later in the day as part of the election panel, was equally adamant about preferring the word ‘senior’.

Elsewhere discussion turned to replacing the word, ‘care’ with the word ‘support’; while it was widely agreed that the word ‘consumer’ should be jettisoned.  “I prefer ‘people’,” said COTA Australia CEO, Ian Yates before reverting to the ‘consumer’ handle for the purposes of the day.

From another language perspective, Chair of the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia (FECCA), Pino Migliorino crticised the Department of Health and Ageing for severely limiting access to health and aged care services for people with little or no English.  He pointed out that the government’s new My Aged Care website, often referred to as the Aged Care Gateway, offered access to the site in only six community languages, depite offering 53 languages for clients needing access to information about Medicare, Centrelink and Child Support.  He was particularly critical of accessibility to the Personally Controlled Electronic Health Record (PCEHR) which he said offered no access at all for non English speakers.

Setting the agenda

Former deputy Prime Minister and professorial associate at the Centre for Public Policy at the University of Melbourne, Brian Howe , said there was a need to face up to the fact that the old model of housing in Australia was not the most appropriate one for future.  He said it was important to think about how to deal with that, personally advocating for 15 per cent of all housing developments to be set aside as social  housing, alongside more ‘inclusionary’ zoning in all states & territories in Australia.

Ross Clare, Director of the Research and Resource Centre for the Association of Superannuation Funds Australia (ASFA), said baby boomers want more than previous generations of retirees in terms of both life expectancy and income.

But he said it was wise to listen to the advice of the Rolling Stones with their iconic hit – ‘You can’t always get what you want’.  “But if you try sometimes you find you get what you need.”

He said drily that the song encapsulated the reality of lived experience which often began with optimism, moved through disillusionment and settled into ‘resigned pragmatism’.

Being brutally pragmatic, he said that non-home owners in the private rental market would need $500,000 in savings to survive post retirement, a scenario predicted to affect around 600,000 low income women.

Above: the election panel faces the audience. Left to right: Senator Jacinta Collins, Senator Bronwyn Bishop and Senator Rachel Siewert 

Elsewhere in the program, the election panel provided a platform for new Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Senator Jacinta Collins to discuss and debate policy alongside opposition spokespeople, Senator Bishop and Senator Sachel Siewert. The Minister said she was open to further enhancements of the Living Longer Living Better reform package, especially in relation to better consumer advocacy and addressing complaints.

Senator Bronwyn Bishop – opposition spokesperson for Seniors – said she wants it to be just as offensive to be ageist as it is to be sexist or racist.

Greens spokesperson on ageing, Senator Rachel Siewert, who attended and participated in the forum for the full day, was strongly supportive of consistent legislation across the country regarding advance care planning.

Referring to the elderly people receiving care from age services providers, Ian Yates emphasised that service  providers are not the advocates for consumers receiving their services and cannot speak for them.

“People have made their own decisions all their lives and they want to continue to do so as they age and the system needs to respond appropriately.

“Consumers’ interests and providers’ interests are different and they have to be,” he said. “They may overlap sometimes but they are not the same.”

CEO of the Consumer Health Forum, Carol Bennett (pictured above), was critical of the lack of accountability of the health system in Australia, pointing to the dearth of measurement and reporting on health outcomes and the consumer experience of care.

She delivered an important reminder that the system exists for the outcomes it provides for consumers.

“Consumers must hold a special power in the health system because it exists for them,” Ms Bennett said.

“To improve care we must enact the values and rhetoric of putting consumers at the centre of health care .

“Part of the solution is to hold the system to account – to measure and report on health outcomes and the consumer experience of care.  The major barriers to change are current vested interests and inertia,” she said.



Tags: cota, ian-yates, national-policy-forum,

4 thoughts on “The dawning of the age of (older) activists!

  1. Thank you Keryn for your …..informative piece of reporting.
    Do you intend to report on what was said by the older (65 plus) women and men who spoke at the Press Club? Or were they not among the speakers?
    Peter Leith. Heidelberg West. MLBOURNE. 3081.

  2. Address the rot in nursing homes.

    Address Voluntary Euthanasia – most of us now want to die in our own beds at home – pop a pill (not dying of thirst and starvation for 12 days in a hospital bed). This issue does not need to be hard – it’s simple if you don’t want it (or your religion) don’t have it.

    Vet’s are not prosecuted for killing – they are happy to end an animal’s suffering.

    Stuff this stoopid constitution law stuff.

    Seniors want and need respect I am sick of the younger generations treating us like burdens.

  3. I think it’s important for the Senior members of our society to be equally vigilant that they do not discriminate against the young.
    As in all groups, there are those who are just and fair and equitable in their treatment of others regardless of age, race or creed. And likewise there are those who encompass everyone under one umbrella.
    There are many wonderful younger people in our society who have nothing but respect and admiration for their senior mentors.
    Beware those who would divide our society in any way. That is the beginning of a power struggle!

  4. Have only just read this. I find it disgusting that aged care is used to make money for shareholders, same for child care for that matter. Aged care cut costs in providing poor food, lack of trained workers, poorly paid workers.

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