Taking up the fight


It has been a year of supporting each other and advocating for important changes. Chief Advocate, Ian Henschke, finds hope in a year of many challenges.

  • Summer 2020
  • Advocacy
  • Read Time: 5 mins

Key Points


  • Our calls for more, and better trained staff in residential care and an end to the home care wait list resonated with our members and their families, and with the wider community. Our advocacy was amplified by the crisis.
  • A relatively unregulated aged care industry reliant on a low paid, poorly trained, casual workforce was revealed to be a recipe for disaster.
  • The final report and recommendations are due in February 2021.

To say 2020 has been awful is an understatement. As Queen Elizabeth said in her 1992 Christmas message, it has been an “annus horribilis”. 

This time last year, I went to a meeting in the South Australian Parliament. As I crossed the road, I looked up and down North Terrace. To the east, a pall of smoke hung over the hills. To the west there were more dark clouds. Kangaroo Island off the coast was ablaze. It was midday but the sun was hidden by such a thick haze that it seemed like evening. 

Queensland and NSW were also burning, and lives were being lost. Soon it was Victoria’s turn. But these horrendous fires were just a harbinger of the next disaster. COVID-19, a dreaded new disease was smouldering in China and about to head here. The world was about to change forever. 

Our small Policy, Advocacy and Research team at National Seniors was also fighting for fairness on multiple fronts. After the May 2019 federal election, we called for a review of the retirement income system. The government initially rejected the idea but under pressure finally agreed. Then it announced the terms of reference late in the year. Our extensive submission had to be in by February, and a month later had to be given a COVID-19 update.

The review has been completed and given to government, but we are still waiting to see what policy changes this will bring about. 

This time last year the Royal Commission into Aged Care, which had already run for a year, had revealed so many problems and been swamped with so many submissions it had its deadline extended. We were busy answering requests, gathering evidence and preparing further submissions. 

As well, the Federal Budget was due in May, so we were assembling our wish list, not knowing it would all soon have to be rewritten in light of the COVID-19 health and wealth crisis.

Lockdown emergency


I flew to Melbourne in mid-March and as I headed home on Friday the 13th I knew something was seriously wrong. I took the bus to the airport and accidentally got off at the international terminal. I saw crowds of people arriving from overseas ominously wearing face masks. 

Back home, it was with great sadness that I learned one of our National Seniors members, who had been on the Ruby Princess with his wife, had died.

The lockdown began on the Monday of that long weekend and I wasn’t able to fly again until October. We were about to enter the world of online meetings. 

The nation has now run up more than a trillion dollars in debt to cope with the crisis. So much for the Treasurer’s “back in the black” prediction! The Aged Care Royal Commission suddenly became more important than ever. COVID-19 focused even more attention on the fatal flaws in the system.

The nation has now run up more than a trillion dollars in debt to cope with the crisis. So much for the Treasurer’s “back in the black” prediction!

Royal Commission mission


Our calls for more, and better trained staff in residential care and an end to the home care wait list resonated with our members and their families, and with the wider community. Our advocacy was amplified by the crisis. The media requests were relentless. But it gave us an opportunity to promote the urgency for immediate and drastic reform. 

The Royal Commission soon realised it had to turn its attention to the lessons learned from the pandemic. A relatively unregulated aged care industry reliant on a low paid, poorly trained, casual workforce was revealed to be a recipe for disaster. 

When the Royal Commission opened in January 2019 National Seniors CEO and Research Director Professor John McCallum gave evidence saying home care was an “abject failure” and a “running sore.” That was when more than 128,000 people were waiting for a package to meet their needs. We later heard that almost 30,000people either died or were forced to go into residential care while they were waiting. 

When the federal government announced the Royal Commission, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it was needed to restore faith in the system. 

In late October the commission officially ended formal hearings to consider more than one hundred recommendations putto it by Counsel Assisting. Commissioner Pagone asked us all to consider: “Is what we have as good as we can get”? He clearly thinks it isn’t. National Seniors is continuing to hold this government to its promise to fix a broken system. The final report and recommendations are due in February 2021.

“On the morning after the budget I got a message from a National Seniors member whose wife had died waiting for a package. He said it was “time to be mad as hell.”

Time for action

When the Budget was handed down in October it made provision for the funding of an extra 23,000 Home Care Packages to go with more than 6,000 announced a few months earlier. The good news is those 29,000 packages this financial year, hopefully, will put a stop to people dying while waiting. On the morning after the budget I got a message from a National Seniors member whose wife had died waiting for a package. He said it was “time to be mad as hell.” He also feared “the Royal Commission is another excuse for inaction, creating the illusion of problem solving.”

It is understandable why this man was angry and disillusioned. I reassured him we were going to hold the government to its promise to fix the system. Today, we wait for the final recommendations of the Royal Commission and we urge you to let your local federal MP and Senator know that you too want reform. 

During the pandemic it has been more important than ever to support people through the crisis, enabling them to stay in their homes for as long as possible. I recently did a television story about families wanting to build ‘granny flats’ so their parents can age with them. It is a growing trend and one the government gave some attention to in the Budget. You can read more about that in this edition of Our Generation. 

Australia has the third highest rate of institutional aged care for over-80s in the OECD. We can and must do better by finding innovative ways to keep people as independent as possible as they age. Residential age care, as it currently is, should not be a first option.

Money matters


The other big issue facing members has been the pandemic-related hit to their incomes. 

We updated both our Budget submission and our submission to the retirement income review in light of COVID-19. The Budget offered very little for help for self-funded retirees although there was a bright note due to our successful campaign to lower deeming rates. Deeming rates were dropped at the start of this year making tens of thousands of self-funded retirees eligible for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card. This has meant an extra $3,000 in stimulus payments for every couple with a further $1,000 to come. Pensioners get these payments too. I urge you to check your eligibility. 

Almost 20,000 self-funded retirees applied for and became eligible in the first half of the year. And it's not just the extra cash that is a benefit. The health card can save you a small fortune over your lifetime. It has been a tough year but we seniors are tough too. I hope that despite the hardships of 2020 you and your family can greet Christmas and New Year with confidence. Traditionally this season is a time to reflect and also to hope with confidence in the future. As the saying goes “in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity”, so in its own strange way this year has refined and given an impetus to our mission to keep up the fight for fairness, on your behalf.


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