By Everald Compton and Emily Millane
As economist Ross Garnaut has written, there are two approaches to public policy: a “business as usual” one, where short-term politics runs roughshod, and a “public interest” approach, where the more difficult, medium-term social and economic issues are dealt with in a strategic way. The latter can be a bitter pill to swallow at the time, but it ultimately leads to policy outcomes more aligned with the long-term national interest.
When Treasurer Joe Hockey dismissed the federal government’s Advisory Panel on Positive Ageing along with a number of other statutory bodies, he was making a very small saving at the national expense. The panel was less than eight months away from finishing its Blueprint for Ageing, which would outline practical ways for Australia to take advantage of its ageing demography and turn it into an opportunity.
Sacking the panel appears to have been part of the government’s risk minimisation approach: remove a government body, and you remove the recommendations and demands it makes. The government knew the panel would report in due course on the areas in which the government had to take action to prepare for Australia’s “ageing tsunami”. By stopping the panel dead in its tracks there would be one fewer report floating around to make a demand on public finances. This was strategic short-termism at its best.
There is simply no stopping the demographic tide; 1.8 million Australians will be aged over 85 by 2050, and 50,000 of these people will be over 100. Globally, the population of seniors is growing at a rate of 2.6% annually, more than double the rate of overall population growth of 1.2%.
The statistics are staggering, and they point to a grave situation for the countries that stick their heads in the sand on ageing. For this reason, the critical work the panel began before being axed in November cannot go to waste.
The panel has been re-established with four of its five former members: Everald Compton AM, Neville Roach AO, Brown Howe AO and Professor Gill Lewin. It will work with the Per Capita think tank and with National Seniors to deliver its Blueprint by the original deadline of June 30. The panel will consult with communities around Australia on a range of issues, including a change to the pension age, taxation of superannuation and keeping seniors engaged in the workforce. With private and community funding, the re-established panel will do all of this on less than half the public budget originally allocated to it.
In its governmental guise, the panel’s terms of reference did not include superannuation and aged care. Now that the panel has been re-established outside of government, its blueprint will cover a broader ambit, including positive ageing, retirement incomes; both private savings and public benefits; and aged care.
The overarching focus of the blueprint is on preparing Australia for its ageing population but also to take advantage of the opportunities this demographic shift presents. To take one example, as the population ages, demand for age-friendly products and services will increase in areas like tourism, leisure and recreational activities. Recreation is one of the fastest-growing areas of spending among over 65s. Government co-investment in these schemes is one way to encourage the growth of these services. As well as increasing the participation of seniors in community life, this presents an enormous opportunity for local companies to profit from developing leading-edge, age-friendly products and services. It is also an intergenerational opportunity for younger people to develop skills specifically designed for this market.
A larger opportunity is also at stake here. Australia can be a leader in ageing, both in terms of how we develop a local economy for the aged and exportable goods and services, and also as an example of how a country should treat its older citizens.
The panel will present its recommendations in the Blueprint for Ageing at a national event in the middle of this year. It will tackle some difficult questions about retirement income, working lives and how we live as an older society. The government’s inclination might be towards taking the “business as usual approach” but the national interest demands more.