Ageing population missed by Abbott’s ministry

September 17, 2013

By Emily Millane

Well we know one thing for sure. The Prime Minister-elect cares about keeping ministerial titles short.

He has configured the new ministry to keep titles short so ministers would not need extra large business cards.

What’s in a (ministerial portfolio) name? A lot, when you can’t even tell if a particular area of policy is under the remit of that portfolio. And so it is with the portfolio of Social Services, which is to take in aged care, seniors and ageing among other things.

One in 4 people aged 65 and over by 2056 and no minister for ageing. At a time when Australia’s policy approach to longevity and ageing needs to be front and centre of any government’s agenda, the Coalition has thrown ageing into a portfolio more accurately described as the Department of Odds and Ends.

If we don’t reconfigure our social structures to adapt to an ageing society with increased longevity, we risk an irretrievable loss to our quality of life.

In 2010 Treasury released its Intergenerational Report, Australia to 2050 (PDF). The report concluded that a failure to act now to tackle intergenerational challenges would result in ‘severe economic, fiscal and environmental consequences’.

Ageing and aged care are now silent in the portfolio mix, subsumed under ‘Social Services’. This says to incoming minister Kevin Andrews and assistant minister Mitch Fifield that these areas are only part of his job, not his primary focus. This says to key stakeholders in aged care that their sector is going to have to fight for a seat at the table, rather than being guaranteed one. Most importantly, this says to older Australians that their wellbeing is not a priority for the Government. If something is a priority you name it as a priority.

The decision to bury ageing and aged care in ‘Social Services’ is bad for all Australians, not just older Australians.

Younger people will, literally, pay the price for inaction on ageing. Nowhere is this more evident than in our dependency ratio: the ratio of people over 65 years relative to the working-age population. In 2007 there were five working-age people for every older person. According to ABS projections, in 2056 this number is forecast to drop to three. Without a shift in what it means to be ‘working age’, every Australian under 65 will be supporting the pensions of more retirees with their tax dollars.

An inadequate aged care system has a ripple effect on society. It affects the wellbeing of older Australians, which in turn affects their families and friends. Speak to the son or daughter of someone with Alzheimer’s whose carers try their best but are not adequately educated in Alzheimer’s care.

But perhaps the greatest risk any government runs is failing to develop its thinking and marshal its resources to seize the opportunities presented by an ageing society which is living for longer. This is the first time in our history we have had two generations of people living in old age – those in their 60s and 70s and their parents in their 80s and 90s. It is also the first time we have the ability to lead a more healthy and engaged life, across a longer span of life. All Australians stand to benefit from this.

There are favourable circumstances for Australia to develop services which can be exported to our trading partners. As reported by The Economist in 2011, at some stage before 2020 a historical reversal in the global population pyramid will occur, where the proportion of people aged 65 and over will exceed the proportion aged 0-4. In China, for example, this reversal occurred in 2002, because the rate of ageing occurred at a faster rate than much of the world. It also occurred without state infrastructure to support an older society. Accordingly, China’s demand for policies and services for an ageing society is due to escalate dramatically in the next 20 years. Our trading ties with China can therefore be used to great effect as Australia develops world-class technologies and services for older people.

A dedicated ageing portfolio with one department can look across these interrelated issues with some sense of perspective, giving cohesion to policy development.

By siphoning off and burying ageing in its ministry the Coalition risks developing a piecemeal policy mix which is a glaringly inadequate response to the pressures created by demographic change. It also risks missing the economic and social opportunities of longevity and an ageing society. To put it in the language of Tony Abbott’s election night speech, that would be loss ‘for all Australians’.