Justice for the aged


The following article is excerpted from a speech to a November 5 Council on the Aging (COTA) forum in Hobart by Susan Austin, who was the Socialist Alliance's candidate for Denison.

I have worked as an occupational therapist for seven years, in a variety of community and hospital settings. Through working with older people, people with mental illness and people with disabilities, I have learned about the challenges that ordinary people face in getting their health and support needs met.

Firstly, it's absolutely unacceptable that in a wealthy country like Australia, 39% of single adults over 65 years of age live below the poverty line. It's unacceptable that the single rate of the Age Pension in 2004 was $226 per week, well below the poverty line of $298 per week.

The Socialist Alliance believes that welfare payments for all those in need are a right. We call for a big increase in the aged pension, to bring it up to the level of the average workers' wage (we would set the minimum wage at 60% of average weekly earnings, and lift the pension and all other welfare benefits up to this level).

That would require a big increase in the welfare budget. But such an increase can readily be afforded — in 2003 Australia was spending just 17.9% of GDP on public social expenditure, compared to the average for advanced industrial countries of 20.7% and way below Sweden's 31.3%.

The Socialist Alliance supports the choice to age at home, but the current system is making it harder for people to stay at home. For example, in my work I have measured many people up for grab rails and home modifications to improve their safety but have often had difficulty getting funding for equipment and modifications.

We propose a massive injection of funds to increase the capacity and variety of support services available, such as cleaning, gardening, respite, meals, in-home carers, transport, recreation, and visits by community nurses and other health professionals.

We are very concerned about the privatisation of aged care, which has been encouraged by the Howard government. A whole industry has been developed which aims to suck people's wealth away from them towards the end of their lives.

The superannuation system has contributed towards this. Even if people are able to build up a decent superannuation package, they may be restricted to private retirement or aged-care homes that can cost a fortune — nearly $1000 a fortnight in the case of the mother of one of our members.

Our basic position is that older Australians will be provided with better care and more choice if services are not in the hands of those who are primarily interested in making profits, but socially owned and funded, and democratically administered.

Services can then be made more accountable to the people who need them.

We agree with COTA's recommendation that there must be an adequate stock of public and community housing to meet the needs of older people, and support big increases in public housing to be built close to services.

We also stand for free public transport and argue for measures to enable people with disabilities to work for equal pay, have improved accessibility to buildings and transport and enjoy full protection against discrimination.

Prevention is better than cure, but in many ways the public health system is failing, and many in rural areas have limited access even to GPs. People are waiting years to see a dentist, and hospital waiting lists are overflowing. The alliance supports free universal, quality health care. We believe Medicare is more than a "safety net" and it should be extended.

The Socialist Alliance supports the current Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme but would improve it by quarantining it from any trade agreement. We would also renationalise the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories with the specific task of producing cheap generic drugs. We would also lobby international forums to overturn patent laws that restrict access to much needed pharmaceuticals.

We would properly fund a variety of education, screening and health promotion initiatives, like COTA's excellent Living Longer Living Stronger program.

The high incidence of elder abuse in our society is appalling, and we agree with COTA's recommendations about improving research, methods of assessment, prevention and intervention to address this issue.

We believe that providing more support and more choice to older people through measures outlined above will lead to a decrease in elderly abuse. More democratic and inclusive management of residential older persons' homes will also help to alleviate the problem.

How can the costs of such policies be met? By phasing out government subsidies for private health insurance that amount to over $3 billion a year, by a massive reduction in the defence budget, as well as by reversing tax cuts for high-income earners and corporations.