Turnbull’s cabinet must include a minister for ageing

18 September 2015

By Everald Compton

When Tony Abbott became prime minister two years ago he made an extraordinary decision that damaged his standing with the senior voters of Australia and stunned economic and social planners.

He did not appoint a minister for ageing.

Incredibly, he totally ignored the indisputable fact that the entire planet is facing a huge crisis in which its vast population is growing older at a faster rate than at any time in the history of humanity. Quite astonishing when we note that within a couple of decades there will be three billion people who are elderly.

Abbott will remind us that he did appoint a minister for aged care. But, his duties were confined to nursing homes and home care services, a tiny fraction of the vast scope of ageing.

It was an enormous strategic and political blunder alongside many other unexplainable disasters that revealed a politician totally out of his depth.

For reasons that no one can understand, he had a mental blind spot that caused him to completely ignore the fact that ageing covers a wide range of economic and social issues that cry out for a long-term strategy as a matter of urgency.

The most important of these matters make an imposing list. In the area of income, there is pensions, superannuation, retirement savings, mature age employment, skills training and taxation. Under social engagement, there is age-friendly housing, transport, technology, recreation, lifelong learning, intergenerational partnerships, volunteering and philanthropy. In health, there is elder abuse, obesity plus all aspects of aged care, especially dementia and homelessness.

Clearly, all these challenging factors of ageing embrace a wide range of ministries spread over many government departments. This means that a minister for ageing, who has cabinet ranking, would act as a strategic co-ordinator working closely with ministerial colleagues in implementing a comprehensive and future-oriented plan for positive ageing.

In September last year, the Longevity Forum, an independent not-for-profit entity of which I am chairman, presented to the nation a blueprint for an ageing Australia. In it, our first recommendation was that a minister for ageing must be located within the Prime Minister’s office working in direct partnership with him to originate a strategy that will turn ageing into an asset.

We strongly advocated this appointment to Tony Abbott but he ignored our recommendation as he continued with his belief that ageing is simply a matter of keeping old folks as healthy as possible.

Had he continued in office, Australia would have stumbled blindly into an ageing debacle that would have hit us like a bolt of lightning with the potential to devastate the national economy.

Now, the challenge lies with Malcolm Turnbull and so the fate of Australia in a greying world rests with him. I am prepared to have a solid punt that, unlike his predecessor, he will have little difficulty in grasping the issue and do something positive about it.

In reality, Australia has a clear choice.

We can continue to stagger towards a potential disaster or we can become the first nation in the world to prove that ageing can be an asset of immense economic and social value.

Australia clearly has the capacity to release the enormous potential of millions of seniors who have been neglectfully pensioned off instead of the nation gainfully using their wisdom, loyalty and reliability to become the world’s most modern and enlightened nation enjoying a high quality of sustainable prosperity.

In doing so, we will discover that the world will want to tap our expertise in all aspects of ageing. It can be a great income earner for us, particularly with three near neighbours – China, Japan and India – who have huge ageing problems for which they have made little provision.

We must not miss this opportunity that has the potential to earn us more dollars than mining.