Monday 10 October 2011


The Hon Susan Ryan AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner


The following opinion pieces have been published by the President and Commissioners. Reproduction of the opinion pieces must include reference to where the opinion piece was originally published.

Remove age discrimination, and we’ll have more financially independent older people and a more productive economy.

Author: Ms Susan Ryan, Age Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission

Published in The Equality Law Reform Project, 10 October 2011

Not too many years ago, the terms ‘Seniors’, ‘Elders’ and ‘Older persons’ would have conjured up images of frail, white haired people sitting meekly in an old fashioned garden.

In September, along with hundreds of business, government, and community representatives, I attended the federal Government’s Tax Forum where I proposed reform priorities for older persons. My proposals dealt with the negative tax impacts on older people.

As Australia’s first Age Discrimination Commissioner, I have identified this approach as strategically important. The Australian Human Rights Commission is contributing to the exercise of consolidating the various federal Discrimination Acts into one. While this promising project is underway however, I want to see the current Age Discrimination Act used more effectively to protect more people against age discrimination. Before I frame recommendations for amending and improving the Act in its current form, I want to look more closely at superannuation, workers compensation, insurance and the age barriers that currently apply to them. These concerns inevitably lead my age discrimination radar to employment and taxation.

This switch of image for older people, from a focus on gentle retirement fantasies to hardnosed tax negotiations, reflects the needs of the national economy and the realities of demographic change in Australia in 2011. Despite frequent statistical models that predict more and more older people supported by fewer and fewer young taxpayers, public policy designed to deal with this worrying future pattern contradicts itself.

The overwhelmingly dominant experience of age discrimination in Australia is experienced by the over 50’s, trying to maintain their jobs or find new work after being forced out as redundant.

Most age-based discrimination complaints made to the Commission concern older workers. The reasons given by employers for shunning them usually come down to pure prejudice, an attitude which is anathema to successful business strategies.

By pushing out experienced, capable workers, simply because of an “old –is –bad” stereotype, employers are flying in the face of what is known about older workers. They are also opposing their own business interests.

There is no scientific support for the myths about the difficulties of retraining older workers. With some sensible assessment and adjustment, employers would find that they have a pool of much-needed skilled, willing workers right at hand.

Industry leaders might understand this. But at the workface, we need a shift in employer practice from anti age prejudice to using those workers best for the task, regardless of age. If required, skills can be updated through retraining. Getting rid of age barriers in super, workers compensation and income insurance would produce more productivity. If, in the near future, we can provide successful examples, put in place by forward-looking employers, we would have inspirational models for the broader workforce.

Many older workers want to stay in work. Not only do some need to rebuild their superannuation after the ravages of the global financial crisis, but many never had much super anyway and want a few more years of superannuation payments before retirement. Many also want to stay in work for other reasons shared by all of us: engagement, purpose, colleagues.

The aim of the extended working life is one of those rare creatures these days - bipartisan policy across the parliament, and one that is also supported by employers and unions. The Age Discrimination Act itself was an initiative of the Coalition government in 2004 and retains all party support. Given this agreed position, why do we tolerate tax-related measures that undermine it?

Age caps in workers’ compensation and income maintenance insurance mean that a worker over 65 is not covered. In the event of a work-related accident the employee has to take time out at his/her own expense. And employers worry about retaining workers they can't insure.

Most current workers need to increase super from 9 to12%. Yet the implementation of that change is linked to securing the proposed mining tax and not yet legislated. For no good reason, those few employees continuing after 75 are denied superannuation.

This is the wrong message. The generous tax-free pension stream available to over 60’s who have built up substantial super should assist in transition from full time to part time work. Yet employers, in general, don’t use this measure to restructure their workforce to the advantage of both their business plan and their older workers.

Government co contributions for low paid workers help some. But they could be extended to help more people achieve, or get closer to, financial independence when they retire. The advantages to government revenue, through fewer pensions and health subsidies, would compensate for increased outlays for boosting super.

Longer working lives provide more income tax, and more productive companies pay more corporate tax.

We do not need to be captives of demographic and fiscal projections. The sort of tax changes I have suggested would redraw the picture: more people reaching retirement with enough super, at an age closer to 75 than to 65.

Surely that must be the big social and fiscal reward for getting rid of age discrimination?

Susan Ryan is Australia’s Age Discrimination Commissioner.



Brief Biography

Susan Ryan Australia’s first Age Discrimination Commissioner.

Prior to her appointment on 30 July 2011, Susan was Women’s Ambassador for ActionAid Australia, chaired the Australian Human Rights Group and, among other things, been President of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees, member of the ASX Corporate Governance Council and held a number of governance positions at the University of New South Wales.

From 1975 to 1988, Susan was Senator for the ACT, becoming the first woman to hold a Cabinet post in a federal Labor Government. She served in senior portfolios in the Hawke Government and pioneered extensive anti-discrimination and equal opportunity legislation, including the landmark Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and the Affirmative Action Act 1986.

In 1990, Susan was appointed Officer of the Order of Australia for her contribution to Parliament. In 1999, she published her autobiography, Catching the Waves.