Forum on the Rights of Older People

Speech by Hon. Susan Ryan AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner

Australian Human Rights Commission

Crest and Medallion Rooms, Etihad Stadium
740 Bourke Street, Docklands, Melbourne

A Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission Forum

28 October 2011

I acknowledge the Wurundjeri of Kulin nation as traditional owners.

Why do we have an Age Discrimination Commissioner?

Why was it that the attorney-general recently decided to amend the 2004 Age Discrimination Act to provide for a designated Age Discrimination Commissioner, to join the other discrimination Commissioners and become part of the Australian Human Rights Commission?

This amendment was supported right across the Parliament.
So clearly, as far as Parliament is concerned, this job is needed.

I hope you will agree that there is a job to be done, a big one.

We have an Age Discrimination Commissioner in response to growing evidence of damaging discrimination on the basis of a person’s age.

This discrimination is all too affects older people in the main, though people of any age, including young people, experience age discrimination at times.

We are increasingly aware that many able-bodied, keen and productive employees are forced out of the workforce in their early 50’s, sometimes even before that, for no reason other than that the employer has bought into the idea, false as it is, that only younger people are dynamic, energetic and able to learn new ways of doing things.

This is age prejudice and it must be tackled.

My primary role as Age Discrimination Commissioner is to tackle it

But before I set out for you exactly how I plan to do this, I will say a few more things about age prejudice

Any form of prejudice in our society diminishes the person or the groups suffering from this discrimination and diminishes our society as a whole.

At the Australian Human Rights Commission, our slogan is: human rights – everyone, everywhere, every day.

All of us at the Commission, the six Commissioners and our dedicated staff, take this seriously. We understand that a person’s human rights do not diminish because of their age, just as they should not be diminished because of their race, gender or in the case of a disability.

You will all be aware that we have had laws against race, gender and disability discrimination for quite a long time.

The Australian Human Rights Commission was established by law in 1986, to protect and advocate human rights and to work against illegal discrimination.

As our society and our law-makers came to understand the terrible damage done to individuals and to society by discrimination we have long been familiar with, they came to the recognition that there is another form of discrimination which potentially affects every single human being - Age discrimination.

Hence, in 2004 the Coalition government introduced the Age Discrimination Act which has had bipartisan support ever since.

In bringing in this reform, the Parliament was conscious of the big changes brought about by what we refer to as our ageing population.

Let me say at the outset that the fact that more of us are living longer than ever before is a fact that should be celebrated.

It is a development that results from our great investment in medical research and training and also from our success as a democratic society in providing a high level of healthcare and other essentials of life to most of our population.

It is a wonderful community achievement that older Australians are breaking the age barrier every day.

This dramatic change, or improvement as I regard it, does of course require changes in the way we support individuals and ensure the protection of their rights.

When I think of the long journey we took in Australia to challenge and then to start to reduce discrimination on the basis of sex, I worry that it might take us another generation to get on top of age discrimination. But when I think this through, I come to the view that age discrimination is something we can challenge today and every day in many effective ways.

While it is always hard to get rid of deep-seated prejudices in society, we’ve all had a bit of experience in doing that and I hope we can learn from that experience and remove the burden of age discrimination quickly and completely.

At the Australian Human Rights Commission, my main tool in carrying out this work is the Age Discrimination Act. Like other anti-discrimination laws, it makes illegal discrimination on the basis of age in fundamental areas including employment, finance, education, and goods and services.

Of course, some forms of treating people differently because of their age are legal. These are the practices we call special measures or positive discrimination and they are legal because they provide a service or benefit to people who are justified in receiving it.

For example, the provision of the seniors’ card enables discounts in public transport and other services. This provision is entirely legal and will always remain so.

Another example is that people become eligible for the age pension only when they have reached the age of 65 (to be extended to 67 over the next few years). Similarly, with young people the provision of special accommodation assistance to young homeless people remains entirely legal as do a number of youth allowances and youth wages.

The discrimination that is illegal and is causing great damage to individuals and to our economy is most strongly evident in employment.

I have seen in my short period in this job, a great deal of evidence that the mature age worker, (and people from 45 are often categorised as mature age), is frequently subjected to workplace discrimination. This unfair treatment can lead to people in their early 50’s finding themselves unemployed.

This can be a disaster.

Because of age discrimination, people at that age have a very difficult time finding another job. They try hard, they submit many applications, but all too frequently they get knocked back without even an interview. Of course at that age they are unlikely to have a lot of superannuation, they are not eligible for the age pension and they have to try to manage on the very low Newstart Allowance.

Female employees can be in an even worse position because generally they have only small superannuation savings.

They have spent many years out of paid work caring for their families and have missed out on many years of super contributions.

So what are they to do?

These men and women are far too young to be eligible for the age pension. They may go on the Newstart Allowance and continue their job search. That allowance as i said is very low, inadequate for anyone without other financial back-up.

You can see what a grim picture this is.

At the same time, employers throughout our economy, large and small businesses, are crying out for more skilled workers. Every day the media publishes stories about skills shortages holding back our economic growth.

Well, you might think the solution is obvious. It is in principle, quite obvious to me.

Employers need to throw out their prejudices against mature age workers, look closely at the needs of their business, and the existing skills of their older workers, and see what steps they need to take to match the two. In many cases, it will be simply a matter of providing their older workers with some training to upgrade their skills. In other cases, when they consult their employees, they may find that offering them more flexible hours, such as a shorter working week or a shorter working day, will ensure that the employees can keep their jobs and the business can continue to profit from their experience and loyalty.

Why doesn’t this happen? Well to be fair, some employers are doing just this. And their healthy productivity is evidence of the good sense of this approach.

But more employers allow themselves to be held back in their business planning by discriminatory attitudes.

For example, it’s a widely held view, but a very wrong one, that older workers can’t learn new skills, particularly in the technology area. There is no scientific basis for this attitude. Certainly it is true that workers who have spent many years in the past working without computers, emails, the Internet and iphones don’t become highly-skilled in operating these wonderful tools as quickly as younger workers who have been using them since their primary school days.

But they can catch up. The intelligent and strategic employer will recognise this and provide the appropriate training. This is my message to employers and I expect that I will be joined in this message by those employers who are already taking these steps and seeing the benefits.

I want to explain now how the age discrimination act can be useful to individuals experiencing age discrimination.

Let us take the example of employment. If a person is told ‘we don’t want anyone here over 50’ that person may make a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission. Such a policy is an example is what we call ‘direct discrimination’ and it is illegal.

Or an employee may be told ‘we are offering redundancies to anyone who has not completed high level it training over the last year.’

That statement used against an employee who was willing but denied the opportunity to do such training could be a form of indirect age discrimination. It may also be taken as a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

What happens then? First I want to make clear that bringing such a complaint is simple and does not cost anything. You can either phone in your complaint or go to the Complaints section on our website and email your complaint to us. When we receive it, the Complaints section at the Commission will carefully and sensitively explore what has happened to you. If it does appear to amount to illegal discrimination under the Act, they will then offer to conciliate it for you. With your agreement, they will contact the employer, discuss the matter with them and invite the employer to meet with the employee to see if the matter of discrimination can be sorted out. In over 50% of cases, the two parties reach a satisfactory conclusion, sometimes involving the reinstatement of a person’s job or financial compensation.

So, the Act is not just an abstract concept. It can offer practical assistance to you.

The staff at the Commission are trained and dedicated to making that assistance as effective as possible.

As well as encouraging people to resolve their personal experiences of discrimination by using the complaints provisions in the Act, I have a more general task.

I am charged with breaking down age prejudice throughout our community.

As you know, that is a huge challenge, you only have to look at popular media images of older people or indeed listen to the bad taste, but commonly-heard jokes against people “going ga ga” or “starting to drool” to recognise that this awful demeaning prejudice is widespread.

It must be challenged. I invite all of you to join me in challenging it wherever it occurs.

One initiative I have already put in place to challenge this deep community prejudice is the ‘Age Positive’ stories page on our website.

I have invited any person in the community who is aware of valuable contributions being made by an older person to send us a short story about that contribution along with a photo of the person making it. It could be your own story, or it could be the story of a volunteer you know who works at the local hospital or the local library. Or it could be the lollypop person who guards crossings outside schools to keep the children safe. Or it could be the very mature gentleman who spends a lot of time training the under-10s soccer team. You all know plenty of such people, and some of you know doubt deliver these community services yourselves.

I’m pleased to say that I launched this initiative on the International Day of Older Persons and I have already received a large number of inspirational stories.

They are there for you to see and perhaps be inspired by, by just going to our website.

Let me return to the importance of ensuring that people who want to work and are capable of working into their 60’s and 70’s and beyond are not blocked unfairly from doing so.

Governments will need to change some of the rules and policies they have in place. While it is true that all governments and major political parties have adopted strong support for keeping people working longer, they are going to have to change a few things.

Let me start with superannuation. Many people want to keep working even beyond their 60’s in order to earn a reasonable amount of superannuation. The Government wants this too.

The longer people are working, the lesser is their need for publicly-funded support such as the age pension.

Yet we have rules in superannuation which discourage the older worker.

As well, compounding the problem, in all states in Australia and the Commonwealth, with the exception of Western Australia and Queensland, workers compensation cuts out at age 65. So the worker at 68 or 69 who has a workplace accident is not covered.

That worker cannot insure himself or herself for income continuation during a period of ill-health because virtually all income insurance stops at 65. So even when we get rid of age discrimination in hiring and keeping older workers, we have to change insurance, superannuation and workers compensation so that everyone who is employed gets the same benefits as every other employee regardless of age.

That is the sort of equality that inspires and guides all of our work at the Australian Human Rights Commission. And it is that commitment to equal treatment regardless of age that is at the core of my work as Australia’s first Age Discrimination Commissioner.

I look forward to hearing your comments on this important task and I hope that I will have the support and assistance of all of you in reaching our shared objective of a society where age is no barrier to equal treatment.