Alister Henskens portrait
Alister Henskens portrait

Ageing And Disability Commissioner Bill 2019

Assisting Aging Population

Mr ALISTER HENSKENS (Ku-ring-gai) (19:28:44): I am pleased to support the Ageing and Disability Commissioner Bill 2019. My contribution will focus on how the bill will protect and assist seniors in our community. Since becoming the member for Ku-ring-gai I have heard firsthand accounts of elder abuse in our community. Ku-ring-gai has, in proportionate terms, a significant population of seniors. Ku-ring-gai is a place where people come to raise their families, but after they come they discover how beautiful and peaceful our area is and they never want to leave. That is why we have a significant percentage of seniors in the electorate. It is a self-evident truth that the measure of any society is the manner in which it cares for its most vulnerable people. I shall now draw the attention of the House to a number of provisions in the bill to exemplify how it is protective in its nature. Part 1, clause 4 sets out the objects of the bill as follows:

(1)The objects of this Act are:

(a)to protect and promote the rights of adults with disability and older adults, and

(b)to protect adults with disability and older adults from abuse, neglect and exploitation.

Part 3, division 1, clause 12 sets out the functions of the commissioner in pursuing those objectives. In summary, clause 12 (1) states that the commissioner has the following functions: to deal with allegations of abuse; to take further action following an investigation into an allegation of abuse; to raise awareness and educate the public about matters relating to abuse; to provide advice and general assistance to the public about matters relating to abuse; to inquire into and report on systemic issues regarding matters in relation to which the commissioner may conduct investigations; to consult with the Ageing and Disability Advisory Board on matters relating to abuse and the like; and to advise and make recommendations to the Minister. Part 3, division 1, clauses 16 to 18 give the commissioner important powers to properly conduct investigations. Part 4 gives the commissioner community visitation rights, and part 5 provides reporting functions.

The bill recognises that older people may be more vulnerable to abuse due to their increased reliance on others to meet their needs and make decisions on their behalf. The bill reflects this Government's understanding that elder abuse is a complex issue and it is increasingly relevant to our ageing population. Older people make up a considerable portion of Australia's population. In 2017 more than one in seven people were aged 65 and over. The number of older people in New South Wales is increasing and the proportion of older people within the total population is also growing. For example, in 1991 almost 700,000 people in New South Wales were aged 65 and over; in 2011 more than one million people were aged 65 and over; and by 2031 around 20 per cent of the population in New South Wales, or around 1.8 million people, will be aged 65 and over.

At the same time, our life expectancy is improving but there are also changes to "healthy-life expectancy"—that is, the number of years people live without a severe or profound disability or ailment. While healthy-life expectancy has increased, there has also been a proportionate increase in the number of years spent with a serious disability. The factors that make older people vulnerable to abuse also contribute to the hidden or underreported nature of that abuse. It occurs in situations where, due to disability or ill health associated with age, people are reliant on others to have their needs met and to manage their affairs. In 2016 the Australian Institute of Family Studies reviewed the prevalence and dynamics of elder abuse and reported that between 2 per cent and 14 per cent of older Australians may experience elder abuse in any given year. It is difficult to establish how widely elder abuse is experienced due to the covert nature of certain types of abuse and the dependence of older Australians on those who cause the abuse. In 2002 the World Health Organization defined "elder abuse" as:

… a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person. Elder abuse can take various forms such as physical, psychological or emotional, sexual and financial abuse. It can also be the result of intentional or unintentional neglect.

In its 2016-2017 annual report, the NSW Elder Abuse Helpline & Resource Unit reported receiving over 13,000 calls since its inception in 2013. My office staff and I refer constituents to that helpline for assistance.

The highest reported types of abuse were psychological, 58 per cent; financial, 39 per cent; and neglect, 18 per cent. In support of the introduction of the commissioner, the Elder Abuse Helpline & Resource Unit provided examples of reported abuse. One example was of a man withholding food from his wife—an elderly woman with a disability who was unable to prepare her own meals—for two days because he was angry with her. A worker with the elderly in my electorate has told me of cases where seniors living in multimillion dollar homes in Ku‑ring‑gai are eating cat food because family members control their financial resources and will not allow them to eat better food.

The bill seeks to protect and support adults who are, in various ways, reliant on others. The Government recognises the dedicated and invaluable support and care provided to vulnerable adults by friends and families. In October 2016 the Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS] reported that in 2015 there were just over 900,000 carers in New South Wales. Carers must be recognised for the care and support they give. At the same time, it cannot be denied that sometimes these informal family arrangements can give rise to abuse and neglect. The situation is made all the more complex because of the interpersonal relationships between the parties.

Abuse and neglect are more likely to occur when a carer is feeling unsupported or overwhelmed or is experiencing their own medical or health problems. The ABS reported that 6.5 per cent of carers experienced profound or severe disability and that the carer role can have a significant impact on the carer's own earning capacity and lifestyle choices. An important role for the commissioner will therefore be to support carers so they can be best equipped to deal with the stressors of that caring role. This bill and its approach to elder abuse is informed by the Law Reform Commission'sReview of the Guardianship Act1987 and the parliamentary inquiry into abuse of 2016.

The relevance and timeliness of this bill is further highlighted by the Commonwealth's establishment of the Royal Commission into Age Care Quality and Safety. The bill sets the scene for a long-term cultural change. The reform is an opportunity to protect older Australians from abuse, neglect and exploitation in their homes or communities. The commissioner will provide a more consistent, efficient and robust approach to responding to and investigating allegations of abuse, neglect and exploitation of older people. The commission will work with carers by linking them to services that support them to continue to provide effective and supportive care environments. The New South Wales Government is determined to ensure that people not only live longer than ever before but also live better than ever before. We want older people to live healthy, active and happy lives as they age. This vision is set out in the New South Wales Government'sAgeing Strategy released in 2012.

The appointment of an Ageing and Disability Commissioner will complement our existing commitments and deliver more benefits for older people and their carers in New South Wales. The establishment of the position of commissioner strengthens the New South Wales Government's protection of the most vulnerable adults in our community, including building a robust protective system to prevent elder abuse. I pause to compliment the Minister, the member for Kiama, on his great work in promoting this bill. It is very important that we as a compassionate, modern Liberal government look after the most vulnerable people in our community. It is only because we get the finances of the State right that we have the capacity to care for our most vulnerable people. This is a great example of true Liberal policy and I commend the Minister. I commend the bill to the House and I offer the Minister my unqualified support and congratulations on bringing forward this important legislative reform.