When Women Roar

The March4Justice movement has achieved something remarkable for Australian women. It has transformed decades of private suffering into mass solidarity. 

For the first time, tens of thousands of women ended their silence about sexual abuse and injustice.

The ‘I’ has become the ‘We’.

The March4Justice protests that saw 110,000 people in 42 marches around the nation have not dissipated into silence. 

This is because Australian women have fundamentally changed their way of thinking. 

Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins and Katherine Thornton together ignited this explosion of rage. Their courage set off a spontaneous combustion of deep reserves of trauma, shame and frustration buried beneath silence. Women have had enough.

The events of the last month drove home to them that it’s not an individual problem, but a society-wide bias against women seeking justice and equality. The system is rigged against women and girls. 

The misogyny is institutionalised

The biggest shock to most Australians was learning that Federal Parliament is one of the most unsafe workplaces for women in the country. Harassment, abuse and even sex crimes against women have not exacted a toll on anyone but the women who have been abused.

The entire structural framework of Government, law enforcement, the courts and social prejudice collectively have denied women justice. Collectively they have denied women effective recourse to the apparatus of state to protect them from rapists and sexual abusers. Collectively they have denied women the possibility of seeking punishment for perpetrators of sexual crimes. As Senator Eric Abetz confidently assured Tasmanian Liberal MP Sue Hickey:

“ Not to worry. The woman is dead and the law will protect” Attorney-General Christian Porter regarding the alleged rape.

Statistically this is undeniable. Ninety percent of sexual assault cases do not end up in court. The chances of a woman finding justice are minuscule compared to the reality that she will be re-traumatized and left with her reputation shredded. 

The revelations about Katherine Thornton were followed very carefully by women. They understood how the years of grief and and trauma had de-railed her life and potential for a remarkable career. They read that when she went to make a complaint to the police, she was forced to wait months for them to take a sworn statement from her. They never did. She killed herself. All calls for an independent investigative process have been rebuffed by the Government.

The identification of women with Kate, Brittany and Grace springs from shared experience. It’s about women acknowledging that as individual women they are powerless against a system that is built on their silence. It is a system that has left them with no option but silence. They won’t be believed if they speak up and they will most probably be slut shamed. Brittany was called “a lying cow” by one of the highest officers in the land, the Defence Minister of Australia.

The word of women has been discredited in order to protect the status and reputations of men. And that is why rapists are so confident they can successfully silence their victims.

But women are no longer prepared to remain silent and that’s what makes things so different now.

Two key factors have prevented the rage ignited by Grace, Brittany and Kate from being muffled.

Women journalists

First, the number of leading women journalists determined to prevent a cover-up. A team of women journalists across different networks has emerged in the forefront. It is perhaps the most striking proof that when women are present, the conversation changes dramatically. Without these highly experienced women journalists, unquestionably, the whole issue would have been dropped out of public discourse. Louise Milligan and Laura Tingle have continued to speak out despite the ABC having its funding slashed and facing litigation. Lisa Wilkinson, Samantha Maiden, Katherine Murphy, Tracy Grimshaw, Amy Remeikis and others have done exceptional work. 

Social media

The second key factor stopping the rage from being quashed is social media. 

Well may PM Morrison rail against social media. It is contributing to his demise. But it has nothing to do with its  ‘evil influences’ as he calls them.

Social media is a threat because it has removed the near monopoly the media oligarchs and the Government hold over public information and public discourse. This mutually beneficial connection between them is being challenged by a grass roots movement. Inordinate power is being democratised. 

Social media is giving individual, powerless women a voice. For most, it is the first time they have ever mentioned the sexual assault they had endured. As one woman came forward for the first time, another woman and another took courage and spoke up until it became a wildfire.

Women posted how old they were when they were first assaulted and the circumstances. The posts are horrifying.

It has happened to women at all ages, from the time they were toddlers to when they were in aged care.

Often it happened to three generations in the same families. 

It happened in their homes, schools, the street, their workplace – everywhere. It is perpetrated by their closest family members, neighbours, friends, teachers, co-workers, employers – every type of relationship. And it happens across all socio-economic demographics, backgrounds and religions.

It has always been like this. But what has changed now, is that many women have had enough of keeping it secret. They’ve had a lifetime of trauma and stigma, while the perpetrator in most cases walks away with impunity.

Despite their fear it will damage their reputations, they are now speaking out publicly, no longer accepting victim blaming.

And they have easy access to a national and international platform.

Without social media the March4Justice on March 15th could never have happened. On February 25, Janine Hendry was exploring the idea of having women link hands around the perimeter of Parliament House to protest against gendered violence, discrimination and inequality. She tweeted asking: “I need someone to tell me if this is possible. I then also need someone to estimate the distance and how many women we would need?”

And from that it rapidly morphed through Twitter and Facebook, with minimal organization and funding, into simultaneous national-wide marches.

Grace Tame exhorted women to make noise. And that’s exactly what they are doing. The momentum continues to grow. We have not yet seen the full repercussions of this movement.

999 Ways to Describe an Older Woman

The media attacks on Dr. Jill Biden remind us just how many people are offended by an older woman holding public office and not acting ‘her age’, even if she is the First Lady of the United States.

When Dr.Biden recently appeared in patterned tights and boots she was instantly condemned. Twitter users hurled sexist and ageist jokes at the 69-year-old educator. Numerous tweets called her names like “hag,” “hooker”, “trash and “witch”. One tweet advised that ” For an additional $29.99 Jill Biden could have accessorized her Halloween costume with the optional broom.”

In a society that values women primarily for their youthful beauty, sexual and reproductive powers, the more we age, the more our currency as women is devalued. 

And it is reflected in the language.

Some common names for women over 50 – old bag, granny, biddy, crone, hag, witch, harridan, bedlam, old bat, old boiler – are just some of the names we hear.

Google offers over 999+ adjectives to describe an older or old woman. They are uniformly pejorative: 

‘withered and bitter’; ’almost well-dressed’; ‘unnaturally lusty’; ‘crazy and uncanny’ ; ‘entirely uninteresting’, are some of the terms. Even the word ‘Boomer’ has become slurred and layered with connotations of greed and selfishness.

It worth noting that during the U.S. election campaign, Joe Biden was called “Sleepy Joe” as reference to his age. But when Hillary Clinton ran for president, she was pilloried as a “crone” capable of witchcraft. 

Mary Beard, who is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge and the presenter of BBC Two’s Inside Culture said she is frequently branded a witch in an attempt to discredit her and older women generally. “Throughout many periods of history in the West there has been a real worry about what you do with women who are past their childbearing years. As I can confirm, women with long grey hair can make people anxious.”

There is nothing positive about the appellations for older women. 

They denote weakness, ugliness, helplessness and even evil.

They constitute a massive put down. 

But does it matter? What’s in a name you may ask?

Well, nomenclature and honorific reflect respect, status and even power. 

Or the lack thereof. 

They are fundamentally connected to value. 

Or the lack thereof.

It is important to point out the sharp dichotomy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians regarding appellations for older women. Indigenous older people, women and men, are collectively called ‘Elders’ and individually the women are addressed as ‘Aunty’. These are terms that denote respect. They reflect the status and position of authority that older women hold in First Nations society. They are valued as leaders and repositories of traditional stories, culture and law spanning 60,000 years. They are so valued that during Covid19, Indigenous communities made protection of their Elders their utmost priority. And they were very successful.

 Unlike traditional societies, we still haven’t come up with a respectful and value-enhanced term to describe older women. This paucity of positive appellations puts me in a real quandary whenever I write articles about women over 50. I have to use either the term ‘older women’, or try to remove value judgments by using the phrase ‘ women over 50’.  I wrote an article using the term ‘ We, the Matriarchs…’ but most women do not identify themselves as matriarchs.

What we call people reflects the value society assigns to them

The feminists of the 1960s understood the importance of nomenclature and honorific. That’s why one of the first things they did was change Mrs. and Miss to Ms. It was to give women a value and a way of being addressed independent of their relationship to a man. 

What we call people reflects the value society assigns to them. So our lack of respectful and value-enhanced terms to describe older women exactly reflects the negativity and discrimination towards them in society and that is translated into policy and action.

The widespread and well-documented age discrimination in the Australian workforce has directly led to women over 50 constituting the majority of those living below the poverty line. During Covid19, women over 50 were the first to lose their jobs and are the least likely ever to be re-employed despite their qualifications and experience. There are presently over 400,000 women over 45 at risk of homelessness in Australia.

This is Australia 2021.

Global crisis

Globally, prejudice and discrimination are now threatening the financial security and the very survival of so many older women in countries around the world. 

But most governments barely acknowledge the problem, let alone develop policies to deal with it. And what is extraordinary, is that we are not speaking about a small minority group. We are speaking about a significant demographic in Australia, the US, England and other countries. By 2030, one in three Australians will be over 55. The majority will be women.

Perhaps the problem is that so few countries are led by women over 50. Here too we can trace this back to attitudes about older women. Men on the public stage gain gravitas and authority as they age, women are considered enfeebled and inappropriate for the public stage.

It is encouraging therefore to see women over 50 becoming more visible in international forums as strong leadership figures – Kamala Harris, Janet Yellin, Nancy Pelosi in the U.S., Ursula von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde in the EU, Angela Merkel in Germany, Christine Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan. And most recently, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria, the next Director General of the World Trade Organization.

But this does not change the fact that the major social crisis now affecting older women has remained, like the women themselves, largely invisible.  

What are we going to do about it?






Open Letter to Premier Daniel Andrews

Don’t fail Victorian women in the upcoming State Budget. The Federal Budget failed Australian women.

It is illusory to think that there can be economic recovery without the full participation of women of all ages.

Affordable childcare has to be a cornerstone of Victoria’s Budget.
Policies targeted at older women are another cornerstone.
So too is social housing.

The progressive exclusion of women 50+ from the workforce is one of the most serious violations of women’s rights in Australia & it is happening on a mass scale. As a result these women constitute the majority of unemployed, those on welfare and the homeless. The Victorian Budget can halt this process of impoverishment with incentives for employment instead of age discrimination policies such as JobMaker.

If you neglect this escalating social disaster,Victoria will bear both an uncontainable economic burden and social dislocation.

But if you mobilise these women with their accumulated professional expertise & skills, they can be key drivers of recovery, particularly in the expanding health and care sectors.

Deloitte Access Economics estimated pre-pandemic that a 3% increase in participation by the over 55s would generate a $33 billion annual boost to the national economy.

If the coming Budget is good for women, it will be good for Victoria.







Ruth Bader Ginsburg Shattering The Age Barrier

In all the tributes to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for shattering the barriers denying her and other women justice and equality, haven’t we overlooked what was staring us in the face? Justice Ginsburg was an old woman aged 87 when she died. And the last barrier she shattered was the one erected in the path of women when they reach the age of 50. 

RBG was at the height of her power and influence in the 27 years between the ages of 60 and 87. She was 60, when she was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the age when most women are regarded as being way past their “use by” date.

Older women as a demographic group are at best ignored and at worst disdained. 

But Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, here I am and I’m staying as long as I can do my job.

It was so typical of her. Throughout her life, she led the way not only in her legal judgements, but by personal example. 

RBG showed that an old woman can be a leader and she can be powerful.

She demonstrated that ageing should not be a process of devaluation for a woman.

Just as she upheld the worth of every individual in the eyes of the law, so too she upheld the right of every woman to command respect and reject discrimination,  no matter her age.

If Ruth Bader Ginsburg Applied for a Job in Australia

But most probably, if Justice Ginsburg had taken off her robes and unrecognised, applied for a job in Australia, she would be treated the same way other women her age are treated. Most employers would consider her unemployable and refuse to give her work, and Government would resent such an unproductive person as a drain on resources. In a pandemic they might readily agree that she be sacrificed on the altar of economic recovery.

This is the way women over 50 are viewed in Australia. This is the thinking that informs Federal Government policy. And this is certainly the thinking that informed Budget 2020. It was a Budget that was bad for women generally, but disastrous for women over 50. It matters greatly because these women are sinking into a home- grown social catastrophe. 

Covid19 did not create this catastrophe, it just accelerated a process that has been going on for almost a decade. If anything, Covid19 spotlighted the fact that it is not just some individual women who are having difficulties for whatever personal reasons. 

Consequences of Discriminatory Policies towards Older Women

What we are seeing is the progressive exclusion of women over 50 from the workforce. It is one of the most serious violations of women’s rights in Australia and it is happening on a mass scale.

Despite the unemployment rate amongst women over 50 being amongst the highest as a result of Covid19, there was nothing in the Budget that even referred to this problem let alone set out measures to address it. There are a specific schemes for apprenticeships and hiring subsidies for young workers, but nothing for women who are unlikely every to be employed again. These schemes actually incentivise employers to drop older workers and get subsidised for younger ones. An existing Government plan for older unemployed people has been described as an “utter failure” with only half the amount pledged actually being spent and more than 40% of those receiving these wage subsidies being out of work within 3 months.

Despite being fully aware, for a number of years, that the majority of people on Newstart were older women and that they struggled to survive on $40 a day, the Government is cutting JobSeeker and putting the unemployed back on $40 a day. The Government is also fully aware that older women are the ones who will be on these unemployment payments for the longest periods. And it is quite likely that they will be unemployed for the next 15-17 years until they qualify for the pension. For older women, JobSeeker has now become a sort of pre-pension that keeps them in preliminary poverty before they get on to the permanent poverty of the pension, which remains unchanged at $10 below the poverty line.

Unemployment predictably leads to a cluster of disadvantage. Its key outcomes are impoverishment, homelessness and the lack of means to escape violent relationships. This is because women generally have fewer assets, savings and super to fall back on compared to male contemporaries. Consequently, homelessness amongst women over 50 is accelerating at an alarming rate. But there was nothing in the Budget that even referred to this problem, let alone addressed it with a policy of social housing. Even pre-pandemic, there were over 405,000 women in this age group at risk of homelessness. Now, with the rate of Jobseeker cut back, and eviction moratoriums and mortgage deferrals ending, this rate of homelessness is set to skyrocket. 

The Government policy of neglect towards older people is aggravating the economic decline of women 50+. 

The majority of people on welfare now are older women.

The majority of homeless are now older women.

Damaging to Economy

This policy is not only morally repugnant, it is also damaging to the economy.

It represents a spectacular waste of human capital. These women possess decades of workplace experience, skills and professional expertise. 

There was only one Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but she was not alone. She led the generations of women now over 60 who, like her, were the first to enter the universities and break into the professions and the workforce in record numbers in the 1960s and 70s. These women went where others had not gone before them. And these are the women now being forced out of the workforce because of age discrimination.

Women over 50 as Key Drivers of the Economy

As a consequence of Covid19, the Australian workforce has shrunk by a million workers. Without immigrants and with low population growth we do not have the human resources to fuel economic recovery. Women with children must be enabled through affordable childcare to return to the workforce. But in addition, there is the invaluable resource of older women. Deloitte Access Economics estimated pre-pandemic that a 3% increase in participation by the over 55s would generate a   $33 billion annual boost to the national economy.

The view of women over 50 as key drivers of the economy is strongly upheld by Joseph F. Coughlin, director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of ‘The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market.’ When these women are employed and have purchasing power, they become the “chief consumer of an entire demographic wave”. Coughlin estimates this fast growing market to be worth $20 trillion globally.

The reality is that Australia has an ageing population and by 2030 one in four Australians will be 65+. The majority will be women.                                                         

The Federal Government can continue to neglect older women or it can mobilize them in a way that both benefits the women and the economy. Otherwise, as women continue to fall off the cliff in ever increasing numbers, we will know they were pushed.


The Impact of the Pandemic on Older Women


The impact of the pandemic on older women has been severe. It is not only particularly dangerous to their health, it has also increased their social isolation and exacerbated their precarious financial position.

It is no accident that Australia is now a world leader in the number of Covid19 infections and deaths in aged-care facilities. Almost 70% of Covid19 deaths have been in aged care. This catastrophic situation is the direct result of Federal Government policy over decades to divest itself of responsibility for the sector. That this divestment has been able to proceed over so many years without public outcry raises questions of how much Australia values its old people. And more specifically, whether it values ageing women, since the majority of older Australians are female.

Australian women are experiencing ageing quite differently to the majority of men. “Beyond life expectancy, on every other measure of economic and social wellbeing, older women experience significant disadvantage compared to men,” according to a Per Capita Report: ‘Measure for Measure’ in March 2020.

The pandemic did not create this difference. But it did highlight it and it did exacerbate a process that has been going on for a very long time.

Ageing as a process of devaluation

We need to look at ageing in Australia as a gender issue. For women, ageing is a process of devaluation.

Indeed, if you are a woman over 50 in Australia and have no financial security, your prospects are increasingly grim. You will most likely face long-term unemployment, impoverishment and even homelessness. When you become dependent on in-home care you will join the 100,000 waiting up to 3 years for aged care packages. Government figures released at the beginning of the year showed that around 30,000 people had died waiting in the last two years. If you are in private residential care you will likely have to deal with insufficient staff, lack of nurses and failure of government oversight. In these circumstances you are in danger of facing a preventable death due to unavailable or sub-standard care.

Economic impact – the workforce

The institutionalised inequality women suffer in the workforce throughout their working lives increases exponentially as they age. Pre-pandemic, women over 45 who were unemployed were finding themselves unable to find jobs and were effectively locked out of the workforce because of age discrimination.

And those who did have work were struck particularly hard with Covid job losses. Already in June, the Brotherhood of St. Laurence published a report  that up to 30 per cent of the newly unemployed or underemployed are aged 51 to 65.  That is nearly 400,000 Australians who have either lost work or had their hours cut as a result of the downturn. The majority are women and most are unlikely ever to work again. New research from the National Bureau of Economic Research in the U.S. found that age discrimination rises hand in hand with the unemployment rate. Older workers tend to be the last hired back and the first fired.

Which means that they will most likely be dependent on JobSeeker until they are eligible for the pension. Government plans to reduce the boosted JobSeeker payment will impoverish these women, just as it impoverished those on Newstart.

Economic impact on retirement

For those women who are already retired, the pandemic has increased the numbers who will age into poverty and homelessness.

Older women who are desperate enough to withdraw their super during Covid19 will be left totally vulnerable. Unlike young people, there is no chance of them ever replacing their super.

As it is, women retire with around 47% less super than men, if they have any super at all. The generation of Australian women presently over 55 have little or no super as it was introduced too late to provide them with substantial amounts.

Far more women than men rely on the age pension in Australia.

Sixty percent of single women (divorced, widowed or never married) in Australia rely on the full age pension and more than half of them live in permanent income poverty.

If the pension is their only source of income, then ageing women will remain in penury. There were already over a million female pensioners aged 65+ below the poverty line in 2016 according to ABS Census figures. These numbers have continued to swell. And even though it is $10 below the poverty line, the Commonwealth Government has already announced that it will not increase the pension this year.

It is no surprise that older women are now the face of poverty in Australia.

In August a report was published that there are now 405,000 older women at risk of homelessness.

Domestic violence

The pandemic escalated the rate of domestic violence. But what is particularly striking is the large number of older women who are killed each year as victims of domestic violence. Of 74 women killed in 2019, 23 were aged over 50, 43 were under 50, and 8 were of an unknown age, according to figures of The Red Heart Campaign and ImpactforWomen. And yet we rarely if ever see the stories of these women in the media. Is it perhaps because an older woman being violently killed has less media impact than if the victim is young?

Aged Care

The impact of the pandemic on ageing women reaches its apogee in aged care.

PM Morrison said he was sorry about what was happening in aged care and presented it as if he were having a bad day. This is disingenuous. The current catastrophe is the inevitable outcome of Commonwealth Government policies. Since John Howard, successive Federal Governments have seen ageing Australians as a thankless burden and not their social, moral and legal responsibility as prescribed by the Constitution. They have sought to abandon their responsibility by slashing funding and outsourcing care to private operators with little Government oversight.

Despite denials it has become obvious that the Federal Government saw no need to prepare a plan to protect the elderly from Covid19 in aged care facilities. And there is still no plan. Most deaths in aged care and most infections were in the privatised aged care system. This was preventable as is evident when you compare the numbers in Victoria where 1 in 23 residents in the private system caught Covid19 compared to 1 in 900 in the public system.

What is truly disturbing is that as early as June, the Commonwealth Government moved beyond neglect of those in aged care. 

As Rick Morton wrote in his landmark article, the Federal Government’s Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner and the New South Wales Health’s deputy secretary ordered that aged care homes not transfer residents who tested positive to hospitals for treatment. Transferring them would not only have provided them with possibly life-saving care, but also have prevented the spread of infection in the aged care residences. But the Government authorities preferred that hospital beds be saved for younger Australians. 

In these discussions of whether to move older people, Government officials talked about ‘decanting’ them as if they were a liquid and not human beings.

And that’s when Government officials ordered aged care workers not to waste PPE  treating aged care residents. These workers, mostly female casual employees, had to risk their lives after being instructed to use only one glove or not change PPE all day. 

In what can best be described as ‘damage control’, PM Morrison is now throwing more money at aged care. This will not change a broken system where the priority too often is profitability and not the welfare of the aged. 

The only way to bring about meaningful change is for the Commonwealth Government to stop shirking its responsibility for aged care as mandated by the Constitution. 

At the same time, we need to fundamentally change attitudes to ageing, particularly since one in three Australians will be over 55 by 2030. The majority will be women. How they are able to age will have a major impact on the type of society Australia will become. This fundamentally depends on how much we value older women.

Perhaps we can learn from Indigenous Australian communities and culture. Aboriginal women elders have a respected status. They are considered a valuable resource and esteemed for their experience and knowledge. It is incumbent on the community to protect them. That’s why during the pandemic, one of the priorities in Indigenous communities was to protect their elders. And it worked.



Published in Pro Bono Australia



Corona & the Common Good

In the autumn of 2020, for two months, Australia united around the common good – “pro bono publico”.

When the scale of the approaching threat of coronavirus became evident, two unprecedented things happened.

First, Australian governments, federal and state, chose to put aside politics and ideology and based their policy on the advice of health experts.

Secondly, the Australian people trusted that our governments were actually acting to avoid a national catastrophe. So remarkably, a public consensus formed around the need to uphold the common good as a priority. What kept the vast majority of people in their homes was not the possibility of fines, it was this shared belief that our individual welfare depended on the welfare of others. And what kept us resolute were the images of mass graves in countries where there was no leadership and no consensus regarding the common good.

That is why Australia was successful in containing the virus.

But after two months the consensus regarding the common good started to come apart for several reasons. The most obvious one was its very success. As soon as restarting the economy began to supersede control over the spread of COVID-19 which had largely been achieved, the politics of satisfying political and economic constituencies returned.

Another reason the period of cohesion around the common good broke down is because too many were left out. Whole sectors such as those employed in the arts, at universities and casual workers were not included in the safety net of JobKeeper.

Furthermore, the common good began to be re-defined with a gender bias. Women have been hardest hit by job losses and lost hours. But instead of policies to assist women to return to work, we are seeing the exact opposite. Ending free childcare, the opening salvo in the federal government’s austerity approach to economic recovery, effectively undercuts women’s participation in the workforce. According to the latest figures, a third of women who presently have children in daycare will not be able to afford childcare and will have to stay home and look after the children.

Women aged 50-plus were amongst the first to lose their jobs because of COVID-19, and are the least likely ever to find work again. They will join the tens of thousands of women aged 50-plus who were on Newstart unable to find work because of rampant age discrimination. The government, with the support of the opposition, will likely try to cut the JobSeeker payments back again as close to the $40 a day as they can.

The consequences of COVID-19 and federal government policies ensure that the economic recession that we experience will disproportionately be shouldered by women. But keeping women in the workforce and fostering their advancement has a significant positive effect on productivity. The latest WGEA Australian research has established direct proof for the first time that companies with more women in leadership positions tend to outperform while those with fewer women underperform.

Just as there can be no economic recovery without the full participation of women, so too there can be no common good that disadvantages women. Nor can we speak of an Australian common good that does not fully include First Nations people. This was made clear by the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations held despite the threat of COVID-19. Constitutional recognition is fundamental to the acknowledgement of First Nations people in the common good.

Climate change is the biggest common good issue facing the planet. Having set the precedent of a government-led health response policy based on scientific evidence and advice, the Australian government will have no credibility rejecting the science on climate change.

Businesses too will need to act more in line with the common good on a range of issues. More and more companies are committing themselves to social purpose as well as profit. It not only brings about a more positive social impact but also translates into many business advantages.

One of the positive and encouraging legacies of this COVID-19 period is the recognition of just how much can be achieved when we are united for the common good.



Published in Pro Bono Australia


Indigenous women elders imprisoned for homelessness & poverty


Janine (age 61) is one of a large and growing number of older women who are homeless.  Five years ago, she was made redundant from her position as an Office Manager in Perth.  Despite great effort she has been unable to find a job and ultimately couldn’t afford to continue paying rent.  Since beginning to live in her car 8 months ago, Janine has tried to find relatively safe places to park at night.  As a result, she has accumulated parking fines which she simply can’t afford to pay … particularly as these have compounded, had administrative fees added and now total over $3,000.  When Janine was pulled over by police for allegedly speeding, she was immediately arrested for these outstanding fines and sent to prison.  She doesn’t know what’s happened to her car, which contains all her worldly possessions.

Imprisonment rates amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are particularly alarming.  Nationally, First Nations women account for 2% of the Australian population, but represent 34% of women prisoners.  First Nations women are being disproportionately sentenced to prison compared with non-indigenous women for the same crimes.  In NSW, there has been a 49% increase in the number of First Nations women sentenced to prison since 2013 (compared with a 6% increase amongst other women).  A recent study found that 87% of First Nations women had been in prison before – with homelessness being the main cause of women returning to prison within 9 months of release.

Selina (age 62) is an Aboriginal woman who moved to Melbourne when she left a violent relationship 3 years ago.  Here, she quickly became homeless – mainly couch-surfing between family members.  Selina drinks (to mask the many traumas she has experienced) in a place she feels safe – a park frequented by First Nations people.  Every few days the police break up gatherings in the park, and Selina is invariably charged with offensive behaviour, swearing, public drunkenness and/or resisting arrest – her long criminal record is entirely made up of these and similar ‘offences’ committed over the past 3 years.  She is usually imprisoned on remand because she doesn’t have a home address.  Selina had never been to prison until moving to the city: she now regularly moves between homelessness and prison.  

Imagine being put in prison without warning – even for ‘only’ 2-3 weeks.  Imagine how this would affect every aspect of your life – your job, your rental property, custody of your children (or grandchildren), your friendships.  Imagine that your only alleged offence was stealing food for child in your care, or evading a fare you couldn’t afford to meet a Centrelink requirement.  Then, imagine that you hadn’t even been found guilty of this offence.

Across Australia, approximately 40% of women prisoners are on remand.  In Victoria, for example, the number of women entering prison more than doubled between 2012 and 2018, and 9/10 were on remand.  A further 20% are imprisoned for procedural offences, such as minor breaches of (often onerous) parole conditions or failure to appear in court – commonly due to poverty.  Most women are imprisoned for minor, non-violent offences.  These realities about the women’s prison population are reflected in the short time typically spent in prison – in Queensland, the median prison sentence across all prisoners is 3.9 months, and this is much shorter for women prisoners.  

Mary (age 52) is an Aboriginal woman who has moved between the streets and prison since childhood.  She was released on parole a couple of months ago, after serving a short term for street offences. Three weeks ago, she was cut off unemployment benefits for failing to meet job search requirements.  This left Mary with no money – and unable to pay for public transport to report weekly to Probation and Parole.  Whilst she usually walked the 5km, Mary was unwell on this particular day.  She rang to request an alternate arrangement but was refused, and when she failed to report a warrant was issued for her arrest.  Shortly after, she was picked up by the police and returned to prison for breach of parole.

The rise in the number of women prisoners not serving ‘substantive’ sentences is mainly due to failures of the state.  It has run parallel with cuts to housing, health and welfare services, and increased funding to police and prisons.  Most women are refused bail due to homelessness, or unmet mental health or substance abuse needs.  With the vast majority of women prisoners (90% of First Nations women) having experienced domestic violence, often these needs were driven by DV.  (Ironically, breach of a DV Order is now amongst the top 10 reasons for women’s imprisonment in Queensland – another example of law reform having unintended consequences.)  

After surviving many years of abuse, Cheryl (age 55) finally grabbed a saucepan and wacked her violent partner over the head.  When police arrived, they assumed she was the primary perpetrator and imposed a DVO on her.  The order required that she not enter the house.  As the primary carer of her 3 grandchildren, Cheryl felt she had little choice but to break the order to care for her family.  Her partner was happy with this arrangement … until another argument broke out and he called the police.  Cheryl was immediately arrested for breach of DVO and taken to prison.

More older women are going to prison

The number of older women prisoners in Australia has grown very significantly over the past 20 years.

There hasn’t been a detailed study of older Australian prisoners since 2011, and there has never been a study of older women prisoners.  But, in our experience at Sisters Inside, the trends identified in 2011 are continuing and worsening.  Our Health Support Program in Brisbane, for example, estimates that the number of women over 55 they are supporting has almost doubled over the past 3 years: 70% of the women they work with are now aged 55-64, and 80% are First Nations women.

Between 2000 and 2010, the number of 50+ women prisoners more than tripled – nearly twice the growth rate of male prisoners (and higher than the growth rate of younger women prisoners).  From 2010-2014, there was a 140% increase in 65+ prisoners in NSW which reflected the national trend.  By 2018 there were a total of 5,790 prisoners aged 50+ in Australia.  Of these, 334 were women (with 27 being 65+).   Whilst these numbers are relatively small, they represent a massive increase in the number of older women imprisoned over the past 20 years.

We don’t know how many of these women were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.  In 2010, the overall number of older First Nations prisoners was relatively lower due to their shorter life expectation.  Only 7% of women prisoners were 50+ in 2010.  However, it is reasonable to expect that First Nations women prisoners aged 40+ will face similar issues to non-First Nations prisoners aged 50+.  Between 2000 and 2010, the fastest growing age group amongst First Nations women prisoners was aged 45-49.

We don’t know much about older women prisoners.  It is unclear how many are serving short sentences, how many are first-time prisoners, and how many have aged inside prison whilst serving long sentences. We do know that their growth rate exceeds the growth in the number of older women in the general population.

It has been suggested that increases in the number of older prisoners in Australia is a result of a growing aged population, mandatory sentencing, tighter bail laws, improved forensic techniques, longer sentences for serious crimes and a reluctance to release some prisoners.  Given the small number of women serving very long sentences, it would seem that the increase amongst women would likely be explained by poverty – older women being imprisoned on remand due to homelessness.

Rising poverty amongst older women increases their risk of imprisonment.  As detailed in Augustine Zycher’s recent article Abandoning Old People on Ice Floes,  about 1/3 of single women 55+ and over a million women 65+ are living in poverty.  I am very concerned that the number of older women in prison will continue to increase exponentially.

Prison is a particularly terrible place for older women

Prison is no place for any woman, particularly older women.

The reality is that we, as a community, must stop criminalising and imprisoning women (and girls), particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

Sisters Inside is increasingly seeing women prisoners with serious health needs – problems like chronic cardiac and respiratory illnesses; severe depression; and degenerative conditions.   

Joan (age unknown) was observed wandering aimlessly around the prison by Sisters Inside workers.  She had kept getting on public transport without paying for a ticket, and was eventually charged with fare evasion. Joan was remanded in custody because she became angry when pressured to provide family contact details and refused to provide a home address.  Once in prison, Joan kept entering prohibited areas and was threatened with disciplinary charges by prison staff.  It quickly became evident to our staff that Joan had dementia, and didn’t even understand that she was in prison.  Once Sisters Inside found her family, we were able to ascertain that Joan had never previously been in trouble, and secure her release on bail to her family.  

Several studies have suggested that the health age of Australian prisoners may be 10 years older than their chronological age. Many of the women we work with already entered prison with poorer health than women in the general community (and male prisoners).  

Older women’s health deteriorates in prison.  The standard of both medical and mental health care in prison is significantly lower than in the general community.  Studies suggest that because older prisoners are typically more compliant than younger prisoners, their health can be completely overlooked in the prison system.

Maureen (age 63) had emphysema and other chronic health conditions.  She served a 6 month sentence.  When she finally got to see a doctor, he refused to prescribe the preventative inhaler she had been using prior to imprisonment, and her breathing became increasingly laboured.  By the time Maureen was released from prison, her health had deteriorated to the point that she now requires oxygen with her at all times.

Prisons are designed for young, able-bodied prisoners.  Prisons are ill-equipped to respond to common problems amongst older prisoners such as limited mobility, hearing or vision impairments, incontinence or frailty.  Too often, older women prisoners are ‘doubly punished’ in an environment which is harsher for them than other prisoners, and can be dangerous. 

And, being a minority within the prison population, older women (along with prisoners with disabilities) are vulnerable to violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation by both prison staff and other prisoners.  Prior to imprisonment, some older women prisoners were being helped with tasks of daily living through NDIS.  Professional personal carers are generally not available in prison, and older prisoners are forced to depend on others for assistance with showering, or getting into a bunk bed … or more vulnerable activities such as toileting.

Once released, older women’s difficulties can further escalate.  Too often this leaves them struggling to meet parole conditions and puts them at risk of returning to prison.  Most prisons offer limited pre-release planning, and post-release women can find themselves with inadequate health care, housing, possessions, transport assistance or disability support to survive on the outside.

That’s why Sisters Inside advocates for the individual and collective rights of older criminalised women.

Sisters Inside advocates for the human rights of criminalised women

Sisters Inside exists to undertake public advocacy and address the unmet human rights and needs of criminalised women and girls, and their children.  Our primary goal is to keep as many women and children out of prison as possible.

Sisters Inside has taken a public leadership role on the human rights of women prisoners and other criminalised women in Australia for over 20 years.  Over the past decade we have increasingly engaged in international campaigns to achieve justice for criminalised women and girls.  Sisters Inside has formal consultative status at the United Nations, and much of our time at a management level is now spent working alongside like-minded organisations across many countries.

Our services are available to all women in the criminal legal system in Queensland.  Sisters Inside workers are increasingly supporting older women, many of whom struggle to survive in the prison system.  We are particularly conscious of the needs of older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women prisoners, and employ First Nations Elders, managers and staff to ensure that we respond to women’s needs in a culturally appropriate way.  

Our first priority is to prevent women and girls from going to prison at all!  Our youth and women’s workers in the Brisbane police watch-house support women and girls to access lawyers and whatever they need to get bail: anything from housing, to a place in rehab, to a counsellor, to enrolment in school.  We support women and girls in South East Queensland when they first appear in court, then support those who are granted bail to meet their bail conditions.  In the future, we hope to be able to offer this service throughout Queensland.

Inside prisons, Sisters Inside offers violence-related counselling and support; help to maintain family relationships; and help accessing bail and parole in all women’s prisons in Queensland.  We also receive some limited funding to help women and girl prisoners to plan for release.

On the outside, Sisters Inside offers a wide range of services throughout Queensland – health support, housing support, family reunification, parenting support, practical/financial help … and whatever else women need to get their lives together after the trauma of prison.  We also support children and young people whose mums are in prison, or who are criminalised themselves, to access housing, education and employment, and address any issues that put them at risk of ending up in prison.

Imprisonment shouldn’t be a death sentence

A Queensland judge recently said “If an 85-year-old is given a five-year term, without being dramatic about it, it is likely to be a form of life sentence as opposed to the 20-year-old”.  

There is great fear of COVID-19 virus reaching our overcrowded prisons.  Here social distancing is impossible, soap is considered a luxury (which women must pay for themselves), many cells do not have running water and hand sanitiser is contraband (due to its alcohol content).  Our women prisoners are left defenceless against the onslaught of the virus.

Many women prisoners (both old and young) have chronic health conditions.  This places them at higher risk of a severe case of COVID-19.  It is critical that women prisoners are released and suitably housed, before a few days on remand for unpaid fines, stealing food or fare evasion turns into a death sentence for someone’s mother, or grandmother, or sister, or daughter.

As a nation, we are paying approximately $300 per night to keep each woman in prison – to punish them for poverty.   Imagine the inestimable harm that could be prevented to women (and their families) if we spent $2,100 per week on meeting each woman’s needs.


About the author

Debbie Kilroy has led Sisters Inside, an organisation which advocates for the human rights of criminalised women and their children, for almost 3 decades.  Having spent 20 years moving in and out of adult and children’s prisons in Queensland, Debbie began Sisters Inside when she was finally released in 1992. Debbie is a qualified lawyer, social worker, gestalt therapist and forensic mental health practitioner.





“Through no fault of their own”

“ Through no fault of their own”. This is the phrase that Prime Minister Morrison used when he announced the new Jobseeker payment that would replace Newstart for the coming 6 months. We were told that thousands of Australians would lose their jobs “ through no fault of their own”.  And since these people could not be expected to live on the Newstart payment of $40 a day, the Jobseeker payment would be doubled to $1,100 per fortnight.

Let’s just take a closer look at the broader social issues behind this government action.

Prior to Covid19, most people receiving the unemployment payment, Newstart, were actually women aged over 50. Many had been on Newstart for years, usually until they were old enough to qualify for the pension. It’s not because they did not want to work. In fact, they were desperate for work, as they were left with little or no super or savings. Most had spent decades in the workforce in a range of professions and are highly qualified. But these women over 50 were refused jobs and locked out of the workplace by widespread ageism on the part of employers, as documented by the Human Rights Commission Report 2019.

Not once in the past did anyone in Government announce that these women were unemployed “through no fault of their own”. Quite the opposite. 

For 25 years, both Liberal and Labour Governments refused to raise the rate of Newstart. Furthermore, this hard line didn’t stop with gross underpayment. There was a deliberate campaign to devalue and humiliate the people on Newstart as dole-bludgers who needed to be drug tested. 

Where were the older women?

Where were the older women in this characterisation? Nowhere. They were invisible. Just as they were meant to be. Because if it were widely known that most people on Newstart were not drug addicts but respectable older women, they would not fit into the stereotype of the undeserving poor. In this narrative, the undeserving poor are characterised as social parasites. So they cannot expect to lay claim to an increased share of the budget from Government.

Compare that to the immediate rejection of placing a similar label and worth on the new wave of Covid19 unemployed. Older women on Newstart had to manage on $40 a day even if it meant not being able to afford to eat every day and sleeping in their cars. Good enough for them, but clearly unacceptable for the newly unemployed. 

It’s no accident that the majority of people on Newstart are older women. It is part of a broader social problem which is based on a systemic failure to value the work of women. Through no fault of their own, hundreds of thousands of women over 50 are ageing into poverty and homelessness. They have become the fastest growing demographic becoming homeless. They are the collateral damage of our society’s institutionalised inequality, gender discrimination and ageism. They bear the consequences of a lifetime of unequal pay and disrupted advancement, unpaid and part-time work, and the devaluation of women as they age. The scale of this phenomenon is of unprecedented magnitude and severity.

Calculating the value of women’s work

It took Covid19 for people to recognise that without the unpaid, low paid or the lowly paid work of women, society could not function. Globally, 70% of health and social care workers are women. But unless clapping in the streets translates into actual monetary compensation and equal pay, it is merely a transient and insubstantial gesture.

Nothing is more telling than the fact that the unpaid labour of women is excluded from the calculation of the GDP. This strips it of recognition as having economic value and makes it invisible. This must change.

On International Women’s Day in March this year, the New York Times published an analysis estimating that if American women earned the minimum wage for the unpaid work they do around the house and caring for relatives, “they would have made $1.5 trillion last year. Globally, women would have earned $10.9 trillion.” The value of this shadow labour exceeds the combined revenue of the 50 largest companies on last year’s Fortune Global 500 list, including Walmart, Apple and Amazon.

The enduring pay gap between men and women in Australia is nothing other than the enduring perception of women as having lower value in contributing to our nation’s economic productivity. Governments spruik GDP as the best gauge of the national economic and therefore societal health. By paying women less than men for the same work and without taking into account the value of women’s unpaid work these figures are systemically distorted. And the contribution of women to the nation’s economic health is grossly undervalued.

Three essentials in post-Covid Australia

Three things need to happen in post-Covid Australia to create a fairer and more equal society.

First: Jobseeker must remain at its present level, even though the Government has announced it will revert to the pre-Covid level.  It is not only inhumane to ‘snap back’, it is also probably impossible with 10% of the population expected to be unemployed. There are now too many ‘deserving poor’ to re-classify them as ‘undeserving poor’. Furthermore, ACTU figures show that 42% of those stood down without pay due to the impact of Covid19 are people over 65. Amongst them, thousands more older women will join the ranks of those already unemployed. The GFC showed us that when older people lose their jobs, they are unlikely ever to find re-employment. 

Second: Australia needs to immediately legislate for equal pay. 

Women can no longer accept unequal pay because this unequal monetary value inevitably handicaps women throughout their working lives and condemns them to economic insecurity as they age. Men aged between 30 and 60 have retirement savings worth 42 per cent more than women of the same age, according to research carried out last year by Women in Super.

If we continue like this, we are perpetuating new generations of women ageing into poverty.

Third: Jobseeker is not meant to be a long-term safety net. It must be transformed into a Universal Basic Income. Spain recently announced that it was introducing the UBI. Covid19 has exposed our society’s desperate need for a better social contract – one that holds the welfare of its citizens as a primary purpose and value. We cannot snap back to a broken welfare system that leaves millions below the poverty line, experiencing hunger, disadvantage and homelessness. To continue to do so will present a greater threat to our national survival than Covid19.


Published in Pro Bono Australia





Abandoning Old People on Ice Floes

It’s called Senicide – the custom of abandoning or killing the elderly once they reached the age of 60 or 70. Different cultures practiced it in different ways over time. In Japan, it is known as obasute and literally translates to mean ‘abandoning an old woman’, usually by carrying her up a desolate mountain and leaving her there. The Inuit abandoned elders on ice floes. If you are ageing in Australia and are financially vulnerable, while you may not be dumped on an ice floe, you are at risk of being abandoned.

Every week, more than 230 older Australians die while waiting for government-funded help to stay in their homes, according to new Government figures secretly release in January this year and disclosed by Annika Smethurst in the Daily Telegraph. Around 30,000 have died over the last two years.

This is just one element of the social dislocation that we are witnessing with our ageing population and particularly with women ageing in Australia. Never before have we had a growing underclass of women aged over 50 becoming impoverished and homeless. The 2016 Census showed that there were 1,060,515 women aged 65+ below the poverty line. Exponentially the numbers are much higher now. One in 3 single women aged 55+ live in poverty according to an Australian Human Rights Commission report in April 2019.

The Face of Poverty in Australia is the Face of an Older Woman

The face of poverty in Australia is now typically the face of an older woman. The World Economic Forum has declared that Australian women will outlive their savings by an estimated 12.6 years. This is the generation with little or no super, and with fewer assets and savings than men. These are the women who cannot afford to buy enough basic food, who crowd the emergency rooms suffering from hypothermia because they cannot afford heating, who sleep on couches, in cars and even cemeteries because they cannot afford rent or a mortgage, and who, in despair and in increasing numbers, are committing suicide.

The Australian Government fails to acknowledge the scale and severity of this unprecedented social, economic and health crisis. But confront it we must, because it has become an existential issue for Australia. 

For the first time in our history, Australia has a significant proportion of its population aged over 50. One in four Australians will be over the age of 60 by the year 2030 and people are living into their 90s.

Australian governments are not coping.

The OECD scored Australia as having one of the worst levels of pensioner poverty in the world. Thirty-five percent of our pensioners live in a state of income poverty compared with only 18% in Turkey! And the OECD recently recorded that Australians over 65 have the highest rate of rental poverty in the OECD.

No Strategy for Demographic Change

In the same way that we need a comprehensive climate policy to deal with climate change, so too do we need a comprehensive strategy to deal with demographic change. 

The introduction of superannuation by Paul Keating was the most significant policy targeted at an ageing Australia. But since then, no successive government has sought to develop a strategic plan and allocate resources to deal with this new reality.

Such a national plan would need to address two key questions:

  1. How do we prevent the penury, homelessness and preventable deaths of literally millions of older Australians?
  1. How do we address the economic insecurity of women elders in particular, since they constitute the majority of older Australians?Apart from the human cost in this crisis, consider what else is lost. This is the first generation in history of older women with a collective wealth of professional knowledge, with workplace experience and skills. How do we harness this extraordinary human resource?

But the Australian government is not engaged in strategic national planning on this issue. Instead its policy towards financially vulnerable older Australians can best be described as a policy of attrition. It withholds their means to live in security and erodes their spirits to age with dignity.

Policy of Attrition

It  is a policy of attrition that keeps older women, who constitute the majority of people on Newstart, on $40 a day – a rate not raised by Liberals or Labour for 25 years and impossible to live on. Up to 60% of people who receive Newstart experience rental stress, pay more than 30 per cent of their income in rent according to figures provided to Senate estimates by the Department of Social Services last year.

The odds of older Newstart recipients finding work are negligible given both the ageism in the workplace and the fact that the latest job vacancies show that there are only 243,400 jobs for 686,785 Newstart recipients. The statistics confirm that older women are condemned to spend up to 4 years trying to survive on Newstart.

The Government’s plan to drug-test Newstart recipients adds further humiliation for these women.

A  25% increase in older Australians needing unemployment income support has turned those aged 55 to 64 into the largest cohort of people dependent on Newstart. But the Government is so determined to delay spending on older unemployed Australians that it is now increasing the wait time for Newstart. This legislation passed the lower house last year and will now be presented in the Senate.

Pensions & Aged Care

The policy of attrition applies also to pensions. Government spending on the age pension has actually fallen compared to twenty years ago, from 2.9 per cent of GDP to 2.7 per cent of GDP.

Nevertheless, reducing spending on vulnerable older Australians continues. Shortly after the Government announced $2 billion for bushfire recovery, the Government announced it would tighten up the costs of welfare and pensions to deliver a $2 billion savings to the budget. 

This follows on from the pressures exerted on welfare recipients by the illegal use of robodebt. Pensioners were amongst those subjected to immeasurable stress and driven to suicide.

It is a policy of attrition and gross neglect that is responsible for the state of the age care system in Australia, both in residential facilities and in home care. 

A scathing interim report from the Royal Commission in Aged Care Quality and Safety slammed the age care system as “ diminishing Australia as a nation”. It described it as a “sad and shocking” system which was “inhumane, abusive and unjustified”.

As a study of 800 nursing homes showed the average spend on food is $6 a day. But both the Coalition and Labour last December voted down crucial amendments for transparency, accountability and staffing ratios that would have forced nursing homes to reveal how they spent their $20 billion of taxpayer funds each year. 

Australia’s elderly are being abandoned to die not only in residential facilities but also in their own homes. The Productivity Commission recently revealed that 112,000 people have been approved to receive packages, but waiting times to actually receive them have now ballooned out to 3 years. Over 11,000 people will continue to die each year while waiting.

Age-based Prejudice & Ice Floes

The Government is not feeling much public pressure to change its policy. This is due in part because as women age they become invisible, so they and the issues that affect them are not on the public agenda. In addition, the prevalence of elder poverty is being obscured by a grotesque generational conflict.

OK Boomer and rich-retiree/franking-credit stereotypes of greedy, home-owning older people are pilloried almost daily on social media. In fact, home ownership rates for retirees have fallen. And the reality is that even women who own their own homes are in increasingly precarious positions as they still struggle to pay off their mortgages. Mortgage debt for people aged 55-64 was 13% in 1995-96.  By 2018 it was up to 40%.

“Age-based prejudice is the last acceptable form prejudice,”  says New York University’s Michael North, who studies ageism in the workplace. “ People are making age-based generalisations and stereotypes that you wouldn’t be able to get away with about race or background.”

Biding time as more older people ‘fall off the perch’  is a convenient strategy for governments that regard older, vulnerable Australians as a burden. It’s a workable alternative when you don’t have any ice floes off your coast.







Now We Know Who To Blame


Australia is in the midst a housing affordability crisis. And now we know who to blame for it.  


In the recent ABC 7.30 Report series, interviewees including economists from Deloitte, did not blame Government policies for the housing affordability crisis. They did not blame a financial and tax system that fuels skyrocketing house prices by favouring local and foreign investors, developers and speculators. Nor did they blame the failure of Government policy to address scarcity of housing including social housing. No. The real culprits it appears are older Australians still living in their homes. Their generational greed is to blame. 

We were told that Australia is divided into two classes – those who own homes and those who don’t. Housing affordability was framed as an issue of “fairness” – a zero-sum game in which the advantaged, older Australians, simply by virtue of owning their homes were disadvantaging younger generations who don’t own homes. These older homeowners are generally pictured as a cohort of greedy ‘Boomers’ who have reaped the advantages of Australia’s development and are selfishly sitting on that wealth.

The Grattan Institute’s economist Brendan Coates went even further by pointing to pensions as the cause of additional inequity and as a factor contributing to the housing crisis. “The fact that you can own a $2 million house and still get the pension is probably unfair in a world when there are so many Australians who don’t own their own homes and an increasing number who won’t own their own homes in retirement,” Coates said.

Implicit in this statement is the idea that the pensioner owes it to society to either sell the house or not get the pension. Either one of these would somehow help other, younger Australians as yet unable to own their own homes acquire the means to do so. Without supplying any evidence, it also implies that all pensioners or at least a majority, live in $2 million houses.

The best first step to redress this unfairness, according to the Grattan Institute, is to no longer exclude the home in the pension assets test. They spelled this out in their submission to the Government’s Retirement Incomes Review . Coates and his co-author Jonathan Nolan recommended that the family home of pensioners be included in the pension assets test above a suggested $500,000 threshold. They proposed this measure as one of the ways the government could avoid increasing super contributions and save the government money. 

However, framing the housing affordability crisis as a generational conflict distorts the reality of the housing crisis. And the proposal to include the home in the pension asset test will actually impoverish a greater number of older Australians, particularly older women, at a much faster rate. It will only accelerate homelessness. Furthermore, it would most likely force a dramatic increase in Government spending rather than reduce it.  


What is clear is that if the family home were to be included in the pensions asset test, it would have the most drastic consequences for older Australians.

Median house prices in Melbourne and Sydney at the end of December 2019 were $778,649 and $973,664 respectively. In the other capital cities the medians were around $500,000 or more. This would mean that most home-owning pensioners would become disqualified for the pension as their homes most probably would be valued above the suggested threshold. Pensioners receive the pension either in full or part, because they have no or little income. So this measure would mean pensioners would be forced to sell their homes in order to survive. 

The reality is that Australian pensioners already live in one of the worst states of pensioner poverty in the developed world. OECD figures show that 35.5% of Australian pensioners live below the poverty line.


The reality is that the home ownership rates amongst older people are already plummeting. Growing numbers are being forced into homelessness. Around half a million Australians aged 50 years and over lost their homes during the first decade of this 21st Century according to the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute Report 2012.  And the numbers continue to rise.

In the past, Australians usually had paid off their mortgages by the time they retired. Now, the number of mature-age Australians taking on mortgage debt to survive and carrying mortgage debt into retirement is soaring. Average mortgage debt among older Australians has blown out by 600 per cent since the late 1980s after accounting for inflation. Nearly half of all homeowners aged 55 to 64 are still paying off a mortgage, up from just 14 per cent 30 years ago. “ These statistics are quite shocking,” said Rachel Ong ViforJ, Professor of Economics at Curtin University and lead author of the study for the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI).

The most vulnerable and the hardest hit are older women who have worked all their lives whether inside or outside the home. They have paid taxes but crucially, have no or little savings or superannuation, otherwise they would not be eligible for the full pension. These women also constitute the majority of people on Newstart and they are fastest growing cohort of those becoming homeless.

The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) in 2012 had already raised concerns that rising mortgage debt and falling home ownership rates in later life were undermining the role of home ownership in supporting retirees’ financial wellbeing. They alerted us to a trend that is pushing more low-income older Australians into poverty.

The Grattan Institute’s submission insists “No pensioner would be forced to leave their home” if these homes were included in the assets test because in an acknowledgement that most pensioners are cash poor, they could “continue to stay at home and receive the pension under the Government’s pension loans scheme, which recovers debts only when homes are eventually sold.”

But in order to access the Pension Loans Scheme applicants must be eligible for a qualifying pension – such as the age pension – which the proposed inclusion of their homes in the asset test would most likely disqualify them from receiving. 

The most likely outcome of such a move would be forcing pensioners to sell their homes.


What happens if our pensioner sells?

Likely she would lose the pension because the sale of her home would send her over the asset limit of $263,250 for a single homeowner on the full pension. She would have to find a new home and pay for it in full because banks will not give mortgages to the elderly unemployed. And she would also need sufficient funds left over from the sale to support herself for the rest of her life because rampant ageism in recruitment means she is unlikely to ever again find work. She would not be eligible for a pension again until most of the money realised from the sale is gone. To buy a home she could afford in these circumstances, she would probably have to seek much farther afield, a move that would entail dislocation and isolation from the social connections she has made and the services which have supported her over many years.

By seeking affordable housing in moderately priced areas, she would also be competing with all the other generations seeking affordable housing – you know, the ones who are supposed to benefit from the pensioners selling their $2 million homes.

Many would likely have to find rental housing. New research by the OECD recently found that Australians over the age of 65 have the highest rate of rental poverty in the OECD as a result of the housing boom and an inequitable retirement system. Furthermore the situation for over 65s in the rental market is getting worse, as recorded by the ARC Centre of Excellence in Population Research (CEPAR) at UNSW.

Those losing home ownership are often forced to rely on rental housing assistance. Moreover, as older tenants, they are unlikely to ever leave housing assistance.  As noted in the AHURI Report, this will put pressure on the government to boost spending on housing assistance, which is likely to further boost demand for housing assistance.


The combined impact of these changes is expected to increase Commonwealth Rent Assistance (CRA) eligibility among seniors.

The real cost to the federal budget of rent assistance payments to older Australians is forecast to blow out from $972 million to $1.55 billion a year according to the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.

So removing the pension will probably increase the need for government spending on older Australians instead of reducing it as forecast by the Grattan Institute.


Will house prices drop to prices younger people can afford and the scarcity of affordable housing be eliminated? Not likely.

Developers and investors are the ones most likely to benefit. Older homes on bigger blocks are opportunities for developers to put up town houses or apartments they can sell for great profit, especially if the homes are located in central, established suburbs. These apartments and townhouses tend to be aimed at the higher end market with price tags to match, not at young couples with kids.

 Who else benefits? The Government. Removing people from pensions is always a welcome outcome for governments, especially those committed to cutting welfare costs.  Furthermore, the politics of division – pitting society against vulnerable sectors or groups, in this case targeting pensioner homeowners, serves a very useful purpose. It distracts from the lack of Government interest in or policies for providing affordable housing. 

It avoids any public pressure to change policies that benefit foreign and local investors.    Significantly, there are no calls for them to give up their houses so that younger people can afford to buy homes. Only older people are singled out.

To blame older Australians for buying houses earlier than other generations is to blame them for being old, for buying their homes when housing was not seen as an investment or a market opportunity. It is to blame them for buying homes when houses were generally affordable for working class Australians and immigrants. They bought their homes when Australia was a society of greater equity of income and full-time employment. 


But the policy of divide and distract works because there has been very little discussion about  the question lying at the heart of the issue – what do we want our communities to be like? This question places the home in the context of community and how we value older people in our society.

This question is rarely asked by the media and therefore most public discussion around the topic of affordable housing has unquestioningly accepted the assumption of the home as a financial product, a valuable asset without any meaningful context other than what may be realised financially. Part of the commodification of everything. But this ignores the context of community. Community is essential to our well-being as individuals and as a society, especially if we’re going to survive the challenges of rapid change. This was most recently and powerfully illustrated during the bushfires when only the resilience of communities sustained individuals in the face of catastrophic loss.

What do older people value when they speak of a home?  Research by The Australian Centre for Social Innovation found that  the value older people place on a home is not financial but “its greatest value is as a safe and private space from which to connect with the outside world, express identity and build social relationships” (Quoted in Emma Dawson & Myfan Jordan “Older and poorer: Retirement Income Review can’t ignore the changing role of home.” The Conversation, Feb 26, 2020)

This is a view that people of all generations would find compelling.

What we should be talking about is not how we drive old people out of their homes but how we plan for and build communities that connect people of different generations in housing where the value of their homes is seen primarily in terms of social cohesion and well-being rather than financial investment.  Who would benefit? Everyone.