Finally, an election promise with bite

Labor's pensioner dental plan a senior sweetener in lead-up to May 18 election

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Labor leader Bill Shorten (photo by Alex Ellinghausen) and Prime Minister Scott Morrison (photo by Dominic Lorrimer) ignore the grey vote.

Labor leader Bill Shorten (photo by Alex Ellinghausen) and Prime Minister Scott Morrison (photo by Dominic Lorrimer) ignore the grey vote.

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Shorten's announcement "puts oral health firmly into national health policy".

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AFTER two weeks of solid campaigning, seniors finally have something to smile about - literally.

Seniors' groups have listed oral health, or the lack of it, as top of the list for life essentials; and it seems their message has been heard.

On Sunday, Labor leader Bill Shorten announced a pensioner dental plan that would provide $1000 every two years per pensioner and per holder of the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card to pay for oral and dental care.

Mr Shorten said the $2.4 billion program would benefit up to three million people and was "the next step towards Labor's vision for universal access to dental care".

Within the $1000 cap, he said Medicare would cover a range of dental services such as examinations, x-rays, cleaning, fluoride treatment, fissure sealants, fillings, root canals, extractions, periodontal treatment and dentures.

While welcoming the announcement, Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association policy manager Paul Versteege said there was no guarantee the commitment would increase the capacity of the "significantly underfunded" existing public oral and dental health programs.

"A more obvious use of the $2.4 billion pledged would be to better resource these programs in their entirety," he said.

Mr Versteege also hoped the plan would benefit the long-term unemployed, particularly the 185,000 over-55s in receipt of the Newstart allowance. "They need oral and dental care just as badly as those over the age of 65."

Meanwhile, the Australian Healthcare and Hospital Association said Labor's announcement, teamed with the Greens' earlier commitment to a universal dental health scheme, had put oral health firmly into national health policy.

"Waiting lists are huge, and too many people avoid urgently needed care, resulting in pain, health and nutrition issues, disfigurement and related social problems," said association chief executive Alison Verhoeven.

The Benevolent Society has called for Scott Morrison to back the scheme.

"We've learn that major reforms like this don't stick without cross-party support," said society's Kirsty Nowlan, adding that this was a chance for the Coalition to show its credentials in caring for older Australians.

Mr Nowlan also acknowledged the work of Member for Mayo Rebekha Sharkie who has campaigned for affordable dental care. "Her advocacy really shifted the dial on this," she said.

Grey vote

Despite more than one third of voters being aged over 65, few of the issues seniors have expressed as being important to them have featured in the political rhetoric of the major parties, or even minors and independents.

It's a major slap in the face for the grey vote with confused older Australians still waiting expectantly for any tidbits to fall from the politicians' platters of plenty.

Seniors lobby groups say pension poverty, retirement income, health, housing and aged care are foremost in the minds of older Australians.

With the exception of health, where both major parties have promised a major increase in funding, there has been nothing to address many of these concerns.

National Seniors chief advocate Ian Henschke has described the election as "a watershed opportunity to rectify years of policy neglect and stagnation on seniors' health, wellbeing, finances and security".

We are calling on all political parties to adopt our policies to lift age pensioners out of poverty, cut health costs, ensure older Australians receive the aged care they deserve and end the erosion of retirement income. - Ian Henschke, National Seniors

"We are calling on all political parties to adopt our policies to lift age pensioners out of poverty, cut health costs, ensure older Australians receive the aged care they deserve and end the erosion of retirement income," he said.

"Politicians and candidates who ignore 30 per cent of Australian voters would seem to have a death wish. However, it is not too late and we expect seniors issues will emerge as the campaign continues."

Both the Coalition and Labor have targeted tax. We've heard how income tax breaks will put money in our pockets, which is nice if you pay tax, but no help to those struggling to survive on an age pension or Newstart.

Poverty

As far as older Australians are concerned neither major party has addressed the elephant in the room - the poverty experienced by a large proportion of retirees.

It's estimated one in three over-65s live below the poverty line yet there's been no mention of a review of the age pension, help on skyrocketing power costs - except for a one-off $75 promised by the Coalition - or a review of commonwealth rental assistance, despite housing rental costs being one of the major indicators of poverty among older people, particularly women.

Newstart

The situation is even more dire for older people surviving on Newstart.

Described by the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association as the "Clayton's pension", Newstart, which pays around $300 a week, is the only income support for 185,000 unemployed over 55-year-olds.

While government ministers quote "the best form of welfare is a job", few of these older job-seekers will ever again receive a pay cheque.

Ageism, incapacity, lack of skills and too few jobs will see them subsisting on Newstart until the age pension, for which the eligibility age will rise in July to 66 (67 in 2023).

The government has made no mention of Newstart, while the opposition has merely flagged that the payment could rise, but not until Labor had held a review of welfare payments.

This prompted National Seniors, Council on the Ageing Australia and the Benevolent Society to join forces to lobby against the inadequacy of the Newstart payment.

In a joint statement the groups said an immediate increase would be a commitment to the wellbeing of older Australians.

No relief in sight for older Australians on Newstart.

No relief in sight for older Australians on Newstart.

"This election is the time to make this happen."

The Australian Council of Social Services is scathing of proposed government tax cuts saying they don't benefit people on the lowest incomes.

"One third of households, including low-paid workers, pensioners and people looking for paid work, do not have enough income to pay tax," it said.

It wants to see an end to tax loopholes for the wealthy in order to fund investment in essential services and the the income support system.

Plenty of health spending but politicians ignore the dental needs of older Australians.

Plenty of health spending but politicians ignore the dental needs of older Australians.

So what's next? Perhaps our politicians are leaving senior sweeteners as last-minute election pointscorers. Stay tuned as we hurtle toward the final countdown to May 18.

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