Court case: If Indigenous peoples die younger, they should get age pension earlier
The Federal Court in Victoria held an interim hearing today for a case that asks whether Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have equal access to the age pension, given their shorter life expectancy than non-Indigenous people.
The case argues that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be able to access the age pension earlier to account for the gap in life expectancy, until that gap is closed. Wakka Wakka man Uncle Dennis (who prefers his surname not to be used by media) is bringing the case against the federal government, with Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and the Human Rights Law Centre, and the support from DLA Piper (a global law firm).
The standard pension age will increase to 67 by 2023. But at present, it does not account for the stark differences in life expectancy and health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. As a consequence of the ongoing impacts of colonisation and racial discrimination, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men have an average life expectancy of 8.6 years lower than non-Indigenous men, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s lives are on average 7.8 years shorter than non-Indigenous women.
The case is the first time the Australian Government will face court in connection with its failure to close the gap in life expectancy…
“As an Aboriginal man, I’ve seen too many of my people dying at a very early age. We are lucky to get to 50 years old,” Uncle Dennis said in a statement today.
“White people are living longer because they haven’t lost what we have lost. So many things that Aboriginal people are suffering from today, are because of how we have been treated since colonisation. It’s only fair for the pension age to be lowered. The pension is an important part of caring for and looking after our people when they can’t work anymore.”
The case is the first time the Australian Government will face court in connection with its failure to close the gap in life expectancy between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous people in Australia.
Last year Australia’s Productivity Commission confirmed that the target of equal life expectancy is not on track to be met by 2031.
As well as rectifying the existing inequality of access to the pension, lowering the pension age would support a number of Closing the Gap targets by helping to improve the economic participation, financial security and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who can no longer work.
“This case is about telling the truth … to give our people the same chance in life” – Uncle Dennis
But Uncle Dennis says the case “isn’t just about money.”
“Things will never get better unless we acknowledge something is wrong. Truth and accountability are important. This case is about telling the truth, and asking the government to work together with us, to give our people the same chance in life as everyone else.”
Nerita Waight, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service CEO, explained: “Our people have shorter lives because the government has failed to provide the support services needed to close the gap.
“This means our people are much more likely to not reach the pension age and if they do reach it, enjoy it for less years than the rest of the population. Bringing fairness to the age pension would have a big impact for our people and would have just a small impact on the government – we hope they do the right thing.”
Waight said the case had garnered a huge amount of public support already.
“We are excited about the case progressing through the Federal Court,” she said. “We hope that the community will continue to follow Uncle Dennis’ journey to bring fairness to the age pension.”
Nick Espie, Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, said that all Australians should be able to look forward to a future in which we can age and retire with dignity. But because of the gap in life expectancy, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are being denied equal access to this opportunity.
“It is a national shame that our people are still dying too young. I’ve been to far too many funerals for family that we have lost far too soon,” Espie said.
“While the Closing the Gap agreement provides hope, change takes time and it is clear that equality in life expectancy is still a way off. People who are at the end of their working lives don’t have time to wait another decade – they need proper support now. There is now an opportunity for the Albanese government to fix this inequity as a matter of priority.”
He noted that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women of Dennis’s age have lived in the shadow of the Stolen Generations, experienced stolen wages and have been excluded from full participation in society in their own country. He described the case as “a chance to address the long-term hardship and disadvantage that comes from years of policies and laws” that have worked against Australia’s First Nations peoples.
“Until we have equality in life expectancy, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be able to access the pension earlier. This is just one way the Australian government can recognise the health impacts of generations of systemic discrimination and be accountable for the lack of progress towards closing the gap,” said Espie.
Today’s interim hearing aimed to determine whether the case will be heard by the full bench of the Federal Court. Justice Mortimer said she would hand down her decision soon.