If a study tour of Martians were to visit Australia (and with Earthlings zooming a mini-helicopter over their territory, don't rule it out) they would surely return to their rocky planet and say, "We have seen Australian government policies on their senior citizens, they're not working well and they're riven with inequities and iniquities."
Most, although not all, are on the debit side of the seniors' ledger. On the credit side, many of those over the age of 60 pay no or little tax on income from their superannuation accounts from which they can also make tax-free withdrawals.
That is to say, they contribute little or nothing to government services from which they benefit while their juniors, many burdened by heavy housing debt and the costs of bringing up children, are coughing up at full marginal tax rates.
On top of this, state and territory governments enthusiastically provide "seniors' cards" giving all sorts of concessions solely on the basis of age and regardless of wealth and income. If Kerry Packer were alive and living in Canberra, he'd pay nothing for public transport.
Of course, getting older has its disadvantages, especially for those reliant on institutionalised aged care. That recently has been distressingly brought to greater public notice by the Royal Commission on Aged Care, a field in which the less well-off fare less well.
The Prime Minister released the Royal Commission report at a clumsy press conference in early May. This was augmented by a detailed press release from the Minister for Health. These announcements contained a few hopeful signs.
Morrison talked about the need for "generational change" and put an extra $452 million dollars on the table while the Health Minister said he intended to seek the replacement of the Aged Care Act. A comprehensive response was promised by May 31.
However, it would be prudent not to expect that response to rise fully to the gauntlets thrown down by the Royal Commission, a cause not helped by the inability of the Commissioners to agree on key recommendations.
It's been reported that the government intends to increase aged care funding by $2.5 billion a year. The Royal Commission assessed the current funding shortfall at $9.8 billion.
If the government limits additional funding to $2.5 billion a year, aged care will remain roughly in the circumstances lamented by the Royal Commission.
It said that too often funding decisions were aimed at restraining growth in expenditure and that it needed "a clear and transparent source of public funding" that avoided as much as possible "trade-offs and compromises between aged care and other fiscal priorities." Thus, while the Commissioners didn't agree on its form, their way out of these binds was to have "a levy on taxable income to finance aged care", that is, something along the lines of the Medicare levy. That would provide a more assured funding base and one less vulnerable to political horse trading.
It is a critical part of the Royal Commission's plan, without which much will likely to fall to the ground. That is to say, if the government is not prepared to introduce a Medicare-style levy in some form, there will be good reason to think, all other things being equal, that it has failed the expectations of the Royal Commission and the legitimate hopes of those reliant on aged care services.
Although by the standards of comparable countries Australia is lightly taxed, raising the general level of taxation is politically difficult. And it is more difficult for the current government which seems to think the only thing it should do is reduce taxes.
This mindset was aptly expressed by the former prime minister Tony Abbott, who was proud often to say that no country has ever taxed itself to prosperity. That, of course, is historical hogwash, because it's exactly what all prosperous countries have done.
And the opposite applies - that is, it's hard to think of an unprosperous country that is not imperiled by low taxation combined with corrupt tax administration. Put it yet another way, a healthy level of taxation based on fair and proper administrative systems and prosperous economies generally go together.
There are now good grounds for the Morrison government to rethink its approach to tax, particularly in view of the substantial debts it has properly incurred to avoid the worst consequences of COVID-19. As it has buried its fiscal apprehensions on the expenditure side of the ledger, it should make a matching shift on the revenue side.
Certainly it should abandon the tax cuts it has scheduled whose benefits are skewed overwhelmingly towards higher income earners. If it doesn't, the burdens of debt will linger longer and there will be a need to restrict or reduce other services - health, welfare and education - on which the less well-off are more dependent.
In these circumstances, a levy to finance aged care properly makes eminent sense. The Royal Commission assessed that a majority of tax payers would be prepared to wear a tax levy in such a worthy cause. Thus, the usual political difficulty of raising general levels of tax would be largely avoided.
And removing aged care as a budgetary pressure would provide more scope for debt repayments, maintaining or improving other services and perhaps even further and more lavish rounds of "community development grants" to which the government has a limpet-like attachment.
A second critical test of the government's aged care bona fides is whether it eliminates the current age discrimination in the provision of support under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). In brief, those with disabilities who were over 65 when the NDIS was introduced, including those with life-long disabilities, or who acquire a disability after the age of 65, are ineligible for NDIS services. This discrimination is entirely arbitrary.
Why should people aged 64 with disabilities, including those acquired close to that age, be able to continue to access the full NDIS support while those a year older but with the same disability, which they may have had for decades, be reliant on drastically lower support under aged care services?
The reasons for this discrimination - that those who acquire disabilities after 65 have had chances to build up wealth, that they should contribute to their care, that NDIS for those under 65 is based in part of assisting with employment, and so on - are riddled with holes and they fail adequately to take into account the vastly different circumstances of those with disabilities. At base, the real reason for this arbitrary discrimination is cost. Thus, a significant group of older people, some with severe disabilities, little wealth behind them and most of whom are likely to be women, have had their relative disadvantages expanded.
While the Aged Care Royal Commission did not cover the NDIS it was alert to this inequity. In a section of its report titled "Righting a wrong: services for older people with a disability," it bemoaned the age discrimination in the NDIS and recommended that "every person receiving aged care who is living with a disability, regardless of when it was acquired, should receive ... living supports and outcomes (including assistive technologies, aids and equipment) equivalent to those available under the NDIS."
The introduction of a levy to fund aged care and removing the NDIS age discrimination, whose additional costs reinforce the need for the levy, are critical tests for the government. If they are not parts of its response to the Aged Care Royal Commission later this month, it's odds on that another such inquiry in five to 10 years' time will unearth exactly the same problems the recent one has.
Then it will be clear who is primarily responsible for the mess. Unfortunately by then it will likely be too late for that responsibility to be properly sheeted home, although the grip the Coalition parties apparently have on aged voters may well, and justifiably, be eroded over the longer haul. Still, it's said that revenge is a dish that's best served cold.
- Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant. firstname.lastname@example.org.