Tuesday, 20 February 2018

5th Elder Abuse Conference – Together Making Change



Thank you Jane for that introduction.

May I begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we are meeting and pay my respects to their Elders.

I would also like to acknowledge the many distinguished speakers who have spoken at the conference. It is, I think, very significant that so many prominent people from across society have come together for such a worthwhile event and I will make a short observation about the significance of this event shortly.   

I would first though like to make special mention of the Seniors Rights Service for their advocacy, legal advice and educational services provided by the Service to protect the rights of older people in our community are of critical importance.

I would also like to compliment the work of the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Rosalind CROUCHER. In her previous role at the Australian Law Reform Commission, Professor CROUCHER and her team did work of lasting national significance by preparing the 2017 ALRC Report: Elder Abuse – A National Legal Response.

I would also like to acknowledge the efforts of the former Commonwealth Attorney-General, Senator the Honourable George BRANDIS QC who showed great leadership in raising the profile of elder abuse to a national priority. 

I would also like to mention the current Age Discrimination Commissioner, the Honourable Kay Patterson AO. I've already met with Kay, and I can assure you she left me with no misconception of the vital importance of our work to end elder abuse and the need to stamp out ageism and age discrimination in the workforce.

Most importantly, all the people here today who have courageously shared their stories about how they have been affected by elder abuse, I offer you our special thanks. Telling these stories helps our community understand need to address these issues that older Australians face.


These are significant times for the sector in seeking to end elder abuse, and as noted this conference is a significant event. In a real sense, it marks a point of which the issue of Elder Abuse achieves real prominence.  

In my former roles as Commonwealth Minister for Social Services, as a former Attorney General in the West Australian Government and before that as a Crown Prosecutor at the WA DPP, I became aware of the human tragedy of older people experiencing abuse by people they trust.

I also saw, as you all no doubt see, how our society's protective instincts, usually manifest in the context of rights frameworks, which are very focused on minority groups in our community. This is, of course, entirely appropriate and rights frameworks and other important institutions of our governance and civil society are most often very successful in protecting the rights of minority groups.

What is interesting, however, is that in some sense the bigger the minority the less focus there seems to be on the need to activate our protective instincts for them to benefit. Perhaps that is about a false sense of safety in numbers. In any event, elderly Australians are in essence our biggest minority group and they need our society's protection and care, and conferences like this represent the coming of age of issues of ageing.

I feel a great sense of privilege, as well as responsibility, for having stewardship of elder abuse policy at the Commonwealth level as Attorney-General.

Australian Government commitment to protect older Australians

In the 2016 election, the Turnbull Coalition committed $15 million to Our Plan to Protect the Rights of Older Australians.

A priority of this plan is to improve awareness and understanding of the issues that affect older Australians to strengthen the focus on Australia's biggest minority.

We have already begun work to develop an elder abuse knowledge hub.

We are also funding a new national elder abuse alliance, to support the sector's development.

Allied to this, and of critical importance if we are going to be effective in tackling the serious problems of elder abuse, is the need for clear and concise data. Our activities need to be evaluated. We need to know whether the time and money we spend is really helping older people as we want.

On becoming Attorney-General I was surprised to discover that rigorous evidence is scarce on what kinds of approaches work to prevent and reduce elder abuse.

Indeed, this is not just an Australian problem, it is an international problem. International experts agree that knowledge about elder abuse lags as much as two decades behind the data in the fields of child abuse and domestic violence.

The studies that have been carried out have shown that the prevalence of elder abuse in countries such as Canada, the UK, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, Israel and the USA varies from 2 per cent to 12 per cent of the older population.

As the ALRC Report noted, there is limited national data available about the extent of elder abuse in Australia. In order to address this absence of data, in October last year the Turnbull Government announced that it is funding national research to improve our understanding of elder abuse.

We kicked off this research by asking the Australian Institute of Family Studies to summarise what can be understood from currently available information.  

This led to the development of a National Research Agenda for Elder Abuse. The Institute is now working in partnership with the National Ageing Research Institute, the Australian National University's Social Research Centre and the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales to deliver this agenda.

They are directly engaging older Australians and those affected by elder abuse in this research.

Stage One of the National Research Agenda has three components:

  • To develop an Australian definition of elder abuse for research purposes.
  • To develop and rigorously test survey tools to measure the extent of abuse of older people, and to better understand the knowledge and behaviours that contribute to abuse in the general community and by service providers.
  • To mine existing data sources, largely collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, to discover what they can tell us about the drivers and dynamics of abuse.

In parallel, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare is mining their data holdings to build an understanding of elder abuse in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

These important research projects are expected to be completed by mid-2018 and their foundational work will enable us to proceed to the next stage.

Today I am pleased to commit to Stage Two of the National Research Agenda for Elder Abuse.

In line with our election commitment, the Turnbull Government will fund a national prevalence study using the survey tools and definitions developed in the first stage. The national prevalence study will help us improve our interventions. In the long term, it will help us track whether we have actually made a difference in the lives of older people.

This implements a key recommendation of the Australian Law Reform Commission's report into elder abuse.

National Plan

It's important to recognise that Australia was one of the first countries to address age discrimination by enacting the Age Discrimination Act 2004 and by appointing the world's first Age Discrimination Commissioner in 2009.

But there is much more that we can do.

Today, I am very pleased to announce that the Council of Attorneys-General across Australia have agreed to develop a National Plan to address elder abuse.

As you will know, the agreement to develop a National Plan implements the capstone recommendation of the Australian Law Reform Commission's report into elder abuse.

The National Plan to combat elder abuse will have five critical goals.

  • To promote the autonomy and agency of older people.
  • To address ageism and promote community understanding of elder abuse.
  • To progress national consistency.
  • To safeguard at-risk older people and improve responses.
  • To build the evidence base.

The Council of Attorneys-General will provide stewardship of a national response to elder abuse. Addressing elder abuse is of course not just a legal problem. We will work with other Ministers across Commonwealth and state and territory governments as needed. Most importantly, we will develop the Plan in close consultation with older Australians, the community sector and business.

The Council of Attorneys-General has set a clear timeline for developing the Plan and we expect to see a draft of the Plan towards the end of this year.


Now, as you would well know, population ageing and the technological revolution are two global mega-trends reshaping our world. Our increased longevity is among the most remarkable success stories in human history.

The world is undergoing what the World Economic Forum is calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The digital revolution, robotics, artificial intelligence and numerous other technological innovations look like they are going part of our future – whether we like it or not.

Enjoying the gift of longevity is a major innovation opportunity for our society and economy. In this way, innovation may be our best hope for helping to address the issue of elder abuse.

Australia has an outstanding track record in innovation, in science and technology, and social policy.

In my time as Minister for Social Services, we established the Try, Test and Learn Fund, which involves individuals, businesses and the community sector providing ideas to government on new approaches to help some of the most vulnerable in our society. Tranche two of the Try, Test and Learn Fund will support groups at risk of long-term welfare dependence to improve their workforce participation or capacity to work. One of the current priority groups is Newstart Allowance recipients aged 50 and over with a focus on those who have been out of the workforce for longer than 12 months.

The Fund is a simple acknowledgment that Government does not have the answers to all problems. If we are going to be serious about tackling society's really difficult problems, we need to harness the best skills, experience and expertise from every quarter.

That is why it is great to see such a diverse range of people here today in the audience who are working on ending the abuse of older people in Australia.


I'd like to close by endorsing the ALRC's clear message that preventing elder abuse in an ageing world is everybody's business. 

That is why it is important that older people, the community sector, business and governments join together in developing the National Plan.

As a science fiction enthusiast, I would like to close by noting that Douglas Adams in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy famously identified the way to make something invisible was to define it as someone else's problem.

Judging from the range of people taking part in this conference, from this time on in Australia elder abuse will no longer be someone else's problem and I am committed to working with you to eradicate it in our community.

I look forward to working with you during 2018 to develop the National Plan and to make a real difference in the lives of older Australians.