PoliticsSeptember 20, 2019

A champion for the elderly? Parliament already has plenty of those


Broadcaster Mark Sainsbury is calling for a “champion for the elderly”. But the truth is, every single politician in parliament already fits that bill. Just look at the enduring nature of NZ Super, writes TOP leader Geoff Simmons. 

No doubt Mark Sainsbury’s call for an elderly commissioner to be created will appeal to his listeners and maybe even himself as he nears retirement. But as many point out, even Matthew Hooton, the last thing we need is a Parliamentary Commissioner for Baby Boomers. There’s no evidence that the elderly are the most vulnerable group in our society. 

There’s a simple reason why the elderly don’t need a champion. They already vote in much greater numbers than any other cohort, which is why politicians are too scared to do anything that might bring down house prices or reform our unsustainable NZ Super. 

The key champion of the elderly we already have is Winston Peters, who’s forged his career by opposing Super reform. All experts agree that NZ Super is unsustainable, but Peters prefers to believe that the earth is flat. And yet none of our career politicians stray too far from his playbook. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has ruled out touching NZ Super in her political career, as did her predecessor John Key. Even the Green Party, supposedly the party of young people, won’t even talk about reforming NZ Super. Now, only the National Party promises to make a minor change… in 20 years time. 

NZ First leader Winston Peters. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Just how unsustainable is NZ Super? The short answer is that it’s about as sustainable as our current fossil fuel-based economy. If you really want to feel depressed, here’s the longer answer

It isn’t a question of whether NZ Super will go belly up, but when. That will be either when the country is forced into a financial crisis, or when NZ Super squeezes all other government spending to the point that younger generations finally revolt at the ballot box. 

In the meantime, NZ Super remains our most generous benefit by far. In fact, it’s one of the most generous “universal” benefits in the world. Universal, that is, to everyone over 65. This is a source of great irony to me when I talk about an unconditional basic income, only to have the elderly respond that young people can’t be trusted with getting money for nothing. 

Thanks to NZ Super and the lack of appropriate taxation of assets (mostly housing and farms), the elderly have the lowest rates of poverty in our society. Think about that for a moment: a group that isn’t working has less than half the rate of poverty than all the groups that are working. That shows how generous NZ Super really is. 

It also demonstrates how many other groups need a champion before the elderly do. The group facing the highest levels of poverty in our society is children. They at least have the Children’s Commissioner to speak on their behalf. But what about the thousands of homeless? The tens of thousands of working poor? They all need someone to advocate on their behalf long before the elderly do. 

The elderly people who are most vulnerable are those with health problems, and we already have the Health and Disability Commissioner to help them. And in our health system, it remains doubtful that the elderly are worst off there either. Without any formal process for deciding who gets treatment and who doesn’t, once again, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil. Educated, wealthy elderly people get treated before poorer people, who are often younger. We don’t even consider who will benefit from the treatment more. It simply comes down to who knows how to work the system. In other words, even in healthcare, vulnerability is not a matter of age but of resources. And as we have already seen, our elderly are generally not lacking in those. 

There certainly are vulnerable elderly people in New Zealand who need help. But there are vulnerable people everywhere in our society. Why not give them all a champion? A voice to ask for what they need? The sad fact of our political system is that it relies on having the ability to complain and whip the media into a frenzy to get what you want. At the moment, the group of people best placed to do this is the elderly. 

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