The Age Pension can be complex, guarded by income and assets tests, residency rules and age limits. Which is why there are businesses purely to help older Australians through the application process. Now, a lawsuit in the Federal Court may be about to add another degree of complexity.
Should the average life expectancy of different cultures have an impact on the age at which the pension should be permitted?
First Nations man Dennis James Fisher is arguing exactly that. He says he should receive the pension at 64 rather than 67 because of his shorter life expectancy.
According to Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures submitted to the Federal Court, an Indigenous man aged 65 can expect to live a further 15.8 years on average. In comparison, a 65-year-old non-Indigenous man will live another 19 years.
Mr Fisher’s barrister, Ron Merkel, KC, says the case is about “correcting historical disadvantage” and that there is nothing in the relevant facts to say the gap is lessening.
Aboriginal men should be able to enjoy the Age Pension for a similar average time period as non-Indigenous men, otherwise it contravenes section 10 of the Racial Discrimination Act, Mr Fisher says.
Pension age changes
He also based his argument on the gradual increase in the Age Pension age since 2009, based on increased life expectancy.
Age Pension age was 65 back in 1909, 60 for women from 1910, but we’re living longer healthier lives, putting a heavier ‘burden’ on the government purse, so since 2017 eligibility age has been increasing by six months every two years. It will be 67 from 1 July.
Mr Merkel says this premise is an appropriate basis for Mr Fisher’s case.
Mr Fisher told news.com.au: “White people are living longer because they haven’t lost what we have lost.
“This is about acknowledging what happened here. So many things that Aboriginal people are suffering from today, are because of how we have been treated since colonisation.
“Our language, our culture, our identity comes from this land. We didn’t have a problem, a problem came here.”
The Commonwealth says that allowing an Aboriginal man to access an Age Pension sooner than a non-Indigenous man will lead to unintended changes in other areas of the law.
Commonwealth barrister Jenny Firkin, KC, says that using life expectancy as a criteria will lead to an “unworkable uncertainty” where a person’s eligibility will shift depending on the year or their gender and race, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald report.
It could also have flow-on effects to other areas of law including taxation and planning, she says, adding: “The potential implications are indeterminate.”
Alex Walters, from the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, who is acting for Mr Fisher, says the case is about fairness.
“The argument is pretty simple,” he told news.com.au, “because of the gap in life expectancy for First Nations people, they don’t have the same opportunity to retire and receive the support of the pension in later life.”
He says there are already areas of public policy, such as aged care services, where adjustments for the gap in life expectancy are made.
The hearing continues and is expected to be decided later this year.
What’s your view on this case? Is the argument sound? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?