The Hon Mark Dreyfus QC MP: speech at the launch of ‘Access All Ages’

30 May 2013, Parliament House, Canberra.

I would start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

And Rosalind probably acknowledged everyone here, so I won’t do that again, but I would generally acknowledge distinguished guests.

I’m very pleased to be here to launch the Australian Law Reform Commission’s report,Access All Ages—Older Workers and Commonwealth Laws.

The Australian Law Reform Commission plays an important role in independently researching, consulting on, and evaluating Australia’s laws and legal frameworks.

I would like to thank the Commission for its work on this report.

I want to acknowledge and thank the Age Discrimination Commissioner, Susan Ryan, for agreeing to work on this project as a part time Law Reform Commissioner. 

It’s a practice of the Law Reform Commission to seek out people with particular expertise and sometimes people with particular statutory responsibilities, as in this case because Susan is of course the Age Discrimination Commissioner.

And I very much appreciate your contribution, Susan. I know your expertise was invaluable to this inquiry and it demonstrates the merits of this Government’s decision back in 2011 to appoint you as Australia’s first Age Discrimination Commissioner.

One of the main objectives of Susan’s appointment was to strengthen Australia’s anti-discrimination framework for older people.

This report also highlights what can be achieved when Government agencies work in partnership. I am fortunate that such relationships are very common across my portfolio.

I have to confess to a very, very longstanding interest in this area. One of the first professional jobs I had was as a research fellow at the National Research Institute of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine. A very long time ago in 1982 I wrote a little report on law and older people and I’ve followed the progress of this particular inquiry by the Law Reform Commission with tremendous interest.

As a result I can say that back in 1982 age discrimination legislation was simply a hope and of course while other countries, including the United States already had some kind of age discrimination protections, Australia had none.

It took us quite a long time to get there – until 2004, in fact. But we got there and as this report demonstrates there is still quite a lot of work to be done.

One of the recommendations in this report goes to something of particular professional and now portfolio interest to me, which is the retiring age for judicial officers. It’s something of an irony that the last time there was a successful referendum in Australia, 1977, was to insert in the Constitution a compulsory retiring age of 70 for Federal judges.

And as this report indicates, and the discussion in the report indicates, it’s something that at least some people are expressing now some regret for the inclusion of that retiring age. Judges, in particular, when they reach the retiring age often refer to having reached the age of statutory senility, which they say with a not altogether happy irony, it’s a rather bitter irony, because very many people at 70 are just hitting their stride.

And the contribution that in a sense we missed out on from quite a number of judges that I can point to is perhaps self-evident.

I’m proud to be part of a government that has made a priority of addressing the implications of an aging population.

The Government also wants to ensure that older Australians are not discriminated against in employment, in promotions or accessing training and educational opportunities.

With those issues firmly in mind, the Age Barriers to Work inquiry was announced by my predecessor in late 2011 and commenced in February 2012.

It aimed to identify legal and policy barriers to people aged 45 years and over participating in the workforce or other productive work.

In just 12 months the Commission has delivered a high quality and accessible report, with a clear set of recommendations to government.

The Government knows that the Commission thinks deeply and consults widely before making recommendations and for that reason, its reports are persuasive, and demand proper and detailed policy consideration.

I, and my Ministerial colleagues, will closely consider these recommendations. We know the importance of these issues for Australia and for the long term future of the Australian workforce and economy.

It is crucial to our economy that older Australians are able to participate in productive work. Growth depends upon strong labour force participation.

Excluding older Australians also does our workplaces a disservice.  Older Australians are a source of wisdom and experience.

Workplaces that draw on a variety of perspectives, experiences and skills are more likely to be innovative and productive.

The Government also believes that older Australians deserve the same opportunities as others to gain the personal satisfaction, sense of community and financial security that a job can bring.

We must look to remove the barriers to continued participation in the workplace—whether it is through increasing opportunities or removing disincentives in Australia’s laws and legal frameworks.

The Government is confident that the right steps are being taken to address discrimination and barriers faced by older Australians in the workforce.

The Government will continue to pursue this important objective. This report provides further scope to do just that. 

Once again, the Australian Law Reform Commission has made an important contribution to our collective thinking on an issue of national importance. 

I would like to thank everyone who was involvedeveryone who made submissions, attended hearings, researched the law – thank you to all of you for preparing this important report.