A National Plan to Combat Elder Abuse

Recommendation 3–1               The Australian Government, in cooperation with state and territory governments, should develop a National Plan to combat elder abuse. The Plan should:

(a)         establish a national policy framework;

(b)         outline strategies and actions by government and the community;

(c)         set priorities for the implementation of agreed actions; and

(d)         provide for further research and evaluation.

Why a national plan?

3.5        National plans to guide reform and action have facilitated long-term strategic and whole-of-government responses to a diverse range of issues in Australia, including in relation to family violence and child protection. The momentum for national approaches in these areas has led to frameworks and plans developed through the Council of Australian Government (COAG) processes.[2] A plan provides a framework for action, identifying priority reform areas against a set of goals or objectives. It also provides the opportunity to establish specific performance indicators and monitoring mechanisms to ensure accountability, as well as a basis for measuring progress. National plans also support the development of a common understanding of issues, priorities and strategies in areas where there are diverse stakeholders.

3.6        The ALRC uses the concept of a ‘national plan’ in a broad sense—to emphasise the need for a national approach to elder abuse and to provide a coordinating framework for state and territory initiatives as well as those at the Commonwealth level.

3.7        In the 2015 report of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Elder Abuse: Understanding Issues, Frameworks and Responses, (the AIFS Report) Rae Kaspiew, Rachel Carson and Helen Rhoades identified the importance of a national plan in relation to elder abuse.

The WHO emphasised the importance of having comprehensive data-driven national action plans to ensure effective violence prevention. However, it noted that while many of the surveyed countries reported having national action plans for child maltreatment (71%) and intimate partner violence (68%), fewer than half (41%) had addressed elder abuse. The report noted that such plans are an important ‘way for countries to articulate how violence impacts the health, economic viability and safety and security of a nation’, and provides direction for policy makers about what needs to be done, including the identification of objectives, priorities, assigned responsibilities, a timetable and an evaluation mechanism.[3]

3.8        The development of a national action plan was widely supported by stakeholders in this Inquiry.[4] As one stakeholder commented, a national plan was imperative in the context of Australia’s ageing population. Based on his experience in prosecuting elder abuse matters in California, he said that ‘Australia can prepare for the avalanche of new cases that will inevitably arise by developing a national plan’.[5]

3.9        National plans or frameworks exist for issues related to or overlapping with elder abuse, notably, the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children, 2010–2022 (Family Violence National Plan). The Family Violence National Plan is described as a ‘framework for action’, over a 12-year horizon to be implemented through four three-year plans, called ‘Action Plans’: to bring together ‘the efforts of governments across the nation to make a real and sustained reduction in the levels of violence against women’.[6] The background report, described as ‘the Plan of Action’[7]set the framework by identifying seven ‘core values’; six ‘outcomes’ to be delivered through 25 ‘strategies’ and 117 ‘actions’.[8]

3.10     The significant attention already on issues concerning family violence has provided, as St Vincent’s Health Australia observed, ‘a climate of opportunity’, for a national consideration of elder abuse.[9] Where child abuse and family violence are now ‘firmly at the centre of public policy debates’, said the Welfare Rights Centre (NSW), ‘[p]lacing elder abuse on the national agenda must also be a priority. Elder abuse is an issue that, finally, has come of age’.[10]

3.11     However, it was also recognised that elder abuse cannot simply be subsumed into family violence prevention strategies. Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Services NSW Inc said that,

whilst in a general sense elder abuse shares commonalities with other forms of domestic and family violence, it also has unique features that set it apart. As such, elder abuse requires a singular focus and dedicated, systematic response if it is to be effectively addressed.[11]

3.12     It was critical to ‘fill the gaps’ in existing frameworks and plans to include elder abuse, urged Disabled People’s Organisations Australia (DPO Australia). The recommended National Plan ‘must intersect and build on’ the approaches not only in relation to family violence, but also in relation to disability: the National Disability Strategy; the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS); and its Quality and Safeguarding Framework.[12] Carers NSW added the perspective of carers: a National Plan would provide ‘a good opportunity to consider the convergence of issues and strategies regarding abuse, neglect and exploitation in ageing, disability and carer contexts’.[13]

3.13     COTA noted that this ALRC Inquiry would not only ‘lay the ground for’, but also ‘give greater impetus to’, ‘an overdue national response to law reform, service delivery and cultural change to protect older people from elder abuse’.[14] Similarly, the Office of the Public Advocate (SA) said that the development of a national plan, in helping to raise public awareness of the prevalence of elder abuse, would ‘create the conditions necessary to facilitate stronger safeguards against the abuse of older people’:

[a] national plan may also create a foundation for enhancing consistency amongst the States and Territories. The process of reporting and responding to elder abuse requires nationally consistent procedures and, ideally, the longer-term goal of national legislative reform.[15]

3.14     The ageing population in Australia creates a particular impetus for specific action. The Queensland Law Society urged that:

[o]lder people as a group are deserving of special consideration, support and protection from abuse. Considering that the proportion of ageing residents in Australia is steadily increasing, substantial law reform is required to protect this growing demographic.[16]

3.15     Plans to address elder abuse have been developed elsewhere. In 2014 the World Health Organization reported that 41% of the countries included in its Global Status Report on Violence Prevention had national plans on elder abuse, and 17% had conducted national surveys.[17]

3.16     For example, the Government of Québec released a Governmental Action Plan to Counter Elder Abuse 2010–2015 (the Québec plan).[18] This plan followed other work directed towards countering violence against women, against youth and against children.

3.17     These plans are illustrative of approaches that can be used to inform the national planning process to combat elder abuse. They provide a structured and systematic way to build a plan.[19] Reflecting such approaches, in this Report the ALRC uses a taxonomy that distinguishes: guiding principles, goals, strategies and actions.[20]

Bringing together existing work

3.18     A commitment to combating elder abuse is already evident in a range of initiatives across the states and territories as well as the Commonwealth. A National Plan will capture and consolidate this work.[21] In doing so, Legal Aid NSW observed, a national plan would ‘encourage a strategic, consistent response to elder abuse across Australian jurisdictions’.[22] The value of a national plan process would be to locate and frame these initiatives within a coherent national framework. It will also provide the opportunity for identifying short, medium and long-term priorities.

3.19     Stakeholders reiterated the importance of continuing the commitment to existing initiatives.[23] The Financial Planning Association, for example, supported the development of a national plan as a commitment by all governments ‘to tackle this issue as a matter of urgency in the face of an ageing population’, but also added that ‘this will take time and money and should not distract from the implementation of steps to address elder abuse which must be done as a priority’.[24]

3.20     St Vincent’s Health Australia noted that, notwithstanding the ‘lack of a national policy’, all jurisdictions have adopted ‘a human rights approach to elder abuse, as opposed to a protective and mandatory reporting approach’.[25] This consistency of approach provides the basis for a shared understanding and complements the approach taken in this Inquiry.

3.21     The Office of the Public Advocate (Vic) considered that the ‘coherent policy and action framework’ of a national plan would be ‘a crucial step towards enhancing rights protections for older Australians’.[26]

3.22     A national planning process would help to ameliorate the problems of the distribution of powers in a federal system in which many issues that arise in a consideration of ‘elder abuse’ sit across federal/state jurisdictional lines. The Darwin Community Legal Service Aged and Disability Advocacy Service said that a national approach would facilitate an appreciation of ‘the complexities of addressing the issue of Elder Abuse across a range of jurisdictions’.[27]

3.23     The Benevolent Society submitted that a ‘holistic national approach is a pressing priority’ and a national plan would be ‘a critical element of a broader national agenda on older Australians’.

There is currently no national plan for older Australians which incorporates a broader agenda like tackling ageism, financial security and housing, work and training, mobility and transport, social inclusion and participation, preventing and responding to abuse, and fostering age friendly environments.[28]

3.24     Developing a National Plan will also provide the opportunity to continue and focus national conversation and engagement. Anglicare (SA) suggested that a national approach would ‘promote improved governance through consistent practice’ and would lead to ‘increased awareness and improved response to elder abuse through the embedding of a consistent supportive framework’.[29] The ability of a national plan to create a nationally consistent framework was also emphasised by the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation:

The essence of the issue is recognition that elder abuse does occur, and then the establishment of laws and policies which mitigate, and ultimately eradicate, such ill-treatment. A National Plan will ensure such recognition of elder abuse and provide a nationally consistent framework through which to establish credible reforms and actions for mitigation.[30]

3.25     The Office of the Public Advocate (Qld) stressed the importance of engaging with the issue of elder abuse in a ‘multi-faceted’ way:

A national plan provides an opportunity to address and improve culture and community attitudes, federal and state government policy, and on-the-ground supports and responses. The plan should also encompass subsets of the Australian population such as people with disability or mental health issues, people with impaired decision-making capacity, Indigenous Australians and people with different cultural backgrounds.[31]

3.26     There is clear commitment and support for a National Plan to combat elder abuse in Australia. The next questions are how a national plan should be developed, and what shape it should take.


Recommendation 3–2               The National Plan to combat elder abuse should be led by a steering committee under the imprimatur of the Law, Crime and Community Safety Council of the Council of Australian Governments.

3.27     The National Plan to combat elder abuse needs clear leadership. The ALRC recommends that the planning process should be led by a steering committee. The Law, Crime and Community Safety Council (LCCSC) of COAG has established a working group to discuss current activities to combat elder abuse in Australian jurisdictions, consider potential national approaches, and consider the findings of this Inquiry.[32] The LCCSC is well placed to take a lead role in coordinating a planning process. The important role that COAG can play, expressing a commitment of all governments at a senior level, was identified by stakeholders.[33] The Age Discrimination Commissioner is well placed to lead a number of strategies and actions of the Plan, involving key stakeholder groups.

3.28     The National Older Persons Legal Services Network emphasised that it was important for COAG to be responsible, because of:

  • The need for national leadership to establish elder abuse as a national priority requiring both ‘whole of government’ and ‘whole of community’ responses;

  • The limited sources of Commonwealth power to legislate elder abuse measures;

  • The traditional role of COAG in developing model, uniform laws in areas of high public importance; and

  • The particular need for uniformity of state and territory laws with respect to personal autonomy, including powers of attorney, guardianship and administration laws.[34]

3.29     The need for coordination and leadership was identified as an important issue by stakeholders. As the Financial Services Council observed:

We are cognisant that the nature of implementation and governance of these reforms will be paramount to their effectiveness given the complex nature and environment in which elder abuse manifests itself across different jurisdictions.[35]

3.30     The Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association (CPSA) urged that the implementation of a National Plan be ‘overseen by an appropriate body or department’, emphasising that ‘[t]here is a strong need for leadership on policy issues affecting older Australians, particularly around elder abuse’.[36]


3.31     Strategies for implementation, including accountability mechanisms,[37] are vital to the success of a National Plan. As Leading Age Services Australia observed, ‘[w]ithout implementation strategies, any Plan will stay just that—a plan’.[38]

3.32     The Law Council of Australia (Law Council) emphasised the need for ‘independent scrutiny’ of the Plan, ‘informed by relevant human rights standards applicable to older persons’.[39] Responsibility for implementation must also be identified. DPO Australia said that the Plan requires that

a designated body has responsibility for the implementation of the Framework, reporting directly to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). Such an integrated and responsive approach is required to address elder abuse.[40]

3.33     Others suggested the need for a specific ‘national body’ to oversee implementation of the National Plan. [41] The Eastern Community Legal Centre argued that ‘funding of an independent national peak body’ was crucial to the development and implementation of the national plan.[42]

3.34     The issue of funding for the success of a National Plan was also raised. Legal Aid NSW, for example, urged that a plan ‘should be properly resourced to ensure meaningful outcomes for older people’.[43] Similarly, the Office of the Public Advocate (Qld) observed that

any law reform and policy proposals must offer genuine outcomes and be effective in addressing the elder abuse, exploitation and neglect. This requires careful policy and legislation development, appropriate funding and implementation and cooperation between Commonwealth and state governments.[44]

3.35     The ALRC recognises that recommendations in this Report may have funding and resourcing implications, particularly where expansion of existing roles, new roles, and additional training obligations are involved. The Australian Government commitments and funding are also acknowledged, in relation to developing a national elder abuse hotline; developing pilot training programmes; a study into the prevalence of elder abuse; and developing a national awareness campaign.[45]