Select Committee into Elder Abuse — Final Report —
“‘I never thought it would happen to me’: When trust is broken”
Resumed from 13 September.
Hon NICK GOIRAN: I move —
That the report be noted.
[Further comments from Hon Nick Goiran}
Hon ALISON XAMON: I rise as deputy chair of the committee to make a few comments. The substance of this report is such that it is absolutely worthy of ongoing debate through the process of consideration of committee reports. I hope members choose to engage in the debate.
I begin my comments by thanking my fellow members of the committee. It was a pleasure to work with Hon Nick Goiran, Hon Tjorn Sibma and Hon Matthew Swinbourn. I thought it was a very effective committee, and without wanting to reveal the committee’s deliberations, it was extraordinarily collegiate and very respectful. I wish to particularly note and thank for his contribution Hon Nick Goiran, who was a really good chair who enabled a quite fulsome discussion around a whole range of matters. I thank the committee staff for their hard work; they were, as usual, phenomenal. I also thank and acknowledge the witnesses who came forward—those who gave evidence during the closed hearings, and those who were brave enough to make submissions on their personal, often very painful and distressing, stories. It was very helpful to the committee that people were so courageous in coming forward with their stories of having experienced elder abuse.
I will comment on issues that arose that did not fit firmly within the purview of elder abuse. There is considerable disquiet and concern around the issue of unconscionable contracts, particularly with retirement villages. That is often perceived as being part of the continuum of elder abuse, but members are aware that part of the task of the committee was to come up with a universal definition of elder abuse. As such, the issue of unconscionable contracts does not fall within the scope of elder abuse. But I think it is very fair to say that it is disproportionately older people who are captured by what is a very genuine concern. Clearly, this issue will only be exacerbated; given our ageing population, there will be a large cohort who will seek to move to retirement villages. I understand this area has the potential to be looked at by government; it will need to be, because it is of quite considerable concern.
The other area of concern we need to be mindful of is the increasing concern around the vulnerability of old people living in park homes. Successive governments have tried to grapple with that problem, but it is important that members are aware that these sorts of issues came to the attention of the committee through the course of the inquiry. Of course, how could we possibly not note it, particularly with the shocking coverage this week of what is happening in some of our aged-care facilities? Concern is increasing about particularly the rate of physical abuse within some of our aged-care facilities. This issue will clearly get quite a bit of attention as we move forward, particularly with the announcement of a royal commission into this area; we are yet to see its terms of reference to see exactly what that will cover. One thing that tells us that is we finally have a great deal of attention being paid, by both levels of government, to what is happening to older Australians and, effectively, how we are not really servicing them well or doing the right thing by them.
This report was able to shine a light particularly on those areas of elder abuse that pertain to the state and its responsibilities, where we can do so much better. One thing that became clear is that we do not have a comprehensive picture of the prevalence of elder abuse within our community. The best estimates we can get, based on the data available, is that one in 10 older Australians are subject to some form of elder abuse. I note that the federal government is yet to report on its inquiry into the prevalence of elder abuse. It will be interesting to see what those figures are when that report finally comes down. In any event, one in 10 older Australians—one in 10, members!— are experiencing some form of elder abuse. That is a shocking figure that unequivocally shows us that we need to be taking this issue very, very seriously. The indications are that the level of elder abuse will increase, not lessen, whether because of an increase in the population or, disturbingly, because some of the characteristics of certain types of elder abuse lend themselves to prevalence.
One of the most disturbing elements is that it is clear that the largest areas of elder abuse are financial abuse and emotional abuse. It is very clear that the two are often interlinked—people will emotionally abuse older people for the purposes of financial gain. I would just like to make a few comments about the issue of financial abuse. One of the most concerning things about financial abuse is the sheer number of people who engage in financial elder abuse who do not set out to abuse older people. We tend to focus very heavily on the issue of fraud; for example, when people have deliberately set out to trick someone into an enduring power of attorney or have ownership of a home inappropriately transferred to them and those sorts of things. One thing that really struck me through the course of this inquiry was the issue of inheritance impatience. That came up over and again in the evidence presented to us. Effectively, children and sometimes grandchildren just cannot wait to get their money from their parents or grandparents. They are not happy to wait until their parents pass away and they inherit their money in the normal course of things. They seem to think that if the money is there, it is theirs to take. Far too often people will take on an enduring power of attorney in particular. It is done in good faith; there is no fraud involved. It is often done at the request of the parents, who find it a little more difficult to get to the bank or to keep up with bills and who say, “Is it possible for you to maybe help me to manage my finances?” Everything will be established in good faith, but before long, the child—the son, the daughter—starts taking $100 here, maybe paying a bill there, or saying, “Oh, we are going out. Mum would have liked it. We will just pay for it out of mum’s account.” What alarms me is how prevalent that sort of conduct seems to be, yet the people who have been entrusted with an enduring power of attorney do not recognise that what they are doing is actually abusive and is theft of their parents’ money. One thing that is very clear is that there is a lot of work to be done around enduring powers of attorney. More about that is in the report. I have no intention of going through all that today; I will have many opportunities to speak on elements of this report into the future.
I wanted to particularly talk about the role for the government, the Department of Communities, the Public Trustee or the Public Advocate, to run education campaigns.
The CHAIR: Hon Alison Xamon.
Hon ALISON XAMON: Those education campaigns could be specifically around the responsibility and roles that are required when someone takes on an enduring power of attorney. It seems like such a simple thing that we should be doing, but it is clearly not happening. I am aware of people even within my own family who have just not understood the level of responsibility that comes with holding an enduring power of attorney. When someone takes that on, they are effectively committing to not treating that money as their own. What people often just do not understand is that the legal obligation, apart from the moral obligation, that flows from that is to always act in the best interests of the person whose money they are managing, and to not give money to themselves. One thing that people will often say is, “I asked mum and mum said she was happy for me to take the $200 for petrol or whatever.” That is a lot of money for petrol, by the way. But that is not the point; legally, they are not allowed to do that. Legally, the issue is that they have to be standing there and asking, “What is in the best interests of my parent when I am managing their money?” That is just not understood.
I am aware that other members of the committee want to say quite a lot about this report, so I do not want to go through every single thing, although I am tempted to read out the entire report from beginning to end—I promise members that I will not! As we move forward, it will be worthwhile starting to unpick some of the elements of this report, just as we are doing with the end-of-life choices report, and to talk about them and think about the ways in which we can start handling some of this.
The issue of inheritance impatience was the one that resonated with me and really annoyed me, to be perfectly honest. Some people have a sense of entitlement to other people’s money. There is the idea that mum or dad, who, by the way, will have worked really hard for that money, do not need it anymore—“I need it more, so I’m just going to help myself.” That really enrages me. The reality is that people need to be protected and they need to have their money protected. It is a genuine issue if what we end up seeing is that people’s life savings are depleted simply because other people have effectively broken the law and have not done the right thing by them. I have also alluded to the fact that this is sometimes done deliberately. That is a serious matter. The report goes on about how we need to not only tighten up the way in which enduring powers of attorney are undertaken in the first place, but also the criminal penalties that should potentially flow if people set out to do the wrong thing in the first place. I will have more to say about that in the future.
I want to give other members a chance to speak. I ask members to consider reading the report. All of us have constituents who are elderly and we all undoubtedly have constituents who are subject to elder abuse. It is worthwhile members getting a handle on this issue and making sure that we are across the proposed remedies.
[Speeches and comments from various members]
Consideration of report adjourned, pursuant to standing orders.
Progress reported and leave granted to sit again, pursuant to standing orders.