Both the Liberal Government and Labor Opposition regard the 'grey' vote as important on 24 November. However, they could be badly mistaking the values held by senior Australians. At the 2006 Census about 3.6 million Australians were born before 1947, and so must today be over sixty years old. These seniors constitute 18.15 per cent of the population of 19.85 million, but some 26.6 per cent of the electorate of 13.5 million.
This disparity suggests that older Australians have more political power than their presence demands, but this should not alarm a society which retains some understanding of social justice. People contribute to the nation in different ways during their lifetimes, and draw on national resources when necessary. The only alternative is to abolish society in favour of a stark economy, a path that would ensure deterioration in the health, welfare and education systems, a rise in crime and disproportionate suffering for the elderly, the poor and the under-resourced.
Some politicians are convinced that increasing numbers of the elderly will precipitate an economic crisis. While it is true that baby-boomers represent a swelling on the population pyramid and that Australian population growth has stagnated somewhat, the census shows that no five-year cohort has added fewer than a million new Australians since 1946. And while people of wage-earning age might have a bigger burden in caring for more elderly, they gain at the other end because there are fewer children too young to support themselves.
While the tag of ‘baby-boomer’ is convenient for advertisers and entrepreneurs, Australians born from about 1946 to 1960 might not conform to popular expectations of the elderly. This generation was young when a 'youth revolution' was underway. It was socialised and radicalised by the Vietnam war, expanded educational opportunities, general prosperity and exposure to international ideas. This generation launched Whitlam into the Lodge, accepted sexual equality and enjoyed the benefits of cultural diversity. For example, this is the first generation that has had known alternatives to constant meat meals, beer and tobacco. It is just possible then, that the health needs of the future will not be as intense as some planners fear.
Younger 'seniors' are not necessarily attracted to many of the activities that have been thought appropriate for the elderly in previous generations. Perhaps new seniors have always been a little uncomfortable with the activities and mindsets into which they were acculturated by the older seniors. But baby-boomers will arrive in sufficient numbers to be able to ignore the pressures of conformity, just as we did as teenagers in the 1960s and as young parents in the 1970s and 1980s. Leunig has a cartoon of a community singalong, but because we baby-boomers do not know the ‘old songs’ from the thirties and forties, we will not bother to learn them. Leunig has the people, probably nursing home residents singing ‘Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’ while a St Johns Ambulance Brigade paramedic looks on.
The more the political parties try to target the perceived special interests of seniors, the more obvious it becomes that we wrinklies have precisely the same concerns as other voters. Since overseas experience shows that it is mainly the elderly that die in heat waves, global warming is of concern to young and old alike. Certainly, the elderly might be disadvantaged by traffic becoming thicker and faster, but the state of the cities and the heavy transports on country roads are disasters for everyone. To pitch for the grey vote on the basis of increased pension rates is equivalent to offering wage earners tax cuts. Both ignore the need for increased social spending. In reality, the elderly will benefit much more if Australia strengthens the education and health sectors, returns to an equitable industrial relations system and regains a sense of community values.
The grey vote must not be isolated from the general vote. Too many government policies have been designed to appeal to self-interest and to set people against one another. The campaign focus on key marginals and key demographics actually corrupts the search for the good society. The environment, industrial relations, health, education and Australia’s relationship with the world are absolutely crucial issues in this campaign. Older voters should not be patronised. We all want to leave the world slightly better off than the way we found it. Rather than behaving selfishly, older voters are desperate to improve conditions for following generations. The party that better addresses the general issues deserves to attract the grey vote.
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