Battle to give Indigenous retirees earlier access to age pension, as Uncle Dennis takes up legal fight

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In his 64 years on this land, Uncle Dennis has seen it all: The moments that have forced the nation to confront its history over the exclusion of his people.

Stolen wages, the Stolen Generations, the national apology, and the referendum in 1967 to ensure he was “counted” — it’s all unfolded over his lifetime.

In the 1960s, under the control of the Queensland government, he was sent out to work on a dairy farm as a 10-year-old.

The country is a different place to the one he knew as a child growing up on the Cherbourg Aboriginal settlement, but still so much needs to change, he says.

“My people have suffered a great deal,” he says. “We’re still suffering.”

Longing to escape the tough labour he was forced into as a kid, he would wait until his shift was over so he could get a few hours of play in each afternoon.

“I look back at that now and I think, ‘I’ve been there, I’ve done that’,” he said.

“Now I just want to enjoy life to the fullest. I want all the elders to enjoy life, a peaceful life.”

These days, Uncle Dennis works two jobs: He’s a familiar voice on the airwaves at the Koori radio station 3KND, and an Indigenous heritage guide at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne.

However, his people do not look forward to a long and leisurely retirement.

Indigenous men and women don’t live as long as other Australians, and many will die before they finish working.

On average, life expectancy at birth is 71 for Indigenous men and 75 years for Indigenous women. That’s 8.6 years less than non-Indigenous men and 7.8 years less than non-Indigenous women.

It’s why Uncle Dennis is taking on the fight to give Indigenous retirees earlier access to the Age Pension.

“I think, yes, Aboriginal people deserve this thing because we suffered so long in this country, for over 200 years … it would be good to help some of my people.”

Indigenous people working longer ‘just to survive’

The current pension age has been gradually increasing from 65 to 67. By July 2023, Australians born after 1957 will need to be 67 before they are eligible.

Aboriginal health and legal experts say that will lock too many Indigenous elders out of a system designed to give people dignity in their twilight years.

For years, Indigenous health and legal organisations, and even some superannuation funds, have argued that First Nations people should be able to retire sooner, given their shorter life expectancy.

Now a coalition of legal services will try a different tack — launching legal action with Uncle Dennis to push the federal government to lower the pension age by three years for Indigenous elders.

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, the Human Rights Law Centre and law firm DLA Piper have filed the case in the Federal Court of Australia.

For Meena Singh, a Yorta Yorta woman, this case is an opportunity to speak about what “fairness” means in Australia.

“We’ve got a community of people — Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people — who have been treated so differently, so negatively, for so long,” she said.

“To suddenly say, ‘We treat you equally before the law’, it doesn’t redress those past injustices.”

Ms Singh — a senior adviser at the Human Rights Law Centre — said many Indigenous retirees had survived the Stolen Generations and had also had their wages stolen as young people by state governments.

“Often we’re working as much as possible in our lives … poverty has been entrenched and [Indigenous] people are working longer just to survive,” she said.

“Our elders don’t get to enjoy retirement in the same way as other people do.”

Lee-Anne Carter, a Noongar and Wiradjuri woman, works with elders at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and says many Aboriginal families never gain access to the age pension.

“It means that our elders aren’t dying with any dignity or any economic or financial stability within their lives,” she said.

Legal fight over Closing the Gap failures

Gunditjmara leader Jill Gallagher has had personal experience of what it means to lose loved ones before they reach 60, and the ripple effect it can have on First Nations families.

The chief executive of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation lost some of her siblings when they were far too young.

“We still have a life-expectancy gap, and it has a humongous impact … we have so much sorry business,” she said.

“I’d hate to be back here in 30 years’ time and we still haven’t closed that life-expectancy gap.”

After it had largely failed to improve health and education outcomes for First Nations communities, the federal government announced a refreshed approach to its Closing the Gap policy.

A spokeswoman for Social Services Minister Anne Ruston pointed to the work the federal government was doing with communities on its new $1 billion Closing the Gap Implementation Plan.

“The Morrison government’s number-one priority is working with Indigenous communities to make the real and practical changes necessary to achieve better life outcomes for Indigenous Australians,” the spokeswoman said.

“There are a range of other payments available to support Australians before they reach pension age, including JobSeeker payment.”

The action in the Federal Court is thought to be the first time the Commonwealth has been challenged over its failure to close the life-expectancy gap for Indigenous people.

Uncle Dennis says this case is not just about his own journey. He’s inspired by another Aboriginal man who took on the Commonwealth for his people, Eddie Koiki Mabo.

“He won that case and, when I look at the big picture of all these things we’re trying to break down, we just keep going, bit by bit,” he said.

For Uncle Dennis, this battle goes back to his days at Cherbourg and, even further, into the past.

“Us Aboriginal people of this land never got abused because we were Australians. We got abused because we were Aboriginal,” he said.

“We must all tell the truth, otherwise you’ll never be free.”

By Indigenous affairs editor Bridget Brennan (Original ABC Article)