Susan Ryan is putting everyone on notice that age discrimination is prejudice. Her mission for the next five years is to expose offenders and reward those working for its eradication. Ryan, who recently became Australia’s inaugural age discrimination commissioner, had first-hand experience of prejudice early in life. As a student teacher, she became engaged to marry – only to be told she could not continue studying and also would have to repay her teacher scholarship money. The only reason for the termination was that she was female. In contrast, male students could marry and continue studying on full scholarships. This, and other experiences, fired Ryan’s determination to fight against discrimination and prejudice. In 1975, she became the ACT’s first female senator after campaigning under the slogan, ‘A Woman’s Place Is In The Senate’, and she stayed in the upper house until 1988. During the 1980s, she notched up two important positions: Minister assisting the Prime Minister Bob Hawke on the status of women from 1983 to 1988 – and driving the landmark Sex Discrimination Act 1984 – and Federal Education Minister, again under Hawke, from 1984-87.
Fast-forward to the middle of last month, and Ryan’s appointment for a five-year term as the country’s first commissioner for age discrimination. This position is a result of the Gillard Labor Government’s election promise to appoint such a person and fund the office with $4 million over the next four years. Anticipating suggestions of jobs for the girls, Ryan says she came to the position at arm’s length from the Labor Federal Government: the first approach came from an executive search firm. “It wasn’t a political appointment,” she says. “Ultimately it was the decision of the Attorney- General.” Apart from her political credentials, Ryan has been AIST president, and independent chair of the IAG & NRMA Superannuation Plan. She’s just finished 13 years on the council of the University of New South Wales and has been in the fray with community campaigns for human rights protection. After just a week in the Age Discrimination Commissioner’s chair, Ryan is already in command of the agenda. She is graciously firm in her articulation of what drives discrimination based on age. “Fundamentally it is prejudice, and my job is to unravel that prejudice.
Age is the big one because it affects everyone eventually.” Old age is one of the certainties of life, besides death and taxes. The Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2008, projected that people over 65 would comprise 23 per cent of the population by 2056 – almost double the 13 per cent recorded in 2007. Ryan sees at least seven problems that unjustly impact the elderly: the superannuation guarantee (SG) and voluntary contributions, group insurance, age discrimination legislation, workers’ compensation, employers and retraining. The first concern is that the 9 per cent SG does not generally apply to workers over 70 years. Ryan says increased longevity and health mean people should be able to work for as long as they are able to and, for many people, that is past 70. “First, it is the right of the person,” she says. “Second, there are economic benefits to the person. And third, because of the economic benefits in general. Part of my job is to address this. “The history of [the SG cut-off] was to ensure that people were using their super for retirement and not as a tax-free way of building their assets. Basically, at some stage, you have to take your super and live off it, but whether that’s at 70 or 75, that’s open for public debate. We’ll be raising it with Treasury and the tax office.” Ryan has secured a place at the government’s Tax Summit in October to prosecute this case. The next problem is that personal super contributions are outlawed after age 75. “The theory is that by age 75, you should be able to live on what you’ve saved. But this age cut-off needs to be re-examined.”