Ageing population at core of election issues

by Andy Bryenton

Healthcare, aged care and the cost of living in retirement are all set to become major talking points on the campaign trail this year, as an ageing population may hold the balance of power at the ballot box.

Citizens more than the age of 65 are more likely to turn out to vote in general elections, and according to Statistics NZ, they take a more active role in discussing and contemplating political decisions.

“Older people were more likely than younger people to have a very high interest in politics, with a higher self-assessed rate of understanding, how the government makes decisions. Of those aged 65 years and over, 15 per cent rated their interest in politics as very high, compared with 7 per cent of those aged 15 to 24,” says a report on the last general election in 2017. Since then, the proportion of Kiwis above 65 has increased.

What does this mean for our prospective parliamentarians? One message that has been heard loud and clear is that altering the retirement age is potentially damaging to a party’s hopes for popularity. Incumbent Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern famously said that she ‘would resign’ before raising the age of entitlement, and last year before parliament broke up a war of words between National leader Simon Bridges and New Zealand First leader Winston Peters cast the issue in the spotlight.

Peters criticised National’s stated plan to increase the retirement age to 67, beginning with 6-month increments from 2037, saying: “They increased Labour’s superannuation surtax in 1990, after promising to abolish it, no ifs, no buts, no maybes. National was responsible for lowering the New Zealand Superannuation rate from 65 per cent to 60 per cent of the average ordinary time weekly wage.” National is sticking by their plan to slowly increase the retirement age. It was also noted that the PM had advocated raising the super age to 67 while in opposition.

Another pair of hot topics will come with a referendum attached to this year’s election in September. Older people have polled consistently in support of medicinal cannabis, but recent polls also suggest that above 65s are the only age demographic who tend to oppose full legalisation, despite the efforts of pro-cannabis lobbyists such as local voices from Otamatea Grey Power. Tellingly, in a Horizon poll of more than 1,000 adult New Zealanders on whether or not they would try medicinal cannabis — were it widely available.

Overall, 34% answered ‘definitely’, ‘most likely’ or ‘somewhat likely’ equating to a possible maximum market potential of 1,058,900 citizens.

An even more contentious issue for the elderly is that of euthanasia, with concerns about end of life care and the ethics of doctor’s assistance in ‘death with dignity’ at the fore of the debate. 2019 Colmar Brunton and Reid Research polls put the numbers who support euthanasia in very controlled circumstances, for the terminally ill and suffering, at more than 70 per cent.

Meanwhile, older citizens themselves cite social services such as law and order and healthcare as being of primary importance, along with the maintenance of superannuation payments with regard to soaring rents (up 25 per cent in some areas since 2009) and background inflation.

Like increasing the retirement age, asset testing for super eligibility is a minefield topic for political parties. While many of us agree that top earners and those with vast assets do not need the pension, the counterargument that it is the reward for a lifetime of work and taxation is similarly compelling. At the same time, asset testing of another nature is a topic of contention for those who require residential care, with a subsidy to cover the full cost of retirement home or hospital living open only to those with assets totalling less than $230,495.

Criteria for gifting assets, including the family home, have been tightened up to ensure that nearly every other fiscal option must be exhausted before the government step in to assist.

Right now, close to 17 per cent of the population is above 65.

That’s projected to top out at 25 per cent, a full quarter, by the middle of this century.

Caring for, providing for, and housing these numbers of older people is a challenge very much on the minds of those who want to be our political leaders post-September 2020.

All parties predict an election, and twin referenda, where the voice of the older generation is loudly heard.