Reminiscences of Research – How much still holds up?
2. Prime Ministerial Taskforce on Positive Ageing 1996-7
In April 1996, under the Prime Ministership of Jim Bolger, the Prime Ministerial Task Force on Positive Ageing was set up 1. It was chaired by Sir Ross Jansen who had a distinguished career in local government and the health sector. The other members were David Richmond (Professor of Geriatric Medicine), David Harrison (from the insurance industry), Sue Suckling (management experience in the private and public sectors) and Alan Nixon (ex-officio from the Department of Social Welfare). There was thus a variety of experience in the group.
The objective was to develop public consensus on:
the environment that is necessary to ensure that people move through their lives towards a healthy, independent, safe, secure and dignified old age, in which they are able to participate in and contribute to society to the extent of their abilities and wishes, and enjoy the respect and support of their families and communities.
This is the type of vision which could easily appear in policy statements today – it rings all the same bells. A very similar statement appears on the first page of the 2014 Report on the Positive Ageing Strategy.
But economic concerns run throughout the taskforce reports, perhaps reflecting the composition of the group. How are we going to ensure the ways and means to enable a positive older age? The answer is a strong economy to provide jobs, to pay for health and welfare services and to provide opportunities for achievement and belonging.
The Task Force had to consider what individuals, families, communities, the business and commercial sector, employers and government may need to do to achieve the desired environment. Consultation was therefore a major focus. The first document which appeared (July/August 1996) was a call for input on the vision and values which the taskforce put forward:
Significantly the vision called upon all people to adopt these values and to understand the ageing process, sharing responsibility, respect and care.
A second consultation document appeared in April/May 1997 and reported on the first round with verbatim comments from participants in community discussions. This document proposed strategies and asked for comment. The strategies ranged from facilitating more flexible retirement and combatting ageism, encouraging lifelong learning, elevating the status of parenting, grandparenting and informal caregiving as vocations and, dear to my heart, developing a comprehensive social science research agenda to inform social policy-making. Nirvana!
The final taskforce report – Facing the Future: A strategic plan – appeared in July 1997 (its work was compressed into barely a year). This fleshed out strategies and plans and even gave costings. It is well worth a read, but I can’t do a full analysis here. It covered issues which are still very much around – elder abuse and neglect, encouraging health and fitness, information sharing between government agencies, inter-sectoral partnerships (we did get a Time Use Survey). But since 1997 the work of the taskforce has received little air time and recognition. To answer why not we have to look to the political and policy context – this is where reminiscence comes in.
At the time the Multi Party Accord on Retirement Income Policies was in existence – a rare example of political parties coming together on policy 2. It established the Office of the Retirement Commissioner in 2001, which began actively publicising the need for increased private retirement savings (remember those TV adverts with children berating their parents for lack of thrift?). 1996 brought the first election under MMP and, after long negotiations, led to a coalition between the National and New Zealand First parties. Part of the Coalition Agreement was a referendum on a compulsory superannuation scheme, which was held in September 1997. The result, as I am sure you will remember, was 92% against the scheme and only 8% for. Can you remember how you voted and why? In December 1997 Jenny Shipley took over the Prime Ministership from Jim Bolger.
Then in 1999 came the change of government, with Helen Clark leading a Labour/Alliance government. I think these political changes must have had an effect on the outcome for the taskforce – clearly an initiative of an earlier prime minister and a government of a different political hue. In 2001 came the New Zealand Positive Ageing Strategy – a re-invention or a bright new enterprise?
1 MacDonald, Alison (1998) Developing Long-Term Policy: The Approach Used By the Recent Prime Ministerial Task Force on Positive Ageing. Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, Issue 10.
2 Preston, David (1997) The Compulsory Retirement Savings Scheme Referendum of 1997. Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, Issue 9.