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Family Carers are the sleeping giant of Australian politics

By Vern Hughes - posted Tuesday, 6 July 2004


What is the biggest common-interest constituency in Australia? Trade unions? The green movement? Small business?

The answer may surprise many of our political elite. Home-based carers of people with a disability, chronic or mental illness, and the frail aged, number some 2.7 million people. Together with the people they care for (almost the same number again) they are the largest common-interest community in the country.

This vast number of people are the most hidden, ignored and unrepresented community in Australia. Indigenous people are high in need but their plight looms large in the national political consciousness. Carers don’t rate a blip on the national radar.

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Family carers are not sexy. No politician has ever lain awake at night wondering how to deal with the electoral consequences of disappointing carers of people with a disability.

No university students have ever taken to the streets in protest over the plight of the many full-time carers who receive an income that is one quarter of the aged pension.

Unlike the green movement, carers’ issues do not appeal to the fashionable, the glitterati, or pop stars wanting a cause. The carer’s world is a very private world. It unfolds within the home, not on the TV news.

And few people from outside can appreciate just how fragmented and dysfunctional the service system is from the client’s and carer’s standpoints or how disempowering it is to be at once dependent on that system but also paralysed by its gross inadequacy.

Yet carers, and the people we care for, are the sleeping giant of Australian politics.

Can you imagine the shape of Australian politics if family carers were to occupy as prominent a place in political affairs as the green movement?

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We would see politicians jostling to win electoral preferences from families of people with disabilities (as we now see them jostling to win green preferences).

We would see treasurers trying to buy the votes of carers by introducing billion-dollar programs (just as they now throw around billions of dollars to buy votes from a raft of other constituencies).
 
We would see political parties trying to recruit leaders from family/carer support groups (in the same way they now seek to recruit high profile environmentalists).
 
Is this far-fetched? Dell Stagg doesn’t think so. This Adelaide sole parent who cares for her 39-year-old daughter at home says there are many more people like her in carers’ groups than in most of the noisy lobby groups that influence politicians and public policy.

Dell Stagg was advised by a friendly Commonwealth bureaucrat in 1991 that people like her would never get anywhere unless they organised politically. Thirteen years later, when her domestic life has finally reached some stability, Dell is getting round to it.

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
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About the Author

Vern Hughes is Secretary of the National Federation of Parents Families and Carers and Director of the Centre for Civil Society and has been Australia's leading advocate for civil society over a 20-year period. He has been a writer, practitioner and networker in social enterprise, church, community, disability and co-operative movements. He is a former Executive Officer of South Kingsville Health Services Co-operative (Australia's only community-owned primary health care centre), a former Director of Hotham Mission in the Uniting Church, the founder of the Social Entrepreneurs Network, and a former Director of the Co-operative Federation of Victoria. He is also a writer and columnist on civil society, social policy and political reform issues.

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