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Rage against ageism


The role of the law in setting moral or behavioural standards has always been contentious.

When I was a law student, the debate was a simpler vexation because, in those days of idealism the issues were libertarian — should law seek to regulate matters of private morality, such as sexual acts between consenting adults? — or about the public interest in individual choices, such as access to smutty literature or art, or the expression of abhorrent views, such as holocaust denial, or incitement to racial hatred.

By so saying I have revealed an attribute that is also typical of a child of the '60s, that I am now the adult I so much did not want to be when I was young and hopeful; a 'wise woman', as I would like to see myself, with the clearer eyes of an ageing one; a woman of a certain age, which used to be over 40, but is over 60 now. And unemployable, though unwilling and unable to 'retire'.

Unwilling because there's life in the old girl yet, and my brain has not slipped into desuetude, even though I have learned that my IQ has slipped well below 147 as it aged, and because my confreres in the financial world have made sure my careful plans for retirement of 40 years ago have foundered along with my superannuation savings.

And unable, because of simple, plain and ineradicable age discrimination.

No matter what law may be passed, nearly all employers will not even look at appointing a woman — or a man — to any kind of job because of the assumed characteristics of their age.

These rules do not apply, of course, to the Rupert Murdochs of this world, nor to the elderly but well-connected men hogging the boards, discretionary appointments in universities, and consultancy gigs (or royal commissions) beloved of the closed circles of big business and governments willing to appease dumped politicians and powermongers.

I was once offered a professorial appointment which did not eventuate for more than a year and then for a derisory term while an MP who announced his impending retirement was appointed to a personal chair within ten days of that announcement, and I acted accordingly.

But sometimes even those who have been flying moderately high experience what my friend Charles, 59, and countless others experience every day of their mature working lives, no matter what the law says, in terms of enforced, unpaid, idleness.

Last March Michael Gill, then the editor in chief of the Australian Financial Review, learned to his considerable surprise that he had been working for Fairfax for far too long, and that his former deputy, a spring chicken of just 35 years, was to be appointed in his place.

Not a lot was said at the time, but it will be spoken about quite a lot in the next few weeks and months because he has sued his former employer in the Federal Court using a little-used provision of the Human Rights Act which implements Australia's obligation under international law to prohibit age discrimination in employment.

He wants more than a million bucks for what his old employer hath done to him, and a full page advertisement of apology.

Many older working men and women (though women are treated even worse in the media than men, and rarely if ever make it to Gill's managerial status) will watch this case with interest. I for one will be praying that it does not settle, and that the wimpish provisions prohibiting age discrimination in equal opportunity laws around Australia are exposed for the pathetic non-protections that they truly are.

Though the Commonwealth has given the Australian Human Rights Commission the power to receive complaints under a specific law, the Age Discrimination Act, most older workers know better than to seek to use its complaint conciliation processes.

This is because: the law itself is riven with exceptions and exemptions that make its reach decidedly dubious; as with racial discrimination provisions, the employers inevitably attack a complainant's 'performance' and divert attention from their own rampant preference for 'young' and presumably more ingenious, creative and energetic performers, as well as putting the claimants through the equivalent of a rape trial where the victim is seen as a persecutor of no moral worth; and because state laws with similar coverage and intent are now managed by commissioners and tribunals which are less independent and more limited to voluntary conciliation than investigation and authoritative interventions than was the norm even 15 years ago.

So, all power to Gill. Employers learn more from litigation than sweet reason, as the Board of David Jones showed us at the suit of Kristy Fraser-Kirk. Don't settle, Gill. Show us that a law based on the human right to be free from discrimination has sharp and expensive choppers. 

Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer. 

Topic tags: Moira Rayner, Fairfax, age discrimination



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Existing comments

That second-last paragraph - wow!

Frank | 03 February 2012  

As a plus 60's person Moira I salute you! Yep... Give them heaps - we are NOT on the scrap heap yet.

Gavin | 03 February 2012  

I am sure only a lawyer is able to write something as long second-last paragraph and still make sense! The article reminds me of a story I heard. A young man sits on a bench having his lunch and he strikes up a conservation with an elderly gentleman. The young man told the elderly man that he has a smart phone, a tablet, a computer, wireless internet and a large range of other technological toys and tools. With an air of superior importance the young told the elderly man: “You see what I have at my age! How primitive must have you been when you were my age and you did not have any of these devices and technologies”. The elderly man turned to the young man and said: “Yes, you are right, we did not have any. To make life easier for all of us, we went out invented the internet, computer and all the new gadgets. What has your generation invented as far?” The young man could not reply and walked away in a huff.

Beat Odermatt | 03 February 2012  

Age isn't a problem for election as Pope. Next time there's a job vacancy, I'd love the opportunity to vote for Moira Rayner.

CHRIS WATSON | 03 February 2012  

Sorry, Chris Watson, but it won't happen, for several sufficient reasons (to my personal relief). But you've segued perhaps unintentionally to a very relevant point. Liberal Catholics often attack the Pope - this one and the last in particular - because they're old, they're white, they're European, they're male, they're celibate - and so on. Next breath these same liberals are righteously fulminating against ageism, racism, nationalism, sexism and, for want of a term, "lifestyle choice"-ism. One can only laugh.

HH | 03 February 2012  

I see the only hope for the survival of the Labor Party is to hand a slab of power to the older members - life members for starters. They are the only ones making moral statements, concerned outbursts, and proclaimed ideals. So many of the young, so factionalised, so ambitious, so apparachikised are still in the "You take the principles, I'll take the numbers" slogan, which used to be a joke but is a joke no longer. Elders of the world unite - they need us !!

Dally Messenger III | 03 February 2012  

Would love to join you in laughter, HH, because what you describe in a certain ilk of "liberal Catholic" is so laughable. But one should not laugh at something so sad!

john frawley | 03 February 2012  

Why pick on MP's? Most backbench MPs are unemployable once they lose their seats, and more so if they are older. It is only those with special connections, or who have been ministers in economic portfolios who get much of a look in. private employers look with curiosity at the "MP" on the CV but still see an older person that they do not want to employ.

peter lockwood | 03 February 2012  

Thanks, Moira. This needs to be said. Our society wastes a lot of talent through ageism. The concept of a compulsory retiring age is anachronistic and encourages the societal perception that a senior age inevitably involves incompetence. This is sad both for individuals who still have so much to contribute and for society which is denying itself the benefit not only of skills and experience, but also accumulated wisdom. Perhaps our political leaders can show some real leadership here with policies that address this foolishness and injustice while reaping the benefits to the economy of harvesting substantial potential contributions that are presently being wasted.

Peter Johnstone | 03 February 2012  

I am entering into the world of the 'crone'; the grandmother, wise woman, midwife, my child bearing of bygone days. It saddens me that the many women who are taking this journey are still ignored by much of the institutionalised church, that in my eyes is far more short sighted than the secular world I live in. Cronyism, as you speak of Moira, reigns supreme in both these worlds, affecting all genders to various degrees. And I too have noticed the absence of older women in positions of influence within organisations.

In the midst of these failing, I also notice that the Jesuits offer many women positions of influence. So vital to telling the fuller story of life. Of course equity of access to all sacraments is the only way forward and I pray that as companions our fellow men will support this change.

I thankyou for your authentic words and will follow Gill’s challenge to his ageist dismissal by Fairfax.

I encourage all people who are discriminated against to maintain their wild and free essence and find the strength and courage within to continue the RAGE.

jo dallimore | 03 February 2012  

Hear, hear

David Arthur | 03 February 2012  

Go Moira! It's about time the elephant in the (interview) room was pointed out. I am sick of hearing politicians say that we need to keep people in work longer, when there is little being done about the rampant ageism in the workplace. I was sitting in a business district in Perth the other day, and was struck by how few women there were who were over 35-ish. There were quite a few men with grey hair, clearly over that age, but very few women. Someone once said to me that the senior men (and it normally is men), "don't employ older women because they want to look at a 'dolly bird', not someone who looks like their wife... or worse, their mother". It concerns me that this is a gender issue, as well as an age-discrimination issue. Thanks, Moira. I will follow the Gill case with great interest.

Lydia | 08 February 2012  

Yes - Moira !!! and while the old school boys look after each other Sally and I face a life without our beloved Kristy - who has been forced to find employment outside Australia !! However we do watch the share prices tumble in various establishments .......

Alex Fraser-Kirk | 10 February 2012  

Good on you Moira, I sincerely hope he doesn't settle either and is willing to really fight all the way so as bring some validity and strength to the law, so as to make companies take heed.

Maria Prestinenzi | 19 February 2012  

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