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Treasurer Josh Frydenberg delivering the 2019 budget. Photo: SBS

Carers: not quite forgotten in the Australian budget

Josh Frydenberg’s first budget has generally been greeted with disappointment by the aged care industry, as ACI has reported elsewhere in some detail.

One budget item the treasurer raised, however, gave me some reason for excitement. It was the announcement that an additional $84.3 million is to be provided for carers over the coming four years.

That’s not much each year. I calculated just over $2 million per annum on average for each state and territory. But at least there was an attempt to recognise the fundamental work of carers in the delivery of aged care.

It turns out, however, that the newly announced expenditure was simply filling out a budget item that had already been announced in the budget last year by the then treasurer, Scott Morrison.

The extra funding is intended to enable the number of ‘financial packages’ available to carers to expand from 3000 to around 5000 per year. At least 25 per cent of the total is intended for young carers, that is, those aged 25 or less. These packages are a core part of the Integrated Carer Support Service (ICSS) program that has been promised for several years.

When finally implemented, the ICSS is supposed to provide new online counselling, coaching and peer support services as well as educational material and direct services across 16 regions. We continue to wait to see what, if anything, will be delivered.

Meanwhile, the packages, worth up to $3000 per recipient, are intended to cover the costs associated with a carer’s education, employment, travel and opportunities to take a break from the provision of daily care.

The most recent survey of carers by the ABS (2015) found that there are approximately 2.7 million carers in Australia. About 856,000 of these (32 per cent of all carers) are the primary carer of someone with disability or who requires care as a result of ageing.

If we assume that the packages are to help primary carers, most will miss out. There are only enough packages to help around 11 carers in every 2000. Expressed more conventionally, about 0.55 per cent of the potential target group will be eligible.

Of course, income support arrangements through the Carer Payment (previously Carer Pension) and Carer Allowance continue. Yes, they will receive the Energy Assistance Payment of $75 available for single people ($62.50 per person for couples) to help them through the next year. That’s a handy extra amount of almost $1.50 a week for some, not enough to pay for a cup of coffee, but it may buy them 10 or 25 minutes in front of the radiator on a cold winter’s night.

However, for the recipients of these payments, as well as the majority of carers who are not eligible for public income support, other problems continue. One is the long-term financial effects of providing care, expressed as a loss of earnings and an incapacity to save.

Foremost among these, from the perspective of the budget, is that carers have been removed from the aged care and disability programs and made subject to specialised services targeted at them. This has been sold as a significant development in carers’ rights. Carers, it is claimed, no longer have to be helped out of the aged care or disability programs, but have come to be recognised on their own merits.

The problem is that care is not just about individual needs. It is essentially part of a close personal relationship in which support is provided on an ongoing basis.

Carers do not need help as a result of some pathology or unmet need of their own. Their needs arise from the importance of being there for the person they help.

Increasingly, the difficulties faced by carers arise from the need for someone to take responsibility for the complex financial details found in current care plans while managing the inevitable staff problems and schedules that arise in this time of CDC packages and NDIS budgets.

Yet services have been redesigned to make them even less visible than they were 10 or 20 years ago.

According to a recent report by Deloitte (2015), carers provide around 1.9 billion hours of unpaid assistance every year. This has an economic value of well over $60 billion per year, much more than the combined costs of aged care and the NDIS.

Next time a treasurer delivers the Australian budget, it might be worth thinking a little more about the value of unpaid care and its significance as a fundamental social relationship on which our communities are built.

Michael Fine is honorary professor in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University.

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