Home' Australian Ageing Agenda : AAA Spt-Oct 2013 Contents "Retirement villages are a way that people can get all the benefits
of a community and be able to help each other, while retaining their
independence, and not living in each other's pockets," she says.
A key point she makes about life in a retirement village is that
people choose to move there as a positive step in their life.
"Nobody is forced to live in a retirement village. But for many
people it is a lot more attractive than an aged care home or an
oversized family home that's no longer suitable."
Like all maturing sectors wanting a say in policy, the retirement
village industry needed a base in Canberra and a sound
understanding of policy-making and political process. The RVA's
leadership and board could see clear benefits from representation
by a bigger advocacy body.
"The RVA has served the industry well for a long time. But the
industry is changing rapidly and it is no longer a cottage industry;
it has big publicly listed companies and many large members with
complex businesses," says Wood.
"Governments are increasingly large and complex too and it
makes sense to bundle up advocacy into a big organisation like
the PCA in order to get an audience with the ministers when you
really need it."
The RVA, she says, just didn't have the resources to devote to
advocacy. It was an unsustainable model for an industry that is highly
regulated, and not a recipe for successful government relations.
Another issue for the RVA has been a lingering image problem
around Gold Coast-style property investor stereotypes.
Cynics may have seen last year's merger of the RVA with the
Property Council of Australia (PCA) -- a peak body whose stated
mission is to champion the interests of the property sector - as a
final blow for the place of retirement villages in social policy.
But cynics wouldn't be right. On the contrary, Wood says, the
Retirement Living Council was set up precisely to advocate for
retirement villages, and frame them as part of the policy solution
to the shortage of affordable, age-appropriate housing.
THE GOVERNMENT ENIGMA
Wood says the retirement village sector is never going to prosper or
grow without a nuanced understanding of how governments make
decisions, whether on regulation or tax or community care funding.
She says people who run businesses -- whether for profit or
not -- can mistakenly think that the government sector operates
on similar decision-making structures and processes to their own.
"It's just not the case," says Wood. "There is a gulf between
them. They're really very different with entirely different modus
operandi and decision-making apparatus.
"I know CEOs of organisations can feel very frustrated and
assume the government is not interested or is inefficient or
irrational, but senior public servants and the ministers are often
just as time poor as the CEOs. Ministers are not just sitting there
working out how industries can have their particular needs met."
She also warns against assuming that governments will be
interested in internal differences within an industry or will want
to take a position on turf wars.
"Getting obsessed about the differences between operators
or operating models is a strategic error when negotiating with
government," she says. "When I worked with the childcare sector,
there was always some tension between private operators and not-for-
profits. There is potential for tension and internecine battles in many
industries, but there are also plenty of common needs and problems
and government actions that can benefit the industry as a whole.
"Ministers are incredibly busy people who need to hear the
headline problems and wish list in five minutes. They're not
interested in personality differences and geographical splits.
They're not interested in the relatively minor differences in
corporate structure or tax status," she says.
It's practical advice, borne of experience and it leads Wood
to another observation about the mistakes industries and their
representatives often make in trying to have their voices heard.
"Industries need to come to government with solutions that
are well-thought through; not just pleas for assistance or 'thought
bubbles'," she says.
A SOLUTION, NOT A PROBLEM
A particular challenge for the retirement village sector, according
to Mary Wood, is that proactive advocacy is new ground because
retirement villages have never been regulated 'for' in any policy
sense in the past. Rather, she says, they have been seen as a
potential problem needing regulating against, so their profile and
association has been largely limited to consumer protection and
departments of fair trading.
"In the past, the approach of fair trading ministers has been to
limit the bad; not to promote the good," she says.
"The industry has a huge contribution to make but if it is only
seen by government as a problem, rather than a solution, it will
always remain in the narrow remit of consumer law, rather than
part of human services, aged care or housing policy.
"And there has never been any one minister responsible for
retirement villages," she adds.
Wood acknowledges that she lives in interesting times and says she is
enjoying the challenge. After six months, she is celebrating her first
major milestone: the launch of the new Lifemark Village Scheme, a
comprehensive new accreditation scheme for retirement villages, run
by one of Australia's largest auditing organisations, BSI Australia.
"The accreditation scheme has nothing to do with bricks and
mortar and everything to do with ensuring that residents are
treated with respect and dignity.
"The reality is that no retirement village business can prosper
with an exclusive focus on property and construction and
metrics. Residents are the best sales force for any retirement
village. If the residents are unhappy then you are on a losing
model and it is only a matter of time."
She says there is no doubt the retirement village market is
changing and will continue to change as baby boomers begin to make
decisions about their own housing requirements in their later years.
"Money talks so the market will listen. What people want
will be what the market offers and the expectation is that baby
boomers will want more things and will possibly demand them
more vocally than previous generations did," she says.
Part of that demand will be around greater diversity of village
type and location. Wood says it is inner city and middle ring
suburban growth in villages that is needed and more diversity of
housing types. Achieving this will involve addressing some of the
current barriers to investment.
One consistent factor that comes up in talking to operators
and residents, she says, is that people want to know that there is
more extensive support and care services available if they need it.
"We have the accreditation scheme in place. Now we're
working on getting better industry data and building
relationships with government," she says.
"The government can't do it all and I am optimistic that they
will recognise that retirement villages are part of the solution and
not the problem." n
ON BREAKING INTO
"I was working in the graduate stream at the Attorney General's
department after coming back to Australia and feeling a bit
underchallenged. And I was getting interested in the more
political side of things. I just cold-called around Parliament House
and out of that, I got offered a job with [WA senator] Chris Evans.
ON THE DEFERRED
MANAGEMENT FEE (DMF)
In essence it is a reverse mortgage enabling someone who is
asset rich to have the benefits of suitable housing now. While
there will be arguments about how high a DMF should be, I see it
as the consumer's choice. Whether it is fair or unfair depends on
whether the person understood it when they signed. Complexity
and transparency are quite different things. But it's not the case
that operators have any intention or advantage in pulling the wool
over people's eyes.
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