Some aged care homes and retirement villages are being targeted to harvest votes from Australia’s elderly. Is it systemic, or just a few anecdotes? Dr Sarah Russell looks at the evidence.
Some aged care homes and retirement villages are actively disenfranchising older people in what could be described as a corruption of the political process. These providers allow only some candidates to distribute election material within their premises. They also control which candidates meet their residents.
I first became aware of the disparity of access during the 2013 federal election campaign. While spending time with my mother in a residential aged care home, I noticed that only one candidate visited the home. When I asked whether other candidates would be visiting, I was told that only this candidate had been “invited”.
“Owners of aged care homes should not be allowed to impose their political preferences on residents. Although aged care homes are private businesses, they also receive billions of dollars from taxpayers. The least taxpayers can expect is that aged care homes remain politically neutral.
When I recently raised this issue on social media, a campaign manager for a candidate contesting the recent Victorian election responded that they were “knocked back from speaking to residents in several aged care homes”. He added that supporters were “prevented from door knocking [at retirement villages]”.
The seat of Mornington is on a knife's edge because postal votes favour Liberals.
e.g. some aged care homes and retirement villages provide ONLY Liberal HTV Cards. At my mother's aged care home, ONLY the Lib candidate was allowed to visit during the election campaign#VicVotes
— 💧Sarah Russell (@AgedMatters) November 27, 2022
Were other candidates in his electorate also “knocked back”? Prevented from door knocking?
It was entirely reasonable for aged care homes and retirement villages to restrict visitors during the pandemic. However, it was not reasonable for them to allow some candidates to visit but not others.
This corruption of the democratic process is not new. For decades, some aged care homes and retirement villages have favoured candidates of a certain political persuasion.
When a candidate contesting the federal seat of Flinders in the 1990s discovered that a retirement village had asked Peter Reith to speak, she approached the owner of the village to ask if she could also speak. He refused. He said the invitation to Minister Reith was “a personal invite”.
Can confirm this. We were knocked back from speaking to residents in several aged care homes, and even prevented from doorknocking.
I believe the Liberal candidate had early knowledge of where the mobile voting centres (voting busses in aged care centres) would be too.
— Conal Feehely (@ConalFeehely) November 27, 2022
Later when Greg Hunt was the Minister for Health and Aged Care he had access to both aged care homes and retirement villages in the Flinders electorate. Other candidates did not.
To ensure all candidates compete on a level playing field, retirement villages and aged care homes must allow all candidates equal access. It is unfair to allow only one candidate to speak with residents.
Some aged care homes and retirement villages also restrict the distribution of election material. Again, this undermines the democratic purpose of an election campaign – which is to inform the electorate of the policies of competing candidates and their parties. Without information about each candidate, how can residents make an informed choice?
Concerns have also been raised about postal votes. The recent Victorian election is the first time new laws were in effect that prohibit anyone other than the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) from distributing postal vote applications. However, the VEC received complaints alleging Liberal MPs sent out postal voting application forms to constituents.
The postal voting 'system'
appears open to abuse
in aged care facilities.@AusElectoralCom
Hawthorn District, Vic election, 26 Nov. pic.twitter.com/uj9dNN1gCy
— Geoff Andrews (@Geoff_Andrews__) November 28, 2022
In some aged care homes, party volunteers “assist” older people to complete their postal votes. It has been alleged that these volunteers target residents who have cognitive failure. Although some residents with cognitive impairments have their name removed from the electoral role, others remain.
It has also been alleged that staff completed voting ballots without consulting residents. This behaviour has also been going on for years. A staff member of an aged care home on the Gold Coast in 2007 took a resident to vote. The resident was told that staff had already voted for her. This was unethical, if not illegal.
Older people who live in aged care homes and retirement villages have a democratic right to vote without interference. Why has the federal and state electoral commissions allowed this corruption of the political process to continue?
Questions were put to the Victorian Electoral Commission:
A number of independent political candidates and their staffers have responded to a twitter thread detailing their stories about not receiving access to aged care homes during their campaigning while their opponents have.
Has the VIC received complaints regarding this issue?
If so, has an investigation been carried out into this issue?
Does the VIC recommend regulatory or policy changes to address the issue?
Dr Sarah Russell is a public health researcher. She is the Principal Researcher at Research Matters and Chair of Progressives of the Peninsula. She was formerly the Director, Aged Care Matters.