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Indigenous man calls on Federal Government to help reduce age pension discrimination

Dechlan Brennan -

The High Court has declined to hear an aged pension discrimination case for an Indigenous man, leaving little avenue open to stymie inequality other than government intervention.

Uncle Dennis, a Queensland-born Wakka Wakka man who has requested that his surname be withheld, unsuccessfully brought a case before the federal Court last year, seeking fair and equal access to the age pension for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

He had called for access to his aged pension at 64, instead of at 67, arguing this was in-line with the significant disparity in life-expectancy for Indigenous people compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts.

The case, which was brought with the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) and the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC), argued the failure of the Commonwealth to account for differences in life expectancy for First Nations people receiving the aged pension constituted a breach of Section 10 of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The Federal Court said they recognised the ongoing gap in life expectancy for Indigenous people. However, they rejected the claim, arguing Uncle Dennis did not "enjoy the right to apply for and receive the age pension 'to a more limited extent' than non-Indigenous men born on or between 1 January 1957 and 31 December 1957."

Last week, his special leave request to the High Court was refused.

Uncle Dennis said the case was asking the government to "work together with us," in order to give Indigenous people the "same chance in life as everyone else."

"The pension is an important part of caring for and looking after our people when they can't work anymore," he said.

HRLC senior lawyer Josephine Langbien said it was clear the aged system pension wasn't working fairly.

"The gap in life expectancy means that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are being denied the same opportunity to be supported in retirement and age with dignity," she said.

Arguing the High Court had made it "clear" Australia's racial discrimination laws can't fix inequity, Ms Langbien said it would now be up to the Federal Government to address the health impacts brought on by a history of systemic discrimination by implementing real changes to support Closing the Gap.

"Regardless of the Court's decision, the Albanese Government has a responsibility to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have fair access to the pension," she said.

VALS chief executive Nerita Waight said the failure by successive governments to close the life expectancy gap was particularly shameful.

"Our people know what they need to improve their lives," the Yorta Yorta and Narrandjeri woman said.

"Uncle Dennis is asking for this small change to the age pension so our people can have an opportunity for a more dignified retirement. It's now for the Commonwealth Government to change the Social Security Act to make the pension system fairer for our Elders."

Data released last year shows that the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people in Australia has widened rather than narrowed.

Across Australia, Indigenous males on average live 8.8 years less than non-Indigenous males; Indigenous women on average live 8.1 years less than for non-Indigenous females. In the NT, this difference increased to 13.5 years for males and 13.8 for females.

Last month, a scathing Productivity Commission report found governments have "failed to fully grasp the nature and scale of change" needed to meet the obligations they signed up to under the agreement.

Uncle Dennis said despite successive governments promising to close the gap for over a decade, there has been little real progress made for Indigenous people.

"They are all talk and no action," he said. "If it were the other way around, and white people were dying too young, they would have fixed this already."

Last month, the Federal Government admitted the old ways of governing were "not working," with the Prime Minister telling parliament: "If we want to close the gap, we have to listen to people who live on the other side of it."

For Uncle Dennis, he said the High Court result wouldn't end his fight.

"I took this legal action because I wanted to stand up for my people," he said.

"I am disappointed that the court won't hear our case, but we will keep fighting because truth and accountability are important."

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