Family Carers and Election 2014: Analysis of party positions

This weekend, eligible voters will gather at the polls to determine the political future of New Zealand for the next three years.

Many thousands of those same voters will then return home to continue providing around-the-clock care for ill, elderly, and disabled family members and loved ones. 

More than 430,000 New Zealanders have caring roles, according to Census 2013, so what the political parties are promoting in terms of policy is of self-evident relevance to them. 

But the relevance doesn’t stop there. Like a pebble dropped in a pond, the situation of those requiring care radiates its own lingering ripples—in the local community, in the economy and in society at large. 

Analysis of party policies and promises, though they are often purposefully vague, offers a helpful guide for addressing current problems faced by many carers.

Two issues of particular interest were put to all of the political parties by the Carers Alliance of 45 national not-for-profits, which collectively represent tens of thousands of families with health, disability, and age-related support needs.

The first has to do with the carer payment policy announced in Budget 2013. This has dismally failed to meet even the Government’s low uptake expectations. Nearly a year after its introduction, fewer than 200 carers are receiving the Funded Family Care payment—as opposed to the promised 1,500—due to its complex guidelines and tough eligibility criteria.

Serious criticisms can also be made of the payment rates, which hue to the minimum wage rather than the industrial average.

Another longstanding issue, yet unresolved, is that of workable respite support for carers, time off which is obviously essential bearing in mind that many ‘work’ 24/7).

So where do the political parties currently stand on these issues and caring matters generally?

Asked whether they supported a serious review of Funded Family Care so that more disabled people and their chosen family carers can receive it—as well as a fair review of the equity issues associated with the payment—only the National Party indicated it was satisfied with the status quo.

Labour, Internet Mana, NZ First, the Greens, the Maori Party and United Future have all suggested they would like to see the issue reviewed as a matter of urgency. The Maori Party has said it would like to see the current legislation—the NZ Public Health and Disability Act—repealed outright. (The Act Party did not respond to requests for comment, and the group’s website contains no specifically related material.)

The Greens characterise the existing scheme as a “discriminatory disgrace.” Internet Mana says it believes family carers need to be recompensed at the same rate as professional caregivers. By comparison Labour, which has been a little vague on family carers as a category, has nonetheless pledged to improve the quality of home-based care.

On the question of respite care there is some party consensus, although here the National Party has front-footed the question with a stated commitment to continuing to improve the variety and flexibility of respite options available to families.

Labour, NZ First and United Future say they will review—taken to mean strive to improve—the current situation.

Only Labour, however, has specifically pledged itself to doing so in the campaign material it has posted online.

Elsewhere, United Future’s campaign material talks about ensuring “appropriate respite care” is made available in every region.

As might be expected, Internet Mana highlights the respite-related issues for Maori and Pacific households as does the Maori Party, which can point to having assisted with securing $32m in new funding in the last Budget for autism-related support services that will benefit carers of all cultures. In its outgoing co-leader, Tariana Turia, the Maori Party has sounded a reasonably strong voice for the rights of the disabled over the years and, by inference at least, those who care for them.

The Greens make much of the need for better respite care as a way of achieving better work-life balance for affected individuals.

The overall analysis of the positions on matters affecting family carers suggests there is a healthy engagement in some political quarters and minimal consideration in others.

Of the major and minor parties, Labour, the Greens and the Maori Party appear to have given these issues the most nuanced consideration. 

Carers with an eye for political change might therefore vote for one of them—as much so as anyone who is essentially happy with the existing arrangements would do well to offer a tick or two for National. Under its watch in government it has launched a second five year Action Plan for the Carers’ Strategy; while the actions in this new Plan are fairly modest, new areas of progress are nonetheless catered for especially for the 90% of Kiwi carers who are of working age and juggling paid employment with their caring responsibilities.

We encourage all family carers to exercise their right to vote this weekend and hope our analysis of political party feedback about key carer issues is useful.

The Carers Alliance, a collaborative network of NFPs working together to achieve a voice and progress for carers, celebrates its 10th anniversary in November. Watch for an Alliance led awareness campaign in 2015, our country’s first for carers. Politicians of all hues (including those who are carers and in a position to ensure positive change for this large population of New Zealanders ) should take note.

David Cohen’s son Eliot has autism. David is a regular commentator on health, disability, and age-related issues. The Carers Alliance commissioned David to review party responses to questions about the Funded Family Care payment, respite for carers, and general support for carers. This post is based on his analysis of the party responses.