GREY POWER article in Courier Mail QWeekend, October 1-2,2016 By GRANTLEE KIEZA
It’s high noon in Canberra as Everald Compton gets ready to march toward the microphone and into battle at the National Press Club. A few weeks short of his 85th birthday, he’s still hitting his stride. As Compton adjusts his blue and white diamond-patterned tie, straightens the jacket of his dark blue power suit and runs a hand over his shining white hair, there’s a touch of the statesman about him.
He is a veteran campaigner who has been shaking the hands of prime ministers since 1956 and twisting their arms for the past 40 years, fighting for increases in the pension and spreading his message that grey is gold – that elderly Australians are a priceless asset.
Of all the prime ministers he has met, Bob Menzies and Gough Whitlam were the most commanding, while at the other end of the spectrum he thought Billy McMahon was a “silly little bloke” – the worst prime minister he had encountered until he met Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott.
He hopes to channel some of Menzies and Gough today. Watching on, the moderator at the Press Club address, David Speers, Sky Channel’s political editor, remarks: “When Everald Compton is on the warpath, both sides of politics need to watch out.”
Compton casts an eye over the lunchtime audience in the large dining room and as he takes centre stage behind the lectern and adjusts the discreet hearing aid in his left ear, he outlines the reasons why Malcolm Turnbull not only has to appoint a special minister for ageing Australians but why the whole age pension system needs overhauling. There are 1.5 million aged pensioners in Australia, he says, and a third of them are living on or below the poverty line, mashing their food because they can’t afford dental care or missing meals so they can pay their rent.
“The age pension in Australia is clearly inadequate,” he says, “and the Government of Australia has to face up to it.”
He holds up a report labelled “The Adequacy of the Age Pension in Australia” that he and a team of researchers have been working on for 12 months. He says it should have been titled “The Inadequacy of the Age Pension”.
Back in 1908, Compton says, Alfred Deakin and Andrew Fisher, who both served as prime ministers that year, “got together and set the age for the pension at 65 because that’s the age when they reckoned most people would be dead, and they were going to give the age pension to anyone who survived”. He says the pension rate was then £26 a year because that’s all the government could afford.
“There was no other scientific calculation involved. Down the years governments have made adjustments on whether they need to win an election, but they have never done an economic study to see what it really costs a pensioner to live.” Compton says many pensioners are giving up their phones and their computers because they can’t afford the $40 monthly bill – “so we are entering an age of technology where pensioners are going to be cut off from essential medical services”.
For the past year, Compton’s not-for-profit group the Longevity Innovation Hub, along with Australia’s oldest charity, the Benevolent Society, and the research think tank Per Capita, have been researching the needs of pensioners, holding focus groups and public meetings around the country. His research shows the need for “an independent tribunal set up by an act of Parliament that takes the whole pension out of the budget and out of political and election places”. Parliamentarians, he says, have a similar tribunal to decide their own salaries and never question the findings. Making the pension adequate and fair, he says, would cost the Federal Government $2 billion, but it could save $8 billion a year by cutting out middle-class welfare and negative gearing. Even if that meant a decline in the value of the home at Aspley, about 13km north of Brisbane’s CBD, where he and his wife Helen, 78, live, Compton says it’s a bullet he’ll take for the team.
We’re sitting in the study of that neat, lowset Aspley home two days after Compton’s speech. He’s behind the desk where, with a tumbler of good Scotch beside him and one finger working tirelessly, he tapped out a biography of his hero, the Reverend John Flynn. He wrote The Man on the Twenty Dollar Notes while winding down from a schedule that includes fighting for the pensioners, consulting on an inland railway from Melbourne to Darwin, writing regularly on his blog, tweeting voraciously under the handle @EVERALDATLARGE, advising on the cattle business, and raising funds for the Uniting Church in Aspley, where he and Helen are both elders.
Already on the day Everald talks to The Courier-Mail, he has had breakfast in Brisbane with Cloncurry cattleman Don McDonald, whose properties cover a land mass bigger than Belgium, and who is backing the inland railway. He followed that with a public meeting with pensioners at Mt Gravatt, in Brisbane’s south, hosted by the State Member for Mansfield, Ian Walker. Then it was lunch with a researcher to discuss affordable housing.
Helen is constantly amazed at her husband’s workload but Compton swears Flynn’s spirit is beside him, urging him to fight for disadvantaged Australians.
“Flynn was always a hero from my earliest childhood memories,” he says. “My mother took me to Sunday school at age three and I’ve been going to church ever since.”
Compton was born in Toowoomba and grew up in the logging villages of Linville and Monsildale in the Brisbane Valley. When the local mill closed, his father, Herbert, moved the family to Toowoomba for work at the KR smallgoods factory.
Herbert was descended from a British convict and Compton’s mother, Thelma, was the granddaughter of a Lutheran missionary sent from Germany with the charter to “remove sin from the continent of Australia”. John Flynn became Compton’s idol and exemplar.
“The sheer scope of what he achieved is staggering,” he says. “Back in 1912 the Presbyterian Church said to him, ‘we are going to make you the head of the Australian Inland Mission to look after the bush’ – which was 80 per cent of the continent. They thought he was going to build churches but he went out to spread the word by building a mantle of safety. He built hospitals, started the Flying Doctors and School of the Air. He was a true nation-builder and we don’t have nation-builders like him any more.”
Compton says writing the book kept his brain constantly firing. “I believe someone who remains active like me will live five years longer,” he says. “The more people who keep working into their later years means less money the government has to find for pensions. And the longer a person works, the more money is going into their super fund so they have a better life.
“I’m on a board of directors of a cattle company that I have a minor interest in. All the others on the board are 40, and I’m almost 85. They keep referring to my experience, and that situation should be replicated all over Australia. Every company with young turks should have an old guy on the board, provided they are willing to learn new ways.”
At the National Press Club, Jo Toohey, chief executive of the Benevolent Society, follows Compton to the stage and tells the audience that for many pensioners, the daily challenges of medical bills, paying rent or hiring tradespeople are “hugely amplified”.
“This has an enormous effect on their health and wellbeing.” Out of their pension, she says – a maximum basic rate of $797.90 a fortnight for a single person and $1203 for couples – they have to pay the basics first, so even a dental visit becomes “an extraordinary event”. Australia’s minimum wage is nearly double the age pension. The lowest-paid Member of Parliament receives almost 10 times the amount. “The poverty line in Australia is $851 a fortnight,” Toohey says. “If you’re a single person receiving the age pension without any rent assistance because you own your own home – which is quite possibly falling down around you – then your living income is $56 below the poverty line. That’s one-third of age pensioners.”
Many pensioners, she says, switch off their hot water for months because they can’t afford the electricity. “We are a rich country, the fifth-richest in the world (according to OECD wealth-distribution figures) yet we allow a third of our pensioners to live at or below the poverty line.”
Compton watches his confederate speak. He has the look of a general commanding troops in attack.
John Flynn knew how to build partnerships with people who could help him, Compton says. He had Hudson Fysh, the founder of Qantas, and fundraisers such as cattleman Sidney Kidman, farm machinery manufacturer H. V. McKay, and author Jeannie Gunn.
Compton started his partnership with Helen when he was 25 and president of the Presbyterian Fellowship for Brisbane. He was at a church camp at Alexandra Headland on the Sunshine Coast. He made a speech to farewell a missionary heading to Vanuatu, cracked a joke and saw a girl in the crowd smile at the remark.
That was 60 years ago. They have four children – Wendy, 57, a high-school teacher in Brisbane; Robyn, 55, a dietitian in Melbourne; Paul, 52, a banker in London, and Lyndel, 49, a cancer nurse at Swindon, also in England. Each of his four children has two of his or her own.
Compton worked at the smallgoods factory, then the Commonwealth Bank in Toowoomba, and studied at night to become an accountant. When he was 24 he heard that the Presbyterian Church was looking for a fundraiser to help build St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital on Wickham Terrace in inner Brisbane’s Spring Hill.
He was so successful at tapping wealthy old Scotsmen on the shoulder that he soon set up his own fundraising company, which became Everald Compton International. He ran it for 40 years, establishing offices in Brisbane, Wellington in New Zealand, Johannesburg, Vancouver and London. He raised money for politicians across the spectrum – Gough Whitlam, John Howard, Bob Hawke and Joh Bjelke-Petersen. He met Joh’s future wife, Flo, when she was Florence Gilmour and teaching bible classes at St Andrew’s on Creek St, in Brisbane’s CBD. He ran campaigns for the restoration of English cathedrals – at Ely, Worcester, Gloucester, Winchester and Portsmouth – and raised money for South Africa’s Progressive Federal Party, which eventually helped to free Nelson Mandela.
All along Compton wanted to help a group in Australia he saw as being especially needy and in 1976 was one of the founders of National Seniors Australia, which boasts 250,000 members.
Since then, he has lobbied prime ministers for a better deal for older Australians and built three retirement villages – Compton Gardens at Aspley, Comptons at Caboolture, and Brookland Village at southside Sunnybank.
In 2009 he negotiated with then-federal treasurer Wayne Swan, his local member, an increase to the single pension of about $33, but he says much more is needed now to provide the elderly with a decent standard of living.
Compton gives a series of media interviews after his address to the National Press Club and talks over his ideas with Labor powerbroker Anthony Albanese. He ends the night tweeting: “Quiet scotch after 11 hours with #Pension Study Team … A small step towards justice for pensioners”.
Back at home with Helen in Aspley, he’s preparing for an open day at the nearby Bald Hills mosque to strengthen ties with his neighbourhood’s Muslim community. It is a rapidly changing world. He recently tweeted: “As committed Elder of my #Church can I say we have no right to say a word re #samesexmarriage in light of our infamous record on #childabuse”.
He has little faith in the present government, saying that he is “terribly disappointed” with Malcolm Turnbull. “I worked with Malcolm during the Republican movement in 1999. He was arrogant then, but decisive. He’d make snap decisions and you couldn’t contest them. He alienated so many people. But as Prime Minister, he is now so indecisive.”
Compton says the first Federal Budget he heard was delivered by Harold Holt more than half a century ago and the government’s funding for pensioners has not improved since then.
He has dealt with every prime minister since Menzies. “I had a fair bit to do with Whitlam,” he says. “He was an enormously impressive personality – the problem was he would imagine these great things but couldn’t get them done. He had some dreadful hillbillies with him like Jim Cairns and Rex Connor, who dragged him down. Malcolm Fraser was a very ordinary prime minister, and Bob Hawke was the best negotiator I’d met until Julia Gillard.
“Bob had a marvellous ability to be everybody’s friend. Paul Keating had the best economic brain but also an ability to make people dislike him. His ideas – such as compulsory superannuation – were brilliant.
“John Howard was probably the best grassroots politician I dealt with. Old John could smell trouble coming a mile away and the Howard era was the most prosperous in my lifetime. We had 11 good years with him at the helm.”
Compton says he has “a very low opinion of Kevin Rudd” and cheered his downfall. “You never knew what he was going to do next. He was one of the most intelligent blokes I’ve dealt with but he couldn’t deal with people.”
Julia Gillard, he says, had a poor public image, like an old schoolmarm, “but one on one she was superb – a great negotiator. She had an attractive personality, which didn’t come through to the public”.
Tony Abbott, he says, was “totally out of his depth … a very rigid thinker driven by religion and hard-right ideology” – and he says Turnbull is only surviving because there is no natural successor.
Compton says the present Federal Government must do more for the growing population of ageing Australians. “By 2050 there will be 50,000 Australians over 100,” he says, “and the largest population group in Australia will be aged 85-100. The Government seems totally oblivious. Turnbull only has a Minister for Aged Care – that represents only about one per cent of the ageing question.”
The clock on Compton’s wall chimes and reminds him of more meetings he has scheduled.
When he gets a chance to relax with a smoky, peaty single-malt Scotch, he’s working on a new book about Australia’s Federation. He says it is “staggeringly stupid” that such a wealthy country as Australia still treats its oldest citizens so poorly.
Last week he told his audience in Canberra: “The Government hopes that by three o’clock this afternoon everyone will have forgotten about this, and I just want to let them know that in whatever short years I may have left on this planet, I’m going to relentlessly pursue them. We’ve come to the point in the history of Australia where the pension has to come out of politics and enter the area of human justice.
“As Gough Whitlam would have said if he were up here: ‘It’s time’.”