A Tribute to Marjorie Nunan: Warrior for Pensioners

Marjorie Nunan was born in Wodonga, Victoria on  the 27 October 1910. The second of five children born to Francis and Daisy Nunan, Marjorie was from accounts cheerful, outgoing and persistent in nature. Physically, Marjorie suffered the debilitating inherited Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, relying on callipers to help her walk. This disorder causes a genetic defect in connective tissue that supports skin, muscles and ligaments. The condition makes for a shortened, pain-ridden life.  Most likely she would have endured a whole range of health issues including bone dislocations; joint pain; early onset osteoarthritis; bruising and skin lesions. Given her condition and health standards of the era, her life would not have been easy; therefore it is to her credit that she looked to serve others in having their needs addressed.

Marjorie is now well known as a political and social activist but perhaps the most significant event that set her on this course was the Great Depression. In the late 1920’s before the Wall Street Crash, Australian unemployment was at 10 per cent. This shot to 21 per cent by mid-1930 and nearly 32 per cent by mid-1932 (Australian Government). In early adulthood Marjorie most certainly would have experienced the impacts of the Depression all around her. Neighbours, friends and perhaps family members who lost their jobs, and who were at risk of homelessness and starving from an inability to pay for housing and food.  The ‘tent cities’ that popped up from forced evictions, the impacts of cuts to wages and the age and invalid pensions, and increased taxation on people –  the food staples of ‘bread and dripping’. She would have witnessed others’ feelings of desperation, anger and hopelessness. Perhaps it is during this time that she took a stand and began her advocacy work. Perhaps the story of her sitting on the steps of Parliament House with a family who had been evicted, refusing to leave until a politician spoke to them occurred at this time. What is certain is that the Great Depression provided Marjorie with an unwavering knowledge of the importance of secure and sufficient housing and income to people’s security and living standards; the awareness that for many this was lacking, and; her need to advocate for others to help address these issues. She devoted her time to assisting people including representing people in eviction court cases.

A challenge to effective pensioner advocacy at that time was the multitude of loose-knit pensioner groups that focused on single issues. Due to segmentation, prior advocacy was ad-hoc and had little broad effect. In 1954 Marjorie called a public meeting at the Melbourne Town Hall with the aim to unite these groups and strengthen broader pensioner advocacy. This was achieved with the establishment of the Combined Pensioners’ Association of Victoria, with Marjorie as President. A united pensioner association provided strength to take up issues that impacted pensioners.

Strength in numbers allowed for better lobbying; however change required persistency and hard work. In 1955 Marjorie led the first delegation of pensioners to Canberra to lobby on issues effecting pensioners before the Federal Budget. The Treasurer, Sir Arthur Fadden, refused to meet with them. Marjorie and her band didn’t give up, but set to work to gain support and ensure success the following year. In 1956 the second delegation returned, armed with a petition to increase the age pension to half the basic wage, signed by 120,000 people. Once again Fadden refused to see them; however the delegation alerted media and threatened to sit on the steps of Parliament House until they were heard, and this time Fadden met with them.

And so the cause for increased pensions is being fought by the pensioners themselves – elderly men and women, many in bad health who should be able to withdraw from the fray of life. But they are in it, fighting for a living, led by one of their own number who is a cripple. (The Age, newspaper, 1955 cited Carr, Biggs and Kimberley, 2013, p. 35).

The second delegation’s success went beyond political activism and advocacy. While it offered the opportunity for media awareness of issues and sympathy for the pensioner plight, “paving the way for subsequent organisations”; the delegation did something far more radical (Carr, Biggs & Kimberley, 2013, p. 35). It challenged social perceptions of older people. “Prominent notions of decline, inactivity and apathy in later life” gave way to concepts of utility, activity and successful ageing (Carr, Biggs & Kimberley, 2013, p. 35).

Marjorie was an effective political and social activist for a number of reasons. She was not afraid to fail; she didn’t give up. She had a vision and this extended past her individual need and lifetime to encompass support for pensioners of the day and into the future. Cost of living and concessions, income, health and housing were the big issues for her. It is amazing that her continuing goal to increase the pension was achieved, but not in her lifetime. A few years before she died she enlisted the assistance of a young Australian Council of Trade Union research officer called Bob Hawke, to find a formula that may represent the level of pension as compared to the basic wage. They determined 25 per cent. She charged him with the goal of making it a reality, but it would take another 27 years after her passing for it to come to fruition.

Marjorie’s life promotes some key learnings for pensioners/seniors and broader society today.

  • Unity and hard work – Internally we need to be on the same page with our vision, direction and advocacy to promote political persuasion and change; however it is just as important externally. We have seen governments’ capacity to split and segregate societal groups over issues and pit organisations against each other. More than ever we have to work at all levels and work collaboratively with each other and other organisations to get anywhere.

  • Work to address the needs of pensions today – Governments change, policies change but two things that don’t are the basic core needs of pensioners, and governments’ attempts to reduce pensions and concessions, increase taxes or target savings and assets. This is a continual war that is being waged.

  • Improve the outlook for pensioners in the future; or at the very least maintain what we have for them – this aspect aligns with the one above. It is about going beyond dealing with only what will affect us in our lifetime, to supporting and advocating for future pensioners. A prime example of this is previous talk about changing age pension indexation, but grandfathering it for some. Following Marjorie’s example it is up to pensioners to ensure that the line is held until future generations can take up the cause.

In many ways the APSL reflects the qualities and interests Marjorie promoted in life and strive to maintain her advocacy. Each year APSL as part of the Fair Go for Pensioners Coalition (FGFPC) travels to Canberra to lobby politicians prior to the Federal Budget. Like Marjorie we strive to protect and promote concessions, and maintain advocacy and awareness regarding housing, health, cost of living and other issues pertinent to pensioners/seniors. We can proudly say APSL was part of the 2009 Pension Review that led to the current formula for indexation. Despite these achievements, the current political environments are no more favourable to pensioners than they were in Marjorie’s lifetime. Just as Marjorie and her group did, we need to demonstrate a united force; pensioners, who are active, engaged and won’t back down.