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The Council on the Ageing (COTA) is a not-for-profit organisation whose core mission is to stand up for the rights, interests and futures of older Australians.  

So why is it investing in an aged care app that some experts say should be banned because it puts older people at risk? 

COTA is a relatively small investor in Mable, an Uber-like tech company that boasts it is disrupting the aged care sector by linking carers directly with clients. 

With just a 0.5% shareholding, COTA trails behind some of the company’s big-name investors, including Ellerston Capital — the hedge fund set up by the Packer family. 

But the group still stands to make money from the company, which in April was awarded a $5.8 million contract by the federal government to provide a “surge workforce” in nursing homes affected by COVID-19.

Aged care experts say this is problematic, because it restricts the advocacy group’s ability to hold industry to account — particularly at a time when the aged care sector is in crisis.

“The relationship with Mable potentially damages COTA’s ability to advocate more strongly,” says Joseph Ibrahim, head of the Health Law and Ageing Research Unit at Monash University. “It goes to a question of integrity.”

Mable was founded by investment bankers Peter Scutt and Tony Charara in 2014. Last month, the royal commission into aged care heard submissions from experts who believe Mable’s business model — which is more like a brokerage firm — could put older Australians at risk because it operated outside the rules governing the aged care sector. 

Paul Versteege, a policy manager at Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association (CPSA), said the company should be banned from delivering home care because there were not enough safeguards in place to protect consumers and workers. 

Scutt rejected that claim. “I don’t believe that we’re operating outside the aged care regulatory framework,” he said.

COTA’s chairman Ian Yates also rejected the suggestion that it was inappropriate for the advocacy group to own shares in the company. 

“We believe this kind of platform, which then did not exist, is something many consumers want,” he told Crikey. He said COTA agreed to accept the shareholding in lieu of fees for consulting work it did for Mable when the platform was being set up. 

“This is a passive investment from which we currently derive no income, and as you would be aware Mable shares are not traded,” he said. 

Yates said there was “no evidence” that Mable has resulted in any negative outcomes for older Australians. “Some critics talk about the risks but noting that Mable has many tens of thousands of users we have not seen evidence of negative outcomes.”

He also rejected the suggestion that it compromised the integrity of the advocacy group. “COTA is not taking sides with the industry,” he said. “We work with the industry where it suits consumers’ interests. We criticise the industry constantly and sometimes effectively argue for government action about many industry practices.”

Yates sits on a number of federal government and aged care sector boards, including the federal government’s Aged Care Financing Authority; the Aged Care Sector Committee and the Aged Care Quality Advisory Council.

The COTA board also includes former health department secretary and Crown director Jane Halton, who is also a member of the government’s National COVID-19 Commission advisory board.

Ibrahim said transparency and accountability needs to be at the centre of advocacy groups when it comes to standing up for the millions of older Australians, many of whom were being cared for by private aged care companies.

This was even more critical as the pandemic exposed widespread deficiencies in the sector. 

“If we’re going to clean up aged care, we need to be frank and fearless, and how can you be frank and fearless if you’re not truly independent?” he said.