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Tuesday, 16 October 1984
Page: 1787

Senator MESSNER(9.03) —My remarks will be particularly addressed to the Social Security and Repatriation Legislation Amendment Bill, whereas my colleague, Senator Baume, will be addressing his main argument to the Health Legislation Amendment Bill. On that Bill I shall later make one or two remarks in the context of the social security legislation. The amendments in the social security Bill are basically machinery matters in connection with the recent Budget. They seek to increase the payments under the Aged or Disabled Persons Homes Act as set down in the Budget, and are accepted by the Opposition without any particular comment.

The second item that needs some further debate relates to the Delivered Meals Subsidy Act 1970, which basically contains the funding arrangements for the Meals on Wheels program across Australia. I shall return to that matter in a few moments because there are one or two other matters I wish to deal with. The third matter that is of some interest is the conversion of the Anzac Hostel in Melbourne, which currently houses World War I veterans, the hostel having been made available to the Government by virtue of a gift by the Baillieu family in the First World War. It is a rather remarkable property and an historic landmark in the southern suburbs of Melbourne. The Government has moved to develop it as a site for the purposes of developing a domiciliary homes assistance program for the southern suburbs of Melbourne. This, I take it, is to be conducted by the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Consequently, I have a particular interest in that matter, having been a Minister for Veterans' Affairs. I commend the Government for its action in this regard. The legislative machinery itself is rather interesting in that the original gift was made by the Baillieu family under certain terms and conditions. Any variation requires an Act of Parliament. An alteration of the means by which the premises could be utilised could otherwise have been done more or less by administrative action by the Repatriation Commission. Accordingly, the legislation has the support of the Opposition.

While talking about the Anzac Hostel I point out that it is timely that the Government has seen fit to develop a domiciliary home service in the southern part of Melbourne because there can be no doubt that there will be continuing pressure on nursing homes, hostels and homes of all descriptions for the aged and disabled in Victoria. This stems very largely from actions taken by this Government in its Medicare program which has left much confusion in the public mind as to how nursing homes are to be funded. Since this Government came to power there has been a very severe restriction on the number of nursing home beds that have been approved. The second reason for it is the general action of the State Cain Labor Government in Victoria which somehow has caused a situation in which approximately 8,000 people are waiting for elective surgery within the public hospital system in that State.

It is a matter of very great concern, particularly to elderly folk and people occupying aged and disabled people's homes in Victoria, that even though Medicare was introduced with such fanfare earlier this year by this Hawke Labor Government they can obtain no guarantee from the Federal Government that they will be able to obtain a public hospital bed in Victoria in a case of need. I believe Senator Baume will speak at greater length and authority on that matter, but I have been advised that many aged people who would otherwise have considered themselves to be well and truly covered by Medicare have now found that that cover is worthless. Consequently, they have to buy private health insurance to ensure that they can get private hospital beds to receive treatment when they need it. That is the kind of farce that has developed in Victoria and in other parts of Australia because of the bungling of this Government in the course of the introduction of Medicare and the lack of co-ordination in respect of State government action, particularly with the public hospitals in Victoria, as well as a lack of co-ordination in developing nursing home and aged persons accommodation since this Government came to power. There have been no approvals of any note and no program has been implemented by this Government. Certainly very little action has been taken to alleviate this position.

This question of how to look after people who as they enter old age are in this rather difficult situation of needing accommodation of a specialist kind is perhaps the greatest challenge that this Government or any government needs to face. It is significant that this Government has failed to meet that challenge since coming to office. The real point that has to be made is that there needs to be a multi-pronged approach to the development of alternative policies for the care of the aged. Indeed, we are pleased to see that the Government has, by virtue of this legislation, decided on one direction; that is, the better use of the Anzac hostel. We also note that the Government has provided some funds, although terribly inadequate, in this year's Budget for the development of a new home and community care program. We support all of those moves.

The relevance of this legislation is brought to mind when we talk about an increase in the subsidy or the amount provided by the Government for the Meals on Wheels program. Clearly, one way of reducing the future costs to any government of the problem of the aged is encouraging voluntary community activity as much as possible. Certainly, the Liberal and National parties support that kind of approach. The Meals on Wheels programs have been very successful in many ways and have been implemented right across Australia. We pay credit to those people who have taken such an active part in promoting and developing those programs. It was a far-sighted Government that first instituted the subsidies for Meals on Wheels, as it certainly takes a great load from the cost of the hospital system and from the provision of other types of accommodation throughout the Australian community. But I think we should make sure that we understand the commitment being undertaken and the personal and community cost being borne by those people who provide the Meals on Wheels program. I am rather indebted to my colleague Mr Don Cameron, the very active Liberal member for Moreton in Queensland, who conducted a survey amongst voluntary organisations in his own area and determined that--

Senator Peter Baume —It was a significant exercise.

Senator MESSNER —It was a very significant exercise. He has found that most Meals on Wheels programs are run by volunteers, that most of the people who have been engaged in these programs have been helping for at least five years and that most of these people deliver 10 to 20 meals a day each. He has also discovered that many of the people who are actually providing the services are relatively advanced in age. In fact, he has found that the majority of males engaged in this activity are over 60 years of age and that the majority of females are over 45. He has determined that most of these people are on fixed incomes of one kind or another through superannuation or through a pension. Most are not in receipt of a salary and most are in widowhood. Having examined that short piece of information, I think the Meals on Wheels programs perform a very valuable service in the community but their operation needs a great deal of support in light of the fact that many people engaged in them sacrifice a great deal, are becoming more and more aged themselves and may not be able to carry on with the sort of work load that is involved unless there is government support of a more substantial kind.

We are talking, too, about the costs which individuals bear in the way of petrol for the motor cars in which they run around and do these things. It is interesting to note that Mr Cameron found that only 30 per cent of volunteers accept any kind of petrol subsidy from the Meals of Wheels organisation, which speaks volumes for their commitment to looking after the aged in this way. This benefit translates right through to the taxpayers generally in that it is obvious that the Government and the taxpayer are saved an enormous cost as a result of this very significant sacrifice. No one can deny that that program is particularly valuable. We look to the Government continuing its commitment to the Meals of Wheels program. We hope that the increases which are brought about by virtue of this legislation will eventually be reconsidered from time to time. Certainly under a Liberal-National Party government increases would be considered from time to time.

I think that the context of those remarks brings us to the very important understanding that this Government has not faced up to its real responsibilities in the area of the aged. We have seen the introduction of the assets test; we have seen the introduction of the lump sum superannuation tax; we have seen the introduction of the over-70s income test. The Government's claims that it is trying to restrict the future growth of social security expenditure have all had one thing in common-that is, they seek to deny people the opportunity of looking after themselves and reduce their capacity to look after themselves in their old age. On the other hand, as we have observed, the Government has failed to meet the challenge-or has met it only to a very minor extent since it came to office- of the real needs of the frail aged, those who are reaching very advanced age, those who are suffering from senility and those with Alzheimer's disease. It has failed to meet its obligations in this area. The real challenge of looking after the aged lies in that area, and that problem is with us now. The Government is seeking to take care of problems which may occur many decades into the future. They are far less of a challenge in terms of the immediate situation than the ones which it should be reaching for and to which it should be seeking a solution at this stage.

We see no motivation to assist the aged in any significant and meaningful way by the programs that have been announced by this Government in recent months. We have seen the introduction of the home and community care program, but we have seen no commitment of money, other than a minor amount of $15m in the current financial year. Although it is described as having a total commitment over three years of $300m, that amount is by no means guaranteed. We have had no indication of what amounts in future Budgets will be. The Government is not prepared to give us firm commitments as to what sum will be included in the 1985-86 Budget or in the years beyond that. Of course, that is the test; that is the obligation which it would not like to see imposed upon it. Of course, we would prefer to have a reconsideration of that matter in the event of our winning the election on 1 December. Consequently, we are perhaps looking to the day when we might be able more adequately to consider all the details of the matter immediately thereafter.

Finally, I say that the Government has failed to meet the real challenges in the area of the aged and has not turned its attention to the real considerations of people in need in this community. That has been said time and again not only by members of the Opposition but also significantly by people in the Australian Council of Social Service and others who are in the front line, are at the coalface, in dealing with the problems of the needy. For that reason we believe that the Government has its boot on the wrong foot and, by the introduction of the assets test and such measures, is failing to meet that challenge and is headed entirely in the wrong direction. The Opposition advocates the principle that people should be encouraged to look after themselves as much as possible in their old age. That means a group of policies which are co-ordinated and aimed at developing people's opportunities, to provide incentives for them during their working lives to save for their retirements. The Government's approach is entirely the opposite. It is putting a penalty on thrift through the various measures that it has introduced so that people will be less able to look after themselves in their retirement. Of course, that is the major distinction between the Government and the Opposition-a distinction that we will be seeking to bring to the people's attention in the course of the forthcoming election campaign.