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Wednesday, 10 May 1939

Mr ROSEVEAR (Dalley) .- I am in agreement with a great deal that has been said regarding the personal qualities of the late Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons). I agree that he was a modest living man, and that he was a man of kind disposition, who, despite any party considerations, would, if it came his way, do a good turn to any man; but that does not justify me in voting for the bill. He was a bitter opponent to me politically, and that does not justify me in voting against the bill. I agree with the amendment of the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Curtin) that when such a grave departure from precedent is contemplated there should be a proper inquiry by a committee representative of all parties in the House, which would investigate the relevant circumstances, and take the responsibility of recommending to Parliament what pension, if any, should be paid. The subject before the House is a delicate and in some respects a painful one. It is a difficult matter to discuss. In private, such a committee might discuss it in greater detail than we can in this House. Here, we are constrained to avoid touching on matters that ought to be considered before a decision is reached. The position has not been improved by the manner in which the Government arrived at its decision, and presented its proposals to the House for ratification. Without consultation with the parties in the House, it has thrown its proposals before Parliament in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion, which places honorable members in the position of having to vote for a proposal which they feel has not been properly considered, or of refusing to give any relief at all to the family of the late Prime Minister. However, even if the Government does not remember its responsibility to the public, members of Parliament are obliged to do so. They must satisfy their consciences that the right thing is being done. The mere mention of this matter has aroused keen public interest. I have no doubt that it has been the experience of every other honorable member, as it has been mine, to receive correspondence from all kinds of public bodies, some agreeing with the Government's proposal and requesting support for it, and some strongly opposing it. Honorable members must satisfy their consciences that the proposed vote is fair and just, and they must satisfy the public that the right thing is being done by the late Prime Minister, and by the country.

This proposal has come before the public in its present ill-digested state largely as the result of one of the most sordid examples of journalism that it has been our lot to witness. Actually, while the Prime Minister was still lying in state, and the press was making all possible copy out of his unfortunate death, some bright journalist conceived the idea of playing on public sentiment, and getting off on a new track that would at once provide more copy, and anticipate any action that might be contemplated later. Thus, even before the Prime Minister was buried, certain journals were, in effect, already passing .around the hat without any regard to the embarrassment that they might cause to the family of the late Prime Minister, or to this Parliament. I believe that, as the result of that ghoulish piece of journalism, the new Prime Minister (Sir Earle Page) was, to an extent, stampeded into making the statement he did. One of the reasons that prompts me to vote for the amendment is the belief that the new Prime Minister, when he made the announcement, was not in' a position to know all the relevant facts.

Two matters must be taken into account in considering this proposal. The first is the actual financial position of the family of the late Prime Minister, and the second is the propriety of establishing & precedent in a matter of this kind. Out of the question, of the means and possessions of Mr. Lyons's family arises the question of its present needs. It has been said to-day that the emoluments of office received by the late Prime Minister were insufficient, but I suggest that that is beside the point. Could a similar argument be used, for instance, in respect of any other Prime Minister who, apart from the emoluments of his office, possessed considerable wealth? Should his relatives be entitled to a public pension? The adequacy of a Prime Minister's emoluments might he justifiably raised during the lifetime of any particular occupant of that office, but at present that question does not arise. What we are concerned with is in what financial circumstances was Mr. Lyons's family left, and what are its present and future needs. Those are the only matters which should now be considered. Furthermore, we should hesitate to depart from precedent in this respect. We certainly shall not be justified in doing so before we hold a proper inquiry into the matter. Precedents exist for the payment of pensions to the widows and dependants of exmembers of this Parliament and to ex-members themselves, who, after rendering many years of service to their country, found themselves impoverished. In these cases the average pension paid is very small. We should remember that the combined annuity to be provided under this bill to the widow and children of the late Prime. Minister is about seven times greater than any pension previously voted by this Parliament to a former member or his dependants. In these circumstances, in order to satisfy both the members of this House and the community generally, some substantial reasons should be advanced to justify this departure from precedent. It is true that, upon retirement, public servants and professional soldiers become entitled to draw pensions, whilst no provision is made for the payment of a pension to a man who may have served 30 years in the political life of this country. Those who reject the idea that after lengthy parliamentary service a man should become' entitled to a pension point out that retired public servants and professional soldiers contribute by way of superannuation payments- towards the pension they receive. That is true, but there is a far greater demand upon the purse of a member of Parliament in meeting commitments which he cannot avoid than there is on any of these other people to meet superannuation contributions. This aspect also requires consideration, and, I suggest, it is a matter with which a special committee should deal. For months past the press, which was responsible for the premature discussion on the question of a pension for the late Prime Minister's widow and family, engaged in an attack on Mr. Lyons with the object of destroying his leadership and Cabinet. Had such an attack been successful prior to Mr. Lyons's death he would probably have become just an ordinary private member. Had he died in those circumstances, despite his previous servicesto the nation, would the same consideration have been given to his family as is proposed under this measure? If the principle of a pension of this kind is sound, why should any discrimination be made between dependants of deceased ex-members? Whether they be rank and file members of their party or Ministers, or even Prime Ministers, all try to serve the people with equal zeal; but all cannot be Prime Ministers. It might be argued, as it will probably be argued in this debate, that because Mr. Lyons as Prime Minister was in receipt of greater emoluments than an ordinary member, the pension for his dependants also should be more generous. But the office bears no relation to the responsibilities which the widow and family have to face. The problems confronting the widow of even a Prime Minister are no greater, or more difficult than those confronting the widow of an ordinary member of this House. In order that all of these points might be fully inquired into, and because of the manner in which this measure has been rushed - that it has been illconsidered is shown by the fact that in his second-reading speech the Prime Minister indicated that an important amendment wouldbe necessary in committee - a proper inquiry should be made by a committee representative of every section of the House. In regard to the financial arrangements proposed for the payment of these annuities, it would be preferable for the Government to set aside from Consolidated Revenue a sum sufficient to return in interest the amount required for the payment of the annuities decided upon. In that way, the Government could eventually recover its original outlay, whereas under its present proposal the sum required for the payment of these annuities will be lost to it entirely. I also disagree with the proposed annuity of £500 in respect of the children of the late Prime Minister. If that sum is required to cover the needs of a certain number of children under the age of 21 years, surely, it should diminish as each child attains that age. This aspect should be provided for in this measure. After all, whether honorable members opposite admit it or not, the Government has consciously, or unconsciously, applied to this provision of the bill a means test, that test being that the Government recognizes that a certain number of children, who to-day are unable to fend for themselves, should be provided for at the rate of £500 per annum. It has displayed no intention to provide for any of them after they have reached that age, when, it is assumed, they will be able to fend for themselves. Consequently, as the responsibility of the widow for the maintenance of the children decreases with the passage of time, the original amount granted, Whatever it might be, should diminish correspondingly. There are many other aspects of this matter which could be fully investigated by a committee representative of all parties, but which cannot be discussed here without very painful and disagreeable results. For that reason it is the duty of this Parliament to appoint a non-party political committee to investigate the means of the late Prime Minister's family, in order to satisfy its own and the people's conscience that the right thing is being done. That method would satisfy not only every honorable member, but also the whole of the people of Australia.

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