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Wednesday, 17 May 1939

Mr JAMES (Hunter) .- During the second-reading s'tage of this bill, one naturally felt rather constrained to avoid making any comments in regard to the circumstances of the widow and family of the late Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons) ; and one would be more restrained after hearing the letter which was written to the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) by Dame Enid Lyons. This Parliament, however, also has a duty to the many thousands of widows of this great country of ours. In his concluding remarks, the honorable member for Gippsland (Mr. Paterson) said, in effect, " Do not let this be a blot on this country of ours ", and urged the House not to carry the amendment moved by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Curtin). Apparently the honorable member favours giving the full £1,000 a year. I ask the honorable member for Gippsland, if it is not a blot on this country to suggest giving to one widow £500 a year for herself, and another £500 a year for her family, and at the same time to introduce legislation such as the National Insurance Act, which, although a contributory scheme, provides only very meagre benefits for widows and children. In order to receive a widow's pension under the proposed national insurance scheme - the future of which will, I understand, again be discussed to-morrow - the husband must have contributed for a period of two years. Even then what pension would be paid? The widow's pension would amount to the magnificent sum of £39 a year, or 15s. a week. Is that not a blot on the community? I say, definitely, that it is more than a blot. It is a tragedy, that adequate provision is not made for the mothers who, according to opportunity, have rendered service to their fullest capacity. I point out, also, that under the national insurance scheme, it is proposed to pay &o a widow 3s. 6d. a week in respect of each dependent child. Even under the terms of the amendment moved by the Leader of the Opposition the children of the late Prime Minister would have £200 a year to divide amongst themselves, and the widow would have £300 a year. Like the honorable member for East Sydney (Mr. Ward), I feel that I cannot support even that amendment, and at the same time allow the tragic circumstances of thousands of widows' and children throughout the Commonwealth to continue. All my life I have been associated with one industry, the coal-mining industry, in which there are a great number of casualties. I have seen widows fighting valiantly to retain their homes for themselves and their children, only to be carried off to mental hospitals as the result of such an unequal fight. Yet the honorable member for Gippsland speaks of " a blot on the good name of Australia ". I submit that it is a much greater blot that we have not done something far better than we have for the widows of this country generally, and that it is proposed to single out one home in this fashion for special consideration. What of the thousands of widows ' throughout the Commonwealth ? I have come in contact with many of them. One widow who has fourteen children comes each, year to my home, to fill in an iniquitous questionnaire stating whether or not any of her family have secured employment. When some of her children obtain work her pension is reduced accordingly. For the purpose Of assessing a widow's pension, 50 per cent, of the grossearnings of any unmarried son or daughter living at home is regarded as the income of the mother, and the pension is reduced by that amount. Similarly, 25 per cent, of the earnings of a son or daughter not living in the home is regarded as the income of the mother. Even in all these circumstances, the widow's pension has been regarded by some people as a generous provision. That pension, I point out, exists only in the State of New South Wales.

Dr Maloney - The legislation was introduced by Mr. Lang.

Mr JAMES - Yes, by that "bad" nian !

Dr Maloney - Good luck to him for having done it.

Mr JAMES - No provision for widows is made in any other State of the Commonwealth. I have before rue many letters, including two from Melbourne and one from Devonport, the home town of the late Prime Minister, protesting against this injustice. These are only a few of the many letters which I daresay all honorable members of this House have received. We should all like to be generous in making provision for the widow and children of the late Prime Minister, but why should we go beyond the bounds of what is fair and reasonable? Can anybody justify the continuance of the payment of this money to the children until the youngest child reaches the age of sixteen years, as is suggested in the amendment circulated by the Assistant Treasurer (Mr. Spender). That would mean that the eldest child, who to-day is 23 years of age, would be 33 years of age when the youngest child, now six, reached the age of sixteen years. The eldest child and, for that matter, other members of the family might then be earning £10 or £5 a week, yet, by allowing discretion to the trustee, Dame Enid Lyons, it is proposed that they should still share in this annuity. Nobody could justify such a proposal in the eyes of the great mass of the people of Australia, generous as wc should like to bt It is not our money which we propose to vote away in this manner. It is the people's money. We should not allow our hearts to rule our heads. If generosity is to be shown in this case, then it should also be shown to the unfortunate widows and dependants of those men who paid the supreme sacrifice in the Great War and to widows generally. What of their children? Honorable members are aware of what happened to these men and their dependants in 1931 under the Premiers Plan, and what is happening to them to-day. Many returned soldiers whose health had been impaired by war service were able, despite that fact, to work for so many years that, when their death occurred, the authorities refused to grant a pension to their widows on the ground that the disability from which they suffered was not due to war service. I reiterate that, if we wish to make provision for the widows of ex-members of this Parliament, either private members or a Prime Minister, a fund should be established to which all would contribute. In the past, legislation to provide for the widows of ex-members has. been passed without dissent, because the amount proposed was reasonable and fair. The present proposal definitely introduces class distinction, for which we do not stand. Although my sympathies are wholly with Dame Enid and her family, that fact will not induce me to support a grant that is out of all proportion to what is fair and reasonable, while many thousands of unfortunate widows have to eke out a miserable existence. The sorrow that I feel for Dame Enid and her family must be shared with the many other unfortunate widows whose condition is as bad as, if not worse than, that in which she has been left. The committee of honorable members which was appointed to inquire into this matter did not go far enough; it did not. make .the minute inquiries that were necessary. It may have reported the position disclosed by the information placed before it; but no one can say without doubt that that is the exact position. I have heard no denial of the statement that the late Sir John Higgins left an annuity of £2,500, which reverts to Dame Enid on the death of his sister. We have the right to know whether or not it is true that investments on behalf of the family of the late Prime Minister were responsible for the fact that his estate was worth only £100.

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