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Thursday, 30 April 1942

Mr HOLLOWAY (Melbourne PortsMinister for Social Services and Minister for Health) . - by leave - I move -

That the bill lie now read a second time.

Some months ago, my colleague the Treasurer (Mr. Chifley), when presenting the budget, indicated that the Government was considering extensions of social service legislation. Some time later, when introducing a bill to amend the Invalid and Old-age Pensions Act, I informed the House that the Government proposed to increase, during this year, the invalid and old-age pension rate to £1 5s. «. week. More recently, I formally announced the first instalment of the Government's social service programme. In fulfilment of those promises, the Government now presents this bill ; and with the indulgence of the House I hope to submit other measures almost immediately.

In order to simplify procedure, and facilitate administration, the Government has availed itself of this opportunity to improve the act, by omitting certain sections. Honorable members have my assurance that in so doing nothing is being proposed to restrict in any way the privileges or benefits provided by that legislation.

It is not my intention to depart from customary procedure by describing all that this bill contains; as is usual, detailed explanations will be made in committee, when honorable members will have ample opportunity to discuss each clause. However, at the present juncture 1 wish to make a few general observations which, whilst referring particularly to the bill I am now placing before the House, arc equally apposite to three other measures that I intend to introduce shortly, and in addition to mention certain features of this bill which are worthy of special reference.

Unhappily, the present generation lives in the shadow of universal catastrophe. Our people face momentous issues, and we are confronted by the gravest crisis in our history. Upon this Government rests the enormous responsibilities of directing a total war effort of a magnitude and complexity hitherto undreamed of. As has been shown already during the comparatively brief life of the Administration, every resource at our command will be fearlessly devoted to this supreme task. In this abnormal state we are compelled to divert wealth and labour from the peaceful channels of trade and commerce, and are forced to spend vast sums of money for war purposes. In our concentration upon this colossal task there is a real possibility that we may disregard the need for social reform, and forget that a large section of our population is undernourished, badly housed, and too frequently unemployed and lacking the elementary necessaries of life.

Social welfare has always been a prominent feature of the Government's policy. At the moment, we regard it as of secondary importance only to the demands of the war, and see nothing incongruous in our determination to put that policy into effect concurrently with our war exertions. We believe, and feel sure that we are not alone in the belief, that so far as it is possible to do so without detracting from our war effort, sincere attempts should be made to improve social and living conditions. Everything that we do in that direction is actuated by the hope and confidence that a betterment of our circumstances will mean an improvement of national morale, and will stimulate and increase the vigour and tempo of our war preparations.

To a very great degree it is true that the totalitarian countries have given their peoples a large measure of social security at the expense of personal liberty and freedom. Upon the free nations rests the responsibility of showing that the democratic way of life is the best, and that in such a society there can be not only social security, but also liberty of action, and freedom of speech. They have also the responsibility of ensuring that our civil, religious and political institutions shall be preserved and strengthened.

Doubtless there are some members of our community who hold the view that it is inopportune in time of war and national peril to extend our social services. I place it on record that the Government that I have the honour to represent does not subscribe to that opinion; so far as lies in our power, we shall at least, prevent a lowering of social standards during the war, and we have every intention of improving them from time to time. The Government hopes to present, in the comparatively near future, a consolidating social security bill which, it feels sure, will be received with approbation, and will constitute a most noteworthy addition to our social service legislation.

From an examination of the data at its disposal, the Government - without surprise, hut with considerable pleasure - has found that its policy in regard to social services resembles that which is being followed by Great Britain, Canada, and New Zealand. Without wearying honorable members unduly, I propose to refer briefly to extensions that have been made in those countries since the outbreak of the present war.

In Great Britain, where devastation, desolation, ruin, and all the horrifying results of total warfare, have been borne with supreme fortitude and courage for many months, the Government determined that it would not be entirely obsessed by the struggle that was in progress, but that social services should be maintained. The Honorable Ernest Bevin, in September, 1941, announced: " During this war, we accept social security as the main motive of our national life ". In connexion with a bill introduced in July, 1941, to improve widows' pensions, unemployment insurance, and social welfare generally, it was stated that the promising of reforms after the war was arousing cynical comment. The statement continued -

The colossal problem of changing from a war footing and war economy to a peace footing and peace economy would present numerous problems of great difficulty. In the transition period a prescribed system of social security would be absolutely necessary. We ought to have this system of social security and social measures completed before the end of the war.

In February, 1940, Mr. W. Elliott, as Minister, introducing a bill, said -

We are working this afternoon in field.which have been the very starting point of social reform - care of the older and weaker members of the community. We share :i certain pride as members of a legislature which has not been diverted from its old tasks by the fierce necessities of war.

Concerning that bill, another Minister of His Majesty's Government said -

Certain inequalities, complexities and (lilliculties of the social service structure aic being examined by an expert committee under the chairmanship of Sir William Beveridge.

He asked the House to review that particular bill as a temporary measure pending a later reconstruction of the whole of the social service fabric. An indication' of the British Government's conviction of ultimate victory is its request to Parliament to widen and extend social services in war-time. The conviction was expressed that, if the cost of living should increase, there should be some arrangement by which pension (benefits would at least maintain their war-time level. Honorable members will be interested to learn that, by the bill in question, the British Government increased its pensions cost hy £67,000,000 for the first year of operation. Rates to the unemployed in G rea Britain have been raised, the insurance limit has risen from £250 to £420 per annum, bringing in another 500,000 insured persons, the weekly rate of sick benefit has been increased by 40 per cent, for men, 50 per cent, for single women, and 60 per cent, for married women, and the Assistance Board has increased to 30s. a week the pension of pensioners not needing continuous medical attention or nursing, thus enabling them to live in hostels which usually had to be established and maintained by voluntary organizations. It is important to note, too, that there has been an extension of the scheme to provide milk for those who are in need of it, but arc not in a position to pay high prices for it. In many instances, the Government provides a pint of milk daily to each member of the household.

In New Zealand there has been for some time a Social Security Amendment Act, and a Rural Housing Act was introduced in October, .1939. The Social Security Act was amended to include allowances for all children after the first, and maternity benefits were slightly liberalized, whilst perhaps the most notable advance was made in October, 1941, when a joint medical and pharmaceutical service for persons resident in New Zealand was established by the Government and financed from the social security fund.

In Canada, the Unemployment and Agricultural Assistance Act extended previous provisions, whilst under the Unemployment Insurance Act of August, 1.940, a comprehensive dominion-wide scheme of unemployment insurance was introduced, and as late as February of this year the Canadian legislature was considering a national health insurance scheme.

Leaving the British Commonwealth of Nations and taking an international view of the question, I remind honorable members that this country was represented last October and November at the New York conference of the International Labour Organization. To a distinguished gathering the President of the United States of America made an historic address asking the International Labour Office to play a part in formulating social policies upon which the permanent peace of the world so much depends. The whole conference was characterized by a unity of purpose to improve conditions, not for a section of the people only, but for all the people.

I do not want to labour this point, but I do want to convince the House that this Government is not alone in its determination to improve social and living conditions. Finally, I should like to quote from a report submitted to the International Labour Organization by the former director, John G. Winant, upon his assumption of office as United States Ambassador to Great Britain. Mr. Winant said -

Despite the tragedies which have occurred, interest in social problems and in social objects lias not appreciably slackened, lt is significant for the future that this continuing and expanding interest in social advance is the keynote of the social world of to-day. Efforts arc being made in belligerent and neutral countries alike to extend health measures, safety precautions and . social security legislation, as an integral part of national defence programmes. An unemployed or poorlyemployed citizency is no basis for winning the peace. Even though at a moment when tha survival of democracy is in the balance, priority of production, energy and will must be granted to the waging of the war itself. No opportunity to enlarge the social content of democracy must be lost.

I come now to the more important features of this bil i. The extension of tha war to our own shores prevented the Government from bringing down this legislation earlier this year, but in order that pensioners may receive the benefit from the time the Government intended, provision is made for the operation of the new maximum rate of pension as from the 2nd April, 1942, when the last cost of living adjustment became effective. The first payment at the increased rate of 25s. a week will be made on the 9th July next, when eligible pensioners will 'be paid arrears at the rate of ls. a week as from the 2nd April last. The principle of associating the maximum rate of invalid and old-age pensions with the cost of living index has been retained, but an important amendment ensures that, in the event of a fall of the cost of living, that rate cannot be reduced below 25s. a week without Parliamentary approval. The new maximum rate of 25s. a week has been related to the figure 1053 which was the price index number - all items "C" series - for the quarter ended the 31st March last, and it has been arranged that this maximum will be increased by 6d. a week for every twenty-one units by which the price index number exceeds 1053.

One noteworthy provision is the Government's decision to liberalize conditions under which pensions are paid to blind persons who at present may have an income of £3 7s. 6d. a week without affecting the pension rate. The amendment now inserted raises the permissible income for a blind person to the level of the federal basic wage as adjusted from time to time, the amount at present being £4 10s. a week. Where both husband and wife are blind they will be permitted to have between them an income equal to the federal basic wage, and each receive a maximum pension. No alteration has been made regarding permissible income for pensioners other than blind persons.

As for pensioners who are inmates of benevolent asylums, the Government proposes to follow established custom and give to them half the increase of ls. a week which, as from the 2nd April last, will raise the amount of the institutional pension from Ss. to Ss. 6d. a week. The balance, which may reach a maximum of 16s. 6d. a week, will be paid to the institutions towards the cost of maintaining the pensioner. .

An amendment to which I draw the special attention of honorable members is the elimination of what are commonly known as the " hospital " provisions of the act. At present, when a pensioner becomes an inmate of a hospital, his pension is automatically suspended. If he is an inmate tor less than four weeks he receives the whole of the suspended pension on his discharge, but if he remains for more than four weeks he receives on discharge an amount equal to four weeks' full pension. For the period in hospital in excess of four weeks he receives a " hospital " pension, the present rate being 8s. a week. It is now proposed to amend section 45 of the act so that the pension shall not. be reduced when the recipient is admitted to hospital: whatever rate the pensioner was receiving upon admission shall be continued throughout his stay in the institution.

The Government feels that there will be general agreement with this proposal, because the position in respect of hospitals has altered considerably since the passing of the original act. Intermediate wards have been added to many hospitals, and because these form a part of the institution, the pension is suspended when a pensioner enters such a ward even though he or his relatives may be making a substantial contribution towards the cost of his treatment and maintenance. In addition, there has been a considerable extension of hospital contributory schemes by which persons are entitled to free treatment for a period of about twelve weeks in return for small weekly payments. In such cases it is unfair to pay a portion of the pension money to the hospital, and with the consent and co-operation of the authorities controlling these schemes, it has usually been possible to arrive at a fair adjustment. This,' however, has really been a circumvention of the provisions of the act and it is undesirable to continue such a procedure. It is estimated that about 70 per cent, of pensioners remain less than four weeks in hospital, and consequently they receive payment of pension in full for the whole of their stay, tb( hospital receiving no payment whatever from the Commonwealth on their account.

The repeal of the " hospital " provision will eliminate a considerable amount, of work in regard to admissions and discharges, and the making of adjustment* of pension payments, and should also result in a reduction of work in post offices, and in the hospitals themselves. At a time when the man-power problem is so acute this aspect is of considerable importance to the whole community. Many of the hospitals concerned, hundreds of individuals, and some organizations (representing pensioners have asked the Government to take the action now proposed. Some of the larger hospitals may fear the loss of regular revenue, but. it is felt that eventually there will be no material reduction because the institutional management may negotiate direct with those pensioners whose circumstances permit of a reasonable payment for maintenance in respect of the whole period of their stay in hospital.

The provisions of section 45 of the act, which deal with pensioners admitted to asylums for the insane, will remain unchanged, but the more appropriate term " hospital for the insane " has been inserted, thus following legislation in other parts of the Commonwealth. In these particular cases, no pension is payable during the pensioner's inmatecy, but upon his discharge he may receive an amount not exceeding four weeks' full pension.

A feature of this bill, which will make a strong appeal to, and receive the warm support of, every honorable member and of social workers and humanitarians throughout the country, is the decision to extend benefits to aboriginal natives of Australia who are living under civilized conditions, and whose character and intelligence qualify them to receive pensions. For the first time in the history of the Commonwealth, a pension is proposed for aborigines, and it is hoped that this provision will bring some measure of happiness to the original owners of this country. The Government is well aware of the difficulties that it will impose upon the administration by the introduction of this new benefit, and prefers to hasten slowly. All who have any knowledge of this problem realize the futility of paying money toaborigines in certain circumstances; but, on the other hand, general agreement will be found with a plan which provides aid for those who prove that they can put it to good use. Where the aborigine, by reason of his intelligence and development, is exempt from the operation of the laws of the State relating to the control of aborigines, he will be eligible for a pension, subject to the same " means " test as other persons. At present such exemptions are provided under the laws of South Australia and Western Australia. Regarding aborigines from other States, the Commissioner will exercise his discretion as to the desirability of granting a pension and, in doing so, he will have regard to the same standard of character, intelligence and development as is applied in those States where certificates of exemption are in force.

It has been considered desirable specially to authorize the Commissioner to pay less than the maximum rate in those cases where it is appropriate to do so; and he is also given power to direct the payment of a pension to a suitable authority or person for the benefit of pensioners. The Government is under no illusion about the difficulty of administering this clause in a manner calculated to confer benefits as and where the legislature intends, and, for that reason, considers that only a fairly narrow provision is justified at present

During the debate on an earlier amendment of the Invalid and Old-age Pensions Act, a strong plea was made by certain honorable members on behalf of those Pacific islanders known as kanakas. After reviewing the special circumstances of these cases, the Government has made them eligible toreceive benefits under this bill. There are not very many of them. They are all of great age, and their number is rapidly diminishing. It is hoped that the conces sion will bring to them some comfort and happiness in the eventide of their lives.

The only other amendment of importance contained in the bill is the repeal of the provision of the act under which claimants' for old-age pensions are disqualified if they are adequately maintained by their relatives. This restriction was introduced under the financial emergency legislation some years ago. It is really a " dead letter ", as it has not been followed in practice.

A similar provision, relating to the granting of invalid pensions will be liberalized and modified to the degree that, in future, the only relatives of the claimant whose income will be taken into account will be the parents. In future, therefore, contributions by children will not in any way affect the eligibility of claimants for either old-age or invalid pensions. The total cost of the new benefits provided in this bill will be approximately £925,000 per annum.

When the original Invalid and Old-age Pensions Bill was before Parliament, the late Senator E. D. Millen, who was Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, remarked, in the course of his speech -

If there is one bill received by this chamber that may honestly be termed a non-party measure, it is this.

In this spirit I leave the bill to the House with my strong commendation, and I ask honorable members to help me to place on the statute-book a valuable addition to our social service legislation.

Debate (on motion by Sir Frederick Stewart) adjourned.

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