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Thursday, 7 May 1942

Sir FREDERICK STEWART (Parramatta) . - Despite the curiously held opinion of some members of the Government that they have a monopoly of consideration for the interests of invalid and old-age pensioners, I wish to say quite clearly that honorable members on this side of the House share the enthusiasm of the Minister for Social Services (Mr. Holloway) in regard to this measure. We are pleased indeed that, amidst all the turmoil and financial stresses and strains of the war, the Government has seen its way clear to finance this measure. At some time or other, almost all the belligerent nations have claimed that they are fighting for a new social order and that unless there occurs a change of social relationships, the sacrifices that are now being exacted of the peoples of the world will be very largely in vain. I know that there are some people who will say " Amen " to that, but hold the opinion that the commencement of this new social order should be deferred until the sound of battle has died away. I do not agree with that view. I believe that we are more likely to succeed in this conflict if we are able to maintain the morale of the people by giving at least an instalment of this new social order by eliminating those inequalities which are most obvious and blatant to-day. The Minister was quite justified in pointing out in his second-reading speech that that has been the attitude of quite a number of the belligerent nations, particularly those which are included in the British Commonwealth of Nations. It is true that in our invalid and old-age pensions legislation, provision is made for increases of pensions in accordance with rises of the cost of living, and, no doubt, some honorable members - they are not all on this side of the chamber if rumour be correct - think that because of this provision, no further enhancement of the pension rate should be made until the termination of hostilities. But that argument is equally true of the whole of our industrial wage system. There is specific provision in Arbitration Court awards for increases of wages to offset increases of the cost of living ; yet, are we not hearing, day 'by day, of war loadings being granted to various workers, quite apart from automatic increases of the basic wage? If these loadings are presumed to be compensation for the anxieties and stresses of war exigencies, surely the invalid and old-age pensioners who share these anxieties and stresses with other sections of the community are also entitled to some consideration. At any rate, a pension of 25s. a week will not allow very much riotous living on the part of the recipient. Therefore, I wish to make it quite clear that I find no difficulty whatever in concurring in the increase of pension provided for in this measure. However, whilst that increase and the improvement of other conditions, are very satisfactory to the limited number of people who are able to qualify for the invalid and old-age pension, they are not quite so satisfactory to that very large body of people who are unable to fulfil the qualifications relating to property and income. So long as the social services of the Commonwealth depend for their continuance upon the provision of treasury funds, so long must there be a means test. I appreciate that; but the time has arrived - in fact it is long overdue - when that system of finance by treasury provision should be supplanted by some other system which would enable the means test to be forgotten. Security in old age will be a grossly incomplete thing in Australia until it is available 'to all, and no*, merely to the few who are able to conform to certain, tests. Even the most sympathetic administration cannot overcome the difficulties which arc inherently associated with a pensions scheme such as that operating in Australia to-day. For instance, take the case of a person who, through care and thrift has been able to aggregate a sum of, say, £400, and has invested it in war 1-ans which give a return of about £14 a year or a little more than 5s. a week. That individual is automatically excluded from participation in the pen-

Sir Frederick Stewart.sion scheme, whereas if he had not made any effort to save that money, he would have been entitled to 25s. a week, paid fortnightly through the post office. It if not necessary for me to cite to honorable members instances of the many inequalities which arise from time to time in om pensions legislation, but I express the hope, which I am confident is shared by many honorable members, tha< very soon we shall see the present system of social services superseded by one which is more universal in its application. It if true that we have on the statute-book today, national insurance legislation which is designed to do the very thing which I am now advocating. "Why is that measure not in operation now? Because the Government of the day was told by financial advisers that it would be impossible to provide £2,000,000 per annum to finance the scheme without seriously disturbing the financial structure of the Commonwealth. I wonder what these financial advisers are thinking to-day. Since thai time, the Parliament of the Commonwealth has passed legislation providing for the expenditure of up to £13,000,000 a year on child endowment, and expenditure on the war has reached the colossal figure of approximately £1,000,000 a day. I am afraid that . far too long has the treasury view that social services can be financed only by means of surplus funds, prevailed. The care and sustenance of the aged and infirm is as much a charge on the national pool as is the wage of the workers in the community who are fit and well. Whilst the increase of the pensions rate is undoubtedly one of the most important features of this bill, that, of course, is not the only aspect from which it should be considered. Of the present increase of ls. 6d. a week now proposed to be given to pensioners, 6d. is due to legislation enacted during the regime of the Menzies Government, and of the total increase of 4s. since the rate was fixed at £1 ls. a week, ls. 6d. a week is due to legislation enacted at the instance of that Government, 2s. 6d. being due to legislation brought down by the present Government. Other features of the bill are also important. I am glad to know that this measure will remove what has been a blot on our social legislation ever since the passage of our pensions legislation. I refer to the removal of the disqualification for the pension of Australian aborigines. I am glad that I was a member of the Government that established the precedent of recognizing the right of aborigines to participate in the benefits of our social services. They are now obtaining the benefit of the child endowment legislation passed by the Menzies Government, and I am glad that that principle is being followed in the present bill, which will enable aborigines, at the discretion of the Commissioner of Pensions, to receive the pension. I am also glad to know that provision is being made to pay the pension to those persons who are described in this measure as "kanakas", being the residue of imported labour used in Queensland many years ago in the production of sugar. There may 'be some danger in leaving the definition of "kanaka" as it now stands in the bill, and I suggest that the matter should receive consideration at the hands of the Minister. It is gratifying to know that provision is being made to increase the permissible income of blind persons. The present legislation provides that all grades of pensioners may earn up to 12s. 6d. a week without affecting the pension, but there has always been a special provision with regard to blind persons. As the law stands at present, they may earn up to £3 17s. 6d. a week. I understand that that limit was fixed when it represented the amount of the Commonwealth basic wage, and the bill proposes to take that wage as the figure representing, the permissible total income of blind persons. That is also a feature of the bill with which I am in hearty accord.

Another provision of the measure, however, is not so acceptable to me. I refer to the method of computing the payments to pensioners who find it necessary to enter hospitals. The present practice under the statute is for pensioners who enter hospitals to have their pension suspended entirely for four weeks, after which they are entitled to a special hospital pension of 7s. 9d. a week, the other 1.5s. 9d. a week being paid direct by the department to the hospitals concerned. It is now proposed that the department should take no cognizance whatever of the entry of pensioners into hospitals ; in other words, the pension will continue, leaving the pensioners to make such arrangements as they desire with the hospitals. "When I was Minister for Social Services. I received many complaints from hospitals that they were being unfairly dealt with because during the first four weeks in hospital the pensioner received no payment from the department. Of course, the pension is payable on the patient leaving the hospital, but the hospital had then lost its opportunity to secure the portion of the pension to which it was entitled. If discussion* have not already begun with the hospitals on this matter, I suggest that they should be consulted before such a serious departure is made from the present practice. Whilst some hospitals have not been keen on taking even that portion of the pension to which they are entitled under the act, seeing that hospital financee are affected, they should have been consulted regarding this proposed amendment of the law.

It is not proposed to alter the arrangement whereby inmates of benevolent homes are paid a partial pension and the balance of the pension is paid direct to the homes. I regret that the longstanding discrimination against patients in mental hospitals is not to be removed under the bill. The present provision has never pleased me, and if an opportunity such as this bill provides had been presented to me, I should have seriously contemplated the removal of the discrimination against those patients. Even when this bill has been passed, patients on entry to mental hospitals will lose their pensions altogether, and these will not be restored until they leave the institutions, whether the time be two, four, six, or even eight weeks or years, later. I find difficulty in understanding why there should be any discrimination against a person suffering from a mental affliction as compared with one suffering from a physical affliction.

Mr Blackburn - The discrimination is really against the pensioners' children.

Sir FREDERICK STEWART - The answer (o that would be that the pension is paid for the maintenance of the pensioner, and not that of his children. The joint committee has dealt with the matter, and has recommended that certain allowances be paid to the dependants of pensioners.

Mr Blackburn - The children of the inmates of mental hospitals have to maintain the elderly patients, even though they be 70 years of age.

Sir FREDERICK STEWART - The mental hospital authorities are a great deal more insistent on payment being made for the maintenance of inmates than are the hospital boards in respect of the maintenance of the inmates of ordinary State hospitals. I hope that the Minister will consider whether it is possible to remove the discrimination. If, as I believe it to be, the explanation is that the care of the physically afflicted is the responsibility of the State, that is equally true of the mentally sick; but, under this bill, it is proposed that the pension shall continue while the physically sick are inmates of hospitals and the pensions of the mentally sick shall be stopped immediately.

Mr Barnard - It was for that reason that the Parliamentary Social Security Committee recommended that a consolidation of the Commonwealth social security legislation should be undertaken.

Sir FREDERICK STEWART - In his second-reading speech the Minister indicated that it was the intention of the Government to proceed with the consolidation of the social security legislation. For too long have the artificial barriers of State boundaries created disparities in the treatment of persons living in different States. I hope that the Government will pursue its policy of taking over the various social services throughout the Commonwealth so that citizens in each part of Australia will be able to share equally in the benefits of the legislation. [ trust that the present system of social services, based as it is on Treasury benevolence, will soon be supplanted by a system under which every member of the community will contribute during his working years and be able, in time of affliction or old age, to obtain the benefits provided for him.

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