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Thursday, 7 May 1942

Mr JAMES (Hunter) .- I pay tribute to the Minister for Social Services (Mr. Holloway) for having introduced this bill. His action is consistent with his record over a long period of years, during which he and other members of the Labour party have endeavoured to effect reforms in our pensions system. I also congratulate the Government for having drafted the liberal conditions set out in the bill. The honorable member for Boothby (Dr. Price) seems to fear what might happen in this country in 50 years time. He told us that 50 years hence so many million people would be in receipt of pensions, and so many million pounds would be required to foot the bill. He need not disturb himself about the situation in half a century. I do not think that his prophecies will be fulfilled. I hope that ive shall be living under a new order of society long before then. But even if the present order of society be continued, many workers will continue to make provision for their old age, as they are doing" to-day. I am a believer in a proper system of contributory pensions. The previous Government introduced a bill to give effect to a contributory pensions scheme, but its basis was not equitable. The members of the Miners Federation have been agitating for a pensions scheme through their organization for many years. In case the honorable member for Barker (Mr. Archie Cameron), the honorable member for Richmond (Mr. Anthony), and the honorable member for Boothby are not aware, of the facts, I take pleasure in informing them that the miners, by arrangement with the Government of New South Wales, are paying as much as 4s. a fortnight to a pensions fund. The workers are often condemned for not making provision for their old age, hut, as I have shown, many of them have taken appropriate steps to this end. The miners pensions scheme, which is in force by arrangement with the Government of New South Wales, is designed to enable miners to retire at the age of 60 years on a pension of £2 a week and £1 a week for their wive3.

The 'honorable member for Barker had a little to say about the financial difficulties of certain hospitals. He may not be aware that for many years the miners on the northern coal-fields have paid regular contributions to the Newcastle, Wallsend, Cessnock, Kurri Kurri, Maitland, and other district "hospitals, and that the hospital committees in those localities do not take any part of the pension of pensioners who may enter those institutions for treatment. The miners contribute 6d. from each pay to a hospital fund, in consideration of which they are entitled to treatment for themselves and their families. I have retained my membership of the Miners Federation, and 3 also pay my fortnightly contribution. The funds accumulated through these payments have been sufficient not only to maintain the various institutions which benefit from them, but also to build new hospitals. If the hospitals in localities which the honorable member for Barker had in mind are in such financially straitened circumstances I recommend honorable members to take steps to organize a contributory scheme for them such as the industrialists have organized in the coal-fields districts of New South Wales.

Unfortunately, considerable difficulty has occurred at times in obtaining refunds of pensions for pensioners who have had part of their pension improperly deducted in consequence of their entry to hospitals for treatment. I have written many letters to the Pensions Department on this subject, and I trust that the amendments now being made to the law will overcome these troubles. The hospitals that have been built in some coal-fields areas are a monument to the workers. The system in operation or. the Newcastle coal-fields is also in operation at Lithgow, and there is no reason why it should not be applied in many other districts.

The honorable member for Barker ha* said that this liberalization of our pensions system is inopportune. It appears to me, however, that as millions of pounds can be provided for war purposes it should be within the capacity of the nation to provide at least £1,000,000 more for pensions. Who will be helped by this liberalization of our pension? legislation? None other than the mothers and fathers of the men who aw to-day fighting to retain our liberties. It might be assumed from the remarks made by the honorable member for Barker that he is bard-hearted, hut I do not believe that his speech reflects hie true feelings. He would have us believe that he is a "tough guy," but from conversations I have had with the honorable gentleman I have concluded, that he is not nearly as hard-hearted as his words would suggest. If we cannot do something to make the lives of our old-age and invalid pensioners more comfortable we ought at least to take steps to put them out of their misery, and not starve them to death. It would be preferable to provide a lethal chamber in which they could be put out of their misery.

The increase in the rate of pension about to be sanctioned is in fulfilment of a promise made by the present Prime Minister in the policy speech he delivered prior to the last election. The proposals contained in this measure have been placed before the people and have been endorsed by them. The honorable member for Barker is associated with a party that supported a government that reduced the old-age pension by 2s. 6d. a week, and also placed a lien on the properties of pensioners, to enable the department to recover from the estates of pensioners on their death, money paid to them by way of pension.

Mr Guy - The 'Scullin Government reduced the old-age pension first.

Mr JAMES - The honorable member helped in the reduction of the pension when he " ratted " on the Labour party.

Mr Guy - I would rather " rat " on the party to which the honorable member belongs than " rat " on the country.

Mr JAMES - The Labour party at least has never tried to recover money paid to the pensioners. I remember some of the supporters of the honorable member warning the anti-Labour Government, which brought down legislation to deprive pensioners of their right to their own properties.

The old-age pension was introduced in 1908, at the request of the Labour party, which was then a third party in the Parliament and bartered its support to an anti-Labour government, and a former member for Darling Downs, the late Sir Littleton Groom, piloted the measure through the Parliament. Various members of the Labour' party, such as the late Mr. Andrew Fisher, congratulated the government of the day on having introduced the bill, and the late Sir Littleton Groom often recalled that the pension had been given as a right and not as a charity, but he pointed out that, unfortunately, it had come to be regarded as a charity. It was actually a loan on their property because the Lyons Government provided by law that when a pensioner died the amount of pension paid would be recovered when the property was sold. The old-age pensioners have blazed the trail in Australia, and have handed down to us an inheritance of which we are proud. In the evening of their lives, they are entitled to at least a reasonable standard of comfort. Even though they are now to receive improved pension conditions, this legislation will not be perfect. I should like it to be taken a little further than is now proposed. I believe that an oldage pensioner should have the right to earn, in addition to his pension, fi 10s. a week, if a single man, and double that sum if married. I pay a tribute of praise to the old-age pensioners in South Australia, where there is a dearth of labour for the munitions factories and annexes. In that State, many of the pensioners have given up their pensions, and have accepted employment in munitions works. These patriotic elderly citizens are entitled to public appreciation, particularly in view of the fact that their sons are equally patriotic and have taken their places in the fighting forces of this country.

When a pensioner has property apart from the home in which he resides which is non-revenue producing, it is assessed against his pension as if it were revenueproducing. If a property is worth over £50, for every £10 in excess of that Bum the pension is reduced by £1 a year, despite the fact that it may not be revenue-producing. The ordinary citizen is taxed only on income derived from personal exertion or other sources, but an old-age pensioner is taxed on property that is non-revenue producing by reducing his pension according to the improved value of the property. Often an elderly couple spend the evening of their lives in the old home in which they have reared their family. The house, however dilapidated it may be, has a sentimental value to them, recalling to their minds the struggle that they have undergone in raising their family. Naturally, they are disinclined to leave the house. When one of the old couple dies, the remaining partner probably agrees to reside with a son or a daughter. The property is then assessed against the pensioner. Thi3 is unfair as it is not tenanted or revenueproducing. Often the valuation is an inflated one, and if the property is valued at £400 or more, the pensioner is deprived of his pension. There is also the case of the wife of an invalid pensioner, or a man with an invalid wife. Take, first, the case of a wife who is looking after an invalid husband. She may be able to go out and work. If she earns £2 a week, the pension of her invalid husband is reduced. If he is so incapacitated that he needs her attention day and night, she has to live on his pension. Surely some provision should be made for a wife in such circumstances. Then there is the other case in which the wife is an invalid. The husband goes out to work, while a daughter stays at home to look after her mother. I know of one such case in which the man earns only the basic wage, and the daughter, who is 35 years of age, devotes all her attention to looking after her bed-ridden mother. No pension is payable in respect of the wife because the husband is earning the basic wage, and no taxation relief is given to the father in respect of the daughter whom he supports. When the act was amended to increase the permissible family unit income from £1 10s. to £2 10s. a week, it was never expected that the provision would apply only in the case of invalid children. I moved that amendment and claim it was intended by me to cover all invalid wives or husbands. I trust that the Government will rectify these anomalies in the near future. It, has already done a great deal for the pensioners.

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