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Thursday, 13 October 1955

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Thank you. Let me quote a passage from the statement. I hope the Minister will remain silent while I do so. This is what he said -

Consequently, the B.M.A. informed the Government that it would continue the pensioner medical service . . after 31st October, 1955, only if the service was restricted to pensioners able to satisfy the means test in force at 31st December, 1953.

Was that a request to the Government for consideration of the British Medical Association's case? It was a decision by the British Medical Association, conveyed to the Government of this country and accepted by the Government of this country. In that sense, this is a shameful surrender indeed. We frequently hear the Government make bold statements of its ability to resist sectional pressure in this community, but on this occasion it has surrendered, and surrendered abjectly, to such pressure.

The third feature of this extraordinary decision to which I direct attention is the hotch-potch character of the proposed arrangement. It will create a very unfair and vicious discrimination between citizens. Every pensioner who has a medical entitlement, provided his income is within the pensioner means test, will continue to enjoy that entitlement, but a new applicant after the 31st October will be submitted to a new and more stringent means test. Obviously, that arrangement will lead to the most extraordinary and unfair discrimination between citizens. Two pensioners, one of whom has an income of £7 a week, may be living side by side. Because he has received his entitlement before the 31st October, the pensioner with an income of £7 a week will be entitled to free medical service, but the other pensioner, who may have a total income, including pension and permissible income, of £5 lis. a week, will be disqualified from the right that his neighbour enjoys. No doubt such discrimination is permissible constitutionally, but it is not permissible in honest government, and surely it is not anything to which a responsible Minister would subscribe his name.

I now direct attention to a second form of discrimination that will be effected by the proposed arrangement. If an appli cant with an income of £5 9s. a week makes his application for medical entitlement on the 31st October, he will get it. Thereafter, even though his income, including the pension, rises to £7 10s. a week, he will still be entitled to free medical service, whereas any other applicant who, on the 31st October, has an income exceeding £5 10s. will be disqualified. Surely such forms of discrimination will create resentment and indignation throughout the community; but, more than that, they ought to be alien to any conception of responsible government in a democracy.

It is necessary to point out also the injury that will be caused by the Government's decision, which means a return to the means test of 1953. In 1954, the Government agreed that the means test was far too rigid, and it substantially raised the amounts of permissible income and permissible property. It made a feature of the fact that 90,000 additional citizens would become eligible for free medical service under the ameliorated means test, which was adopted because of the change in money values since 1953. Now the Government, at the direction of the British Medical Association, takes a step right back to 1953 - a retrograde step, indeed. It means that a single man or an elderly woman who is living alone, who is paying rent for a room, who is trying to clothe himself or herself on a total income of £5 10s. a week, and who will be an applicant for a pension, will be deprived of the medical entitlement, which all of us who come in contact with pensioners know is one of their most prized possessions. The feeling that in their loneliness, their old age, and their illness, they have the right to free medical attention is very important to them. That right is to be taken from them after it has been accepted as a feature of community entitlement at a certain age. Who will say that £5 10s. a week for the maintenance of a pensioner leaves anything from which to provide a reserve to pay for medical attention? We all know that £5 10s. a week is utterly inadequate for that purpose.

I now refer to the broken pledge that is involved in his decision, which represents another act of repudiation by this Government. Opposition members are continually referring to the Government's broken promises, because it has broken so many promises. This is the repudiation of one more solemn promise, made as recently a3 last year by the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) when he stood on the election platform, asked for votes, and made a compact with the electors. In his policy speech of April, 1954, the Prime Minister - the right honorable the Prime Minister - said -

Whatever rate of pension is drawn-

L ask honorable members to note those words - they are also entitled to the benefit of the free medical and medicine service.

Now that right honorable gentleman, the right honorable the Prime Minister, has permitted Cabinet and the Minister for Health (Sir Earle Page) to accept the ultimatum of the British Medical Association to withdraw that free entitlement which he then so explicitly stated would be available to every pensioner in the community. Have honorable members opposite no self-respect whatever? Have they no sense of responsibility ? Are they prepared to do anything at all in order to cling to office? Is the British Medical Association so powerful that the Minister must bow the knee every time it issues an edict? I know he will say that ho cannot impose civil conscription on members of the association. Of course, he cannot do so. But who wants and who needs civil conscription in Australia for reasonable dealings and reasonable negotiation? Has not this Government the power, the strength and the ability to say, "While we are the Government of this country, we will be the arbiters of policy. We and the National Parliament will decide these matters, not any outside junta "?

Effect has not yet been given to the decision. I have every reason to believe that it was concealed from Government supporters for some time. [Extension of time granted.] I thank the House for the extension of time. That the decision was concealed from Government supporters for some time is obvious, because, during the debate on the Social Services Bill (No. 2) 1955, which has just concluded, they were still making a parade of the fact that every pensioner was entitled to free medical service. Indeed. they defended the Government's decision not to give a larger increase of the pension rate by claiming that every pensioner was entitled to the great advantage of free medical service, although the Minister for Health, at a conference many weeks ago, had given the British Medical Association an assurance that that benefit would be withdrawn. That he did so is evident from his own statement. Apparently the right honorable gentleman withheld the information from his own colleagues. The remedy, of course, is still in their hands. They still have the final responsibility. It is proposed that the decision shall not be implemented until the 3lst October. The responsibility for deciding whether it shall be implemented rests with members of the Government parties. If they allow the Government to implement the decision, they also will be recreant to the pledge that the Prime Minister gave in their name, and in thimost explicit terms, as recently as April, 1954. They will be betraying the pensioners to whom they promised justice. They will be inflicting a real injury on people with as little income, plus pension, as £5 10s. a week on which to maintain body and soul, who will in future, under this Minister's decision, made at the behest of the British Medical Association, be deprived of entitlement to free medical treatment. I do not know whether this matter will ever come before the House in the form of legislation. One can search in vain for any legislation or any regulation which gives an outline of the pensioner medical scheme. The whole basis of this service - a most restricted service, by the way - is contained, first of all, in a regulation which gives the DirectorGeneral of Medical Services power to establish a medical practitioner service and, secondly, in a series of letters exchanged between the Government and the British Medical Association and a letter sent by the Director-General of Health to medical practitioners throughout Australia. That is the basis on which this scheme exists. Now the Minister will probably, as his answer this morning shows, claim that this step had to be taken because the continuance of the present practice would place pensioners at an advantage as compared with other members of the community - young people with families to rear on similar incomes to those of some pensioners, but who are not entitled to free medical service. Faced with that dilemma, the Minister proposes to go backward, and take a much-needed benefit away from future applicants for the age and invalid pension. Surely what he ought to do, and what the people of this country would wish him to do, and what any enlightened government would do in such a situation, is not to go backward, but to go forward. Of course there is a need to extend some advantage of this kind to young people struggling to rear families and pay for their furniture and acquire homes, on incomes of £13, £14 or £15 a week !

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