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Monday, 20 May 1957


Mr COPE (Watson) .- This Government has shown a callous disregard of the widespread distress suffered by many age and invalid pensioners in their struggle to live on a paltry income of £4 a week. When members of the Australian Labour party have brought the issue of pensions before the Parliament from time to time, they have been accused of doing so merely in an endeavour to win political kudos. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Australian Labour party is committed to, and devoted to, a policy of obtaining the best possible living standards for every man, woman, and child in Australia, regardless of station in life. It does not believe in prosperity being enjoyed by some and denied to others. I should like honorable members to realize that most pensioners had to raise their families the hard way, in times when there was no government assistance in the form of child endowment, and no unemployment or sickness benefit if the breadwinner were out of work or ill. Naturally, this greatly restricted their opportunities to save for their old age. I should like to remind the House, also, that many age pensioners suffered from unemployment during the dark days of the depression of the early 1930's, and this also placed them at a great disadvantage compared with those who are raising families to-day.

Pensions were last increased just before the 1955 election - on 1st November, 1955, to be exact. No doubt, the increase was given in an attempt to win a few votes. However, I do not think that such tactics will help the Government at the next election, because the pensioners will not again be deluded into voting for supporters of a government that will increase pensions immediately before an election and allow pensioners to starve for the next two years.


Mr Lindsay - I thought that the honorable member was raising this matter in a non-party spirit.


Mr COPE - Doubtless, if the honorable member had his way, the pensioners would be reduced to eating chaff. I think all honorable members know that pensioners pay just as much for the bare essentials of life, such as food and clothing, as do the rich - if they can afford to buy even the bare essentials. The Treasurer (Sir Arthur Fadden) budgeted for a surplus of £108,000,000 in the current financial year. When he brought down the budget on 30th August of last year, he said that this surplus would be set aside for the financing of State public works. All Opposition members recognize the importance of State public works, and the need for funds to be set aside to finance them, but the Opposition considers that it is of first importance also that no under-privileged people should want for food, clothing, and other necessaries. Therefore, some of the budget surplus should be set aside to help the pensioners. The fact that this has not been done is a blot upon the Government's record.

Last year, during the debate on the Social Services Bill 1956 the Minister for Social Services (Mr. Roberton) cited the report made on the results of a Victorian survey of the conditions of pensioners. However: he read only the part of the report that high-lighted the bright side of the picture, and did not mention the dark side. In fairness, I shall read to the House the part that high-lights the dark side of the picture. The report is entitled " Raising age pensions. A five-point programme ", and it was prepared by Professor R. I. Downing, Ritchie Professor of Research in Economics at the University of Melbourne. It states -

The Victorian survey mentioned earlier suggest* that it is reasonable to assume that nearly half the pensioner population own their own homes or have a life interest in the houses in which they live. Unofficial information suggests that when allowance is made for those who are living either with their own families or in decent rooms at rents reasonable in relation to the pension, it might be assumed that 75 per cent, to 80 per cent, of the pensioner population has satisfactory living arrangements. The remaining 20 per cent, or 25 per cent, may not only be living in grossly substandard accommodation but may also be paying as much as half their pension in rent. The £2 a week left after rent has been paid is simply not enough to provide an adequate diet and all the other things needed - washing, heating, lighting, clothes, newspapers, tobacco or sweets, fares, entertainment and so on.

Among pensioners, there appears to be very little cash income apart from the pension. Presumably those who are able to earn anything at all are mostly able to earn enough to bring them more than the allowable income. As they pass the stage where they are still able to earn, they go on to the pension, and few have annuity or superannuation income to supplement the pension.

The majority of pensioners (65 per cent.) are single, widowed, divorced or separated, and presumably most of these people do not share their living expenses, especially housing, heating and light. A small number live in communal homes run by the State or by private organizations. These homes vary greatly in quality of accommodation and many are particularly bad in failing to provide occupation and interests for their inhabitants. Some even segregate husbands and wives or accept only one sex. In any case, with all their shortcomings, there are reported to be far more people wanting this communal accommodation than there are places available.

So it can be seen that the Minister told the House last year only about the people who were adequately housed, and neglected entirely to mention a very large group of people who, I suggest, are living in circumstances not fit for human beings.

There are in Australia, at the present time, 537,000 age and invalid pensioners. If one takes the figure of 22i per cent., which is mid-way between the limits of 20 per cent, and 25 per cent, mentioned in the report of the survey, one arrives at an estimate of more than 120,000 people who are paying up to £2 a week rent out of their pension of £4 a week. I am sure that no member of this Parliament would suggest for a moment that the remaining £2 a week is adequate for their support. Only a few minutes ago, my friend and colleague, the honorable member for the Australian Capital Territory (Mr. J. R. Fraser), asked the Minister for the Interior (Mr. Fairhall) a question about increased tariffs in government hostels in Canberra, the Minister, in his reply, stated that, if wages were increased, hostel tariffs must be increased. Why not raise pensions also?

As I have pointed out, pensions were last increased in November, 1955. The cost of living has increased sharply in the succeeding eighteen months; yet the pensioners are expected to keep themselves satisfactorily on the paltry sum of £4 a week! Last year, the Minister for Social Services said that, when Labour went out of office in 1949, the age and invalid pension was £2 2s. 6d. a week. He said that it had been increased to £4 a week, and then he threw out his chest, stood to attention, and announced with pride that that represented an increase of 88.2 per cent. However, let us consider the real value of the increase. When Labour went out of office in 1949, the basic wage in New South Wales was £6 12s. a week, and the age and invalid pension was £2 2s. 6d. a week. At the present time, with the inclusion of quarterly adjustments, the wage is £13 8s. a week in New South Wales - 103 per cent, more than in 1949. Yet pensions have increased by only 88.2 per cent. It takes, therefore, only a little simple arithmetic to find that the purchasing power of pensions has decreased considerably since 1949.

I have not used those figures as the actual basis of my argument; I have used them to refute the claim of the Minister, because I do not believe in arguing about pensions on the basis of what has been done by governments, Labour or otherwise.

The point is that this is a bread-and-butter issue, involving the question of whether £4 a week is sufficient for people to live on. I submit that if it was good enough for the members of this Parliament to claim that they could not struggle along on the money that they were receiving and to ask for, and be granted, increased salaries, surely the pensioners also are entitled to more. It is of little use only to look after the people at the top. TheGovernment must look after the whole of the community. It has always been my sincere belief that every person in Australia is entitled to a decent standard of living. The Australian Labour party supports the Colombo plan, which embodies a principle which I favour very much, but unlike the Government parties, the Australian Labour party, before it supports an organization which operates outside this country, tries to ensure that every person in Australia is adequately catered for.

In the course of the survey to which I have referred, reference is made to a book entitled, " Social Security in the British Commonwealth ", by Ronald Mendelsohn, in which the author stated -

It is not official policy to


Mr Wilson -- When was that written?


Mr COPE - In 1951. Those are the opinions, not of people looking for political advantage or kudos, but of people who have actually seen the conditions about which I am speaking. They have made a survey, and they know what they are talking about. When the Minister for Social Services was speaking on this subject last year, he said that it was constantly in his mind, and in that of the Government, that these unfortunate people must be looked after. I have here the relevant excerpt from "Hansard", although I know it by heart. If that statement by the Minister was correct, then he and his colleagues in the Government must be suffering from amnesia.

In conclusion, Mr. Speaker, may I say that I admire very much the charitable and church organizations which are assisting pensioners, as I do the Sydney City Council for its " meals on wheels " scheme, and the New South Wales Government for the many concessions that it has granted to pensioners. I submit, however, that responsibility rests with this Parliament to eliminate poverty in the community and that it should not rely on others to provide the needy with bowls of soup or leftoff clothing. In my electorate, and in those of the honorable members for East Sydney (Mr. Ward), West Sydney (Mr. Minogue), Grayndler (Mr. Daly) and Dalley (Mr. O'Connor), there is irrefutable evidence to support the facts that I have placed before the House to-day.







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