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Thursday, 17 March 1966

Mr SINCLAIR (New England) (Minister for Social Services) . - Mr. Deputy Speaker, I rebut in toto the amendment proposed by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Calwell). The honorable member for Watson (Mr. Cope) has, I gather, taken up part of the proposed amendment alleging that the Government has failed to maintain the purchasing power of the Australian community. I want briefly to deal with two particular aspects of the statement of the Government's policy presented by the Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Holt) on Tuesday of last week, but I should like first to deal with some of the points raised by the honorable member for Watson.

The honorable member dealt with the pensions system that exists in Australia at present. In particular, he spoke of the level of permissible income and advocated that it be raised. I do not know whether he realises the degree to which the range of pensions has been extended since the Menzies Government took office. Honorable members on both this side of the Parliament and the Opposition side have advocated the extension of pension benefits in two particular fields. These are the total sum payable as pension and the range of people who are eligible for pensions. The first relates to the sum actually payable to an individual pensioner household. The honorable member for Watson quoted some comparative figures. Unfortunately, he did so in such a way as to prevent me from getting them down. Consequently, I am not able to make proper comparisons. However, I do know that in 1949 the base rate of pension payable by the Government of the day was £2 2s. 6d. a week. In those days, there were very few supplements to the pension. Nowadays, we give supplementary assistance and other additional benefits.

Mr Cope - I referred only to the permissible income compared to the rate of pension in 1954 when the level of permissible income was last adjusted.

Mr SINCLAIR - I am comparing pension rates. Since 1949 the base rate of pension has increased from £2 2s. 6d. a week to £6 a week for single pensioners and £5 10s. a week for married pensioners. In addition, the base rate is supplemented in a number of ways, as the honorable member knows. We have provided for single persons, who seem to comprise the category of individuals in the community having the greatest need. Supplementary assistance, which is paid to a single pensioner, is intended to meet the particular expenses of a single pensioner who pays rent. Additional supplements are available according to the number of dependants that a pensioner has. A wife's allowance is paid and there are allowances for children where these are applicable. Child endowment was available in 1949 but none of these other supplements was available. The range of supplemental benefits has been considerably increased in the intervening years.

I have dealt with the first aspect - the total sum available to individual pensioners. I now turn to the range of persons within the age section of the community who are eligible to receive pensions. This brings me to the extension of the means test. In 1949, 39.1 per cent, of those in the eligible age group received a pension in full or in part. In 1965, 53.4 per cent, of those of eligible age received pensions. So honorable members will see that over the years the range of persons eligible to receive pensions has been extended by approximately 14.3 per cent. Honorable members on both sides of the Parliament have referred to me the question of whether eligibility should be based on need or whether pensions should be available to all sections of the community. I think all of us basically agree that some benefits should be available to those who have worked and saved throughout their lives. Under our Australian system, we have fortunately an increasing number of people who are contributing for superannuation benefits. The Government has recognised the advantages and the needs of superannuation by allowing as a deduction in the assessment of income for tax purposes sums contributed to superannuation schemes. So contributors to superannuation schemes, while they are fit and able to earn, receive some help in providing benefits for the time when they will no longer be members of the work force. Through personal and private superannuation, people are able to take some advantage of their earning years in this way.

Allowance is made for the individual situations of persons in the elderly section of the community, and in the determination of eligibility for pensions a complete waiver is given in respect of certain personal assets. As honorable members know, a person is allowed to own his own home and certain personal possessions, even including a motor car, and in addition to have up to a certain sum in the bank without his right to a pension being affected. To take account of the distinction between income and assets, the range of eligibility was extended by the introduction of the concept of means as assessed. The Government has continually looked at the situation of those people who are considered to have the most need. Consequently, the pensions system is designed to encourage people to save while they are fit and able to work and save, and a means test is applied to pensions. Those who have been unable to save sufficient to tide them over their years of retirement and who are able to satisfy the means test are eligible for pensions. This Government will continue to look at the range of benefits and at the situation of pensioner households. Since the Menzies Government took office, a tremendous amount has been achieved in extending pension benefits and I can assure honorable members and the Australian community that under the present Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Harold Holt, this Government will continue to consider sympathetically the position of those who no longer are able to look after themselves.

Opposition members keenly and constantly raise the suggestion that areas of poverty exist in the Australian community. I like to think rather of areas of relative need. Unfortunately, there are people who, mainly through their own personal fault, seem to get themselves into a position in which their incomings do not match their outgoings. This is a Micawber like situation. Though one has sympathy for people in that position, it is difficult for a Government arbitrarily to determine that beyond a certain level a family should not invest in hire purchase, for example, or put money into poker machines or other forms of gambling. The situation of many households is, as Professor Galbraith has declared, a situation of case bankruptcy. In other words, there are individuals within every group in the community who, through their own actions, have caused themselves to be placed in a situation of relative need. It is very difficult for any pension system to take complete account of the situation of these individuals. Beyond this, the system of social services is primarily intended to cover the basic needs of as many people in the community as it may be devised to cover. Towards this end the research section of the Department of Social Services continuously endeavours to keep in touch with those people who are in receipt of pensions and those in respect of whom there is a suggestion that benefits should be given in order that benefits can be granted as the situation is proved.

Honorable members have suggested that a survey of poverty by the Department of Social Services would be the answer. There are many reasons why outside organisations - and I have mentioned in this House the

Institute of Applied Economics at Melbourne University as being one of them - are more suited to make a survey than the Department. The first of those reasons is that the Department does maintain certain figures and it is necessary each year for each pensioner to report to the Department on his present amount of income, bank balance and other facts of his situation so that a determination can be made as to whether or not that pensioner is receiving the correct amount of entitlement. This is as much for the pensioner's benefit as it is for the fact finding purposes of the Department. Rather naturally, individuals are reluctant to have Government representatives intruding into their private affairs any more than is necessary. Beyond this, I think a university or an independent research organisation is in a far more dispassionate position to assess the results of any survey taken.

It is for this reason that the Government is encouraging voluntary organisations in the field of social welfare. In particular the financial contribution made to the National Old People's Welfare Council last year was directed towards the encouragement of voluntary activity in the field of aged persons and other persons of need in the community. It is to be hoped that not only by that means but through the encouragement of voluntary organisations, such as those which have been encouraged by the Aged Person's Homes Act, that more and more people in the community who are still able to earn for themselves will continue to bear their share of responsibility towards the less fortunate members of the community. I think it is by continual voluntary interest and participation that the best results can be achieved to aid the welfare of the pensioner section of the community.

I wanted, in addition, to refer to the substantial part of the Prime Minister's policy statement of last week and to that part of the motion moved by the Leader of the Opposition which related to the situation in Vietnam. A great deal of this debate has centred on the reasons for the struggle in Vietnam, on the reasons for Australia's participation in it and, in particular, on the recruitment of national servicemen to bolster the defences of Australia and to further the progress towards renegotiation and the settlement of the dif ferences in that war-torn country. First, the argument as to Australia's participation seems to be based on whether or not tha war in South Vietnam is a civil war. The rebuttal of this argument is provided by the participation by successive numbers of personnel from North Vietnam and from Hanoi in the Vietcong movement in South Vietnam.

Various publications have been brought out by the United States State Department and the Australian Department of External Affairs which have enumerated the volume of arms and personnel coming from North Vietnam. The extent of this participation seems to be the basic factor in the determination of whether or not it is substantially a civil war or aggression from North Vietnam. There is today an increasing appreciation by all members of the Australian community that Communism and, in particular, Communist China, are the factors behind the aggressive move of North Vietnam towards South Vietnam. The clash of power politics in South Vietnam has been appreciated even by members of the Opposition. In the statement of the Leader of the Opposition the other night he made reference to the fact that power politics are now centred in South East Asia and that they have moved from Africa and Europe to this geographic sphere so close to our own shores.

During World War II both the Axis and Allied Powers refrained from the use of gas and biological warfare because of the deterrent force of the other side. It was because the Allies possessed gas and the means of biological warfare that they were able to deter the Axis powers from utilising these devastating and cruel means of warfare. Since then we have had a shift from the use of gas and biological warfare as a deterrent to the nuclear deterrent. Beyond the nuclear deterrent there is the balance of power by means of force of arms maintained by the United States of America and the Western Allies through their various treaty organisations. The reason why the deterrent force is so applicable in the clash in South Vietnam may be seen if we look at any of the publications of Mao Tse-tung which contain frequent allegations that the power of the West in general and of the United States in particular is no more than a paper tiger. If a country has a deterrent force it is essential that when it is placed in a position of saying: "This is the deadline and you must go no further", it is prepared to use that deterrent force.

Appeasement at Munich seems to have contributed considerably towards the last World War. Resistance to Russia's action in blockading Berlin, by the use of aeroplanes to ferry supplies into that city, enabled the breaking of the Berlin blockade. The use of force by the United Nations' troops in Korea was sufficient to ensure stability and security for the people of South Korea. In Cuba, the preparedness of President Kennedy to utilise the threat of fores was sufficient to persuade the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to withdraw its missile base. In Malaya, the use of British, Australian and New Zealand forces was sufficient to crush the Communist insurrection and the guerrilla movement in that country and to restore the stability, progress and prosperity of Malaya, that close and neighbouring country of ours, to its present point. In South Vietnam, unless the United States. Australia and our allies are prepared once again when called upon to exercise the deterrent of power that deterrent will no longer be effective.

For this reason, it is essential that Australia participate along with the forces of the United States to exercise this restraint and thus give effect to the power deterrent in order to belie the accusation from Communist China that the West is a paper tiger. A deterrent is only effective if a country is prepared to utilise it when called upon. Beyond this, the use of national service trainees is an effective means of handling a situation in which young men can stand up to tropical conditions far better, than the older men of the community. I have not time to go into all the details of the reasons why I support national service, but to my mind the situation is such that we in Australia should appreciate more and more that unless we are prepared to resist Communist aggression in South Vietnam our whole future must be uncertain, and all our social service benefits and our national welfare benefits, and even our very high standard of living, will be in jeopardy. We must be prepared to stand by the things we believe in and we must be prepared to commit ourselves in this sphere of operations.

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