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Thursday, 30 November 1911

Senator O'KEEFE (Tasmania) . I move -

That, in the opinion of the Senate, section 51 of the Constitution should be amended so as to permit of legislation for the payment of pensions to widows of any age.

It is not my intention at this hour to occupy the time of the Senate for more than a very few minutes. But I should like to submit the motion which has been standing in my name on the business-paper for some weeks. Paragraph 23 of section 51 of the Constitution provides that this Parliament shall have the power to legislate for the payment of invalid and old- age pensions. If my amendment were carried, and acted upon, it would involve merely the inclusion of the word "widows" in the paragraph referred to. The passing of this motion will commit the Senate to nothing. If it be carried here and in another place, I take it that it will be regarded as an instruction to the Government to bring down a Bill within the statutory time before the close of the last session of this Parliament to provide for the taking of a referendum of the people on the question whether section 51 of the Constitution should be altered as I propose. . As the section stands, it gives this Parliament power only to pass legislation granting invalid and old-age pensions. Legislation has already been passed under section 51 for the payment of pensions to persons who have reached a certain age, and also under certain conditions to invalids. My desire is that that section of the Constitution shall be so enlarged that this Parliament will have the power to provide for the payment of pensions to widows, irrespective of age, and that is how my motion is worded. Of course, I do not mean to suggest the payment of pensions to all widows, but that it should be in the power of this Parliament to provide for the payment of pensions to widows in certain conditions analogous to those which now surround the payment of pensions to persons of a certain age and to invalids. If this motion were carried, and it were desired by a majority of each House of this Parliament that this provision should be made, it would still be necessary to get the consent of the people of Australia, which, of course, could only be obtained by means of a referendum. If my motion were carried, I would follow it up, within the prescribed time laid down in the Constitution, by asking, next session, for leave to bring in a Bill to refer the matter to the people at the next general election. It is hardly worth while to go into the merits of the question to-night, but I may mention that, since I placed the motion On the notice-paper, I have learned, through the daily press, that New Zealand, which' was, I believe, the first British country to pass an Old-age Pensions Act, proposes to extend the principle of pensions in the direction indicated in my motion. I have read that notice has been given by the New Zealand Government of their intention to bring in a Bill to extend the principle of paying pensions to widows under certain conditions j and the conditions outlined in the necessarily brief notice which we get in the press were similar to those which I had in my mind. My idea is that, if it is necessary that men and women of a certain age, and invalids, should be able to demand a pension, not as a charity, but as a right, there is equal justification for widows who are left penniless and with children of tender years to support, to draw some weekly or monthly payment from the Commonwealth or State Treasury. No doubt every honorable senator, in travelling through his own State or through Australia, has frequently come across cases of very great hardship - cases in which widows have been left penniless, and with two, or three, Or half-a-dozen young children, not one of whom is able to earn anything. These widows, if they have not any relatives or friends who are able to assist them, are thrown on the charity of their kindly neighbours, or on the charity of the State. I know that it will be argued in some quarters that it might be better for this Parliament to leave each State to provide for such cases than to seek this power from the people. But the very same argument was used, and could be used just as properly, when the question of granting old-age and invalid pensions was first brought before the country. There is equal justification for the payment of a small sum from the Commonwealth or State Treasury to widows who are left with young children in .indigent circumstances. This is not the right time to discuss the amount of the pension. What 1 desire is that the people shall have an opportunity of saying whether or not this Parliament shall have the power to legislate in this direction.

Senator Walker - As long as ¬ęthey are widows, I suppose?

Senator O'KEEFE - Yes, as long as they are widows, and widows with children under a certain age. All these, however, - are matters of detail which would necessarily have to be dealt with in the Bill which would have to be passed after the Constitution had been altered, by inserting the words ' ' and widows ' ' in paragraph 23 of section 51. The Parliament would then have the power to grant pensions to widows in certain conditions.

Senator Lynch - Would you make the payment of these pensions universal?

Senator O'KEEFE - That is a detail which would have to be considered in connexion with the Bill itself.

Senator Pearce - You would not put any limitation in the Constitution?

Senator O'KEEFE - No, obviously it would be unwise to seek to put any limitation in the Constitution. My desire is simply to introduce the words " and widows " into the paragraph.

Senator Keating - Or even to put in a new paragraph " Pensions to widows."

Senator O'KEEFE - That is a matter which can be better dealt with in a fuller Senate, and in the following session. I feel thoroughly satisfied that there will be a majority in each House of this Parliament in favour of taking a referendum on this subject. It has been argued, many and many a time, that our legislative power in regard to old-age and invalid pensions could be better exercised by the States, owing, perhaps, to the varying conditions which obtain. But the argument which was used to combat that argument might be used in connexion with my motion.

Senator Keating - If you could get the principle of your motion affirmed by either or both Houses, and assented to by the Government the form of the alteration of the Constitution could be left to them.

Senator O'KEEFE - That might well be left to the Government, and it would be a very simple matter to deal with. What I wish to get affirmed now is a great human principle. I am quite satisfied that every member of this Parliament has in his mind a number of instances where splendid citizenesses - women of the finest type, and mothers of young families - have been thrown upon the world, and have to depend entirely on the charity of their neighbours, or the State, or a local body. This is a matter which I think could be dealt with better by the Commonwealth as a whole than by a particular State. I do not mean to suggest that the States do not provide in a more or less haphazard way for these cases. But they only provide for individual cases. In Tasmania individual cases have been dealt with by the State Government, only under compulsion - only when a number of friends have represented that something ought to be done. It is not satisfactory to the recipients of the State relief that they should be dependent entirely on the whim of the Government. I have tried to get something to guide me in the matter, but I do not think that there is any British country which has legislation providing for the payment of pensions to widows in these conditions.

Senator Chataway - All British countries are deficient in that respect.

Senator O'KEEFE - Since I placed this motion on the business-paper, New Zealand has taken some steps. I do not know whether a Bill has been brought before the Dominion Parliament, but f know that some weeks ago a proposition was made that a widow should be allowed a certain sum for each child under a certain age up to four or five children. I am not going into details to-night. As the hour is late, I ask the Minister whether he has any objection to allowing' rae to continue my remarks on Thursday next.

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