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Friday, 18 September 1936

Senator DUNCAN-HUGHES (South Australia) . - I desire to protest on much broader grounds than those taken by the honorable senator who has just resumed his seat (Senator Marwick), who dealt largely with the exclusion of wheat-growers from participation in the superphosphate benefits to bo distributed under this measure. My objection is that the bill represents many of the Government's financial proposals for the current financial year, and sufficient time is not allowed for its adequate discussion. The budget debate which gives to honorable senators the opportunity to survey the whole field of government policy is usually taken before the introduction of the operative measures, and honorable senators then have a second opportunity, if they wish to take advantage of it, to express opinions on the various matters contained in the bills. But what is the position to-day? I cannot compliment the Government on its proposal to pass a measure of major importance at such short notice. The bill seeks to render operative government proposals which have not even been discussed in this chamber. It was placed upon the table of the Senate at about half-past eleven o'clock this morning and we are expected, Ipresume, to pass it by four o'clock this afternoon. I doubt that any member of this chamber, apart from Ministers, unless he had prior warning of its introduction, has even read the bill, which is a highly technical one and calls for careful scrutiny. I am not suggesting that the Government is not, by it, giving effect to principles which are expounded in the budget speech; but surely we are entitled to have a reasonable opportunity to examine and compare it with the numerous existing acts which are affected by it. I challenge any honorable senator to say that he has been able to do all this. " And answer came there none ! "

Senator Hardy - I have the original acts before me.

Senator DUNCAN-HUGHES - Has the honorable senator compared provisions in the various sections of this bill with relevant sections of the original acts ?

Senator Hardy - No.

Senator DUNCAN-HUGHES - The honorable gentleman has not done that because there has not been sufficient time to study the bill in any detail. I put it to the Senate that this is not the way to conduct the business of the country.

The only argument that has been advanced for the passage of this measure to-day is that in Melbourne there is to be a holiday next Thursday afternoon, and it is desired that payments authorized in this bill may be made on Wednesday. Why should a holiday in Melbourne govern payments to be made to persons in all parts of Australia ? If the Senate thinks fit to pass the bill to-day, I do not wish to delay its passage and so hold up payments, but I fail to see why it should not follow the ordinary course, that is to say, be debated on the second reading, and further considered after the lapse of a few days. This course need not interfere with payments to be made under it, because provision may be made for the payments to date from next week, so that not one penny would be lost by any persons who will participate in benefits under it.

Senator Brennan - I thought the honorable senator objected to retrospective legislation?

Senator DUNCAN-HUGHES - It would hardly be retrospective if provision were made for payments to commence from the middle of next week. I protest against honorable senators being asked to pass this important bill without having had a chance to study its provisions, or, alternatively, suffer the odium of endeavouring to hold it up. In the circumstances, I do not propose to discuss it fully. Indeed I am not competent to do so, nor is anyone else in this chamber.

The Leader of the Opposition (Senator Collings), the Leader of the Country party (Senator Hardy) and Senator Marwick, whom w« were all glad to hear speak for the first time in the Senate, have directed attention to a few of the principles in the bill, but I submit that what has been said, up to this stage cannot be regarded as adequate discussion of a measure which involves material alterations of the amounts payable to invalid and old-age pensioners, of the amount of maternity allowance, of salaries and wages for Commonwealth employees, of war and service pensions, and of the amount provided for relief in respect of primary production. Surely all these matters are of sufficient importance to warrant reasonable thought before proposals dealing with them are passed by the Senate.

I make no apology for my present unpreparedness to discuss the bill. How can any honorable senator be expected to deal with a measure which he saw for the first time less than half an hour ago? All that I have been able to do is to glance at its various provisions; but I cannot pretend to do1 full justice to it, nor can any other honorable senator. Let us consider briefly its proposals relating to payments to invalid and old-age pensioners. Surely they are of sufficient importance to warrant more thought than is possible if the bill is to be passed this afternoon.

Senator Dein - The additional ls. a week represents an increase of £760,000.

Senator DUNCAN-HUGHES - The Treasurer has estimated that the increased cost, due to the net increase of the number of pensioners, over and above the expenditure for 1935-36 will he about £600,000, and that the additional ls. a week will mean an increase of £760,000, making a total . increase to pensioners this year of £1,360,000. The aggregate payments will reach £13,980,000 as against £12,800,000 last year. I suppose allowance is made for a certain number of pensioners who, in the natural course, will drop out during the year. A total expenditure of approximately £14,000,000 justifies full and thoughtful debate. I should say that provision for pensions is one of the outstanding problems that face the Commonwealth. At the present time we have in Australia two notable English experts whose business is to advise the Government with regard to national insurance. Their visit is due largely, I understand, to a feeling that the ever increasing cost of pensions is becoming a burden on the community which can hardly be borne.

Senator Brown - If war broke out, the Government would be able to find hundreds of millions of pounds; yet it cannot afford to feed its people.

Senator DUNCAN-HUGHES - My views on this subject are on record in Hansard, and I think are well known. I have never attempted to hide them. When I entered this Parliament fourteen years ago the expenditure on invalid and old-age pensions was £5,500,000; this year it will be about £14,000,000. How can we go on increasing in this way without eventually finding ourselves in difficulties ?

Senator Hardy - It may be solved on a different basis under a national insurance scheme.

Senator DUNCAN-HUGHES - If there is that probability, is it desirable at the present moment to expand the expenditure ?

Senator Collings - I hope that the honorable senator is not going to make a provocative speech.

Senator DUNCAN-HUGHES - Is the Leader of the Opposition suggesting that I should not even speak to the bill, because hie colleagues may be tempted to reply, and so hold up the passage of the measure! But I assure him that I am not trying to be provocative. All I claim is the right to say what is in my mind on this important subject.

Senator Hardy - Expenditure in respect of other social services has increased largely in recent years.

Senator Arkins - The honorable senator might also remember that there has been an abnormal increase of payments for subsidies and other forms of assistance to primary industry. That burden also might become intolerable.

Senator DUNCAN-HUGHES - So also might the assistance rendered to secondary industries by the customs duties. At the moment, I am discussing payments to invalid and oldage pensioners, and I am pointing out that, compared with fourteen years ago, the total expenditure today represents an increase to about 250 per cent. Is it suggested that this amount is to keep on growing, with the possibility that fourteen years hence it may reach £35,000,000? We should, I think, take notice of what is being done in other countries, whose financial position is comparable with ours, and we should endeavour to decide what is fair in all the circumstances. I regret that the Government has increased the amount payable to pensioners this year, because the number of people who are being induced to lodge claims is steadily growing, and the burden on the community is becoming much heavier.

Senator J V MACDONALD (QUEENSLAND) - Is the honorable senator aware that the Government of New Zealand has increased pensions to £1 a week?

Senator DUNCAN-HUGHES - That may be so, but I invite the honorable gentleman to look at the figures for Great Britain, Canada and other parts of the Empire. If he does, he will find that the figures for Australia have always been very similar to those for New Zealand ; but I think that the act is being administered in a more liberal spirit in Australia than it is in New Zealand with the result that the percentage of applicants to population is higher in this country than in the sister dominion. May I add, with all respect to the honorable senator and his party, that I am not prepared to follow the lead of the present Government of New Zealand? Such a scheme should be brought into operation - if at all - by the Labour party, because it is the policy of that party to increase pensions. There must, however, be a point beyond which pensions cannot be increased. On one occasion, when on a public platform, I was asked why I was opposed to an increase of pensions, and I asked the questioner if the rate should be increased to 20s., 25s., £2 10s., or £5 a week, or whether he would suggest any other limit. He informed me that he was not there to answer questions but to ask them.

Senator Dein - The budget proposals have been before us for over a week.

Senator DUNCAN-HUGHES - Does that mean that we have had sufficient time to prepare speeches on the important subjects embodied in this bill? Has the honorable senator his speech in his pocket?

Senator Dein - I had prepared some information on pensions, and other subjects.

Senator DUNCAN-HUGHES - Did the honorable senator know yesterday that we would be expected to pass this bill this afternoon? Does he think that this is the proper way to handle important financial proposals? He does not answer and I respect him for declining to do so.

The increase in respect of maternity allowances for this year is relatively small, being only £42,000. The restoration of salaries and wages represents only £84,000 for the portion of the year and £110,000 for the full financial year. There is a good deal to be said in favour of this restoration; public servants are full-time employees, and, speaking generally, their salaries and wages are their only source of income. I support the restoration proposed. I am in favour of the restoration of a further percentage of ministerial salaries but am opposed to the increase of the allowances of members of Parliament. When elected on the last occasion I said that I was opposed to the increase of members' allowances, and I intend to adhere to what I then said.

I shall always receive sympathetically any proposal to restore the payments to returned soldiers and their dependants, because ex-soldiers have rendered a very valuable service to the community. Generally speaking, Australian exsoldiers have been treated very fairly, and probably better than those of any of the other dominions. That is as it should be, because in rendering service of the highest value many men became partially or totally incapacitated. I would oppose what I considered an unjustifiable increase of such payments, but I always study the claims of returned soldiers and their dependants with a great degree of sympathy.

I do not propose to discuss at length the assistance to be rendered to primary producers, but I remind Senator Arkins who interjected concerning the payment of bounties, that under this measure the subsidy to be paid on fertilizers is to be decreased from 15s. to 10s. a ton. The amount to be appropriated this year is £310,000 as against £434,000 last year. Whilst expenditure in other respects is being increased the appropriation for a subsidy on fertilizers is being reduced. Expenditure which leads to increased productivity is worthy of the most careful consideration.

Senator Arkins - I suggested that we may be studying the subject from the wrong angle.

Senator DUNCAN-HUGHES - The honorable senator mentioned the amount expended on bounties, but I direct his attention to the assistance rendered to secondary production under the tariff. I do not wish it to be thought that I am disparaging the budget as a whole. I am merely suggesting that the budget debate should have preceded a discussion of this measure which embodies many of the Government's financial proposals for the current year. Had the proper course been followed we could have criticized those proposals which deserve criticism and applauded those worthy of commendation. But we have only one set of proposals before us, and the inevitable result of a speech such as mine is that I shall be charged with criticizing the budget as a whole when I am not doing anything of the kind. The remission cif taxes has undoubtedly - been extremely well received throughout Australia. Although I have urged a remission for some years I have some doubt as to whether such a large remission should be made, in view of the problems with which Australia is now confronted. I feel personally that the Government is not justified in making suchheavy remissions of taxes as are proposed in the budget. I am afraid my remarks will not please honorable senators -opposite, but I feel that our needs in the matter of defence are so great that they over-shadow all other considerations.

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