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Thursday, 14 May 1942

Senator McLEAY (South Australia) (Leader of the Opposition) . - In speaking on this measure I take the opportunity to repeat what I said to the Government when it introduced another bill for the purpose of increasing the invalid and old-age pension rate to 23a. 6d. a week. It is regrettable that such a matter as invalid and old-age pensions should be the plaything of party politics. We all know the sordid story of the increase in the pension rate to 25s. a week. During the last general elections campaign we had the unsavoury spectacle of the then Leader of the Opposition indulging in political bribery or political bidding to the electors in an endeavour to secure a majority of seats for the political party of which he ' is a member in the Parliament. When the matter was considered at a caucus meeting certain senior members of the party advocated pensions of 23s. 6d. a week, and as a compromise this bill has been brought down to raise the rate to 25s. a week, retrospectively to the 2nd April, of this year. It is quite easy to bribe people with other people's money; it- is much easier, in fact, than bribing them with one's own money. We should be able to discuss this problem of providing for people in their invalidity and old age without introducing party politics. The more we examine this problem the more * we must appreciate the tendency in this country, particularly by a certain element in the Labour party, to employ bribery and spoon-feeding in a way that tends to apply a check to industry and to impose a penalty on thrift and self-reliance. We know of the huge commitments ahead of this country, and all I would say to those responsible for the bill is that, if we continue to spend on present lines, the time is not far distant when the Labour party will bo compelled to do what the right honorable member for Yarra (Mr. Scullin) was forced to do in clays gone by. I wish to direct attention to flic financial position into which we are drifting in the matter of pensions. In 1916-17, the invalid and old-age pensioners in Australia numbered 120,453, the rate of pension was 12s. Gd. ;i week, and the annual amount expended on pensions was £3,500,000. Twenty-five years have elapsed since then. It was estimated, when we were discussing this matter previously that in the year ending June, 1942, the number of pensioners would increase to 340,000, which, at the weekly rate of 23s. 6d. per pension, would involve an annual commitment for the people of Australia of £20,000,000. If we look ahead a further 25 years, we can roughly estimate that the pensioners will number over 1,000,000 and that the annual commitment will be over £65,000,000.

I suggest to the Government that at the earliest possible opportunity it should muster sufficient courage to place all social services, including invalid and ok.age pensions, child endowment, widows' pensions, health and unemployment benefits iu a comprehensive scheme on a contributory 'basis. This Parliament passed, a National Health and Pensions Insur- ancc scheme. The principal objection raised to that scheme by members of the Labour party, which was. then in opposition, was that it was on a contributory basis. I warn the Government, its supporters, and the old-age pensioners too, that if these schemes are not placed on a contributory basis the time is not far distant when we shall not be able to maintain the pension rate of 25s. a week. Ministers must realize the financial state into which we are drifting. We are committed this year to a war expenditure of £300,000,000, and to a civil expenditure of £100,000,000. If we add to those items £20,000,000 for invalid and old-age pensions, £12,000,000 for child endowment, £10,000,000 to £12,000,000 for pensions for soldiers and their dependants, and other commitments that will arise when the soldiers come back from the war, it becomes obvious that we must tread warily, and that we should give consideration to a suggestion from this side of the chamber that all social services should be placed on a contributory basis.

It seems clear that in this crisis the Government is paying special attention to certain sections of the community. Wages and conditions of employment have never been better than they are today, and the rate of payment to old-age pensioners has never been higher than it is to-day. The number of old-age pensioners in the community - 340,000 - provides a striking comparison with another section of the community, the wheatfarmers. I select wheat-farming as an industry where there is serious trouble as a result of war conditions. There are 68,000 wheat-farmers, and they are engaged in an industry that is looked upon as the second in value and the first in importance in providing employment and other benefits. The 68,000 wheat-farmers will' receive from the Australian Wheat Board for 140,000,000 bushels of wheat already delivered less than the old-age pensioners will receive as a free gift from the Commonwealth Government.

I have asked numerous questions from time to time as to what the Government proposes to do about the payment of the guaranteed price to the wheat-farmers, and as to when it is proposed to make the next payment in respect of wheat in the No. 5 pool. So far the farmers have not been paid the balance due to them for wheat in the No. 3 and No. 4 pools. In the conditions ruling to-day, they are faced with greatly increased costs, and when the request is made for payment the excuse is that the money is not available in the Treasury, although millions of pounds oan be doled out in other directions. I am trying to persuade the Minister assisting the Minister for Commerce to use his influence iri' inducing the Government to pay the money promptly, because the conditions of the wheat-farmers are becoming intolerable as the result of war conditions.'

Senator Fraser - It is unusual for the honorable senator to sympathize with the wheat-farmers.

Senator McLEAY - I have .as much sympathy for the wheat-farmers as has the Minister. It is not a matter of personalities, but of principles. I repeat that in the doling out of huge slims it is evident that special attention is given to certain sections of the community. In addition to ordinary costs, the increases of the cost of superphosphate, corn-sacks and many other requisites of the wheatfarmer are considerable. The -report of the Joint Committee on Rural Industries showed clearly that many of those engaged in the wheat industry were in a serious financial position. Owing to war conditions, the supply of superphosphate will be reduced next year by 50 per cent., and the acreage to be sown with wheat will have to be reduced, .thus further increasing the farmers' difficulties. Despite the fact that members of the present Government, when in Opposition, were hostile to the imposition of indirect taxes, the Government now proposes to increase indirect taxes by an amount of £6,500,000, in order, I presume, to hand over to the invalid and old-age pensioners the additional sum now proposed to be paid to them. That means merely that money will be taken out of one pocket and put into another. It was stated -in the debate on the National Health and Pensions Insurance Bill that in 1938 every 100 wage-earners were supporting 26 pensioners, whilst in 197S every 100 wage- . earners would be supporting 54 pensioners. Although I shall support this bill, which provides for the increase of the pension to 25s. a week,, the responsibility for the increase rests on the Government. It is of the utmost importance that at the earliest opportunity the social services of this country should by ' provided on a contributory basis. Then, in years to come, the people will receive the assistance to which they are entitled by right, and will not get it by way of a dole.

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