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Wednesday, 27 May 1942

Senator A J McLACHLAN (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) .- The Minister for Trade and Customs (Senator Keane) has reason to congratulate himself upon the approval of this measure that has been voiced on both sides of the chamber. To those who have not been associated with federal politics for long, it might appear that this measure is a belated one, and that it should have been introduced years ago. Any one who holds such a view should inquire why that was not done. Following upon the common-sense speeches made by Senator Cooper and Senator Arnold, I believe that the matter should be carried a little farther. What spectacle are we presenting to the recalcitrant States? On more than one occasion, it has been suggested by very eminent legal authorities - one of them is a member of the Government to-day - that it is not competent for the Commonwealth Parliament to legislate for widows' pensions. You, Mr. President, will recall, from your wealth of knowledge of the Constitution, that specific provision is made for invalid and old-age pensions, but the best authorities that can be obtained hold that the Commonwealth Parliament has not power to pass legislation such as this. Let us examine the subject in the light of the views expressed by Senator Cooper and Senator Arnold. Although we have plenary power to legislate for invalid and old-age pensions, upon what does the security of these schemes rest? It rests on the bounty of this Parliament and on nothing else. What happened to invalid and old-age pensions during those stressful times which many members of this chamber well remember? I applaud the soundness of the speeches made by Senator Cooper and Senator Arnold because, under a contributory scheme, no matter how small the contribution may be, the question of bounty is taken out of the hands of the legislative mind - Senator Gibson would call it the composite mind - of Parliament and the beneficiaries obtain their payments as a right. It is inopportune to have this legislation thrown into the ring when we are about to embark upon the discussion of a most debatable constitutional position - a question which affects this country to its very foundations. In bringing forward this legislation, we are presenting the States of the Commonwealth with an opportunity to attack us on constitutional grounds. It will be competent for the States to challenge it, and owing to the atmosphere which has been created by that legislation, which provides for what is incorrectly called a uniform taxation scheme, I am confident that certain State authorities willbe only too ready to seize upon a proposal such as this.For that reason I deplore the attitude of my friends on the treasury bench in relation to the national health and pensions insurance proposal. Had that scheme been put into operation, there would have been adequate social security for the people of this country to-day, and if it so desired the present Government could have added a widows' pension scheme, or any similar provision upon a contributory basis. In that way, widows would have received their pensions as a right, and not as a bounty at the hands of this Parliament. It has been claimed that there is no financial provision for this legislation, but Senator Arnold has indicated that a certain measure is now receiving the consideration of the Government.

Senator McBride - It is the first we have heard of it.

Senator A J McLACHLAN (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - Yes, but it is a very valuable piece of information, because once a scheme such as this is placed upon a contributory basis, it is beyond the power of Parliament to interfere with it What has happened in Great Britain? A national insurance scheme is operating successfully there and small as the benefits are and difficult as was Britain's task during the years of depression, that fund has now emerged into a state of affluence, thanks to the assistance received from the Treasury from time to time, I admit. Parliament has no option but to meet its commitments under that scheme. This legislation purports to confer a benefit upon a deserving section of the community - women, who having helped to bring more population into this country, and borne the brunt of life, are left without breadwinners. Surely, it would be better if a pension were payable to these people as a permanent right. We are preening ourselves on giving something to the people of this country, but we are giving with one hand, and, forsooth, we may have to take it away with the other. It is not good for this body politic that it should not be able to fulfil its obligations to the people. Unless we are enacting legislation which we are sure is within our constitutional jurisdiction, a scheme such as this will be at the mercy of party politics, of Parliament, and of circumstances over which Parliament has no control. On the other hand, if the fund were stabilized on a contributory basis, we should have to do our duty by it. There would have been no reduction of invalid and old-age pensions in the years of the depression had those pension schemes been on a contributory basis. I say again that a fell injury was done to this country when through political influence the national insurance scheme, which should have been the beginning of a great era of social reform in this country, was defeated by political machinations. I shall not oppose this bill. At least it is a gesture, but I am afraid it may prove ashes in the mouths of the recipients if certain eventualities which I see in the offing occur. It is to be regretted that those who pride themselves on being supporters of the helpless should leave them with a measure such as this which cannot stand the constitutional test.

Senator Ashley - That is the honorable senator's opinion.

Senator A J McLACHLAN (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - And the opinion of the Attorney-General (Dr. Evatt), expressed in the House of Representatives over and over again. It is quite plain that the Commonwealth has not power to legislate in this way. We do this in a light-hearted and airy fashion to-day, but if a challenge be put forward by the States on what foundation does the widows' pension scheme rest? It rests on no security at all. It rests upon the goodwill of this Parliament, and upon the fact that no State is in a position to challenge it. Because this legislation will relieve some States of their present expenditure on widows' pensions, other States will claim that it represents an inequality, in that the Commonwealth is taking the burden of financing such schemes off those States and placing it on them. I now utter my warning. Legislation of this kind has a habit of rebounding. Despite the approbation given to the bill, I believe that it is illconsidered. It would have been better for the Government to adopt the valuable recommendation made by the Joint Committee on Social Security, namely, to provide a system of widows' pensions on a contributory basis. Such a system would have a measure of constitutional validity which is entirely lacking in this scheme.

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