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Friday, 24 August 1923

Dr EARLE PAGE (Cowper) (Treasurer) . - I' point out to the Leader of the Opposition that he is fighting shadows in taking up such an attitude. He evidently misunderstood the reply, which is given in Hansard, by the Prime Minister, and by myself, that the matter would receive consideration. The question was considered, and the Government found that its financial policy could not be altered to the extent desired by the Leader of the Opposition, and he was invited ito test the feeling of the House. He moved an amendment to the first clause of the Bill when in Committee, and he had abundant opportunity then to refer back the Governor-General's message. The Committee decided otherwise. The honorable member for Fawkner is in an entirely different position. 'He ascertained the exact cost from the officers, and the Government, after consideration of its financial position, has made provision, subsequent to the introduction of this Bill, for the moving of his amendment.

Mr Charlton - My point is that the action of the Prime Minister and the Treasurer prevented the House from .giving an untrammelled decision.

Dr EARLE PAGE - We promised to give the matter consideration. 'We examined the 'finances of the Government and for the first time in the history 'of the old-age pension, we 'have submitted to the Committee a .series of amendments, to correct the anomalies which at present exist. Because we. attempt to rectify to some degree every anomaly, we are unable to accept other amendments which, by the complete removal of a particular anomaly, would increase the expenditure. The Government recognise that the provision it is making is not yet sufficient to put the aid-age pensions on a proper basis, and is, therefore, appointing a Royal Commission to examine the whole question, and put it on a more equitable basis. The Government has considered the matter in the fullest and fairest way. The principal Act has been amended no fewer than seven times in fourteen years, and each time the conditions have been liberalized. But this Bill is the first that has attempted to deal with the anomaly in regard to the net capital value of property that may be owned by the pensioner. The pension has been increased at various times, but the earning capacity of the pensioner has not previously been increased concurrently. Every amendment that has been suggested has been considered by the Treasury officers in order to ascertain what effect it would have upon the finances of the country, and the Government has endeavoured to spread the money at its disposal over as wide a field as possible, in order to give the maximum relief. I ask honorable members to accept the assurance of the Government that, after months of careful study, it has come to the conclusion that the proposals contained in the Bill are not only the utmost that the finances will permit to be done at the present time, but also cover the greatest number of anomalies in the best possible way with the money available. If we had not considered the matter fully, and had brought down a hastily-evolved proposal, the Committee would, have been justified in taking the business out of the hands of the Government and laying down a new policy for the administration of the finances. But' for the first time in the history of this legislation a duly considered Bill dealing with every anomaly has been introduced, and therefore I ask the Committee to support the Government. The Government agrees 'with the honorable member for North Sydney (Mr. Hughes) that this payment should not be regarded as charity, but as a right, and therefore it is appointing a Royal Commission to advise upon a policy of national insur- ance, which is the only means by which this assistance to the aged and invalid can be placed upon a non-charitable basis within the financial capacity of the Commonwealth. The Government does hot suggest that this measure is perfect, but it is the utmost that the Government can do in the present financial circumstances of the country. Realizing the imperfections of the measure, we desire the whole system to be inquired into in the fullest' possible way, so that it may be placed upon a proper basis. Later this afternoon I hope to be able to announce the composition of the Royal Commission to deal with pensions and national insurance, lt will be, as far as possible, representative of both sides of the House, so that every political view may be expressed. In regard to the property qualification, the various amendments that have been suggested would accentuate, rather than remove, the real anomaly, which is that old-age pensioners who- live in their own houses, whether they be worth £300, £400, or £500, do not, on that account, suffer any reduction of pension. The raising of the allowable capital value to £500 would not remove the anomaly - that exists between those who have their own homes and those who have not. The instance mentioned by the honorable member for Yarra could not have been quite correctly stated, because if people left their own home in the country to temporarily reside in Melbourne that property, being still their home, would not be taken into account by the pensions office, unless it was yielding income in the form of rent.

Mr Scullin - But it is taken into account.

Dr EARLE PAGE - I am mentioning what the Deputy Commissioner of Pensions assures me is the practice of the Department. In regard to the point raised by the honorable member for North Sydney (Mr. Hughes), rates and maintenance costs are deducted from the income yielded by property, when the pension is being computed. The ' honorable member for Barton (Mr. F. McDonald) mentioned the blind pensioners. There is a special provision in the Act that earnings up to £221 per annum shall not debar a blind man from receiving the pension.

Mr Charlton - It depends upon how he is earning the money. I brought up recently the case of a blind man who is selling race books, and adding to his income in that way, and his pension was stopped.

Dr EARLE PAGE - The Department wishes to discourage street mendicancy.

Mr Charlton - '«hat man is not a mendicant; he is selling something to the public.

Dr EARLE PAGE - If that man is carrying on a genuine trade, it should not prejudice his pension, and if the facts are as the honorable member has stated, then I will do my utmost -to put the matter right. "We should discriminate between street begging and actual working or trading. The honorable member for Fawkner (Mr. Maxwell) and a number of other honorable members have brought under my notice those persons suffering from congenital defects who, because they did not enter the Commonwealth before they were three years of age are ineligible for pensions. This matter has been further considered since this Bill was drafted, and a provision has been made to enable the matter to be dealt with. I ask the Committee to support the Government's proposal because the increase of the property restriction to £500 would involve an additional expenditure of between £30,000 and £40,000 per annum, and would1 not remove the anomalies, but would make it more difficult for us to relieve those other anomalies that extend throughout the whole range of the pensions system.

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