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Friday, 15 May 1942

Sir FREDERICK STEWART (Parramatta) .- I welcome the bill that we are now considering, for several very good reasons, not the least of which is that it is one more milestone along the road of progress towards complete absorption by the Commonwealth Government of responsibility for the social services of Australia. Our nation has not been niggardly in the past in dealing with those members of the community who have required community assistance. [ recall that a little while ago I had figures collected that indicated that about £40,000,000 a year was distributed by the Commonwealth and States Treasurers in affording relief to various categories of beneficiaries under social legislation. Unfortunately, there has been no organization and no standardization of treatment throughout the Commonwealth, and, quite obviously, some of the social services operating in the different States have been dictated not so much by the needs of the beneficiaries as by the political pull, power, and influence which some potential beneficiaries have been able to exercise. For instance, in connexion with the provision for widows, for which the Commonwealth is now assuming responsibility, there has been, since 1925, in New South Wales, a liberal, and even generous, provision for widows with dependent children ; and in Victoria there is legislation of more moderate generosity. Those are the only two States, however, in which provision for payments to widows is made. Therefore we have the contrast provided by the fact that at Coolangatta, on the Queensland side of the Tweed River, no provision is made for the sustenance of widows and dependent children, and that at Tweed Heads, on the other side of the river, such provision is made. Unemployment insurance is in operation in Queensland, hut not in any of the other States.

These differences are a complete abnegation of the federal spirit, and it is time Australia began to adopt a national policy in matters of this kind. Australia has not hitherto been able, in the international councils of the nations, to adopt a national policy and to have a national voice. In 1933 the International Labour Conference dealt with the matter of widows' pensions, and it adopted a convention recommending to the members of that conference the introduction of legislation providing for the Daymen t of pensions to widows and orphans. The Australian representative at that conference concurred in the convention, but he was not able to assure the conference that the A.ustralian Commonwealth Government would implement the recommendations. All that he could do was to give an undertaking that the proposals would be passed by the Commonwealth Government to the State governments with an appropriate recommendation.

We have been hearing much lately, particularly during the last half-hour, of the disability associated with the lack of uniformity in State taxation, and it is common knowledge to honorable members of this House that that lack of uniformity, which has been causing much trouble to the Commonwealth Treasurer (Mr. Chifley) in these strenuous times, is largely due to the variability of the social service commitments of the different States. I am glad to support the proposal enunciated by the Commonwealth Treasurer this morning, and also the principle implicit in the legislation which we are now considering. Let the Commonwealth Government accept the responsibility for expenditure in connexion with the essentials of government, and no State government will dare to continue to collect taxation on the present basis. I have never cloaked the fact that I am an unapologetic advocate of the complete unification of legislative functions in Australia. My only regret is that the colleagues of a Government supporter who has just exclaimed " Hear, hear " are not a little more enthusiastic in implementing the unification plank of their party's platform. I hope that this reform will not remain merely a plank in the platform, but will be translated into reality. It is a strange spectacle that only a month ago the Premiers of four Labour administrations in the States protested strongly and bitterly against a moiety of unification; but if Australian citizens are to suffer because of lack of unity, either complete or partial, for goodness' sake do not let us start by penalizing those of our citizens who are least able to bear the burden, and do not let us refrain from standardizing those social services of the Commonwealth which are of such tremendous benefit to the weaker sections of the community.

I trust that the continuance of the Joint Committee on Social Servicesand I take this opportunity to congratulate the committee on its work - will be the means of bringing more and more into the Commonwealth field responsibility for controlling and financing the various social services. I also welcome the measure because it indicates that the Government does not propose to wait until the end of the war before correcting some of our most obvious social ills. I am sure the great bulk of the Australian community will approve of the Government's action in this regard. I know that there are still some members of this House who feel that legislation of this kind should be suspended until after the war, but let me point out to them that the very circumstances of the war have been responsible for improving the economic conditions of the majority of Australia's citizens. No one can question the contention that never before has the economic condition of the rank and file of the industrial population of Australia been more flourishing than it is to-day. That is due entirely to the circumstances of the war; and we should not allow these very circumstances to affect detrimentally the conditions of widows and orphans. That would not be an equality of sacrifice, for which the Treasurer has appealed. The burden that is placed upon Australian taxpayers to-day is a tremendous one, and action had to be taken by the Commonwealth Government to limit the maximum rate of income tax to 18s. in the £1; but .if we listen to those who contend that whilst the payment of a pension to widows is desirable, such a Boheme should not be introduced until after the war, we shall be doing what i& tantamount to taxing widows and children for the duration of the war, at the rate of not 18s. in the £1, but 20s. in the £1. I am confident that that view will not find favour on either side of the House. I welcome this bil] also because it provides in a measure for the standardization throughout Australia of benefits for those people who are in need of our most practical sympathy, namely, women and children who have lost their breadwinners. I am afraid, however, that the bill still makes certain discriminations, although it is pleasing to note that the long-standing discrimination against aborigines which has been a feature of much of our social legislation in the past, has been eliminated. Now. under certain approved conditions, aboriginal wives will be entitled to the same benefits as their white sisters. I wish that there had been no exclusions from this legislation. There are still certain exclusions dictated by the means test. I thought that when we passed the national insurance legislation of 1938, which was acclaimed in this House and declared to be the most monumental piece of social legislation ever enacted in this country, we had seen the end of the means test, and I regret that even at this late hour, social legislation such as that now before the House, is still besmirched by it, the effect of which will be that only certain widows will be entitled to the pension. 1 am glad to know that the property qualifications have been made more liberal than those which obtain in similar legislation now on our statute-book. It is also gratifying that authority is vested in the Commissioner to disregard those property conditions entirely in certain circumstances, where the reputed asset represented by property held by an applicant for a pension is not, in fact, a real live asset. Therefore, whilst I appreciate the fact that, this legislation will bring comfort, and security to many women and children in the Australian community, 1 regret that it is still hedged around with the limitations to which I have referred, and I hope that very soon it will be possible for the Commonwealth Government, no matter what its political colour may be, to bring out of the political refrigerator that comprehensive legislation which was enacted by this Parliament three or four years ago, but which, unfortunately, was not allowed to operate. Quite apart from any benefit that a national insurance scheme would confer upon direct beneficiaries it would prove a most valuable war chest at the present time because of the accumulated funds which it would produce. Only this week, I received a document from Great Britain giving statistics of the national insurance fund in that country. The document reveals that for the month of January last, contributions to that fund amounted to nearly £8,000,000, whereas payments out of the fund, including costs of administration, totalled less than £500,000. Therefore, during that month alone, the fund was increased by approximately £7,500,000, and if increases in succeeding months were on the same scale, the total for the year would be something like £100,000,000. If a similar fund were established in this country, the annual yield in proportion to our population would be probably £14,000,000 or £15,000,000. Such a scheme would be a form of compulsory saving, and would help to divert the purchasing power of the people which is one of the main objects of almost all our war-time financial legislation. I trust that ere long this Parliament will introduce, a compulsory national insurance scheme, not necessarily by re-enacting the existing dormant legislation, but if possible, by passing a measure providing for a more liberal scheme. Five days before the outbreak of war, I was authorized by the then government to resurrect our national insurance legislation, but on a much more generous scale.

I regret exceedingly that this bill perpetuates an injustice which has operated for many years, and which, in fact, has been perpetuated in other legislation passed through this House last week. I refer to the treatment of inmates of mental hospitals. Clause 37 of this measure provides that a pensioner who becomes insane shall have her pension suspended upon admission to a mental hospital, and that upon the pensioner leaving hospital, the Commissioner may grant four weeks' pension to her; under the Invalid and Old-age Pensions Act it is obligatory upon the Commissioner to grant that four weeks' pension. Why we are making the injustice greater in this hill, I cannot understand. By an impish irony of fate, clause 36 immediately preceding provides that in the case of an improvident widow who cannot be trusted to handle her pension, the pension shall not he suspended but, at the discretion of the .Commissioner, shall be handed over to some approved person. Clauses 38 and 39 provide that a pensioner may be sent to gaol without haying her pension cancelled entirely, unless she previously had been in gaol. Certainly, the pension is suspended during the period of her detention, but in all other similar legislation such as the Invalid and Old-age Pensions Act, it is provided that even in the case of a pensioner who has been declared unworthy to receive a pension, the Commissioner may grant a reduced pension of 8s. 6d. a week.

Mr Holloway - Provided that the pensioner goes into an institution.

Sir FREDERICK STEWART - Yes. I admit that there are certain provisions, but if a pensioner becomes mentally afflicted, there is no provision for the exercise of discretion ,by any one, and the pension ceases. The position is aggravated by the fact that not only is the pension of the widow herself terminated, but also the allowances for her children are stopped. The pension prescribed for a woman with one child is £1 10s. a week, whereas the pension for a widow without children is £1 5s. a week. Surely, it is a fair assumption that the additional 5s. is payable in respect of the one child. But it is not only the pension of £1 5s. that is suspended, when a recipient enters a mental hospital, but the entire £1 10s. I am sure that the Minister will see the gross injustice of that provision, and I urge that the matter be reviewed. It is not competent for me to move an amendment in this regard, because an increase of the appropriation would be involved, otherwise ' should take the opportunity when this clause is under discussion to move an amendment. In New South Wales last year, 656 widows were admitted to mental hospitals. Obviously, all would not have remained in hospital throughout the year,nor would all have been able to qualify for a widow's pension owing to property and residential qualifications, &c.

Mr Curtin -Is the honorable member referring to new admissions to those hospitals?

Sir FREDERICK STEWART - I am referring to the total number of widows treated. I mention that in order to indicate that after all the payment of pensions in respect of these unfortunate people would not be a matter of very great consequence, although I would hesitate to think that judgment in this matter would be affected by the amount of money required.

Mr HOLLOWAY (MELBOURNE, VICTORIA) - How does the honorable member suggest that pensions could be paid to insane people?

Sir FREDERICK STEWART - I do not suggest that. I point out that while a widow is an inmate of a hospital, she is a charge on her relatives - the authorities of the mental hospital see to that. There is provision in this measure for treating a woman as a widow for the purposes of the act if her husband is an inmate of an institution, and I heartily applaud that, but I cannot see why the principle should not be extended, because the maintenance of a woman while she is in a mental hospital is a charge on the members of her family if they have any resources which are known to the authorities of that hospital. The Minister and the Government should give serious consideration to this matter in order to see whether something can be done to correct what I consider to be a very great injustice and a blot on what otherwise is a beneficent piece of legislation. Despite the weaknesses which I have indicated, this legislation represents a great advance in our social services and I strongly commend it to the House. I trust that it will have a speedy passage.

Sitting suspended from 12.45 to 2.15 p.m.

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