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Wednesday, 4 March 1970

Mr SPEAKER -Order! There is no substance in the point taken by the right honourable member because the Standing Orders provide for the receipt of the message after the second reading of the Bill.

Mr WENTWORTH - I ask the House to treat this matter on its merits and substance. The Opposition is playing politics at the expense of the pensioners.

In his policy speech prior to the last elections the Prime Minister (Mr Gorton) said:

We shall pay pensions al standard rates instead of at married rates to aged couples who lose the economies of living together by reason of failinghealth - for example, if one or both of them is in a nursing home.

The Bill provides the legislative measure to give effect to that undertaking. One of the Government's social service aims has been lo seek out areas of special need and to bring to this House measures to meet those needs.

For some years now it has been recognised by the Government and, I think, by honourable members, all of whom are personally aware of the situation of many pensioners, that a single person needs more than half the combined income of a married couple to maintain an equivalent standard of living. The House may recall that in recognition of this situation the Government introduced supplementary assistance in 1958 for single pensioners who had little or no means beyond the pension and were paying rent.

Later, in 1963, a higher rate of pension for single pensioners - the so-called standard rate - became part of the social service pension structure. The innovation brought Australian practice into line with that of most other countries where differential rates for single and married persons are accepted as an essential feature of a modern pensions system. The changes I have just outlined were a major departure from the previous Australian common rate pension pattern and they have been fully supported by people interested in, and conversant with, the problems of pensioners.

The House may be interested in comparative figures showing the Australian position in this regard as compared with the position in certain other countries. This can be measured by expressing the single pension as a percentage of the pensions received by a married couple. This is set out in the following table which, with the concurrence of honourable members, I incorporate in Hansard:


I think that it should be pointed out that in the above table supplementary assistance is excluded from the Australian figures. If supplementary assistance were taken into account the Australian rates would be 64.2%, However, it must be recognised that the economic situation of some married couples, who, through illness or infirmity, must give up ordinary domestic living and be cared for in a nursing home or in some other similar way, is often much the same as that of single pensioners.

The Bill recognises the special needs of such married couples by providing that, where either or both of a married couple, because of illness or infirmity, are obliged to leave their matrimonial home and the situation is likely to be permanent, the Director-General of Social Services may, if he is satisfied that their living expenses are greater than they would otherwise be, give a direction that each shall receive the rate applicable to single pensioners. Where, under the provisions of the Bill, married couples become eligible for pension at the single rate they may also - subject to means - each become eligible for supplementary assistance. Thus, on the passage of the Bill, couples may each receive an increase of $1.75 a week in their pension plus grant of $2 a week supplementary assistance, giving them a combined increase of $7.50 a week.

An increase in the pension rate for these married couples will raise the income and property limits beyond which no pension is payable. For married persons the present income limit is $70 a week and the property limit $37,200. These limits will now become $77 a week and $40,840 respectively. Under other new provisions which were introduced by this Government in 1968 the survivor, on the death of one member of a married pensioner couple, receives, for 6 fortnightly instalments, the equivalent of the 2 pensions that would otherwise have been payable. The payment of this 'double pension' entitlement will, on the passage of the Bill, continue on the basis of the married rate.

In conformity with the usual practice it is proposed that the increases in pensions provided by the Bill will come into operation on the pay day following the Royal Assent.I propose to write to the authorities of aged persons homes, nursing- homes and benevolent homes asking them to bring the provisions to the notice of married pensioner inmates so that their claims can be promptly considered. Mr Speaker, the new provisions which I have just outlined mark a further step in the Government's concerted programme of assisting those with special needs. I commend the Bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Hayden) adjourned.

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