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Tuesday, 9 October 1973
Page: 1758

Mr WENTWORTH (Mackellar) - I speak in support of this Bill. If I have any reservations they will be constructive reservations which I hope will be directed to make work better a plan which I believe contains inherent value. I certainly will not approach this matter in any political frame of mind at all. First let me say that I agree entirely about the importance of voluntary bodies. I will speak in a few moments about what I think their functions should be. When I was Minister for Social Services I did try to upgrade the functions and facilities of these voluntary bodies. I believe that, in their sphere, they can do a job which no government department can do as well. I believe that they have a real place in our social system. I support entirely the concept that they should be helped to fulfil their proper role.

I do not believe, however, that voluntary bodies can cover the whole field. I do not think that there is perhaps sometimes a tendency to downgrade the abilities and the resources of the Federal Public Service in a field such as this. It is true, I suppose, that there are still many defects in our social service system as there are indeed many defects in any social service system, as far as I am aware, existing in the world. But it is not right to pretend that there is no skill whatsoever - no humanity and outlook whatsoever - in the Federal Public Service and in the relevant departments. I know that the opposite is true. I know that it is true that many departments are involved and that some co-ordination is necessary. That co-ordination primarily is the responsibility of the Government at government level. The Government can get help most assuredly from outside expert advice. I am not trying for one moment to say that valuable help cannot be given, but in the final analysis it is the Government's responsibility to take or to reject advice and to fashion at government level the social services plan.

It is important that we should help these voluntary bodies to develop. I do see in this a possible danger - I do not say that it is an actual danger; it is a danger against which we have to guard - that the proposed Social Welfare Commission will cut into the field of the voluntary bodies and to some extent impair their successful operation. We should be careful not to kill voluntary bodies by kindness even. We should not short-circuit the functions of the States or local government. I am a little bit worried by sub-clause (vi) of clause 14 (b) of the Bill which states:

14.   The functions of the Commission are -

(b)   to make recommendations to the Minister .. .

(vi)   ... for avoiding the duplication of social welfare programs . . .

I know that it is desirable to avoid that duplication. I know that co-ordination has become, like Mesopotamia, a blessed word, but there is some function which the voluntary bodies can best perform if they are not too coordinated. The advance of a social welfare program depends on experiment. Try this - it may work in this area; it may not work in that area. I would be worried that in the interpretation of the recommendations for avoiding the duplication of social welfare programs there might not be inherent some kind of brake and construction upon voluntary bodies and we might even find the position where worthwhile experiments are not being pursued because they may not commend themselves to the Commission. It is, of course, natural that co-ordinators should feel that all the wisdom is in their court, that they know everything. This is a natural human failing. Very often the best system arises from some kind of analogue of a higgling of the market with people trying things. Some will fail and some will succeed. But in this area of voluntary experimentation, which we should not try to replace because we might say it is duplication and wasteful effort, lie the seeds, I am sure, of a great deal of social advancement. I had the opportunity of listening to Mrs Marie Coleman on 'Monday Conference' and of taking particular note of what she said. May I say that I have the utmost regard for her judgment and integrity and I believe that she will be a most excellent head of the Commission. Nothing that I say is meant in any regard to diminish the appreciation that I would have for her work in the past or her potential for the future.

When one looks at the functions of these voluntary bodies I think one comes to this conclusion: First, the Government, through its system of social services - age pensions, family endowment, widows' pensions and the other payments that it makes - should be able to make certain that nobody in the Australian community is left below a certain level of poverty. That certain level must rise and should rise continually with the growth of the productivity of the total Australian community. I do not look on this as something static. I look on social services as permanently unfinished business because always we can be improving them as the standards in the community as a whole rise. But the things which the Government gives have to be given in accordance with the book. Very big sums of money are involved and there are very big privileges. It is necessary that they be properly policed not only in the interests of the taxpayer but also in the interests of maintaining a spirit of incentive and integrity in the community as a whole.

The things which are given by the Government have to be given by the book, and I think there is no way out of that. But beyond that always, whatever is given by the book, there will be deserving sections of the community. There will be people whose needs are not covered by the overall provisions of social services. It is for those people that the voluntary body is specially adapted. This is one of its functions. One of its functions is to meet the exceptional case which cannot be met by the rule of the book which the Government must follow. It is therefore, I think, not a bad thing for the Government to use these voluntary bodies as its agents, to subsidise them, to help them to expand their services so that they can do more and do things more quickly than they would be able to do without governmental help. It is this kind of thing which we inaugurated, for example, in our aged persons homes scheme where we put in two-thirds of the money, leaving some responsibility to the voluntary body but using government money in order to accelerate the necessary program. In this way we bring in the human factor.

If we are talking about the relief of people who through some unforeseen emergency or some unfortunate occurrence find themselves in need, it is much better for them to be helped by a voluntary body, with Government help perhaps, and with responsibility - and let me pay a tribute as sincere as I can to a number of our voluntary bodies for their sense of responsibility. It is their function, I think, to help these exceptional cases which cannot be met by the rule of the book. What the Government does is not charity; it is the right which the citizen has. Whether it involves the age pension, the widow's pension or family endowment, it is the citizen's right; it is not charity. But if the individual finds himself in some unforeseen situation, which the Government cannot foresee perhaps any more than he can, that person does need the help of charity. I believe that this is much better administered through a voluntary body with government subsidy and assistance than it would be through a government department. We all know for example that the States have food relief and various kinds of emergency help available, but I am not certain that this kind of help would not be better given through some of the responsible and excellent voluntary bodies which work in the field.

The other function of a voluntary body is to carry out experiments. The Government can initiate experiments. It can do things and provide the money. But I think that the Public Service as a whole is not very well adapted to the experimental approach. Many experiments will fail but it is from the successful experiment that real advances in the social service field can be expected. So I believe that the proper functions of the voluntary body are to experiment and to meet the emergency cases which cannot be met by the book, and to provide the human contacts which a government department cannot provide as satisfactorily. I want to support in every way and to the greatest extent the expansion of the work of these voluntary bodies. Mrs Coleman has had a tremendous amount of contact with them. I believe that these are things which really merit government support and, insofar as that is inherent in this Bill, it is a good Bill.

The Commission will not have executive functions. Its functions are to recommend and, as I have said, the final responsibility of either accepting or rejecting the Commission's recommendations will rest on the Government.

The Government cannot shrug off that final responsibility; no government should be allowed to shrug it off. No doubt the Commission will be directing its first attention to what I would describe as the residual pockets of poverty which are being investigated by the Henderson Committee which was originally set up under the previous Government. However, these pockets of poverty, acute though they are and although they are very hard for those who are in them, are to my mind not as important as the massive social trends which have to be met. Although time will not permit me to develop this point now, I believe that the most important major and massive social problem which lies before the Department of Social Security is providing help for the young and the forming family, especially in the lower income brackets. I believe that this is the problem which we on this side of the House will be endeavouring to solve. I would regard a matter such as this as being bipartisan and I believe that the present Government, for as long as it remains in office - it may not be very long - would also support a concept such as the one which originally was formulated by the previous Government and which I still regard as the most important social service problem confronting Australia.

What we have done in the past and what this Government has done has been to a very large extent, but not entirely, to clean up the acute pockets of poverty. We now are faced with the much more massive problem which goes right to the root of our social structure, namely, of help for the young and the forming family and, particularly, help for the young couple at the time of the birth of their first child or in the provision of the matrimonial home which is desirable at all times but becomes, I believe, necessary when the first child is born. I hope that this will not involve the reduction in our living standards which we have been inclined to accept by having an economic system which compels so many young mothers, against their inclinations, to go out to work to support their families. A social system that has this as one of its ingredients is a bad social system and, insofar as we have moved towards this situation, I believe that the standards of the Australian people in the last few decades have not advanced but have regressed. If a woman wants to work, that is her business and her privilege. But we should not have a social system which compels the mother of a young child, for economic reasons, to go to work against her will.

I know that the Government has appointed a large number of committees. I sometimes feel that it has the idea that if it appoints a committee to investigate a problem, the problem will go away. It is not quite as simple as that, but I hope that this Commission will be a fruitful one. I and, I am sure, all honourable members on this side of the House, will do everything we can to further the work of the Commission, to help it to progress and to try to assist it in avoiding some of the dangers which might be inherent in the abuse of the scheme which the Government has brought forward. But most certainly - I hope I have done it constructively - I support the Bill.

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