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Thursday, 18 October 1973
Page: 2392

Mr FISHER (Mallee) - I hope that the few remarks I will make tonight will return to this House some of the sanity which was evident earlier today. I wish to refer to the limitations of the maximum subsidies payable under the Aged Persons Homes Act for the provision of aged persons accommodation. I appreciate the fact that the Minister for Social Security (Mr Hayden) has acknowledged my representations to him on this matter and has pointed out that a report from his Department on the current maximum subsidy limits has been referred to the Social Welfare Commission for consideration. I raise this issue again because of the urgent action that I feel is necessary if the provision of essential accommodation is to continue. I am referring particularly to the present prepared and proposed plans.

In my electorate of Mallee 2 organisations, the Kerang and District Hospital and the Deacon Court Management of Mildura, have reached a stalemate in their plans because it is impossible for local contributions to meet the amount of finance necessary to complete their home units, due to increases in building costs.

Mr Lloyd - Many other homes are in a similar position.

Mr FISHER - The honourable member for Murray says that many other homes are in a similar position. That is quite right. At the present time the monthly inflation rate is at least one per cent. Labour and materials have become not only difficult to obtain but also nigh on impossible to find. With the existing escalation of costs, building contractors are not prepared to sign fixed contracts but are insisting on a 'rise in cost' clause being written into contracts. Those organisations which have drawn up plans and called tenders now find that, instead of having to contribute only onethird of the total cost which was possible recently, the contribution that is necessary now is almost one-half of the total cost of establishing nursing homes. This is an intolerable and impossible position. How can a community of some 4,000 people, as is the case in Kerang, meet half the cost of a 16-bed nursing home costing $186,000? This means that a local contribution of some $90,000 is necessary. That amount is quite beyond the capacity of any small community to meet.

In an attempt to proceed with plans to accommodate aged people, the committees responsible for these homes have resubmitted their plans to the Hospitals and Charities Commission for modification. Plans are being revised in an attempt to reduce the cost of the buildings to within the limits of the cost structure as set down by the Commonwealth Government. However, so drastically do the new plans differ from the originals that the boards of management feel that the service that would be available in such a building would be inadequate to meet the requirements of the elderly citizens. The alterations that have been made have removed from the proposed buildings all the essential and most necessary conveniences for comfortable living - something which some of our elderly citizens have not always enjoyed. How can life be comfortable without the essential item of an air conditioner in an inland climate which has cold winters and hot summers? No other people are expected to live without essential comforts, but it is so much more important that our aged people should not be required to do so.

I feel that it should be pointed out that despite the alterations to these plans and despite the trimming of costs, the cost of these projects will still be outside the allowable ceiling. I did ask the Minister for Social Security (Mr Hayden) to be in the House this evening but he apologised and said that he was unable to be here. I raise this matter not for political reasons but because the situation in relation to the provision of aged people's homes is now static. It is fruitless to proceed in present circumstances. The previous Liberal-Country Party Government set the present ceiling, but we are all well aware of the shortages of labour, building materials and so on which, combined with the national inflation rate which is in excess of 13 per cent, are now making the ceiling completely unrealistic. It must be raised immediately. I ask the Minister to impress upon the committee of inquiry into aged persons housing which has been formed within his Department to move immediately in order to make a decision urgently. I suggest that an increase of at least 25 per cent in the Government's contribution is required urgently if progress in the housing of our aged people is to continue and not be stifled. Some limits are necessary on the amount of funds made available to ensure that the appropriate number of aged people are accommodated. But in the light of current conditions, such as land prices and building costs, continual review of this is necessary.

In the few moments left to me I would like to mention that the Department of Social Security has become our largest Government department in terms of Budget expenditure. Almost one-fifth of our Budget outlay is administered by this vital Department, and I think the sum involved is somewhere in the vicinity of S2,000m. The success of this Government service depends ultimately on its availability to the people. There are many areas in Australia where I feel that the setting up of an office of the Department of Social Security is necessary. This situation has eventuated as a result of the increases in population and also because of the broadening of the services available and supplied by this Department. The city and shire of Swan Hill, together with its surrounding shires, comprises one region which has inadequate access to social security services. The nearest offices are at Mildura, which is 140 miles away, and at Bendigo, which is 100 miles away. The decentralisation of the Social Security Department would contribute to the needs of this large region. I have asked the Minister to give me an assurance, if he can, as to the possibility of this progressive, expanding region of Victoria centring on the city of Swan Hill being granted a branch of the Social Security Department.

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