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Wednesday, 20 August 1980
Page: 501

Dr EVERINGHAM (Capricornia) - The Opposition naturally welcomes the easing of pension eligibility conditions and rates of benefits payable to veterans. Whilst I agree with the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Mr Adermann) that the Government has consulted with ex-service organisations and has responded to requests from those organisations, I submit that the response has been fairly limited and fairly tardy. It has certainly not gone, in the vast majority of the spending commitments, beyond indexation of the commitments of last year. It has omitted some of the more worthy projects that have been asked for by veterans' organisations. A list of changes in the document which was incorporated in Hansard by the Minister refers, first of all, to defence service home loans. Of course, the maximum loan now is raised from $15,000 to $25,000 which is still well short of the average cost of a house in the metropolitan area of Sydney where it is closer to $40,000 than to $35,000. It is a substantial percentage increase but the matter has been dragging for many years. At the time of the last Labor Budget, we made available the $1 5,000 which has remained unchanged until almost this moment. In fact, in 1975-76, $122m was available for defence service homes. That was a cut from the previous Budget figure of $130m. The amount provided has not kept pace with inflation since that time.

One of the terms of eligibility that we introduced - three years continuous service in the armed forces - was also squeezed by the Fraser Government at that time. The availability of a loan was squeezed down to cover only those who had undertaken six years continuous service and who enlisted after a certain date in 1976 or 1977. We have already ventilated this change in the debate on the Defence Service Homes Amendment Bill 1978. The honourable member for Reid (Mr Uren) spelt out some of the initiatives of the Labor Government, not only for defence service homes but also for the availability of housing under more liberal terms for members of the community generally. We have extended that this year in our proposal for assistance to those seeking home loans.

With regard to some of the other items that have been proposed, the Minister stressed the commitment of the Government to indexing the base rate of pensions on a six-monthly basis. Of course, this was suspended temporarily. It was made after a 12-monthly interval at one stage because of what the Government calls 'financial restraints'. Must was made in the Budget Speech of the fact that for the first time since 1973 there is a Budget surplus. But if we compare the sort of economic constraints that have existed in recent years with those that exist this year and add in some of the deficit items that would have been included in a Budget deficit in former years, we will find that the Budget deficit is really not very much different. If we look at the borrowings of Telecom Australia which are no longer included in the Budget deficit and at the overseas deficit which has gone up, basically it is a stay-as-you-are kind of financial constraint that applies to the Government now. I suggest that what appears to be a lessening of financial constraints because of the lessening of the Budget deficit is in part due to the increased petrol tax and in part due to this bookkeeping. The fact is that many of the things that were included in the Budget deficit last year such as Telecom deficits, overseas deficits and so on are now included in other areas of bookkeeping.

The reason for the tendency to index many of these allowances- travel allowances, family allowances and the like - on what was offered last year is related more to the fact that it is an election year than to any success in the Government's financial policies and programs. The Minister, in the first part of his statement, referred to the financial constraints making it hard to relax the eligibility for service home loans. In fact, we found when we were in government that there was not a shortage of resources for building homes but that there was a slack in the building industry. This has been the case through most of this Government's period in office.

Mr Adermann -The waiting period has increased.

Dr EVERINGHAM - Yes, the waiting period has increased and that has delayed the construction of homes for many service people. The restoration of the waiting period down to 10 months is not really very much better than it was when it was increased from 1 1 months up to 14 months. It has marginally improved the position before the waiting period was lengthened. The argument of financial restraints inhibiting loans for housing does not fit in with the Government's stated policy of financial restraint which is to contain inflation. In fact, it is doubtful whether we can get buildings more cheaply by keeping idle 20 or 30 per cent of the work force, capital and other resources in the building industry. It would have been very salutary in a time of stagflation for the building industry to have had the fillip of more readily available funds for essential housing, welfare housing and defence service homes. We do not accept the argument that it is financial constraints and the need to fight inflation that has delayed the move for so long.

The Government certainly deserves credit for having adopted the policy of indexing the base rate pensions. The Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser) described the policy as having taken politics out of pensions. Of course, it did nothing of the kind. It saved the Government from the embarrassment of being seen to increase pensions, usually only in election years, and then allowing them to fall. At one stage before the Australian Labor Party came to power in 1 972 the base rate pension fell below 20 per cent of average earnings from a level of 25 per cent of average earnings at the time of the Chifley Government. It was a Labor Party commitment to restore pensions to 25 per cent of average earnings. We came within one per cent of achieving that. Within the space of three Budgets we restored pensions to over 24 per cent of average earnings. That was very much better than the indexation that has applied since, which barely keeps pensions level pegging with the rest of the community in terms of living costs.

Whilst the Opposition welcomes the Government's relaxation of the purse strings, we do not see it as responding to the need of pensioners and veterans to keep pace with living costs. Those people are still falling behind in many of the allowances that have not been indexed and have not been increased in proportion to inflation. Many of the initiatives that have been taken do not go far enough. For example, the commitment to allied veterans is fairly restricted. It does not allow for partisan forces that were not formally recruited. There is a need to extend the area of application of Department of Veterans' Affairs eligibility to other allied veterans. We should be looking at extending the benefits to merchant seamen much more widely than has been done in this Budget. They are now eligible for treatment for war injuries, certain severe injuries, and other classes of medical treatment, where they have been captured, and so on.

It is true that merchant mariners did not work under quite the same onerous conditions of pay that applied to people in the Regular Navy and the other armed forces but had conditions negotiated as industrial awards. Nevertheless, for that small extra amount of money - one might say the only advantage they had - they had disadvantages. They were not often in vessels of a speed and fire power to defend them as readily as many of the naval ships. There was a very high casualty rate among merchant seamen. They were as thoroughly subject to naval orders relating to where they could work, where they could go, and when, as anybody in the armed services. There are now so few of these men left that I think it would be a nice gesture to extend to them a major proportion of the benefits that apply to exservicemen who have seen service in war zones. I look forward to further liberalisation of the Government's policies, and I assure the House and the nation that when there is a change of government that liberalisation will occur.

Debate (on motion by Mr Gillard) adjourned.

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