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Wednesday, 1 May 1957

Mr CAIRNS (Yarra) .- I rise to support this most vital plea made on behalf of age and invalid pensioners. During the time I have been a member of this Parliament I have listened to many debates on social services and have asked the Minister for Social Services (Mr. Roberton) questions about age and invalid pensions. On every occasion the Minister has come ponderously forward to the table and has submitted the argument that the Government has done more than well by the age and invalid pensioners because the amount of money expended on social services during the time the Government has been in office risen from an annual total of £80,000,000 during the Labour regime to an annual total of £227,000,000. The Minister never stops to analyse the effect of inflation during the time that has passed since the Labour government was in office. He never stops to consider - and it seems that he is hardly aware of it - that the money spent in this direction now buys much less than the money spent in 1949 when Labour was in office.

If the Minister had listened closely to and taken into account the submissions made by the Opposition in the Addressinreply debate last year and again in the Address-in-reply debate this year he would have found ample proof that the real value of age and invalid pensions, even measured by the totally inadequate C series index, has fallen by at least 15s. a week since 1949. I say, " totally inadequate C series index " because the particular significance of that index to age and invalid pensions is that about 17 per cent, of the weights of the index concerns the rent of four or fiveroomed houses. There is no other type of dwelling space the rent of which is measured in that index. I would say that there is no age and invalid pensioner to-day who is living in a four or five-roomed house. Every age and invalid pensioner is living in accommodation far more inadequate than that, and the experience I find everywhere in the community is that such pensioners are being forced to live in single rooms the rents of which have not been recently controlled. Time and time again every honorable member has cases brought to his notice where the rents of these rooms have been doubled, rising from 30s. or 35s. a week to £3 or £3 10s. a week. There are many pensioners in that position who are therefore left with only 10s. or 15s. a week on which to live. Were it not for the provision of free community meals by some municipalities in the middle of the day many of these pensioners could not survive.

A booklet recently published by the University of Melbourne, and which the Minister said to-day he was aware of, tends to assume that the Government is going to spend £12,000,000 in the coming budget on age and invalid pension increases. I do not know where it obtained such an optimistic assumption. No member of the committee that produced that booklet could possibly have listened to the Minister for Social Services in this House or it would not have accepted such an optimistic assumption that the Government might spend as much at £12,000,000 in increasing age and invalid pensions. In accepting that assumption the committee put forward a proposal that not one penny of that £12,000,000 should be used to increase the money pension of the age and invalid pensioners, but should be spent on what has been called a five-point programme. It is a five-point programme which is very desirable in itself. The points are briefly these -

(1)   Pensioners living alone should receive more per head than those who are able to share their household expenses with others.

The committee suggests an increase of 7s. 6d. a week. The second point is -

The pension scheme should be supplemented by a national assistance scheme, for pensioners who have special needs.

That in itself is a desirable thing. The third point is -

A special aspect of the national assistance scheme should be action to ensure that there is minimum-standard housing at costs within the reach of pensioners.

I suggest that that is a most undesirable method, because if a housing allowance is given to pensioners it will very soon find its way into the pockets of the people who own the houses the pensioners are renting. The landlords will take full advantage of the housing allowance. It would be a most undesirable way of paying compensation to pensioners. The fourth point is -

A network of services should be developed to meet special needs of some old people.

That in itself is a most desirable thing. The fifth point is -

As a longer-term programme, we need to know more about the lives, needs and capabilities of old people, to develop for them a wider role in the community, to make it easier for pensioners to have supplementary income, and to encourage individual provision for old age.

That in itself is good. Four of those points are extremely desirable, but what I am afraid of is that this booklet, along with a lot of other things, will become an excuse for the Government not to make an increase of pensions in the coming budget. That would be most undesirable. So that the Minister will not look at the booklet in that way, I refer him to pages 13 and 14, where the writer has this to say -

In discussing our proposals, we shall assume that the Commonwealth Government may be contemplating adding 10s. a week to the general age pension rate - a proposal which would cost about £12.000,000 for the present number of pensioners. We shall suggest other bases for distributing this money, which we believe would concentrate the benefits where they are most needed.

This is the point I want to make clear -

We believe that this is the minimum sum which should be spent. If the Government is willing to spare more from other possible uses of the money, then it may be possible both to meet special needs along the lines we suggest and to raise the basic pension rate.

I can understand their caution. They say, in effect, that if the Government can possibly bring itself to spare a little more than £12,000,000 of the £190,000,000 that it is spending on defence, for example, or from the millions which make up the £1,100,000,000 of the budget, it should, and must, increase the money pension. Therefore, even in the spirit in which this is written - a spirit which has been derided - and despite the poor conditions under which the 500,000 people who are on pensions to-day are forced to live, this committee has been forced by the strict and stringent economic policy of this Government only to try to devise ways to assist those pensioners who are in the most urgent need. That is the atmosphere in which people who seriously think about this question to-day are forced to consider it. A community which is said to be enjoying the prosperity about which we hear so much from the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) from time to time, a community which has a national income of £5,000,000,000, but which compels pensioners to live on £4 a week, with the cost of living at the present level, is guilty of a moral crime - nothing less than that. So I say, with all sincerity, that we, as individuals, can never make up what we are failing to do as a government and a community. The obligation rests four-square on this Government to cometo grips with the problem and to put a stop to the ponderous and platitudinous nonsense that is uttered on this question every time it is raised.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

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