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Monday, 20 May 1957

Mr GEORGE LAWSON (Brisbane) . - I rise to make a few remarks about one or two of the matters that have been discussed in this chamber to-night. First of all I bring to the notice of the Government a complaint I received some few days ago from one of Queensland's industrial organizations, the Transport Workers Union. The union complained to me that when some of its members who had been paying into a medical benefits fund had reason to apply for payments they were told that they were ineligible because officials of the benefit organization considered that they were entitled to compensation. I took the matter up with the Health Department in Brisbane. The department assured me that the fund was quite in order in refusing to pay benefits to contributors who were entitled to compensation.

One particular case that I wish to mention concerns a member of the Transport Workers Union who met with an accident but who was unable to prove that he was entitled to compensation as a result of the accident. He had been paying into the medical benefits fund for a considerable period, believing, as all other unionists believe, that once he joined a medical benefits fund he was entitled to payment if he was incapacitated through illness or injury. In making inquiries on behalf of the union 1 was informed by the Health Department, which controls these funds in Queensland, that in accordance with the regulations of the fund, this particular worker - or any other worker in a similar position - could not claim anything at all if the fund was of the opinion that he was entitled to compensation.

This case was indeed a very pathetic one. When the injured man's wife went along to make a claim she was told, "There is no money for you here because we believe your husband is entitled to compensation ". The fund kept the contributor's book. The injured man was off work for quite a long while and no money was coming into the house. He had two or three children. He approached the Department of Social Services with a view to getting some financial assistance until such time as he was able to have his claim to compensation determined. However, the officials of the Department of Social Services discussed the position with the medical benefits fund concerned and the administrators of the fund were adamant that they would not pay any benefits in this case. Let it be said to the credit of the Department of Social Services - and I played my part in this, too - that it decided to pay him the sickness benefit provided he signed a statutory declaration to the effect that if he received compensation he would refund the amount paid to him during his illness. This proposal was put into effect. I again say that I am indebted to the Department of Social Services for coming to that unfortunate person's assistance. The union has written a long letter to me complaining not only about this particular case but about the position of members of the organization generally who have been paying into this fund in the belief - apparently erroneous - that if they become ill or meet with an accident, or are not able to work through any cause whatever, they will be entitled to the benefits they contributed for. The unionists asked me to bring this matter before the House at the first opportunity and this is the first opportunity I have had. I am not quite conversant with the act governing medical benefits funds, but I should think, as the union and its members thinks, that if a member pays into a medical benefits fund as an insurance against illness or accident, he should receive the payment for which he has contributed just as he would from a friendly society. If a person belongs to a friendly society, that society does not say, "We shall not pay you any benefit at all because you are getting compensation ". It pays the benefit irrespective of whether the person receives compensation or not; but apparently that is not the position with a medical benefits fund.

I would like the Government to look into this matter and see whether these people are carrying out the functions of their organization in conformity with the policy laid down by this Government under the National

Health Act. I make this complaint in the hope that the Government will have it examined.

Another matter I desire to mention briefly is the manner in which this Government is dealing with applicants for war service homes. Almost every honorable member has, for many years, complained of the way in which this Government has treated applicants for war service homes. In Queensland - as, I believe, in other States - there is a long waiting list from year to year. Queensland applicants are waiting for as long as eighteen months or two years, and the excuse given by the War Service Homes Division is that the funds are exhausted. In the last two or three years, I, like other honorable members, have expressed disappointment at the Government's failure to provide more money in the budget for the purpose of overtaking ;the lag in the building of war service homes.

The Government is always twitting the States on not carrying out .their obligations to provide houses for the people, but this Government has the power and the wherewithal to look after the needs of exservicemen, without using the States at all. There is no constitutional barrier to that, but the Commonwealth is not looking after even the ex-servicemen. There are hundreds in Brisbane alone, and still more throughout the rest of Queensland, who have been waiting for homes for two or three years. In the interests of ex-servicemen who are anxious to have homes of their own, I ask the Government to provide in this year's budget a much larger amount than the £30,000,000 which it has provided for this purpose in the last two or three years. The War Service Homes Division could then proceed to make up the lag and build homes for these men who have waited for so long. Quite a number of honorable members opposite also have said that the Government should provide more money for this purpose.

I want to say a few words also in connexion with social services. To-day I had the pleasure of presenting to the Parliament a petition signed by no fewer than 6,042 persons, praying that the Government increase pensions and social service benefits generally. The reason for the presentation of the petition at this juncture is the hope that before the onset of the cold winter months something extra will be made available. We do not know whether provision for increased benefits will be made in the budget, but we sincerely hope so. I listened very attentively to the Minister for Social Services (Mr. Roberton), who spoke on the Social Services Bill earlier to-day. It was very amusing to me to hear him try to compare what this Government has done for the pensioners with what the previous Labour Government did under the leadership of the late John Curtin and the late Ben Chifley. Pensioners are worse off to-day than they have ever been since 1908, when pensions were first introduced by the Deakin Government. In support of that contention, I have facts and figures that honorable members opposite cannot refute.

The Minister said that this Government had increased age and invalid pensions more than had any other government. But even the increases which have been made by this Government have not brought pensions up to the same percentage of the basic wage as in 1948. The value of the £1 has decreased, as the Acting Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Calwell) said to-day. During the 1949 general election campaign, it was claimed by the leaders of the present Government parties that the Chifley £1 was worth only 12s. lid. - I do not believe that that was so - but the value of the Menzies-Fadden £1 is about 5s. 6d. The increases in pensions granted by this Government do not compensate for that reduction in value of the £1.

In my opinion, and in the opinion of the many thousands of recipients of social service benefits, including age, invalid and widows' pensions, child endowment, and sickness and unemployment benefits, people who depend on social service payments are worse off now than they have ever been before. Labour, contrary to the contentions of honorable members opposite, has always been a keen advocate of age and invalid pensions and other social service benefits, because Labour paved the way for social services, not only in this Parliament but also in State parliaments. That can be proven by a perusal of the booklet issued from time to time by the Department of Social Services. It will be seen that, of all the classes of social service legislation on the statute-books to-day, eight were introduced by Labour and two by anti-Labour governments, making ten in all. The basic wage has increased by a considerable extent, while pensions have remained almost static. It is true that at one time the rate of pension was tied to the C series cost of living index, but that provision was removed in about 1947.

Labour has always contended that the age and invalid pensions should be, as nearly as possible, 50 per cent, of the basic wage. To-day, the proportion of the pension to the basic wage is much lower than it was in 1949. I have here some figures prepared by the Statistician on the value of social service payments in 1948 and 1956 and these enable me to make a comparison of social service benefits under this Government with those provided by the Labour government. These figures disclose that had the federal basic wage remained unpegged it would now be 124.14 per cent, higher than it was in 1948. In the last budget of the Labour government in 1948-

Mr Turnbull - The honorable member should take 1949.

Mr GEORGE LAWSON - The year 1948 was the last year in which the Labour government increased pensions. It must be realized, also, that the Labour government increased pensions on a greater number of occasions and by greater separate sums, taking into account the value of the £1 under the Chifley Government, than this Government has done. The increases granted by this Government have been fewer in number and lower in value. The age and invalid pension provided in the last budget of the Labour government in 1948 was £2 2s. 6d. a week. If one increases that sum 124.14 per cent. - the increase that would have occurred in the federal basic wage between that year and 1956, had it remained , unpegged - the result is an age and invalid pension of £4 15s. 3d. a week. Instead of this, it remains at £4 a week. The 1956 budget of the present Government fixed the age and invalid pension at £4 a week so pensioners have been losing 15s. 3d. a week since then. That represents an annual loss of £39 13s.. Persons in receipt of child endowment, unemployment and sickness benefits and other social service payments have suffered a similar loss. Unfortunate people who are compelled to apply for unemployment and sickness benefits have not fared well under this Government.

In 1948, under the Labour government, the unemployment and sickness benefit for a single adult was £1 5s a week. If this is increased 124.14 per cent., the wage increase mentioned by the Commonwealth Statistician, it becomes £2 16s. a week. However, this Government has fixed the unemployment and sickness benefit at £2 10s. a week, .which represents a loss to the recipient of 6s. a week, or £15 12s. a year. The unemployment and sickness benefit for a dependent wife in the 1948 budget of the Labour government was £1 a week. When increased 124.14 per cent, this becomes £2 4s. lOd. This Government has fixed the payment for a dependent wife at £2 a week; so the loss to the recipient is 4s. lOd. a week or £12 lis. 4d. a year. Similar losses have been suffered by recipients of maternity allowances and other social service payments. The cost of living has increased considerably more than wages. Between 1948 and 1956 it rose 139.7 per cent. The pension has risen only 88.3 per cent. I hope that this Government will endeavour to do something for the unfortunates who depend on social service benefits.

Age pensioners have been the pioneers of this country and most of them have reared large families. A considerable proportion of the Australian population works for the basic wage. Those people are the toilers, and they are continuing the pioneering work in this country. It is impossible for them during their working years to save out of the basic wage money enough to help them in the evening of their lives. When they reach the age at which they are compelled by circumstances to apply for the age or invalid pension, they have no other means. The pension is their sole income. This Government has increased age and invalid pensions only once in the last two years, and even then to a figure of only £4 a week, which I have shown is out of proportion to the increases that have occurred in wages and the cost of living. Had the Government increased the pension to the extent to which it should have been increased to maintain its ratio with the basic wage under the Labour Government in 1948, it would now be at least £4 lis. a week instead of £4. I hope that when the Treasurer prepares the next budget he will include provision for increased pensions for the aged and the widowed, and for exservicemen and service widows. The increase should be one that will enable them to live in some degree of reasonable comfort.

The Minister for Social Services (Mr. Roberton) to-day said that this Government had done fine things to help to provide homes for the aged. I commend the Government for what it has done, but I must point out that the Minister on this and other occasions has sought to convey the impression that this is the only government which has assisted charitable organizations and church bodies that are providing homes for aged persons. Other honorable members on the Government side of the chamber have endeavoured to convey the same impression. I attended a ceremony in my electorate for the opening of a church organization home for the aged at which a representative of the Government tried to make the people believe that this is the only government that has ever helped organizations of this character. The fact is that for the last 25 years the Government of Queensland has subsidized £l-for-£l all organizations that have undertaken to build homes for aged people. This Government cannot take credit, as the Minister attempted to do for it to-day, as being the only government helping in the provision of homes for the aged. It has voted money for this purpose, but it is not the only government to do so. Every supporter of the Government who has spoken on this debate has implied that this is the only government that has assisted persons in need. They have not mentioned the State governments. I want to correct the impression they have sought to create and remind honorable members that the Queensland Government has subsidized, on a £l-for-£l basis for many years past, every home that has been built in Queensland for the aged. I hope that this Government, when framing the next budget, will give careful consideration to the unfortunate persons who need help and cannot help themselves. I hope that the Government will give them an increase in their pensions and improve social service benefits.

Debate (on motion by Mr. E. James Harrison) adjourned.

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