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Wednesday, 25 November 1959

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HigginsTreasurer) . - I will be brief, the more so because honorable members have shown so much consideration in the way they have dealt with this matter, appreciating, 1 think, on all sides of the House the importance so rightly stressed by the right honorable member for Cowper (Sir Earle Page) of getting these benefits into operation and then taking advantage, I would hope, of the offer put forward quite genuinely by me to provide an opportunity to both sides of the House to confer with me or with the appropriate officers of the Government in the early part of the next session. That offer goes also to the organizations which the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Calwell) said had been in touch with him and which had asked that they might confer again, either with me or with the officers more knowledgeable on these matters than myself, when an opportunity arose some time next year. Although it may be true, as the honorable member for Melbourne Ports (Mr. Crean) asserted, that such representations by an individual member usually do not produce positive results, that was not quite what I had in mind. I had in mind a group of interested members being brought together and these matters being discussed with them.

I will deal with one other point before turning to the terms of the amendment. My colleague, the honorable member for Wentworth (Mr. Bury), urged that greater flexibility be introduced into the superannuation scheme to assist people who had contributed over a period and who had changed their employment, subsequently returning to the Commonwealth scheme. I shall study his comment, and it too can be one of the matters that we can take up together in 1960.

On the points raised specifically in the amendment, first perhaps I should say that the Government, for reasons that I will try to indicate, cannot accept the amendment. The provisions of the amendment go to two particular points. The Opposition has urged that the bill be withdrawn and redrafted because it fails to make provision for an increase in the value of the unit of the pension. The unit to-day is valued at 17s. 6d. No doubt, if it were valued at £1 honorable gentlemen opposite would have recommended that it be increased to £1 2s. 6d. In fact, whatever the unit had been, the Opposition, acting in the best traditions of an opposition, would have wanted it increased in an endeavour to curry a little favour with those who would benefit under the legislation. But remote though the prospect may now appear to honorable members opposite, perhaps at some future time they may have the responsibility for government in this place. They should appreciate, therefore, that an increase in the value of the unit from 17s. 6d. to £1 - presumably that is the smallest increase that they would have contemplated - would cost about £800,000 in the first year of operation, and would create a contingent liability for the Commonwealth of the order of £60,000,000.

The effects would go further because the pension would rise from the present 70 per cent, of salary in the lower ranges about which the Deputy Leader of the Opposition made so much to-do. He stated the position in quite an inverted way. He claimed that we were ignoring the people on the lower salary ranges and were doing something to benefit those in the higher brackets. In point of fact, we are restoring the basis which the Parliament decided in 1954 was a fair basis. At that time the Parliament decided that on the lower ranges the pension should be 70 per cent, of salary. We are continuing that formula. No one on the lower salary ranges will be placed in a worse position as a result of anything that we are now proposing to do. In 1954, the Parliament decided that 70 per cent, of salary was a fair and reasonable pension for persons on the lower salary ranges. We now seek to apply that basis to people on the higher salary ranges, that is, that the 40.9 per cent, of pension which was to have operated then should operate in the future instead of the present rate which, because of movements in wages, salaries and cost levels, has been eroded over the years between.

I think that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition exhibited a poor spirit by seeking to make some invidious distinction between the more senior and responsible members of the Commonwealth Public Service and those on the lower salary scales. No one can allege fairly that persons on the lower ranges are being dealt with unreasonably. I repeat that the same basis as commended itself to the Parliament in 1954 is being restored. Why should we not deal fairly and reasonably with public servants who occupy the higher positions and have to exercise higher decrees of skill and responsibility in the performance of their tasks? This is not merely a matter of justice within the Commonwealth Public Service. We, as the Commonwealth, must be a good employer and we must have regard to comparable conditions outside the service if we are to retain the best talent that we have and attract other talent to the service of the Commonwealth. However, we must not be an irresponsible employer who is prepared to squander the taxpayers' money beyond what is reasonable in the circumstances. We have met both those tests squarely and reasonably in the decisions that we have put before the Parliament.

To increase the unit value from 17s. 6d. to £1 would take the pensions of persons on the lower salary ranges from 70 per cent, of salary to 80 per cent. I think that most honorable members would agree that that would be an unduly liberal revision going beyond the provisions in the most generous schemes that obtain in outside industry. The Government feels that it cannot accept such an amendment.

The Opposition has suggested that we should make the application on the proposal retrospective to 1st July. What is the logic or the justice in that? If the proposal is to meet the case of people who would have qualified at that date, I point out that we would merely be moving the border of discontent and that those who would have qualified just prior to 1st July would feel aggrieved. Certainly any scheme which has* to set a date of operation entails some inconvenience^ - perhaps some hardship - for those who just fail to qualify. But we are not unfamiliar with that kind of problem. We have had to face up to it in other directions and the course which we have adopted. previously is, I believe, the correct course to adopt in this instance. The Government, therefore, cannot accept the amendment that has been proposed by the Opposition. However, I have noticed with some satisfaction that the Opposition proposes to support the motion for the second reading of the bill.

Question put -

That the words proposed to be omitted (Mr. Calwell's amendment) stand part of the question.

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