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Tuesday, 30 May 1972
Page: 2234

Senator GREENWOOD (VictoriaAttorneyGeneral) - I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

This Bill will make it possible to pay certain Australian pensions overseas. It applies equally to people who were born in Australia and to those who have settled here; in line with our other pension legislation, it makes no distinction between those settlers who have formally acquired Australian citizenship and those who have not. It may be helpful if, at the outset, I outline the events which led up to the introduction of this Bill. The matter had been under consideration for some time before an interdepartmental committee was set up in December 1969 to examine the complex issues involved. The report of that committee came to hand last November; in December the Minister for Social Services (Mr Wentworth) made detailed recommendations to Cabinet and they were approved in January. Immediately afterwards, the Prime Minister (Mr McMahon) made the public announcement of the Government's intention. The Bill now before the Senate is in conformity with that announcement.

The Bill provides that the Minister may enter into an agreement with other countries, which, while any such agreement is in force, become 'participating countries'. The pensions with which the Bill deals may be paid to Australian pensioners who go to reside, whether permanently or temporarily, in those other countries, or who are travelling with reasonable expedition between them and Australia, or between any 2 participating countries.

In return, the participating country will be expected to make its own pensions available to its former residents now in Australia or who are travelling to

Australia. It will be realised that the social security systems of various countries differ from one another and differ from our Australian system in different ways, so that no firm rule can be set for the details of these agreements; each one will have to be drawn up in terms of the mutual relationship of our Australian system to that of the participating country.

The Australian pensions concerned are, in broad terms, age, invalid and widows' pensions. The residence qualification for portability overseas will be 20 years after reaching the age of 16; but there will be no residence qualification required for this portability in the case of invalid pensions arising from a disease or injury contracted in Australia by a permanent resident, or in the case of widows' pensions, where the husband's death occurred while the couple were permanently resident in Australia. Portability will extend to the wife's allowance payable to the non-pensioner wife of a permanently incapacitated pensioner or of an age pensioner with one or more children. It will also apply to the special pension payable for 12 weeks after the death of a member of a married couple.

I will not, at this stage, take up the time of the Senate by describing in detail the provisions of the Bill, but rather I would like to set out 3 of the considerations which were in the mind of the Government in drafting it.

Firstly, we wanted to ensure that the benefits given shall be available irrespective of whether the Australian pensioner was an Australian citizen. We wanted to give portability to those who have worked in the Australian community irrespective of whether they had become formally naturalised. Indeed, we realised that the benefits would be of special concern to those who, although they have lived and worked in Australia, choose to retain their original nationality. A Bill which confined the benefits to 'Australian citizens' would fail to help those very persons who would be most desirous of that help.

Secondly, we wanted to ensure in negotiation the greatest possible reciprocal benefits for migrants from other countries who now live in Australia. In some cases their original countries of residence allow them to receive their pensions here, but this is far from true in all cases. If we simply grant portability of Australian pensions overseas, without getting anything for our settlers in return, we would be open to the charge of neglecting their interests. The Government proposes to press their claims as far as possible in negotiating the new agreements. Naturally, no commitment can be given as to what can be achieved in these negotiations with other countries. The circumstances may well differ in relation to different countries. But an unequivocal assurance can be given to these former residents of other countries who now live amongst us that, in negotiations with their former homelands, their interests will be pressed to the utmost.

Thirdly, we wanted to protect the interests of the Australian taxpayer against abuse of the new provisions not, of course, by persons who are at present resident in Australia, but by people who might in the future come to Australia for the express purpose of taking advantage of these concessions. We are all Australian taxpayers if we are permanently resident here, whether we are Australian born, or whether we came originally from overseas; and all of us, including migrants, have an interest in seeing that the Australian Treasury is not thus pillaged. We do not want the position where a person can come here for a short time, qualify for an Australian pension, and take it back home with him without having really contributed to the prosperity and progress of Australia.

Indeed, this is the principle which migrants themselves have endorsed in their journals: They say very rightly that those who have earned their pension by their contribution to the Australian scene should, by virtue of that contribution, have the right to take their pension home. It is for this reason that, with the exceptions for invalids and widows, we have prescribed a qualifying period of 20 years - which is more generous, for example, than what is done in Canada, where the qualifying period is 25 years for portability of old age security pension.

It would have been possible, of course, to have carried out the Government's intention to make pensions payable abroad by agreements made under the provisions of section 137 of the existing Social Services Act. There were 2 main reasons why this course was not adopted. Firstly, the Government thought that it was inappropriate that a major policy change of this nature should be made by regulation. It was, we believe, proper to bring it before the Parliament as a Bill. Secondly, it was desired to strengthen as far as possible the negotiating position of the Minister in his endeavour to obtain the maximum reciprocal benefit for settlers from other countries who live in Australia.

May I make it clear to the Senate that the procedure we have adopted need not impose any additional delays. As soon as the Prime Minister made his January announcement, the Minister, with the assistance of the Minister' for Foreign Affairs (Mr N. H. Bowen) made contact with relevant diplomatic representatives in Canberra. They were supplied wilh details of our relevant pension programmes and in return they were asked to provide full details of their own countries' arrangements. Encouraging replies have been received from the representatives of a number of these countries and some discussions have already taken place. It is hoped and expected that well before the commencement of the next sittings negotiations will be concluded with a large number of these countries, including those which are most important from the viewpoint of our migrants.

The Bill before the Senate, while not confined to migrants, is the latest of a series of measures introduced by this Government to assist migrants who have need of Australian social security in their widowhood, ill health or old age. For example, since 1966 there has been no nationality requirement for an Australian pension, while the residence qualification for age pension was halved in 1962 from 20 years to 10. The residence qualification was removed altogether in 1968 for a claimant for a widow's pension who was residing permanently in Australia with her husband when she became a widow. In 1969 the period for which pensions may bc paid in respect of a temporary absence from Australia was extended from 12 to 30 weeks. All these conditions are generous by any standard for non-contributory pensions.

It should be reiterated that the new provisions apply equally to all migrants, whether naturalised or not, as well as to all Australians whether or not they are migrants. Australians travelling abroad to participating countries' will be able to take their pensions with them if they so desire. At present, of course, they can, on their return to Australia, get payment for up to 30 weeks of absence overseas under the provisions of sections 49 and 78 of the Act, and there are special arrangements in force in regard to Britain and New Zealand. Under this Bill it will be possible for Australian pensioners overseas in participating countries, or in transit, to continue to draw their pension entitlements. I should, of course, emphasise that the right to continuance of a pension overseas will only be the same right as would exist if the pensioner remained resident in Australia. Thus, to give an example, if the recipient of a widow's pension re-married overseas, her pension would automatically cease.

The pensioner medical service will, of course, continue to be available only in Australia, as will the concessions provided in respect of radio and television licences and telephone rentals. Pensioners overseas will not receive supplementary assistance as the eligibility conditions could not properly be applied. Funeral benefits are at present payable to, or in respect of, pensioners temporarily absent from Australia, including those receiving pensions under our reciprocal agreements with Britain and New Zealand. These benefits will also be available for pensioners receiving their pensions under the arrangements proposed in this Bill.

While the provisions of the Bill may result in more Australian pensioners going overseas, the agreements to be made will havethe corresponding result of encouraging more people entitled to overseas pensions to take up residence in Australia, or to visit us here. On balance, the net flow may well be equalised it is not possible to predict this with certainty, although it is reasonably clear that the tourist flow will be increased in both directions. This is a Bill which can benefit both naturalborn Australians and the migrants who have come here to settle. I commend the Bill to the Senate.

Debate (on motion by Senator Mulvihill) adjourned.

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