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Tuesday, 9 September 1958

Mr COUTTS (Griffith) .- The Department of Social Services, T would say. is the most important department that the Parliament has to consider when debating the Estimates, because its administration affects such a large section of the Australian community. The few minutes I have at my disposal will not permit me to pay adequate tribute to the work that is being carried out by the officers of the department. Probably, being good public servants, they would not wish to be praised.

I should like to use the few minutes left to me in condemning the Government's reluctance to deal with the pressing problems of age and maternity allowances, and in condemning the smugness and selfsatisfaction of its supporters over the Budget proposals. I was horrified to hear some of the things that were said by the honorable member for Sturt (M'r. Wilson)'. I intended to reply, to them at* some length', but when he said that- 44 per- cent, of the pensioners im Melbourne' owned their homes, and that 66 per cent, paid1 rent, I realized that his figures were haywire and could' not be discussed seriously.

Mr Wilson - I said that 56 per cent, of the pensioners in Melbourne paid rent.

Mr COUTTS - r thank the honorable member for correcting me. A great deal has been made of the Government's proposal to pay a supplementary rent allowance to certain pensioners. The honorable member described it as being, in a sense, a step towards the abolition of the means test; but I suggest- that the Government, in thus differentiating between age pensioners and widow pensioners, is really aggravating the means test. Apparently people who are married are to be penalized for having embarked upon that very happy course.

Mr Duthie - It will not affect the honorable member very much.

Mr COUTTS - It may well do so in the future. Married pensioners are to be denied the supplementary allowance which will be paid to the single pensioner though they have worked hard to rear families through the difficult days of the depression, have pioneered this country, and have, often in the face of considerable difficulties, bought a home? Such discrimination amounts to an aggravation of the means test, and certainly does not entitle the Government to expect congratulations. The honorable member for Port Adelaide (Mr. Thompson) damned the proposal with faint praise. In any event the Government should not expect much praise from honorable members on this side. We are not altogether keen on the proposal.

We believe that the vast majority of pensioners are being denied social justice. A recent survey by the Chamber of Manufactures revealed that since 1947 the purchasing power of the £1 Australian had declined in value by 54 per cent. As pensions have been raised to only £4 7s. 6d. in the same period, it is plain that the movement in pensions has not kept pace with the reduction in the purchasing power of money.

Mr Wilson - It has.

Mr COUTTS - It has not. At the end of last year the pension was 9.7 per cent, below what is should have been in order to keep pace with the decline in money values. In Queensland in the last twelve months, thanks to the Australia Country party-Liberal party State government, the cost of living has bolted, and the basic wage has increased by 13s. a week as a result. In the main, those who receive social service benefits are to be given nothing to offset this increase.

A few days ago I received a very pathetic letter from a lady who wrote in response to a broadcast which I made from a Brisbane station concerning the Government's pension proposals. I may say that she is not one of my constituents. She writes -

I heard you say for all pensioners to apply for more pension. ... I think we are in need of a rise just as much as those paying rent. We have just got a sanitary and rubbish service which is going to raise our rates by £5 18s. 6d. a year and very soon we will have electric light; which is more expense. . . . Also, I am a diabetic and am on a diet. I have to have bacon, eggs, butter, milk, fruit, fresh vegetables and meat, all cf which are expensive, especially here . . .

The writer lives beyond Caboolture, which is outside of Brisbane. She continues -

We are ten miles from Caboolture and have to pay freight on everything we get - 6d: for a parcel of meat, ls. 6d. for our groceries, and we have only one bit of a cash and carry store so you see we pay through the nose for everything we get. I have to pay house insurance, and 5s. a week for a' savings insurance for my husband so he won't be buried, as a pauper, and- I. can tell you it is very hard.

If we have to go to Brisbane it is 18s. for the car home, on top of the train fare. We have only a school bus here and he charges 4s. each to go to Caboolture, so we don't go very much.

I- have never had a new frock in four year« and wo do not drink our money. We are very careful people. We have only been twice to the pictures in five years so you can see what a struggle it is . . .

Country party members may sneer, but I assure them that the writer is a constituent of a Country party representative here. The reaction of these gentlemen to the Budget proposals suggests that they are smugly satisfied' with it, and contemptuous of the demand's of the thousands of pensioners to whom it denies justice.

Mr Turnbull - Is that in the letter, or are you making it up?

Mr COUTTS - The letter continues -

I also have blood pressure and heart trouble and my doctor keeps saying - no worry - but how can you stop worrying trying to make ends meet? I do not know why the people won't put Labour back in office . . . We pay ls. 4d. for a loaf of bread here.

Of course, we know that the present Government of Queensland has often stated that it will remove prices control, and I suppose that shortly the people in that place will be paying ls. 6d. for a loaf of bread.

The position of the pensioner whose letter I have just read is typical of that of thousands of pensioners in Queensland. They are finding it more and more difficult to make ends meet. I believe- quite sincerely that the Government is making no attempt to help these people. It is helping only a small section of pensioners - the single persons who pay rent. Married pensioners who pay rent will receive nothing.

Mr Turnbull - What rot! Of course they will.

Mr COUTTS - The single pensioners who pay rent are the only pensioners who will be assisted.

Mr Turnbull - That is wrong.

Mr COUTTS - I am quoting the Treasurer (Sir Arthur Fadden). Let us hope that he is not guilty of deceiving the Parliament. He said that this provision would apply to single pensioners only. I prefer to believe the Treasurer rather than the honorable member for Mallee (Mr. Turnbull). If I must disbelieve one of them, then I disbelieve the honorable member for Mallee. I may say that another member of the Australian Country party disputes the contention of the honorable member.

The Government has claimed credit for the fact that married pensioners have the right to earn up to £7 a week or to draw superannuation payments of that amount without affecting their pensions, so that they may have a total income, including pension, of about £15 15s. a week. That is true, but that position applies in the case of only a few pensioners. Let us consider the plight of the majority. Many people in receipt of the age pension are unable to work. Employers will not take them on because their capabilities have been considerably restricted through age. The Government has no justification for boasting about allowing pensioners to earn money in addition to their pension. We know that, in the main, the wants of pensioners are not as great as those of young married couples who are bringing up families, but this Government has placed pensioners on a level well below the standard required in a community such as ours.

The Government is not fair in its administration of social services. It is gradually killing the child endowment scheme, and the same might be said of the maternity allowance. The rate of child endowment has not been increased since 1948, although a survey conducted by the Chamber of Manufactures shows that the value of the £1 has decreased by 54 per cent, since that time. Therefore, the 10s. a week that is paid to the mother of a child to-day has the purchasing power that 5s. had in 1948. The purchasing power of child endowment has thus been halved. The Government is completely disregarding this matter and, by doing so, it is depriving the children of Australia of several millions of pounds a year which should be paid to their parents by way of child endowment. A table that I have before me shows that, for a family of four children, the loss due to the decreased purchasing power of child endowment since 1948 is £1 13s. 6d. a week. For larger families, the loss is correspondingly greater.

The maternity allowance that is paid to-day is the same as that paid in 1948. In fairness to the people of Australia who are bringing up children, we, the Parliament of this country, should see that their standards are maintained and that the money they receive through social service benefits does not lose its value. Under this Government, it is losing its value very quickly.

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