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Tuesday, 9 September 1958

Mr E JAMES HARRISON (BLAXLAND, NEW SOUTH WALES) . - Before dealing with two matters touching the Department of Social Services and the Department of Health I wish to make some comment on the suggestion made by the honorable member for Moreton (Mr. Killen) that an age pensioner who has five sons and five daughters should be the sole responsibility of her family. Before the honorable gentleman makes such a statement in this chamber he should make a study of the financial position of the family concerned. Is the honorable member implying that this Government should go back to the methods used by the Lyons Government in 1932, when the granting of a pension was subject to a means test applied to the applicant's relatives? If that is what he means, let him be frank about it.

There might be some logic in the proposition that families should do more about taking care of their aged parents than, in many instances, they now do - but only provided other factors are considered. What are we doing in this Parliament - what is this Government doing - to help families to support their elderly relatives? If the reason why the five sons and five daughters of the pensioner mentioned by the honorable member for Moreton are unable to help their mother is that they have their own commitments in the rearing of their own families, then these sons and daughters are already doing a tremendous service to the nation. Should not the Government accept some responsibility for the care of the mother? Should not the Government provide the widest possible tax concessions in relation to whatever help children give to their elderly parents? For instance, should not the provision for a rent allowance of 10s., announced in the Budget as assistance to single age and invalid pensioners living alone, be extended to cover cases of children who are providing accommodation for an elderly parent or parents? If the provision were extended to cover such cases we would be showing some humanity towards people whose position in life should be made easier. But the Government does nothing along those lines. In fact, we heard the Minister for Social Services (Mr. Roberton) say in reply to an honorable member on his own side that in relation to eligibility of a pensioner for rent allowance the Department of Social Services would not interpret the word " rent " in the broad sense.

I was surprised when the honorable member for Sturt (Mr. Wilson) urged that every pensioner who thought himself or herself entitled to rent allowance should be lodging an application at this stage. I have not heard of anything so cruel as urging a single pensioner to lodge such an application only to have his cup of hope dashed from his hands when the application is rejected, as will be the case with thousands of applications because of the Government's narrow policy regarding eligibility for the allowance. If ever there was a time when every possible help should be given to people who rely on social services that time is now. But the Minister has said that the interpretation of the word " rent ", in assessing eligibility for the allowance, will be left to the Department of Social Services. The Government should lay down the interpretation of " rent " instead of leaving it to a departmental officer. I put it to the honorable member for Moreton that where an age or invalid pensioner is living with his family we should at least pay some amount towards his upkeep by widening the interpretation of " rent ", instead of using a narrow and miserable interpretation.

Now I turn to another example of what I regard as cruelty. One of the cruellest features in the pensioner medical service is the omission of fracture cases from benefit under the service. I have before me at the moment a case concerning an old lady in her early 70's, who fractured her hip. Because of complications arising from the fracture that pensioner's doctor attended her on more than 100 occasions and, as a result of his attention, the old lady is well to-day. However, although the medical attention that he gave her was concerned not so much with the fracture itself as with the complications that resulted from it, he has been informed by the Acting Commonwealth Director of Medical Services in New South Wales that there was no entitlement to benefit because the case was a fracture case. The doctor's attention was drawn to the fact that certain services did not come within the scope of the pensioner medical service. These were listed, as follows: -

1.   Surgical operations other than of a minor nature performed in the surgery or in the patient's home;

2.   Administration of a general anaesthetic even when rendered at the same time as other services within the scope of the pensioner medical service.

When any complication arises from a fracture, the pensioner remains excluded from this protection which is so important. If ever there was a time when full medical services were needed by old people, it is when a fracture occurs. What is the type of fracture that is normally sustained by an aged man or woman who falls or slips? It is a fracture to the hip, leg, or arm. Under this service, in which we take pride, we say to such a patient, " No. If you contract pneumonia in the ordinary way, medical service will be given. But if you break a leg and then contract pneumonia, the service will not be given, because the pneumonia is related to the fracture ". What will happen to this lady of 73 years of age? Is she expected to try to pay from her pension for these calls, numbering over 100, made by her medical adviser to restore her to health, or is it expected that the medical adviser will do this work for no recompense? It must be either one thing or the other. We should never rest until that tremendous injustice to aged people is removed.

The next matter to which I shall refer is one of which we are losing sight. I am rather sorry that the Minister for Health is not in the chamber, but I know that he will have some notice taken of the point I make. Over the last twelve or eighteen months, as the result of the use of tranquillizing drugs, many persons afflicted with mental illness are being restored to health. I am afraid that we, as legislators, are neglecting a tremendously important phase affecting the health of this community in future. When I was overseas last year, I was impressed by the great problem that exists in America to-day with regard to the rehabilitation of those persons restored from mental illness, not because they are unsound in mind when they are discharged, but because when they move back towards industry they have no reference from their place of last employment. They have no former employer to whom their new employer can be referred. Whether we like it or not, there is in this country, too, a stigma attached to mental illness, which should be removed by efforts at both Federal and State levels. Until we do that, we are neglecting a tremendous responsibility that rests on every parliamentarian in Australia.

Tranquillizing drugs are restoring to health people who suffered for many, many years. I think there is on record already in New South Wales the case of a man who suffered for over twenty years from a mental affliction but now, as a result of tranquillizing drugs, is almost ready to be released and to take his correct place in society. Do not let us put this question aside as something that affects merely State governments. The State governments have gone a certain distance. It will be remembered that during the life of the Chifley Government the Commonwealth had consultations with the State governments on the question of mental illness and patients, and an arrangement was worked out whereby a contribution was made by the Commonwealth for patients in mental hospitals. lt was little and miserable enough in its application, perhaps, but to-day we have a different feature of the problem, the feature of mental illnesses being cured. The Commonwealth approach should be on the basis that mental illnesses are no longer incurable.

We must go far beyond anything that was ever contemplated when the Chifley Government made those arrangements with the States regarding patients in mental hospitals. A responsibility rests on every government, including this Government, to see that there are workshops for the training and rehabilitation of those people who come from mental institutions, and to see that there is an advisory centre on a combined Federal-State level, because the expenditure will become fairly heavy. Perhaps most important of all is that there be for these people an employment bureau staffed by persons who understand the problem that they have in front of them. It is not sufficient to tell a person restored from mental illness to go along to an ordinary employment bureau and register, because he has no references. He wants guidance and assistance. As I said to the Minister in a question on 6th August last, the former patient wants a continuance, where necessary, of the free provision of tranquillizing drugs to bring him right out as a citizen of Australia in the same way as we are. That is capable of being done if we do the right thing by these people. I make an urgent and strong appeal for this Government to reconsider this matter, in conjunction with the States, at the earliest possible moment.

We have, in Victoria and New South Wales at any rate, psychiatric rehabilitation associations which are pleading for public support. The need goes far beyond anything that can be contemplated on the level of public support. It is a national problem and a national responsibility. So long as we in this Parliament dilly-dally with this problem of national health, we are playing with the lives of people who can be fully restored to their proper place in society and who can be put back into industry. I say to the Government: Do not let another Budget come down in this House without a commitment to provide, as America provides, a rehabilitation service and tranquillizing drugs for mentally ill people who are discharged. This is a Federal and State responsibility, and I urge that something be done as a matter of urgency.

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