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Tuesday, 16 September 1958

Mr ROBERTON (Riverina) (Minister for Social Services) . - I move -

That the bill be now read a second time.

During the last nine years the MenziesFadden Administration has demonstrated a legislative determination to reveal that the four fundamental freedoms, which arose from the great Atlantic Charter and serve to distinguish the free world from the enslaved world, are not to be accepted as faint expressions of hope, but as vital and practical realities in this most blessed country where we all are privileged to live and work, and which we all are privileged to serve. All the legislation of the present Government, which now must be described as the Menzies-McEwen Administration, is designed to that end, and this bill is no exception.

The third of the four fundamental freedoms is the freedom from want and, year by year and Budget by Budget, this Government has brought down legislation to improve the circumstances of those who, for any reason, have been unable to make adequate provision for old age, invalidity, bereavement, unemployment, sickness or any of the hazards that are inseparable from life and living.

Rates of pensions, benefits, and allowances have been increased consistent with the increasing capacity of the community to pay for them. The means tests, both with respect to income and property, have been liberalized to include an increasing number of people. Existing social services have been extended and expanded, and new social services have been introduced to meet the needs of our people. The total cost of providing social services has mounted progressively from £81,000,000 in 1949, the last and - I speak prophetically - the most generous full year of the previous socialist government, to a sum that will exceed £27.3,000,000. in 1959; op more than onefifth of the national Budget. If social service progress can be measured in- terms of pounds, shillings and pence- and I do not believe for a moment that it can - that is the measure of our progress during the last ten years. But time and experience have revealed that there are both people and families entirely dependent on a single pension and, when they are required to pay rent, their circumstances are. not comparable with those, of people and families not entirely dependent on a single pension and who. are not required, to pay rent. Up to this point in our social service history, governments have given serious consideration to this, particular problem, hut no practical solution could be found, inside, the. provisions of the Social Services Act...

This; Government- has decided to amend the act by introducing another new feature to. the spectacular programme of social services, most of which has been written up in. the last few years. This bill gives effect to that decision, and widens the scope of' the act. Supplementary assistance, at the rate of 10s. a week, will be paid to single age and. invalid pensioners, to widows, and to married age and invalid pensioners when one only is in receipt of a pension or (allowance, who pay rent for their accommodation, and who are deemed to be entirely, dependent on their pensions.

The importance of the bill lies chiefly in that fact that, for. the first time in our history,, a Government recognizes that, even within the general scheme of social services, there are groups of pensioners with special needs. In this connexion, the Government acknowledges the representations which have been made by the Government members' social services committee, by churches of all denominations, by charitable organizations qf every kind, and by the social workers who carry out investigations of great value to the- community. I shall, return to the question of supplementary assistance and its vast implications in the- field of social welfare after I have outlined to honorable members the other important provisions of the bill.

The property limit - that is, the value of property a person may own and still be eligible^ for a proportion -of- the full pension* will" be raised by- £500. This is the second increase of £500 to be made by the present Government, and- the fourth substantial! increase- since it was elected to office in 1949i The new property limit will lift the value of property- beyond which no pension is payable from- £1,750 to £2;25.0 for et single person, or £4,500 for a married' couple; This new limit is three times more liberal, appropriately enough, than the- limit of £7-50 imposed' by- the socialist, party, during that unhappy period prior to 1949-. The effect, of this fourth increase, is that persons with property valued in excess of £1,750, who have previously been excluded,, will- now become eligible to. receive/ age or invalid pensions ranging, from £72. los. to £22. 10s: a year until the value, of their- property exceeds £2,250. The, valuer of the home, together with furniture and personal effects, is disregarded for pension, purposes.

Awi'dow in Class A - that is, a widow with one or more dependent children - win continue to receive the full rate of pension until the value of her property reaches the new upper- limit of- £2,250. Widows in other classes who become eligible as a result of this increase will receive pensions ranging from £66 to £16 a year.

I remind the. House that,, in 19.54, this Government exempted, from the. means test income derived front property and, as a consequence, thereby increased the permissible income, by the amount- of any income received from property. The raising of the property limit in the same bill that introduces supplementary assistance illustrates once again the Government's, two-fold, approach to social services at all times. The supplementary assistance is designed to relieve hardship and improve the circumstances of those who are entirely dependent on their pensions, and the lifting of the property limit is designed to assist those who, by their industry, thrift, good health, or good fortune, have been able to make some provision to meet the contingencies of life and living.

A further important amendment that applies to. both pensioners and those who receive unemployment and sickness benefits, Mr. Speaker, is in keeping with the policy - of the Government to assist and encourage people to promote and- protect thenown economic security. Up to the- time of the introduction of this bill, amounts received from organizations registered- under the National Health Acts have been exempt as income only to the extent that, they are required to meet the cost of hospital, medical or dental treatment actually incurred. Under- this bill they will, in- future, be wholly exempt and, as a- consequence, amounts received from such organizations will, not affect the rate of pension or benefit in any way.

Just- as we believe that personal thrift and providence should be encouraged at all times, Mr. Speaker, so do we believe that members of a family - the basic unit in any free and democratic society - should be encouraged- to do whatever lies within their power to assist one another. We believe that- the obligation to give assistance of this kind' is innate, and that- it exists irrespective of any statutory assistance that may be available to the less fortunate members of the family; Periodical payments or- benefits by way of gifts or allowances from a father, mother, son or daughter are already exempt for pension purposes. This bil! proposes to exempt gifts or allowances to pensioners from brothers and sisters who will thus be able to fulfil' their family obligations in the knowledge that it will not affect the statutory entitlement of their own kith and kin.

When there were no social services or statutory entitlements anywhere> we inherited' -the friendly* society movement from the Mother Country and from the older parts of- the world. Through this great movement-, and by small contributions made during- periods of employment, people have been able to make some provision to meet sickness, infirmity and; incapacity. The meritorious services of friendly societies have been recognized in part by the fact that, for a sickness benefit under the Social Services Act, £2 a week sick pay received from these organizations is disregarded in the application, of the means test. The amount of income ordinarily exempt under the act also is £2 a week; so that where, a sick pay benefit from a friendly society exceeded £4 a. week the social service or statutory sickness benefit was reduced by the amount of excess in the normal way. I' am happy to say that these restrictions will be- swept away by this bill, and all sick pay received from- friendly societies will be excluded from.i the means test applied to sickness benefits under the act. The purpose is not only to remove a palpable injustice but also- to encourage friendly societies to increase the protection they give to their members, and to' strengthen the co-operation, that ought to exist between the Government and. the great friendly society movement and other voluntary agencies.

I turn now, Mr. Speaker, to the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service- - perhaps the least known, but unquestionably the most humane of all our activities in the field of social services. Through the efforts of this particularly fine branch of the Department of Social Services, more than 11,000 men and women have been restored to a useful and productive life. There was a time when those who were born with serious physical imperfections, and those who were injured or afflicted in a way that reduced their faculties, to a degree that, denied them the opportunity for economic independence, were deprived of hope and condemned to comparative idleness. All that has been changed for a great many physically handicapped, people by the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service. To-day, an increasing number of disabled, injured and limbless people can be taught to conquer their disabilities, and can be trained for suitable occupations and restored to gainful employment. This, if I may say so, Sir, is a. very great achievement-.

The work of the Rehabilitation Service has been hampered by the fact that persons could not be accepted for treatment and training until the disability from which they were suffering had existed for thirteen weeks prior to acceptance. It is now apparent that, to be most effective, rehabilitation should begin as soon as the treatment of the acute phase is over. This bill abolishes the thirteen weeks waiting period and enables the medical staff, the physiotherapists, and the training and education officers to admit patients and commence treatment as soon as practicable- within the limits of the accommodation that is available. It is not- intended to accept short-term cases in which the disability is expected to continue for less than 26 weeks, but' the new procedure: will' enable the service to get off the mark more quickly where earlier treatment is likely to have beneficial results.

Furthermore, Sir, the bill provides for the scope of the service to be extended and expanded to include widow pensioners, special beneficiaries, or claimants for special benefits, including migrants awaiting naturalization, who are ineligible for invalid pensions. In future, subject only to suitability for treatment and training, rehabilitation may be provided by the Commonwealth Government without charge to the following classes of people: -

(i)   invalid pensioners and claimants for an invalid pension;

(ii)   sickness or unemployment bene ficiaries and claimants for these benefits;

(iii)   recipients of the tuberculosis allow ance;

(iv)   widows;

(v)   special beneficiaries and claimants for special benefits; and

(vi)   girls and boys who, having reached the aged of fourteen years, are likely to qualify for an invalid pension on reaching the age of sixteen years without treatment.

The world is moving forward, Mr. Speaker, to a fuller appreciation of the value and, indeed, of the profit of adequate rehabilitation services, and I am proud to say that Australia is keeping pace with the more advanced countries in the world.

Now let me return to the main purpose of this bill. Supplementary assistance is designed, as I have said, to relieve hardship and improve the circumstances of the most needy section of the community - people who receive a single pension, meaning one pension only, who pay rent, and who are deemed to be entirely dependent on their pensions. This is a departure from the traditional pattern of social services in our country, Mr. Speaker, but it is consistent with the experience of every country where attempts have been made to provide statutory benefits without prejudice to any section of the community.

Our Commonwealth social service history began in the traditional way - by providing exclusive benefits for the old who were deemed to be in indigent circumstances. That was 50 years ago. Sir. Then came invalid pensions exclusive to those who were totally and- permanently incapacitated and who were without means. That was the original pattern - a concentration of available resources to provide relief from acute distress.

In 1912, maternity allowances were introduced free of any means test. That was our first attempt to pay a social service benefit without restriction, and the maternity allowance survived, proudly enough, for nearly twenty years, but the financial emergency of 1931 compelled the Scullin Government to reduce the allowance - together with a reduction in the age and invalid pensions - and impose a means test for the first time. That means tests remained for twelve years, and was abolished by the Curtin Government as recently as 1943.

When the constitutional competence of the Commonwealth Government to deal with social service questions was finally resolved by referendum, benefits were extended, but the means tests, both with respect to income and property, were generally retained, except in the case of maternity allowances, child endowment, and pensions for the blind. In the meantime, rates of payments had been increased to, and beyond the point where exclusion became a penalty on thrift. The situation - and the injustice - was met by progressive easements of the means test to include an increasing number of people who had been previously excluded by the application of these tests. It always has to be remembered that, in addition to an income of £3 10s. a week and property up to £200 - these amounts are doubled in the case of a married couple - a pensioner can own a home, furniture, personal effects and a car, whatever their value, without affecting his eligibility for a full rate pension, and there are other types of property also disregarded for pension purposes.

It was inevitable that the increasing number of people qualified to receive a pension would reach the point where every ls. increase in the weekly rate - although I emphasize that no ls. rises have ever been contemplated by this Government - involved the people of our country in additional expenditure exceeding £1,600,000 a year, and it was inevitable, too, that the increasing rates of pensions would reach the point where a married couple, both in receipt of the pension, could, with permissible income, exceed the basic wage and, with exempted property, far exceed the circumstances of the great majority of the working people of our country. That was the position when it became obvious to the Government that there were married, unmarried, and widowed people alike with domestic and family responsibilities who were entirely dependent on a single pension. To attempt to improve their circumstances through a general and an appreciable increase in the pension rate this year would have aggravated a set of circumstances that would have compelled every wage and salary earner to pay taxes to provide dual pensions which, when added to permissible income, would far exceed the basic wage.

The need for special assistance has been acknowledged by honorable members on both sides of the House, and I am grateful to those who have made generous references to the proposal. The suggestion was made - and it has been carefully examined - that committees should be set up to examine claims for special assistance, approve of them or reject them, and make payments according to need and within the limits of the funds likely to be available. The Government is aWare of voluntary agencies functioning in all States of the Commonwealth along these very lines and doing exceptionally fine work, but it would be a serious departure from precedent for the Commonwealth Government to enter this particular field.

I remind honorable members that the Commonwealth has no " poor law " tradition in the administration of social services, and this Government does not propose to introduce one. We have established the principle, that subject to the appropriate qualifications, our people are entitled to social service benefits as a right, and that it is competent for any person at any time to test eligibility for any social service payment. This Government does not propose to depart from these fundamental principles.

Supplementary assistance will be paid at the rate of 10s. a week to single age and invalid pensioners who pay rent and who are deemed to be entirely dependent on their pensions. Similarly, supplementary assistance will be granted at the same rate to widow pensioners under the same conditions. Supplementary assistance at the same rate will be paid to married pensioners where the wife only, or the husband only, as the case may be, is in receipt of a social service payment. The discretionary powers are vested in the Director-General of Social Services, and I have no doubt that he will exercise them consistent with the spirit that pervades all our social service legislation.

Honorable members have inquired about the rent qualification, and I can only repeat what I said in the House a fortnight ago. The payment of rent is a primary qualification and, where rent is paid, it must be an actual and real rent, otherwise the need of supplementary assistance does not arise. Where payment is made for board and lodging, the same principle will apply, and the payment will be accepted as having a rent component. If honorable members and the general public will be good enough to remember that this commendable innovation is introduced to relieve hardship and to improve the circumstances of the lowly who are required to live on a single pension and pay rent, no difficulties should arise that will impede the passage of this most humane piece of legislation. It would be most unfortunate and most regrettable if political advantage were taken of the opportunity to draw odious comparisons between the people who, by their grievous circumstances, qualify to receive this supplementary assistance and those who, by their more favorable circumstances, are excluded from it. It is possible, I regret to say, that the temptation to draw comparisons of the kind will be too great for some honorable members to resist, but I would be failing in my duty if I did not emphasize that the sole test for this particular social service benefit is a degree of hardship that the entire community would like to see eased from those who are called upon by grim misfortune to bear it, and this supplementary assistance has no other purpose.

I have outlined the measures before the House. They are milestones along the road of social progress - a road that can only be travelled by a free and resolute people fully aware of the -social responsibilities inseparable from democratic society and anxious to discharge them.

In spite of the interjections from honorable members opposite, .particularly from the .honorable member who is allegedly leading for the Opposition on this .occasion, which I have ignored, : it is my proud pleasure to commend the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion : by Mr. Allan Fraser) adjourned.

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