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Thursday, 18 September 1958

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER - Order! The honorable member is getting a bit close to the line.

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I shall go no closer, Sir. I merely proceed to observe that the Minister has been a lifelong proclaimed enemy of the welfare state and of socialism, of which social services of this kind involving a redistribution of the national income form a part, and that he did his utmost to obtain the defeat of the referendum to give social service powers to the Commonwealth - powers which he now administers. The fact that the Prime Minister entrusted this gentleman with this portfolio seems to me to indicate a cynical attitude towards social services in this community.

I propose not merely to state that position regarding the Minister but also to examine many of his utterances and to show exactly how false and how unfair they were. The Minister began by saying that year by year, and Budget by Budget, this Government had brought down legislation to improve the circumstances of persons dependent upon social services. That statement was inaccurate. When the Government took office, we had various rates of social services which this Government has left completely unchanged during the whole of its nine years' tenure of office.

Mr Falkinder - That is not quite right.

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) -The honorable member for Franklin says that that is not right. It is right of child endowment, of the maternity benefit, of the funeral benefit and of other social service benefits: It is perfectly right. During those nine years, the value of money has been more than halved. So, in fact, the Government has connived at a reduction by more than half of the value of a number of social services and has failed to make any increase in a number of other social services comparable with the demonstrated increase in the cost of living. I think only one exception to that statement can be claimed, and that is the unemployment and sickness benefits.

The Minister proceeded to say that the means test, both with respect to income and to property, had been liberalized by this Government to include an increasing number of people. That statement is demonstrably false. When this Government took office, the permissible income was 30s. a week; to-day it is £3 10s. The Commonwealth Statistician's figures show clearly that £3 10s. to-day will, at least, buy no more than 30s. would when the Government took office, and on many estimates it will buy considerably less. Therefore, the claim that the income means test has been increased is also demonstrably false.

The Minister then proceeded to make a statement which I feel sure he must have known was without any basis whatever. He said -

The total cost of providing social services has mounted progressively from £81,000,000 in 1949 . . to a sum that will exceed £273,000,000 in 1959, or more than one-fifth of the national Budget. If social service progress can be measured in terms of pounds, shillings and pence . . that is the measure of our progress during the last ten years.

I will give the Minister the benefit of the doubt, but he understated by £10,000,000 the expenditure in 1949. It was £91,000,000, not £81,000,000. Secondly, the population in the ten years from 1949 to 1958 has grown from 8,000,000 to 10,000,000, an increase of exactly 25 per cent. If regard is had to the changing value of money and to the increase in population of 25 per cent., there has been no real increase in the expenditure on social services during the whole of that time.

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) - That is not correct.

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Minister for Labour and National Service says that that is not correct.

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) - I do: there has been a real increase in social services.

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - All right; let me take the figures again, because they are very interesting. In 1949, the Budget figure for social services was £91,000,000. The exactly corresponding figure in the Budget for this year is £273,000,000. The Minister will agree that the £1 in 1949 was equal to two and one-third times the £1 of to-day. That is the official figure, I think. So, we simply multiply £91,000,000 by two and one-third and have regard to the fact that the population has increased by 25 per cent. That is not a difficult sum to work out.

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) - But at that time-

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Just let me finish this sentence. If we work out that little sum, we will see that £91,000,000 in 1949 for the population of those days is the full equivalent of £270,000,000 to-day. Now come in!

Mr HAROLD HOLT (HIGGINS, VICTORIA) - Mr. Deputy Speaker, I do not accept that in relation to such basic items as rent and foodstuffs. They have not moved in that degree. The overall price level may have done so, but not the basic items.

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) -The interjection of the right honorable gentleman is pertinent. It concedes that my figures are correct as regards the general value of money, but he says that they are not correct in regard to the special needs of pensioners. Apparently he claims that pensioners need only rent and foodstuffs.


Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Perhaps I am not quite clear what the Minister means; perhaps he himself is not quite clear what he means. However, a correct examination of the figures shows that there has been no improvement whatever in the total expenditure on social services. At the best, there has been a standstill; at the worst, the position has gone back.

The Minister for Social Services also made this most extraordinary statement -

But time and experience have revealed that there are both people and families entirely dependent on a single pension . . .

How much time and how much experience was needed before the Government realized that fact? It has been in office for nine years, yet the Minister speaks of the fact that families are dependent on a single pension as a revelation.

Mr Roberton - I said a great deal more than that.


But lime 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. . . .

Mr Roberton - Read on.

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) -The Minister has made his speech. I read to the end of a sentence. There have always been people in the position referred to by the Minister, and he cannot use this sudden revelation, this sudden discovery of something that has existed for all the years that the Government has been in office, as an excuse for failing to adjust the general rate of pension by the 10s. that is required to restore its purchasing value to what it was when the Government took office. To make any such excuse is palpably false.

Mr Turner - It would have been true even when Labour was in office.

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Of course it was true when Labour was in office. When Labour was in office the pension had greater purchasing value than it has now. What the Minister is proposing to do now, under the cover of this discovery that has suddenly hit him, is to confine the 10s. increase to a particular small class of pensioners.

Mr Turner - That is a discovery that Labour never made.

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The Labour Government provided a rate of pension which the Minister now proposes to adjust to provide an additional benefit for a very small section of pensioners in this community. Despite the fact that the Minister describes this proposal as a spectacular achievement - as a milestone in the history of social services - the small nature of the benefits to be given is highlighted by the Budget, which shows that the total sum involved in all social service adjustments this year, and in all additions to the national health service, is £9,000,000. All these new benefits will come from a total of £9,000,000. In other words, very few pensioners will benefit from this supplementary allowance. T *

Mr Roberton - That is not true.


Mr Roberton - Your calculation of the difference between £240,000,000 and £273,000,000.

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The figure of £9,000,000 in the Budget is true.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER - Order! The Minister will remain silent and the honorable member for Eden-Monaro will address the Chair.

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Certainly, Sir; through you always. In his second-reading speech, the Minister said -

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.

How false that statement is! When Labour came to office in 1941, there were three Commonwealth social services - the age pension; the invalid pension; and the maternity bonus. When Labour left office in 1949-

Mr Howse - There was also child endowment in 1941.

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Yes, that is so. When Labour left office in 1949 there were sixteen major social services. This Government has not introduced one new major social service during the whole of its nine years of office. It has introduced a few trimmings at very small cost.

Mr Howse - What about homes for the aged?

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I am reminded by the honorable member for Calare about homes for the aged, a valuable provision that costs this Government at the most £2,000,000, £3,000,000 or £4,000,000 a year. That can by no means be considered as a major social service.

Mr Howse - What about the medical schemes?

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I am talking about social services now; not health. I shall have the privilege of dealing with the Minister for Health (Dr. Donald Cameron) on another occasion.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER - Order! I ask honorable members to cease interjecting, so that the honorable member for Eden-Monaro may continue his speech.

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - In introducing this measure the Minister said -

The importance of the bill lies chiefly in the 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.

That is a great many words, but as far as I can see it means exactly nothing, except what I have said before - that the Government proposes to confine the general increase, which all pensioners deserve and need, to a very small section indeed of the pensioner community. The Minister, before returning to the question of the supplementary allowance, dealt with the property means test. It is because of his statements in this regard that he most deserves the comment that he is a complete political humbug. He said -

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 1949.

The fact is, and this is known to every honorable member familiar with social services, that all that the Government has now done with respect to the property limit is to adjust an obvious anomaly. There has been no alteration whatever of the general property limit. It remains at £200 for a single pensioner, reducible by £1 a year for every £10 of property beyond £200. The anomaly was that with property worth £1,750 a pensioner could obtain a pension of approximately £72 10s. per annum, but with property worth £1,751 he was completely cut off from the pension. That was a ridiculous anomaly, and it was pointed out to the Government year after year by the Opposition. All that the Government has now done is to correct that anomaly. It has made no real addition to the generosity or liberality of the property means test. For the Minister so to claim is, I suggest, an attempt to deceive either the House or the nation.

To give a further example of the kind of propaganda that the Minister dared to indulge in, I quote again from his secondreading speech -

This new limit is three times more liberal, appropriately enough, than the limit of £750 imposed by the socialist party during that unhappy period prior to 1949.

That statement could only be correct if there had been no change whatever in the value of money. The Minister knows perfectly well that there has been a great change in the value of money. He knows that since his Government has been in office there has been almost unrestricted inflation in this country. It is therefore completely false to claim that £2,250 is to-day worth three times as much as £750 was worth prior to 1949.

Mr Dean - The Labour government was the only government to reduce the age pension.

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The honorable member for Robertson interjects and says that the Labour government was the only government to cut the age pension. I am glad that he has made that interjection. The truth cannot be told often enough. The pension was reduced by the Scullin Labour Government at a time when there was an anti-Labour majority in the Senate, which rejected the Scullin Labour Government's proposal for a fiduciary currency o* £15,000,000. lt also rejected the Scullin Government's proposal to shift £5,000,000 worth of gold to England. The Scullin Government at that time had no control whatever over the Commonwealth Bank, such as the present Government possesses to-day. The cut in pensions, wages, and other services at that time was made as a result of a written ultimatum to the Government from the Commonwealth Bank and the associated banks, backed by the anti-Labour majority in the Senate, that unless those cuts in social services were made, all financial assistance to the Commonwealth Government would cease.

If that is not enough, let me add this: When the Lyons Government succeeded the Scullin Government, it proceeded, without any such compulsion, because it had a majority in both Houses, to reduce the rate of age pension by a further 2s. 6d. a week, bringing it down to the wretchedly low figure of 15s. a week.

Mr Thompson - It was the only government that put a lien on pensioners' property.

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - That is so. As the honorable member for Port Adelaide reminds me, the government at that time provided that when a pensioner died, any property that he possessed would revert to the Commonwealth, so that it could recover what it had paid him in social service benefits. I thank the honorable member for Robertson (Mr. Dean) for his interjection and for giving me the opportunity to correct his misconceptions. The Minister proceeded to make another claim which appears to me to have been entirely misleading in its effect. He said - 1 remind the House that, in 1954, this Government exempted from the means test income derived from property and, as a consequence, thereby increased the permissible income by the amount of any income received from property.

The Government did this, and I am the last person who would wish to deprive the Government of any credit to which it is legitimately entitled. But any person who is acquainted with the subject of social services will know that it is practically meaningless to cut out the means test on income from property unless, at the same time, you adjust the property means test also. Let me put it in this way: If a person has £3 10s. a week income from government bonds - and that is the maximum permissible under the income means test - he would need to have bonds to the value of £3,600 paying interest at the rate of 5 per cent. This would make him ineligible for the pension anyhow. As a matter of fact, if a person was receiving anything over £2 4s. a week in income from investments at 5 per cent, he would be completely debarred from the pension under the property means test, because £2,250 invested at 5 per cent, will bring in £2 4s. a week income. To claim that you are doing something really valuable for the pensioners, if you exempt income from property, without, at the same time, altering the property means test limit, is to make a most misleading claim indeed.

But this, of course, was not the last of the claims made by the Minister in this regard. He said -

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.

I hope I have shown that the Minister has made no real adjustment to the property means test whatever, except to eliminate an obvious and very unjust anomaly, and that the supplementary assistance is not designed to relieve hardship and improve the circumstances of those who are entirely dependent on their pensions, but only of a very small number of persons who come within the category defined. In order to qualify for this new supplementary allowance of 10s. a week a pensioner must be entirely dependent on his pension, The pensioner must be a single man or a single woman, or else one of a married couple, the other one of the couple not being a pensioner. If both of them are receiving the pension they do not qualify. Finally, the pensioner must be paying rent. There are, of course, some who come within this category and who are suffering severely and need additional assistance, which could have been given by means of an increase in the general rate of pension. But, as we all know, they are not by any means the only pensioners in this community who are suffering very grievous hardships indeed.

The proposal brought forward by the Minister is crude. It has not been properly thought out. It rejects the cases of many persons who are in equally dire need and it concentrates on only a particular class of pensioner. Why would he cut out, for example, the pensioner couple who are compelled to pay a high rent and who have no income whatever apart from their pensions? Is not their position desperate in this community? Why are they to be excluded and the supplementary assistance given when only one of the couple happens to be a pensioner? Is not the case pf a widow endeavouring to pay off a home left by her husband, and who 'has rates, maintenance and other charges to meet, equally as desperate as that of the pensioner living in a room and paying rent? Why, then, has that class of pensioner been excluded from this provision?

One could go on and cite dozens of similar illustrations. This bill will cause a feeling: of increased injustice and unfairness among hundreds of thousands of very worthy senior citizens in this community. I think it is unfortunate indeed that the Minister, in entering this very valuable field of supplementary assistance, has not bothered to think it out first and to bring down a proposal that would have been fair and equitable in all respects. If he had first of all adjusted the general rate of pension to restore its purchasing power in accordance with the promise made by the Government when it took office, and then proceeded to evolve a fair and reasonable scheme to help people in special need, he would have been doing a service to the pensioners of Australia. As things stand, however, I believe the bill that he has brought down will do them a particular disservice and, as I say, will create further anomalies, a deepening sense of injustice among pensioners, and, of course, involve many of them in increased hardships.

The Minister went on to deal with another amendment which he described as very important, applying both to pensioners and those who receive unemployment and sickness benefits. This amendment provides that amounts received from organizations registered under the National. Health Act will in future not be included in the income of a pensioner for the purposes of the pensioner means test. That is the most nominal amendment that. could be made to any legislation. It is a good idea to make the provision, because in some cases a pensioner may be receiving a few shillings more in benefits from these organizations than the actual amount paid out for hospital or medical treatment. But the amount involved would be very small, and such cases would rarely occur. If the Minister had said that the amendment was. designed to correct a small anomaly,, fair enough; but the Minister's description of it as a further important amendment was again, I think, calculated to deceive the House and the Australian people.

I believe that a useful amendment is that which widens the provision for exemption of gifts and allowances to pensioners. From now on, pensioners will be able to receive gifts from brothers and sisters as well as from parents or children without those gifts being regarded as income. That is, I think, a useful provision. It will cost very little indeed, but it has a certain value.

The Minister referred to the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service. He said that it is perhaps the least known but unquestionably the most humane of our activities in the field of social services. He went on to claim a lot of credit for the rehabilitation service, but what he forgot or omitted to mention was that this service was established, not by his Government, but by the Curtin Labour Government, away back in 1941, that it was extended to its present form by the Chifley Government in 1948, and that all that this Government can claim is that it has made further minor improvements which have been found desirable in the light of experience since those days. This bill proposes to abolish the thirteen weeks' waiting period which, up till now, has been necessary prior to acceptance for rehabilitation. That is a useful provision, and I commend the Minister on having made it.

Mr Falkinder - The honorable member is praising the Government!

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - No. I wish that this Government were entitled to more credit. No one would be better pleased than I should be if it really would do justice to the recipients of social service benefits*. Where I can encourage the Government, I shall do so. But where I feel that it is deserving of admonition, I hope that I will be unsparing of it, in the interests both of itself and of the community which it is supposed to serve.

The Minister made a great point of the fact that the powers of the Commonwealth had been expanded by the constitutional referendum which finally gave the Commonwealth complete power in relation to social services. As a result, he said, it was possible to liberalize the means test both on income and property and to extend benefits in regard to various other things. I remind the House that the Minister is the man who fought up and down this country to persuade the people not to give this power to the Commonwealth. In fact, the Country party as a whole did so.

Mr Roberton - This is all rubbish. I was in the Army when the referendum was held.

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Will the Minister tell me that he was in favour of the referendum and did not both speak and write against it?

Mr Roberton - I never spoke and I never wrote against it.

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - May I say, in fairness to the Minister, that I trust he was loyal to his colleagues in the Country party who solidly and unanimously endeavoured to persuade the Australian people to vote against it.

Mr Roberton - I had other loyalties at that time. I was in the Army.

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I am reminded that the referendum occurred in 1946. The war, I understand, was over a little before that.

Mr Roberton - I was still in the Army.

Mr Stewart - It must have been the Salvation Army.

Mr ALLAN FRASER (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I will leave the Minister to work that one out. Maybe his memory is at fault. I think I can be confident that from the moment the Army released him he endeavoured to prevent the development of the welfare state, to prevent the improvement of social services, and to prevent the increase of the constitutional power of the Commonwealth. Perhaps that would be a fair statement of the situation.

The Minister went on to make another claim which is entirely false. He said -

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 . . .

Despite the fact that the Minister was in the Army he ought to know, as the occupant of the Social Services portfolio, that that point was reached long before the Government took office. When the basic wage was £5 16s. a week, a pensioner couple was entitled to £2 2s. 6d. each in pension, and £1 10s. a week each in permissible income, a total of £7 5s. a week. The error into which the Minister has fallen is due to the fact that during the early years of this Government it allowed inflation to take so much value out of both the pension and the permissible income that the point was reached at which the permissible income plus the pension was far below the basic wage. Of course, it had been well above the basic wage long before this Government took office, as a result of the adjustments both to the pension rate and the permissible income made by the Labour government of the day.

I have contented myself, to-night, with criticizing the speech of the Minister and showing the errors of fact contained in it. I have not indicated, and I have no intention of indicating, the alternative proposals of the Labour party with regard to social services. There is a very good reason for that. In an ordinary year, it would be proper to move amendments to this bill and to seek from the Government a proper provision for social service recipients. But very fortunately this country is on the eve of a general election. Very fortunately, every member of the Parliament will soon have to account to the electors for his deeds and misdeeds.

The full policy of the Australian Labour party in relation to social services will be presented to the people of Australia by the Leader of the Opposition (Dr. Evatt) in the policy speech that he will deliver in the Assembly Hall, Sydney, on Wednesday, 15th October - in approximately four weeks time. The speech to be delivered by the Leader of the Opposition will be a convincing demonstration to the people of Australia that the Labour party, on its return to office, will resume the policy of progress in social services which animated it during all the years of the Curtin and the Chifley governments. The policy of the Labour party has always been to provide a basic rate of pension, just to the people who receive it and within the competence of the Australian community to provide and, at the same time, to take progressive measures towards the amelioration and abolition of the pension means test.

One thing the Labour party has proclaimed over and over again is that it will adjust the rates of social services which this Government has failed to adjust. In particular, it will do justice to the mothers and families of this community who have been completely deprived of any adjustment of child endowment rates during the whole nine years of this Government's term of office. Furthermore, the social service policy which the Leader of the Labour party will announce will give justice to every section of the Australian community.

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