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Thursday, 18 September 1958

Mr WEBB (Stirling) .- lt appears to me that the general theme of the two supporters of the Government who have already spoken on this bill is that the social service benefits since this Government was elected to office have been of greater value than those provided under the Chifley Labour Government. That is untrue, and those who make such a statement know that it is untrue, as I shall prove. The fact is that every recipient of social service benefits since this Government has been in office has been short-changed. Increases to which the Minister for Health (Dr. Donald Cameron) referred have not kept pace with inflation. The fact is that the people have been and are still paying more for the shrunken benefits they actually receive. Taxpayers are passing into higher income tax groups, and although they pay more in taxes for the benefits they receive, they get less in their pay packet and actually lose in social service benefits.

I shall deal with a few of the Minister's statements as I proceed. There is only one way to compare the basis of social service benefits with those that were provided in 1948-49 under a Labour government. The Minister for Health said that age pensioners to-day received 9s. lid. a week more than they received in 1948-49. Even supporters of the Government will admit that pensioners to-day are entitled to enjoy the increased prosperity that this Government has been talking about over the years. There is only one way to make a comparison. Let us consider the basic wage of 1948. under a Labour government, when social service benefits reached their peak. The basic wage then was £5 10s. a week. If the basic wage had not been pegged by mis Government, it should now be £13 9s. or 131 per cent, higher. On that basis the age pensioner who was receiving £2 2s. 6d. a week in 1948 and is now receiving £4 7s. 6d. should be getting a pension of at least £4 18s. to correspond with the level of the basic wage as it should be now. The age pensioner, therefore, is actually losing 10s. 6d. and not gaining 9s. lid. as the Minister has claimed.

That applies also to the widows. A class A widow pensioner was getting £2 7s. 6d. in 1948, and is getting £4 12s. 6d. to-day. On the difference in the basic wage, she should be getting £5 10s. The class B widow was receiving £1 17s. 6d. in 1948, and is now receiving £3 15s., but should be paid £4 6s. So, the class A widows are losing 17s. 6d. a week and the class B widow is losing lis. a week. That applies also to all other social service benefits. They are all losing because this Government is in office and values have declined.

The Minister did not mention the maternity allowance which reached its peak in 1948 under a Labour government and has not been increased since. The maternity allowance should be doubled at least to give a value equivalent to the benefit that the expectant mother received in 1948-49.

A comparison of child endowment payments is interesting, and it is very important to-day because the burden of the family is becoming increasingly heavy. The parents of two children received 10s. in child endowment in 1948. To-day, they receive 15s. a week under this Government, but on the basis of the basic wage, they should be receiving £1 3s. and so are losing 8s. a week or more than £20 a year. A family of three children was receiving £1 in child endowment in 1948 and is now receiving £1 5s., but to retain 1948 values, the parents should be receiving £2 6s. So they are losing £1 ls. a week, or £54 a year. The parents of four children received £1 10s. in 1948 compared with £1 15s. to-day; but as they should be getting £3 9s. they are losing £88 a year. Child endowment for a family of five children in 1948 was £2 a week and is now £2 5s., but it should be £4 lis.; so that family is losing £2 6s. a week or £119 a year.

Is it any wonder that families are suffering because this Government is in office?

The bigger the family the greater its loss as a result of this Government's administration. In addition, the families are paying more in taxation while missing out on benefits. The taxpayer on the basic wage with a family of two children paid 16s. a year in taxation in 1948. To-day, the same taxpayer pays £14 12s. a year. That is how this Government is helping the family group. I direct attention to that situation because it is important that the people should realize these things. It emphasizes the big lie that was told in 1949 when the present Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) went to the people and said -

The value of social services will be at least maintained. Indeed, they will be increased. Pensioners can rely upon us for justice.

That was part of the right honorable gentleman's policy speech in 1949. If the policy speech had made it clear that the reference was to the Liberal and Australian Country parties and their friends, and that the people could rely upon "just us ", meaning themselves, that would have been a truthful statement; but it is clear that the pensioners did not get justice and neither did any other recipients of social service benefits. Actually, the people are paying twice for social service benefits, and I refer to the unemployed, widows and families. If the lid had been kept on prices, the money paid by the people for social security would buy just as much to-day as it would when it was paid out. When they were contributing to the National Welfare Fund in 19418-49, the people believed that they would receive something near the value of the money they were paying to the fund. Since this Government has been in office, the people have merely been sending good money after bad. They paid away good money by way of taxes and what they receive back by way of social service benefits has lost its value.

During the debate on the Budget, 1 emphasized the serious plight of the pensioners, and I want to express my disgust at the attitude of this Government which has disregarded the dozens of petitions that have been presented to this Parliament seeking increases in pensions for the general pensioner. For two years running, these petitions have been before this Parliament and for all practical purposes, they have been ignored to the everlasting shame of this Government. We must keep in mind that scientists and medical practitioners have improved health standards to such an extent that people are living longer than the average age 60 years ago. Since 1900, the number of persons over the age of 65 years has been steadily increasing. Larger numbers are living today in their nineties. That is evident from birthday greetings that are broadcast. That is very good. We want to see our people living longer, but we should be more concerned about the conditions under which they are living. A great number of them are suffering poverty and living in dire straits, which is a reflection on our society. It is suggested that a country's standard of civilization is assessed upon the way it treats its aged people. If that is the case, Australia has not a very high standard. Science is enabling people to live longer, but the policy of this Government is being directed towards making their extended lives on this earth a misery to them. Whenever one goes to meetings of aged people, they ask whether it is a crime to grow old. Every week, they find that their meagre pensions are buying less and less. Food prices have risen since the present rate of £4 7s. 6d. was determined, and no increase is to be made this year. This simply means that the pensioner has a continual worry in his effort to make ends meet.

The rent allowance, so-called, about which we have heard so much, is not a very important matter to the pensioner. It will apply to single pensioners paying rent and to married couples, one of whom is a pensioner. It might be of value if rents were pegged. The pensioners would then get some benefit. But it is quite apparent that, where rents are not pegged, the landlord will simply put up the rent, and he, rather than the pensioner who may be one of the few qualifying for the allowance, will get the benefit of the allowance of 10s. a week.

A pensioner who has a wife aged under 60 years, receiving a wife's allowance of £1 15s. a week, cannot receive a rent allowance. This seems to me to be pretty hard on a pensioner who may in his early years have married a woman some years younger than himself. It simply means that, as a wife, all she will receive will be £1 15s., if he is an invalid or has reached an age where he cannot work. Because she is receiving £1 15s. a week, no rent allowance is payable, even though the couple may be paying £2 10s. or £3 10s. a week in rent. Surely a government that was humane in its viewpoint on pensioners would at least extend the rent allowance to people in that category. I emphasize again that this rent allowance will merely assist the landlords, which, of course, is the intention of this Government.

Another illustration of the three-card trick that has been played by this Government is the lifting of the property limitation by £500 to £2,250. The Minister, when telling us about that, did not say that the amount of pension that would be paid to a person who had property valued at £2,250 would be only about 8s. 6d. a week, so this provision is really of no benefit to existing pensioners. It brings a few more within the very small range of those who benefit.

Another point that is worthy of emphasis during this debate is the loss of value of the funeral benefit, to which this Government has not given any thought since it has been in office. Both the Minister for Social Services and the Minister for Health have said that the standard of social services has been maintained. What about the funeral benefit for age pensioners, which was introduced by Labour in 1943, when the basic wage was £4 16s.? The benefit was then £10. The unpegged basic wage now should be £13 9s. On that basis, a pensioner should receive from this Government a funeral benefit of £26 or more. To-day, a funeral costs well over £30. The cheapest funeral that one could get might cost £30 or £35. If the Government thinks that an age pensioner should be buried in a pauper's grave, the Government's attitude to the funeral benefit is understandable. But if the Government had humane feelings towards pensioners it would increase the funeral benefit to somewhere near the value it had when it was first introduced.

The Western Australian Pensioners League has a funeral fund that pays £11 towards the cost of a funeral. This and the £10 provided by the Government together amount to £21. The balance of the cost of the funeral has to be met from the pensioner's savings for the purpose, by relatives, or in some other way, otherwise the pensioner's burial is not up to the recognized standard. These are matters which we should consider at the present time, because many people are not in a position to belong to organizations providing funds of this nature for funeral purposes. For instance, in the country districts of Western Australia a funeral costs about £60. Surely it is not expected that any pensioner would be able to afford so much for a funeral. The funeral benefit of £10 is not enough.

The wife's allowance is another very important matter to which this Government should have given some attention. This point should be emphasized in relation to the statement of the Minister for Health that the standard of these benefits has been maintained. In 1952, when the pension was £3, the wife's allowance was £1 10s. To-day the wife allowance is £1 15s., but it should be at least £2 8s. in order to retain the same relativity to the pension as it had in 1952. This Government has done nothing about it. My personal view is that the wife of any age pensioner should receive the equivalent of the age pension. She may have to look after an invalid husband. She is not entitled to the wife's allowance unless her husband is an invalid or is very old. A wife who has been married for possibly 25 or 30 years cannot hope to qualify on the labour market again when she is aged about 58 or 59, and I think that the Government is very harsh when it does nothing for that small number of wives who may have to live on an income comprised of the husband's pension of £4 7s. 6d. and the wife's allowance of £1 15s. a week. Even though they may be paying rent, they cannot receive the rent allowance.

The Minister for Health mentioned one or two matters on which I should like to comment. He said that health services are much more beneficial now than they were when the Chifley Labour Government was in office, but I would have the Minister remember that under the Chifley Labour Government there was free hospitalization.

Dr DONALD CAMERON (OXLEY, QUEENSLAND) - Paid for by the taxpayer.

Mr WEBB - It was paid for by this Government in subsidy to the State governments, on the understanding that they would provide free hospitalization. That was the position then. Now, in order that a person may obtain free hospitalization, he has to have sufficient money to be able to subscribe to a friendly society or a hospital benefit fund, so as to insure himself for a payment of 16s. a day, and qualify for the full Commonwealth benefit of £1 a day. No person can receive the full benefit of £1 a day unless he is insured with a benefit society and so entitled to receive 16s. a day. That means that the total benefit he can get, if he can afford the contributions, is £1 16s. a day, but the cost of a bed in the public ward of a public hospital is £2 8s. a day, so the patient has to find the additional 12s. either from his own pocket or by increasing his insurance payments to cover that amount. The Minister for Health has the audacity to stand up and say that people are better off under the health services at the present time. Let us not forget that the medical entitlement card of pensioners was cut out by this Government in 1955. Before that date, any pensioner could get a medical entitlement card, but after October, 1955, the pensioner who was receiving an income of more than £2 a week could not get it. That has been due to action taken by this Government which claims to have done so much for the pensioner.

Mr Curtin - It was instructed to do that by the British Medical Association.

Mr WEBB - Exactly. The British Medical Association told the Government it had to do that, and it is one of the things for which this Government stands condemned. It is a clear indication that so far as health services are concerned, the Government is run by the British Medical Association.

This Government stands condemned not only for reducing the standard of health services but also for allowing the value of social service benefits to drop. It stands condemned for its inhuman treatment of pensioners, and I feel certain that when the pensioners of Australia and the recipients of social services benefits get the opportunity, on 22nd November, to express their opinion of the Government and the way it has treated them, they will give it the answer it deserves. They will kick it out of office.

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