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Tuesday, 23 September 1958

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Timson (HIGINBOTHAM, VICTORIA) - I do not uphold the point of order, because I see no objection to the expression used by the honorable member. I believe the honorable member is in order and he may continue.

Mr DALY - I was paying the right honorable member a compliment. I did not intend any discourtesy to him.

I was making the point that, twelve months prior to October, 1955, this Government had announced that 90,000 additional pensioners would come within the free medical service for pensioners. It made great play on that announcement. Then, in October, 1955, the B.M.A. announced that it would refuse to continue that scheme because there had been an increase in the rate of pension. The right honorable member for Cowper capitulated. He surrendered in the face of the association's demands that the aged, sick and infirm should have a means test imposed upon them, despite the promise that was given by this Government that that would never occur. The honorable member for Eden-Monaro (Mr. Allan Fraser) initiated a debate in the House on this subject as a matter of urgent public importance, to express the opposition by the Australian Labour party to the alteration to this scheme. We believed that the Government's action amounted to unjust interference with the free medical service. In his announcement concerning the imposition of a means test in connexion with the pensioner medical service, the Minister for Health of that day said -

Consequently, the British Medical Association informed the Government-

I ask honorable members to note that the right honorable gentleman said " informed the Government" - that it would continue the pensioner medical service after 31st October, 1955, only if the service was restricted to pensioners able to satisfy the means test in force on 31st December, 1953.

In other words, the association issued an ultimatum to the Government; and the Government, to its eternal discredit, abjectly surrendered to the pressure and threw to the winds the aged, sick and infirm with little or no income. A means test was imposed on them which has caused great hardship ever since. What was the result of the means test? A pensioner who was in receipt of free medical services on 31st October, 1955, did not have that service taken away from him. As the Minister said at the time, no pensioner lost anything. But a person who had applied for and obtained a pension on 1st November, 1955, and who had the same income as another person entitled to the pensioner medical service, was denied the right to the service! Two persons could be living side by side, and receiving the same income, and one who obtained a pension a day or a week later than the other would be excluded from the benefits under this scheme.

That is the situation throughout the electorates, and particularly the metropolitan electorates, where there are many pensioners. Citizens living side by side, of the same age, with the same income and suffering from the same ailments receive different treatment. One is denied medical benefits and the other receives them simply because he was fortunate enough to get the pension before 31st October, 1955. Since that date, much hardship has been imposed on those pensioners who missed out, all for the sake of a few miserable pounds that the Government is saving. This Government had £23,000,000 to spend on the St. Mary's filling factory. A fraction of that amount would have catered for the needs of all the pensioners who required medical benefits. I can see no justification for the Government's decision, and no good reason has been given by supporters of the Government why such an imposition should be made on a deserving section of the community.

As I have said, some pensioners are receiving the benefits and others in a similar situation, financially and otherwise, are denied them. This causes great hardship. Many pensioners are confused. Those who do not receive the benefit wonder why others are entitled to it. If it is a question of cost, I should like to know exactly what is the estimate of the cost. I do not think it would amount to much. The Government should have found some way of providing the money required to meet the pledge given in the Prime Minister's policy speech that free medicine would be available to the citizens irrespective of the rate of pension that they were being paid.

No reasonable excuse has been given in debates in this House over the years to explain why the change was made. Complaints have been lodged personally and by letter by honorable members, and the matter has been raised in this House, but we have not been given any justifiable reason why 90,000 pensioners were deprived almost overnight of free medical benefits. The fact is that the announcement was made, as it were, in the dead of night. The Government knocked 32 items out of the free medical list. That was done by regulation, and the regulations were not gazetted until after the general election because the Government feared that it would lose some votes.

The honorable member for Fawkner (Mr. Howson), with tears in his eyes, in effect, said, " We have looked after the most deserving section of the community - the aged and the needy." What has the Government done? It has placed on the pensioners a means test in connexion with the free medical service. It has imposed on them a test which is unfair, unjust and monstrous. It has removed 32 items from the pensioner medical scheme by regulation and denied to these people what it pledged itself to give them - free medicine without any means test whatever. I know that the Minister for Health (Dr. Donald Cameron) might be somewhat softer, more resilient or more tolerant than the Minister who preceded him in that portfolio, but the fact remains that he has done nothing to alleviate the distress that has been caused bv these provisions, and the Government has given no indication that any relief will be granted to the pensioners.

I shall not deal with this matter further, but I should like to say that while the bill might meet, in some respects, various needs related to health services, the pensioner medical scheme is something which should be reviewed. Any government which believes in social justice must give effect immediately to a policy which will restore to pensioners those benefits which were taken from them by the legislation that was introduced overnight by the right honorable member for Cowper. It is useless for the Government to say that it is doing good for the aged, the sick and others who are in need. That is beside the point. The purchasing power of pensions has been reduced. Only a section of the pensioners are receiving free medical benefits. They have never been worse off than they are under this tory administration. I direct attention also to the statements that were made by the Minister for Health in introducing the bill, to this effect -

The new benefits provided for by this bill will not be payable for accommodation provided at a benevolent home, convalescent home, home for aged persons, rest home or similar institution. The benefits provided under existing legislation are in most cases adequate to meet the cost of treatment provided at these homes. Existing benefits will, of course, be continued.

I disagree with that statement, because many people cannot get admittance to public hospitals and other places that are certified for the payment of benefits. In my own electorate great hardship is being caused to people who are unable to obtain hospital accommodation, although they need it, and are denied medical benefits from various funds. This is a matter at which the Government might well look. A number of rest homes should be looked at carefully, because they are exploiting very ill people and not giving them the attention they need.

Mr Wheeler - Do they not come under State jurisdiction?

Mr DALY - I do not confine myself to any particular State. I am a bit more broadminded than the honorable member who interjects. I see some faults in the Liberal party. The point I make is that the Minister might well give attention to this matter, because with hospital accommodation so short there is a need to widen the scope of payment of these benefits to people in rest homes which are of such a standard as to justify payments being made. When all is said and done, the only places available to many old people are rest homes, convalescent homes, and other institutions of that nature. If those places are expected to take the vast majority of the people who come within the scope of this legislation, undoubtedly some contribution should be made from funds such as this, otherwise injustice is being caused.

I make those few constructive suggestions on a measure which is dear to the hearts of all Australians. I hope that in this Parliament ultimately we will see that action is taken to co-ordinate all Federal and State schemes affecting health, including dental treatment, preventive medicine, and those other things which go to make society worth while and to provide good health for the people. Quite frankly, I believe that this matter is far above politics, and that is why I always leave politics out of it. The fact remains that the Federal Government of the day has the responsibility of co-ordinating these schemes. Whilst I can understand honorable members opposite wishing to support their Government, they should bear in mind that there are many anomalies and injustices, and they cannot close their eyes to them when considering the legislation we are discussing to-day. 1 sincerely trust that the Government will reconsider the question of pensioner medical services, also the aspect of benevolent homes, and other matters affecting the co-ordination of all those schemes which are so necessary for national health. I hope, too, that this Government, or any other government for that matter, will not be guided by the narrow-minded approach of the honorable member for Fawkner, and will not restrict the benefits to what it thinks reasonable for a balanced budget. If we can spend a lot of money on war and preparing for war, we can spend a lot more in order to prevent the old people in our community from becoming sick and infirm, and to ensure that our children and the people generally enjoy health services which are commensurate with a young country such as Australia. We lead the world in many things. There is a great opportunity to do it in health. I am not at all optimistic that it will be done under this Government, but I look optimistically to the day, after the general election, when we shall again have a government formed by a party that looks at things in the Australian way, understands the problems of this country, and has always placed health services in the forefront of its policy. Then we shall have a national health scheme which will give to this country something which is worthwhile and of benefit to the people, particularly those who are most in need of it.

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