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Wednesday, 1 June 1960

Mr COSTA (Banks) .- The bill before the House is to appropriate the millions of pounds necessary to meet the commitments of this Government until the next Budget session which will not take place until some time in August. That is a long time for some people to wait for an alleviation of their circumstances. In the speeches from Government supporters there has been no mention of putting some sort of value into pensions and other social service payments upon which a large number of people in the community depend. During this session I have listened to honorable members from both the Country Party and the Liberal Party presenting petitions to the House and appealing to the Government to do something for these people by increasing their pensions. I believe those honorable members are being hypocritical, because we on this side of the House have given them plenty of opportunity, if they were sincere, to vote for the very increases in regard to which they have presented such petitions. So. I can only say that apparently they are hypocritical. I would not dare to present a petition in this House unless I felt I could be 1 00 per cent, behind it.

I know that the Government has received representations far and wide from all the categories of people dependent upon social services to do something for them. I have had hundreds of letters from different organizations asking me to put their views to the Government. There would not be one section of the people who depend upon fixed incomes who have not petitioned me to bring their serious plight to the notice of the Government, and so I take this opportunity to do so again. It may sound monotonous to keep on repeating what we should do for these people, but it is said that the constant dripping of water will wear away a stone; so we might shift the Government in this regard at some time. The letter I am about to quote is typical of some of the letters and representations I have received. I will not read them all because it would take hours to do so. This is a letter from the Mortdale and District Inter-church Council, an organization which is interested in invalid, age and widows' pensions and the application of the means test. It reads -

It was resolved at the last meeting of the above Council to bring to your attention the fact that it is considered that Invalid, Old Age and Widows' Pensions are most inadequate, and to request that necessary action be taken by you to have same substantially increased, and the means test eased.

Most of these pensioners find themselves in dire need of even the bare necessities of life with little or no prospect of having some semblance of comfort without some assistance.

Trusting this matter receives your urgent and most favourable attention, and with every good wish,

Yours sincerely, Alma Peters, Secretary.

That is typical of representations that come to me, and of the petitions that are presented to this Parliament for attention by the Government. A great number of people are concerned with the petitions presented to us here. Recipients of age, invalid and widows' pensions and allowances number about 663,000. Repatriation pensioners number 637,502. Burnt-out diggers number 43,619. People who have no income, and whose circumstances are very bad, to whom the Government makes compassionate allowances, number 496. Recipients of special pensions for people in somewhat similar circumstances number 2,187. In all, 1,346,810 people depend on some sort of pension for their sustenance.

I believe that the inflationary policy of this Government has destroyed the arrangements that many of these people made for themselves earlier in their lives, and has also destroyed all hope for them. By investment in war loans or in property and other things, many people provided for their old age, but this Government's actions have destroyed all hope for a vast number of them. Pensions in all categories remain at the level at which they stood when the last Budget was introduced. In fact, the majority of pensions were not increased at the time of the last Budget, and since then, of course, many things have happened that have caused a very steep rise in the cost of living. For instance, there were the 28 per cent, increase in margins and the 15s. increase in the basic wage. All this has, of course, de-valued the pension rates.

These increases have certainly maintained to some degree the value of wages and salaries. At the time the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission awarded the increases it stated that the economy could absorb them without the necessity to increase prices. The commission said that productivity had increased by 14 per cent, since the previous increase of margins and that increase of productivity would enable the absorption of the 28 per cent, increase of margins. But industry, to the contrary, did not absorb the cost of either the margins increase or the basic wage increase. It simply added it to the prices that the consumers had to pay for commodities. So nearly 1,500,000 people who depend on pensions had their pensions decreased in value as a result. The people who fix the prices to be paid by consumers for commodities had no right to pass on to the consumers the cost of paying the increased margins and wages.

Recently, the Treasurer (Mr. Harold Holt) issued a White Paper on this subject. He talked of measures of restraint, and said -

The position reached at the beginning of 1960 was not critical but it held a threat of serious instability if certain trends were allowed to develop further.

He added -

The worst of these was the price and cost movement.

This situation should not have come about because the commission said that increased productivity could absorb the wage and margins increases. The Treasurer also said in the White Paper -

In assessing the position during February, the Government had to take these two aspects into account. If the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission were to grant an addition to the Federal Basic Wage, this would represent a third general wage increase, following two others of considerable magnitude, within twelve months. It wasbelieved that it would add further to demand and push prices and costs up still faster.

There we have the position. The Government allows the value of increases rightly awarded to wage and salary earners to be offset by increases in the prices of consumer goods. Then, because of the position that arises, the Government goes before the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and pretty well tells it that, irrespective of what the evidence may be, it does not want the commission to increase wages. This was absolute intimidation. On the one hand we have the Government blaming increases of wages for the position, and using intimidation on the commission to prevent wage increases, while on the other hand it takes no action about increases in prices.

Already, as I have pointed out, many organizations have approached the Treasurer in connexion with their needs. Deputations have come to Canberra on behalf of age and invalid pensioners and of exservicemen's organizations. Representatives of the organizations covering maimed and limbless ex-servicemen and civilian widows have also been here, as have representatives of the organizations for totally and partially blind people, totally and permanently incapacitated pensioners, and other people who rely on fixed incomes. Another group has been making representations to the Government about the means test.

I should like to examine some aspects of social service payments that are causing hardship, and which I think the Government should adjust immediately. Some of my colleagues have spoken of these matters. Some of them mentioned the property means test. We have had instances of pensioner couples and single pensioners partititioning off portions of their homes for letting, so as to augment their small pensions. As soon as the Department of Social Services finds out about this it immediately decreases the rate of pension payable. I believe that that is quite wrong, because under the Social Services Act it is permissible for a pensioner couple to have an income, apart from pension, of £7 a week. If an old couple can re-arrange their home to earn some money for themselves, they should be allowed to earn money in that way up to £7 a week, without affecting their pensions. The Government could easily adjust this anomaly and alleviate the distress of many pensioners who are trying to help themselves in an honest way.

Another anomaly that should be corrected concerns the supplementary rent allowance. I believe that an age or invalid pensioner living alone and paying off a -home should receive the benefit of the supplementary rent allowance. The paying of instalments to buy a home or liquidate a mortgage should be regarded as 'being in the same category as payment of rent. The law provides that a single pensioner living alone and paying rent is eligible for the supplementary rent allowance. The Labour Party held that this allowance should be paid to all pensioners, but the Government would not accept an amendment to that effect. I know of a widow who is paying £2 15s. a week on a mortgage that was contracted by her husband. When he died, all she had was the pension of £4 15s. a week, but if she is to retain the house she must pay the £2 15s. a week on the mortgage. In addition, she is responsible for rates and insurance on the home. She pays water and municipal rates of £1 a week and insurance at the rate of 5s. a week. Her payments on the home total £4 a week, and this leaves her with 15s. a week out of her pension. I ask the Minister for Social Services (Mr. Roberton) to amend the act so that people in a similar position to this lady will be able to receive the supplementary allowance of 10s. a week.

I wish to speak also about the pensioner medical service. This has been mentioned before, but if we keep repeating it, the Government may take some notice. I asked the Minister for Health (Dr. Donald Cameron) several questions about this matter, but he did not seem to be familiar with the provisions of his own legislation. There are certain anomalies in the scheme and they are hurting people. I wish to refer to hospital attention for aged and invalid pensioners, the chronically ill and certain others who are not pensioners. When people apply for a pension, they are told in all good faith by officers of the Department of Social Services that they need not contribute further to a hospital benefits fund because, as pensioners, they would be entitled to free attention in a public ward of a hospital. If they can obtain admission to a public ward, they would receive this attention. However, these pensioners stay at a hospital for a while and are then advised that, as they are chronically ill, the hospital can do no more for them and they are asked to find other accommodation.

The only other accommodation that they can get, in view of their need of nursing, is in an institution such as a convalescent home. However, on admission to such an institution, they are told that the charge will be £12 or £13 a week. If they are contributing to a hospital benefits fund on a scale providing for admission to an intermediate ward, they would receive the Commonwealth benefit of £1 a day or £7 a week. They have been advised by the Department of Social Services not to join such a fund because they are entitled to free hospital attention, but they then find that they must join a hospital benefits fund and wait the required two months to qualify before they receive the Commonwealth benefit of £1 a day. In my view, the Commonwealth benefit should be paid at all times to these pensioners, whether they are members of a hospital benefits fund or not. Surely a health or hospital scheme that is worthy of the name should cater for the aged and the chronically ill. After all, they are the people who need such a scheme.

Another matter I wish to bring to the notice of the Government concerns the means test that is applied in the pensioner medical service. Before 1955, all pensioners, irrespective of their means, received free hospital and medical benefits.

Mr Cope - The right honorable member for Cowper, who has just spoken, changed that.

Mr COSTA - Yes, the right honorable member for Cowper (Sir Earle Page) was the Minister for Health at the time. He introduced a means test and, since 1955. any pensioner with an income in excess of £2 a week has been denied free hospital and medical attention. A single pensioner who earns £2 Os. 3d. a week is deprived of these benefits, but his income of £2 Os. 3d. with the pension of £4 15s. totals only £6 15s. 3d. a week.

Mr Cope - This applies only to about 12 per cent, of pensioners.

Mr COSTA - That is true. This means test should be removed, and all pensioners receiving up to the permissible income should be allowed hospital and medical benefits without being required to pay into a benefits fund.

Another matter I wish to mention - this [has been brought to the notice of the Government on many occasions - concerns the wife of an invalid pensioner. Her allowance has stood for many years at the present rate. I do not know why the Government has fixed this figure, but it applies also to the wife of a repatriation pensioner. The amount is 35s. a week. If a worker in industry becomes an invalid, he is entitled to an invalid pension of £4 15s. a week and his wife receives only £1 15s. a week, making a total of 6 10s. a week. The husband is sick and the wife must stay at home to nurse him. She cannot go to work and receives only 35s. a week. I believe that these wives should be treated as pensioners and should receive the full pension of £4 1 5s. a week. The Government should give attention to this matter when it is considering the next Budget.

Then we have the civilian widows. They recently made representations to the Government. Their pension is still very much below an adequate rate, because of the existing inflationary trend. The class A widow, with three dependent children, receives £5 a week, with 10s. a week for each child. How could a widow in these times exist on such a small income? The class B widow receives £4 2s. 6d. If she is unable to go to work, she must do her best to exist on that very small amount. Then we have the wives who have been deserted by their husbands or whose husbands have been sent to prison. They also receive £4 2s. 6d. These rates should be revised and brought more into line with the present cost of living. The unemployment and sickness benefits still stand at £3 5s. a week. If there is a wife, she receives £2 7s. 6d. a week, and a further amount of 10s. a week is paid for a child. A husband, wife and one child are epected to live on £6 2s. 6d. a week. But it is almost impossible in these times to rent a house for less than £4 a week.

I refer now to child endowment. Recently members of the Australian Country Party presented petitions praying that the Government increase child endowment. The rate has not been increased since the Australian Labour Party last increased it, before this Government came to office. Certainly, this Government granted 5s. a week for the first child in 1950, but nothing has been done since then. We believe that the amount should be increased in keeping with the policy of the Australian Labour Party. If we look at these matters objectively, we find that a means test applies to every social service benefit except child endowment and the maternity allowance. I mention also that maternity allowance is another social service benefit that has stood at its present level for many years. In the war days when the Australian Labour Party was in office it increased the maternity allowance to its present level of £15 for the first child, £16 for the second, and £17 10s. for the third or subsequent children. The purchasing power of those amounts is very much below what it was when they were fixed by the Labour government for the benefit of the mothers of families.

Last but not least, we come to the funeral allowance, which has stood since 1943 at £10. This is all that the present Government will pay towards the cost of a funeral for a pensioner. I believe that this benefit should be increased four-fold at least in order to bring it to anything like the cost of a funeral at the present time.

With respect to social services generally, it is interesting to turn to what was said by the present Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) in his policy speech for the general election of 1949, while he was still in opposition and shortly before he became Prime Minister. Many representations have been made in this House from time to time for the removal or easing of the means test. Speaking of the means test in his policy speech of 1949, the present Prime Minister said -

Australia still needs a contributory system of national insurance against sickness, widowhood, unemployment, and old age. It is only under such a system that we can make all benefits a matter of right, and so get completely rid of the means test.

During the new Parliament we will further investigate this complicated problem, with a view to presenting to you at the election of 1952 a scheme for your approval. Meanwhile, existing rates of pension will, of course, be at least maintained. We will, much more importantly, increase their true value by increasing their purchasing power.

That is another promise that has never been honoured. The means test has been neither eased nor eliminated. No move has been made to honour the promise to put value into pensions - a promise that was made by the present Prime Minister in his policy speech. The purchasing power of the various social service benefits is less to-day than it was then.

I turn now to repatriation benefits. I know that the bodies which represent exservicemen have sent representatives to Canberra to make representations to the Government on this matter. I myself have received deputations from those organizations. The rates of repatriation pensions to-day are very much lower than they should be, and the ex-servicemen's organizations are making modest approaches to the Government seeking increases. I hope that the Government will give proper attention to these pensions in framing the Budget and that increases will be provided for. The Prime Minister was very vocal on this subject, also, in 1949. He said -

Repatriation remains a great and proud responsibility.

He said that the present Government parties contained a majority of members and an overwhelming majority of new candidates who were ex-servicemen, and he added -

We shall see to it that there is speed, financial and human justice and understanding in our administration of soldier problems.

Despite that promise made by the Prime Minister, repatriation pensions have lost their value. Their purchasing power has decreased considerably.

The crux of the whole problem is everrising prices and costs. The Prime Minister was very vocal on this matter, also, in 1949. He said he believed that the problem of prices was serious, and that his greatest charge against the financial and economic policy of the Labour Party at that time was that, although it had paid a good deal of attention to increasing the volume and circulation of money, it had largely neglected the problem of what and how much that money would buy. One can see how absurd is such a statement coming from the leader of the present Government. He said, in 1949, that he believed that a production policy which he had discussed earlier in his speech was of the essence in prices control. We know that that is completely wrong, because whatever policy this Government has been pursuing in relation to inflation has been a complete failure. We know that under the Labour Government prices control was imposed under the National Security Regulations, and that the cost of living was lower in Australia than in any other country. In 1948, the Labour Party tried to get authority for permanent prices control by the Commonwealth, but the present Prime Minister led his followers out on the hustings and advised the people to vote against Labour's proposal because he had a production policy that would meet the situation and there was therefore no need to control prices.

Mr Cope - He said that healthy competition would keep prices stable.

Mr COSTA - Yes, but we find that with respect to airlines, where there is healthy competition, this Government tries to destroy it. The Government is doing all that it possibly can to cripple TransAustralia Airlines - the national airline - which is the only competitor of the big private airline. So, this Government does not believe even in its own policy of free competition.

I take this opportunity, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to appeal to the Government to have a look at the social service benefits that I have mentioned this evening and to put value back into them as it has been promising for some time to do.

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