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Thursday, 21 March 1968

Mr COPE (.Watson) - Mr Deputy Speaker,first I should like to join other honourable members from both sides of the House who have preceded me in this debate in expressing my deep regret at the death of the former Prime Minister, Mr Harold Holt, in such tragic and unprecedented circumstances. Although I disagreed with his politics, that did not prevent me from liking his personality and character, which were exemplified by his friendly attitude to all members irrespective of their party affiliation. I extend my sincere sympathy to Mrs Holt and to her family.

Prior to commenting on the Government's policy as enunciated by the Governor-General in his Speech last week - or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that I shall comment on what was omitted from the Speech - I wish to refer to the debate on the alleged water torture incident in Vietnam, which took place in this House last Thursday evening. As honourable members are aware, only a limited number of speakers were allowed during that debate. As a consequence, I can contribute to the discussion on that subject only by making passing reference to it now. I submit that the proposition put to the House per medium of the amendment to the -motion that the House take note of the paper which was moved by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam) and which was rejected by the Government, was a sound and reasonable one. That amendment called for a full and open court of inquiry presided over by a judge appointed by the Government. It had the support of several newspapers which no one could deem to be pro-Labor.

When this matter was first brought to light, similar Press statements were issued by the Prime Minister (Mr Gorton) and the Minister for the Army (Mr Lynch) suggesting that an inquiry would be held. However, last Thursday evening, the Government's attitude completely somersaulted and it refused to appoint an inquiry. This has confused a great number of people who well may ask: What is the reason behind it all? It is crystal clear that the Prime Minister, in his speech last Thursday evening, set out to mitigate the seriousness of the incident. It was noticeable that no Government speaker endeavoured to give an answer on one paramount point, although this unfortunate incident occurred in October 1966. The Government, so we are informed, was completely unaware of the incident until it was revealed recently by a journalist of the Melbourne 'Herald*. This immediately prompts the thought: Have similar methods of obtaining information been used prior to or since October 1966?

I fully appreciate the fact that the safety and well being of Australian troops in any theatre of war are of the utmost importance and concern to us all. I believe that all possible means should be used to extract vital information from captured enemy prisoners, provided that the means used do not breach the Geneva Convention. However, we must be mindful of the fact that the Australian Parliament unanimously accepted the terms of the Convention and that while the ratifying statute remains on the statute book it must be obeyed to the letter. The alternative is anarchy. The Prime Minister emphasised that the captured Vietnamese woman was an agent. I do not question that for one moment, but under the terms of the Geneva Convention an agent is a prisoner and must be treated as such. The crime is punishable by death, but only if the person is found guilty by a just and democratic trial. The Australian people were horrified by the treatment, cruelty and privation suffered by Australian and allied prisoners during World War II. This was the type of barbarism which prompted the Geneva Convention. An endeavour was made to prevent it happening in the future.

It is not my intention to refer extensively tj the war in Vietnam. But I shall deal with what 1 believe was a major cause ot the war. I refer to the failure of various regimes in South Vietnam to implement a policy of land reform. Let us examine the position where land reform was implemented in other countries. During the early post war period following World War II General MacArthur commenced the democratisation of Japan. One of his most important initial steps was the introduction of land reform. This step was taken as a buffer against the possibility of Communism taking over in that country. The average size of a farm which was allotted to each family was 2i acres.

In June 1965 I was one of the delegation of seven parliamentarians which was lead by the present Minister for Air (Mr Freeth) and which visited several South East Asian countries, including Taiwan where land reform was introduced in 1954. Prior to its introduction the absentee landlord received up to 60% of the value of farm production. Now the maximum amount payable is 36% which, in my opinion, is still a little high. However, it is much better than hitherto. The delegation was shown the primary production graphs before and after land reform, which revealed skyrocketing production figures. The benefits have been twofold. Over 80% of primary producers now own their own properties and Taiwan has a favourable trade balance. It does not receive financial aid from the United States of America or from other countries. This proves beyond all doubt that people who are subjected to exploitation and abject poverty will, if given the opportunity and incentive, improve their own living standards and at the same time contribute to vastly improved national economies in their countries.

Honorable members who were in this Parliament prior to the 1966 election will recall the speech made by the President of the United States of America, Lyndon Johnson, at the luncheon tendered to him by the Government. The President reminded us that hundreds of millions of people in this world are existing on less than $1 per week. That simply means they are starving. Is it any wonder there are so many trouble spots in the world today when such privation exists? I believe that many of the underprivileged people living in abject poverty in underdeveloped countries are not concerned greatly with Communism, Fascism or democracy. They will certainly support any sort of Government which will provide them with a reasonable standard of living. I ask honorable members to put themselves in the position of these people who have not enough food for their wives and families and have very little hope for the future. What would honorable members do? I venture to say they would do exactly as those people are doing. They would be striving for something better, and as I mentioned earlier, one of the initial steps in bringing this to fruition is land reform.

Now I shall refer to social service and repatriation benefits. It is interesting to note that the Government's policy contained in the Governor-General's Speech approximated 3,400 words, yet only 73 words were devoted to these benefits. The relevant section of the Speech reads as follows:

My Government will review the field of social welfare with the object of assisting those in most need while at the same time not discouraging thrift, self-help and self-reliance.

To this end my Government will set up a Standing Cabinet Committee including the Ministers for Health, Social Services, Repatriation and Housing, and that Committee will direct its attention to co-ordinating the approaches jnd proposals of the various Departments concerned with social welfare.

Those words, when closely analysed, mean that there will be few, if any, benefits given to the pensioner. Let us examine what the Prime Minister said a few days prior to the Liberal Party ballot for the Prime Ministership. He made a few points, one of which was as follows:

If I was able to frame the nation's future policies I would aim at a society which would remove burdens and fear from the shoulders of those in dire need.

I believe that this is a praiseworthy aim. The Prime Minister in this present session has an excellent and unfettered opportunity to bring this aim to fruition by introducing a supplementary budget which would increase age, invalid and other social service benefits and repatriation pensions. These benefits have not been adjusted since August 1966, despite the fact that the consumer price index has disclosed steep increases in the cost of living over the past 18 months. The pensioner is forced to absorb price increases in a totally inadequate pension.

According to the Treasurer (Mr McMahon), the Australian economy has never been sounder than it is at the present time. If that statement is correct, let us do something now for the pensioners instead of waiting for the next session when the Budget will be introduced. There is every likelihood of further price increases between now and the introduction of the Budget. So I repeat, let us do something now. If the price increase of 5% for the financial year ended 30th June 1967 and the price increase for the first half of this financial year are taken into account, the age and invalid pension for a single person should be increased by $1 to $14 per week, and for a married couple by $1.50 to $25 per week. I believe that all social service and repatriation benefits should be adjusted in the Budget each year to meet any increased cost of living.

I now refer to unemployment and sickness benefits. The weekly rates of benefits are $8.25 for a single person, S.14.25 for a man and wife, $15.75 for a man, wife and one child, $17.25 for a man, wife and two children and an additional $ 1 .50 for each other child. Those rates have not been adjusted since 15th August 1961 - over 6± years ago - despite a skyrocketing cost of living over that period. The Department of Labour and National Service recognises the fact that several thousand people receive unemploymen or sickness benefits almost on a permanent basis. This stems from the fact that many people are chronically ill and physically incapable of doing anything except light work, of which very little is available on a constant basis. These people do not qualify for an invalid pension because they are deemed to be not 85% permanently incapacitated.

Most honourable members know of the difficulty in finding any type of employment which confronts an unskilled person, particularly one between the age of 50 and 65 years, who has a chronic ailment or is in poor physical condition. If the person is single he -or she receives the parsimonious sum of $8.25 per week. Now let me take the case of a man, with a dependent wife and two children, who is receiving unemployment or sickness benefit. He would receive $17.25 per week, plus $1.50 per week endowment, making a grand total of $18.75 per week. Does any honourable member deem these rates of benefit to be adequate to tide a family over the unemployment or sickness of the breadwinner?

It is true that some people may have money in a bank account to keep them going for a while, but conversely, many families in the lower income brackets are paying off a home or paying exorbitant rent and they would get heavily into debt after a period if the breadwinner was receiving unemployment or sickness benefit. As a consequence the debt takes many long months to pay off, and it can be paid off only by their depriving themselves and their children of every day necessities of life.

I now refer to class B widow pensions which are paid to more than 38,000 women. T wish to point out one of the Government's many inconsistencies in retaining the present pension rate of $1 1.75 a week. First, we are told that single age and invalid pensioners are in more needy circumstances than are married pensioner couples, and the single age or invalid pensioner is paid $13 a week compared to $11.75 each for a married couple. This is a differential of $1.25 a week. Yet the Government pays a class B widow a pension that is equivalent only to that payable to each of a married pensioner couple. In my view this does not make sense. Class B widows have to pay rentals and living costs similar to those paid by a single age or invalid pensioner. Labor's social services policy is designed to eliminate these anomalies and inequities by creating a standard base rate for all social service beneficiaries. It is important al all times in dealing with pensions to remember that the recipients pay the same prices over the counter for essential foodstuffs, clothing, shoes, etc., as does anybody else in the community. It is interesting to note that often in speeches made by Ministers it is said that wc are living in an affluent society. It would be ridiculous to assert that the vast majority of pensioners are enjoying the standards of living envisaged in those descriptions, because many among the 80% of pensioners whose sole income is the pension are experiencing a much inferior standard of living. I am extremely doubtful whether any members on the Government side have ever had to exist on unemployment or sickness benefit. So few, if any, would ever know what it" is to live in poverty or straitened circumstances. 1 believe that experience is the best teacher in matters of this kind.

I shall refer next to the means test applicable to permissible income of age and invalid pensioners. In 1954 the Menzies Government fixed the following rates: For the single age pensioner, who received $7 a week, the permissible income was S7 a week, which was the equivalent of 100% of the pension. For married pensioner couples with a combined pension of $14 a week, the permissible income was $14 a week, which also was the equivalent of 100% of the combined rate. In 1967 this section of the means test was again adjusted. The rates fixed were: Single age pension, $13 a week, and permissible income $10 a week, which was the equivalent of 77% of the pension; married pensioner couple, combined rate $23.50 a week, and permissible income $17 a week, which was the equivalent of 72.3% of the combined pension. These facts reveal the Government's tardiness in waiting 13 long years before amending this section of the means test. Despite the publicity given to the new Minister for Social Services (Mr Wentworth) in expounding his theories regarding the abolition of the means test when he occupied a seat on the backbench - the previous Minister for Social Services also advocated the abolition of the means test when he was a backbencher - we find that instead of the permissible income means test improving it has deteriorated steeply in value over the years. The permissible income for a single pensioner, as a proportion of the pension, has deteriorated by 23%, from 100% to 77%. The permissible income of a married couple has deteriorated by 27.7%, from 100% to 72.3%. If the pension rate was non-discriminatory against married pensioner couples, as it was in 1954, the decline would be 34.6% .

In conclusion, I refer to repatriation pensions. One can only be appalled and amazed at the callousness exemplified by this Government in its attitude to returned servicemen's repatriation pensions. I have received from the Mascot Sub-Branch of the Returned Services League of Australia, with an attached letter, a petition signed by 83 members of the branch. The letter states:

The Mascot Executive Officers and members of this sub-branch wish to bring your attention to the alarming decrease in pension values for returned servicemen.

In the 17 years the present Government has been in office, war pensions have been allowed to deteriorate so that now the total and permanent incapacity war pension is 81% of the minimum wage. The highest rate for partial disablement is 32% of the same wage.

The RSL can stress the justice of its requests and point out that the debt owed by the nation to these people is not resolved and despite all else, the claims of those who today are still handicapped due to service for their country are surely entitled to a priority.

These facts are the firm beliefs of the members whose names are on this petition.

We sincerely believe you as our Labor representative will be sympathetic to our cause for a better deal in pensions, and hope you may in some way be able to make this present Federal Government see the folly and hardships that are imposed on service pensioners- after all, they are only pensioners because they thought fit to fight for this great young country, and to keep us all free.

Mr Pearsall - That was a good letter.

Mr COPE - Yes. The wording of that letter expresses in similar terms the views of the Federal Executive and State branches of the Returned Services League throughout Australia. It also forcibly reminds the Government of its failure to maintain the true value in purchasing terms of the total and permanent incapacity and partial disablement pensions. This is yet another instance like that of social service benefits which calls for a review in the Budget each year to meet any increase in the cost of living. Formerly, it was an accepted principle in this Parliament that the TPI pension should be kept at the level of the basic wage, and the partial disablement pension at a minimum of 50% of the basic wage. However, it is blatantly obvious the Government does not intend to maintain this principle. Otherwise it would have made the necessary adjustments in the Budget brought down in August 1967.

Finally, let me briefly summarise my remarks. I mentioned earlier that the Treasurer had said that the Australian economy has never been in a sounder condition than at present. If that is so there is nothing to prevent or impede the Government from bringing down a supplementary budget to correct these many failures to maintain the true value of social service and repatriation benefits.

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