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Thursday, 21 March 1968

Mr COSTA (Banks) - The honourable member for Evans (Dr Mackay) commenced his speech by weeping for the aged people because of the miserly pensions they receive. I agree with him on that point, but I wish to remind him that a LiberalCountry Party Government has been in office for 18 years and it has had plenty of time to remove these injustices. I wish to say quite a deal about the question of social services because I think that it is very important. I listened with great interest and attention to the GovernorGeneral's Speech in the hope that I would hear some constructive details of proposals designed to cure some of the social evils affecting the Australian community. But the Speech lacked any such details. In the field of social welfare and many other matters, the Governor-General just spoke in generalities without mentioning anything tangible that would be done in the future. In an election speech during the New South Wales State election campaign, the Prime Minister (Mr Gorton) said that there must be a rethinking of pensions and social services. He did not say who would do the thinking or when it would start. The only mention in the Governor-General's Speech about these important social service matters was in these terms:

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.

This is the same tired cliché that has come from the Government during the entire 18 years I have been here. The Government always has some sort of excuse for not doing what it should. The GovernorGeneral continued:

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 and proposals of the various Departments concerned with social welfare.

Apparently these bodies are to do the rethinking that the Prime Minister promised. I remind honourable members that a previous Prime Minister made a speech on this matter. In a joint Opposition policy speech made in 1949, the then Leader of the Opposition, the Right Honourable R. G. Menzies, said:

Australia still needs a contributory system of national insurance against sickness, widowhood, unemployment, and old age. It is only under such a system 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.

We still do not have such a scheme. The speech continued:

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.

He built that promise around the famous statement that he would put value back into the pound. Value has still not been put back into the currency. The dollar still continues to deteriorate. Not only did Sir Robert Menzies and another Prime Minister, the late Mr Harold Holt, say this; but now we have the present Prime Minister speaking in the same kind of generalities. We now have the present Minister for Social Services (Mr Wentworth), who has been hailed as the great Messiah. The Prime Minister put him into the Ministry and newspapers hailed him as with a tremendous fanfare of trumpets. They said that he is a great benefactor and the saviour of the pensioners, the sick, the needy and the Aboriginals. The honourable member for West Sydney (Mr Minogue), who takes a great interest in pensioners, tested out the new Minister by asking him a question last week. This question, which can be found at page 29 of Hansard, was in these terms:

My question is addressed to the Minister for Social Services. In view of the Minister's well known sympathy for the plight of age, invalid and widow pensioners and his often expressed criticism of Australian social service systems and rates of pensions, I ask whether he will make his first action as Minister the introduction of legislation to grant immediate increases in all pensions.

In reply, the new Minister said:

In answer to the honourable member for West Sydney I can say only that this will be a matter of policy for the Government, not myself, to decide. I thank the honourable member very much indeed for his acknowledgment of the fact that I have sympathy for these people. I think he will be heartened - as I have been heartened - by the statements of the Prime Minister on this matter and by the statements in His Excellency's Speech, shortly to be debated in the House.

In the last Budget, the Treasurer (Mr McMahon) gave the pensioners nothing at all, though he said he had great sympathy for them. The present Minister for Social Services is saying the same thing. But pensioners cannot live on sympathy. The kind of sympathy I like is for someone to come along, shake my hand and put a fiver into it That is practical sympathy. I would like to see the Government do that kind of thing.

I will list many social service welfare items not even mentioned in the GovernorGeneral's Speech. They include the maternity allowance, child endowment, unemployment and sickness benefits, widows' pensions, age pensions, invalid pensions, blind pensions, wife's allowance - a miserly $6 per week - child's allowance, funeral benefit, rehabilitation benefits, reciprocal social service agreements with other countries, accommodation for disabled persons, and care of geriatrics. Also neglected are repatriation pensioners and the many workers who would like to be in a position to obtain homes for themselves. First of all I shall deal with the maternity allowance. This benefit was introduced by the Fisher Labor Government in 1912. The rate was not increased above $10 until 1943 when another Labor government, the Curtin Labor Government, increased it to $30 for one child and $32 to $34 in respect of extra children. It is 24 years since the maternity allowance has been increased. I believe it should now be increased more in keeping with the present day cost that is involved in a mother having a baby. Unemployment and sickness benefits were introduced by the Curtin Labor Government in 1943. These benefits have not 'been increased since 1962 and the rate is still very low. The present payment for an adult who is unemployed or is unable to work because of sickness is $8.25 a week. For a married couple it is $14.25 a week, with an additional $1.50 for each child. How would any honourable member like to keep a wife and three children on $12.75 a week? In my opinion, the average rent today in most places is about $10 to $12 a week. So, if $12 goes in rent, only 75c is left to buy all the other necessaries of life such as food and clothing. The unemployment figure in

Australia last month was 100,000. With automation rapidly developing and replacing workers in industry, this figure will keep on growing. The Governor-General said nothing about how we would meet the consequences of automation.

I come next to the widows' pension. The rate for the A class widow is only $13 per week, for the B class widow $11.75 per week and for the C class widow $11.50 per week. This benefit also was introduced by the Curtin Labor Government. Honourable members will notice that all these social service benefits were increased during the Second World War, a time when we had great defence commitments. The Government now makes excuses, at a time when there is not a declared war, that so much is required for defence that it must use funds which otherwise would be available for pensions and child endowment. I believe that the means test in respect of the widows' pension should be eased immediately so that widows might supplement the very small pension that they now get. While on this subject perhaps I should mention also that the GovernorGeneral said nothing about equal pay for equal work performed by females.

I come next to age and invalid pensions. Age pensions were introduced by the Deakin Government in 1909 and invalid pensions were introduced by the Fisher Labor Government in 1910. Although the rate at that time was only $1 a week, statistics have proved that this amount was worth more than the present rate of $13 per week for a single pensioner or $11.75 per week for a married pensioner. There is still a discrimination in the Social Services Act against married people. I believe that that discrimination should be removed and that the pensions should be increased considerably. It is about two years since pensions were last increased and, as we all know, the cost of living is now very much higher than it was when pensioners received the last increase.

Another important matter which was not mentioned by the Governor-General in his Speech is the control of the cost of living. Until we can control the cost of living, wages will continue to chase prices, and I do not know where that is going to end. I come next to the funeral benefit, which was introduced in 1943, during the war, by the Curtin Government. The funeral benefit is still $20 although it is difficult to arrange a funeral for less than $150. We all know that the cost of dying is just as high as the cost of living. I believe that this benefit should be increased, as there has been no increase since it was first given in 1943.

I shall refer also to the Post Office and its decline in efficiency. We are all aware that there is great discontent in the Post Office. Since the beginning of federation until recently there had never been a strike in the Post Office. Its employees were loyal and contented. There must be something radically wrong with the industrial management of the Post Office. Apparently the views of employers and employees are so far apart that everybody is discontented. I have in my hand an interesting pamphlet, issued by the New South Wales branch of the Australian Postmasters' Association, apologising for the inefficient and poor service rendered by the Post Office. The pamphlet is authorised by the Secretary of the Postmasters' Association, who is himself a postmaster. He said in a circular which accompanied the apology:

Some time ago we advised that members of our Association were most perturbed at the rapidly declining standard of postal services. Our continuing efforts to have this decline in service standards arrested have not met with success.

This circular was issued to every customer. It is a terrible situation when the postmaster in a town or suburb feels that he has to apologise to the people for inefficiency which is not brought about by a fault of postmasters but because of failure in the management of the Post Office and among high officials on the Commonwealth Public Service Board. The apology, a copy of which I believe every honourable member would have received, states:

The Australian Postmasters' Association (New South Wales Branch) sincerely regrets any inconvenience and concern Post Office service failures have caused you.

Postmasters are acutely embarrassed by the current all time low standard of postal services and would like you to know that they are continuously striving to provide you with a reasonable level of postal efficiency.

Postmasters have, of course, invited the attention of Departmental Heads, the Commonwealth Public Service Board and your Federal Member to this state of inefficiency but to date, regrettably, corrective action has not been taken.

The basic cause of Post Office service failures is the Department's inability to attract and retain recruits of reasonable quality and quantity to perform its essential community services.

As one most immediate measure to overcome this basic cause of inefficiency our Association suggests the Government need merely extend to Post Office staff the same terms and conditions of service applicable to Commonwealth Public Servants generally, Le-, their weekly rostered hours be over 5 days'.

They want a 5-day week roster. They do not suggest that any essential service should be eliminated. We all know that many men employed by the Post Office are performing on Saturday work which could very well be eliminated. The pamphlet continues:

As 87% of Australian employees already enjoy the 5 day working week (including police, bus, railway, etc., employees) Postmasters maintain that it is not only reasonable from a community standards point of view to introduce 5 day rosters into the Post Office, but that it is unrealistic, and a condemnation of the Post Office to perpetual inefficiency, to continue to endure with outofdate, onerous and unpopular 6 day rosters.

Again we apologise for postal inefficiency but, in apologising, we maintain the inefficiency is caused by the archaic employment policies of the Commonwealth Public Service Board and the apathy towards postal matters of the Commonwealth Government.

Accompanying the apology were some snippings from newspapers. The first is from the 'Australian' of 16th January 1968. It states:

With 108,000-odd employees, the Post Office machinery for dealing with their industrial grievances is cumbersome, inadequate and unsuitable in many cases. The employees lack the advantages of either the Public Service or the general arbitration system and suffer most of the disadvantages of each.

The 'Daily Telegraph' reported on 19th January 1968:

There is also the absurdity of the industrial relations of the Post Office employees being vested in the slow-grinding slow-moving Public Service Board instead of being under the actual employer who has to handle the day-to-day problems - the Postmaster-General's Department.

The 'Sydney Morning Herald' of 22nd January 1968 reported:

Postmaster-General's staff turnover is immense; up to 50% in some sections in 1965-66.

One can imagine that there must be a great number of untrained people employed by the Post Office if there is a staff turnover of 50% each year. A man would no sooner be trained to do a job than the conditions of his work and the unsatisfactory pay rates would cause him to leave to find a better job. The 'Australian Financial Review' stated:

The present structure of the PostmasterGeneral's Department is not conducive to firm and efficient management of this country's biggest enterprise, particularly in the field of industrial relations.

Another report which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald' stated:

Clearly the thing to do is to give the Post Office a status similar to TAA. This would put postal employees under the normal process of arbitration.

There are other matters with which 1 wish to deal, but I can see that my time is running out. However, there is one matter with which I shall deal because I feel that it is important.

I turn now to repatriation. Repatriation legislation was enacted originally during the First World War. The basic wage in those days, fixed by arbitration, was only £2 7s a week. The repatriation pension was £3 a week, with an allowance for a dependent wife - about 130% of the basic wage. But what is the present position? The value of the pension has so declined that today it represents only 51% of the basic wage. For a long time the Government has promised to make adjustments to repatriation pensions. I firmly believe that the Government should restore to all pensions, social service and repatriation alike, their original purchasing power. Over the years the value of the repatriation pension has slowly eroded and today it is at its lowest level. The Government has much to do in the future if it is to bring pensions back to their true value. I hope that the committee which the Prime Minister has foreshadowed will not talk for too long but will do something tangible to correct the evils that exist in our economic system.

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