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Thursday, 28 March 1968


Mr WENTWORTH (Mackellar) (Minister for Social Services) - Mr Speaker,may I thank the honourable member for Grayndler (Mr Daly) for the words that he addressed to me personally. I appreciate the spirit in which they were uttered. Since he has given me advice, let me give him a little. I hope that I do not do him wrong, but it seemed to me that in his approach to this grave subject, which merits a serious approach, he looked more to the interests of his Party than to the interests of the pensioners.


Mr Webb - Oh!


Mr WENTWORTH - As I have said, perhaps I do him an injustice, but that was how it seemed. I would think that a member speaking for the Opposition would have welcomed the objectives of the new Government, as stated by the new Prime Minister (Mr Gorton), and would have adopted a constructive approach and not jumped on the band wagon and attacked the Government for political purposes. This Government is setting its hand to a policy in which, I would have thought, the Opposition would have co-operated with it for the benefit of pensioners and others in need. There can be no cavil at the Prime Minister's statement of policy or at the establishment by the Government of a committee to give effect to its policy objectives. Should we not have expected from the Opposition constructive co-operation in the proposed inquiry? lt should not try to climb on a political band wagon and attack the Government. Instead, it should have given its co-operation in an endeavour to work out the best way to apply our available resources to working for the benefit of those in need. Let me say that I shall not endeavour to score points off the Opposition over the administration of my Social Services Department. I shall not try to use it as a political vehicle. My door is open to any member of the Opposition, as it will be to any member of the Government parties, who has a constructive idea. 1 shall welcome any proposal that honourable members opposite can bring forward for the benefit of those whom all Australians would like to help.

I was interested to see that the honourable member for Grayndler began by referring to 1949. 1 believe that that is a good point at which to start, because it was in 1949 that the old Labor Government went out of office and the present LiberalAustralian Country Party Government took office. Since that year, there has been a tremendous increase in the real value of pensions. I shall deal with this in more detail shortly. The increase has been very substantial. I do not say that we shall not improve on the present figures in the future or that any of us has done all that he would like to do. But I lay the figures on the line so that the House and the country may consider them. I shall take two principal categories - the basic rate of age and invalid pensions and the basic rate of widows' pensions. Perhaps honourable members will agree that these are not the sole consideration, but they are perhaps the most important categories for us to consider. 1 shall give all rates in dollars. When the Chifley Government went out of office in 1949, the basic rate of age and invalid pensions was $4.25 a week; the basic rate is now $15 a week. It is perfectly true, Mr Speaker, that since 1949 there have been changes in the value of money. I want to adjust these figures according to movements in the price index to show in real terms what these pensions are worth today. Accordingly, f have had the Parliamentary Library compile for me a C series index and a consumer price index and produce a coherent price series.

The basic rate of pension today, with the supplementary allowance, is $15 a week. On the purchasing power of present values, the $4.25 of 1949 would be equivalent to $9.40. So, in terms of real purchasing power, during the period of more than 18 years covered by the life of this Government, the basic rate of pension has risen from the equivalent of S9.40 a week to $15 a week. That is not a bad rise. In terms of real purchasing power, we have almost doubled the old rate of pension.

These figures, of course, are not the whole story. In addition, we have been able to introduce a number of what I could call fringe benefits. These embrace the pensioner medical service, hospital benefits and pharmaceutical benefits. I want to be fair; so I. acknowledge that in respect of the last there was some legal holdup before 1949. In point of fact, however, none of these benefits came into effect until the present Government took office. Departmental figures that I have taken out this morning show that the value of medical benefits alone to the average pensioner is $1.35 a week. All these things have to be added on, and when they are taken into account it will be seen that we have almost doubled the real value of the pension. If we take into account concessions for telephones and so on, we find that although we have not quite doubled the real value of the pension we have come very near to doing so.

In addition, we have implemented the very large programme of aged persons homes. This does not yet cater for all the people we would like to see included in the programme, but we hope that the programme will be expanded. We also hope that programmes for sheltered workshops, rehabilitation and so on will be expanded. However, when we add the new fringe benefits that this Government has been able to introduce in its 18 or 19 years of office to the increase in the real purchasing power of the pension, adjusted for prices, we find that we have very nearly, though not quite, doubled what is available to the pensioner. This is not a bad record. I do not for one moment consider that it is such a satisfactory record that we can sit down and do nothing more. We will do more. There was point in the arguments that the honourable member for Evans (Dr Mackay) put to the House a few days ago. Yes, there is misery and there is suffering. But it is much less than it would have been if Labor had been in office. We have not performed miracles, but we have done much and we will do more.


Mr Daly - The Minister said to make the debate non-political.


Mr WENTWORTH - Yes. I do not think that there is on the other side of the House the administrative ability or the ability to promote drive in the economy that would enable it to give these benefits to pensioners. It is only from additional productivity that it is possible to give increases. The Australian economy has advanced under this Government. I do not say that this is entirely because of the efforts of the Government. To do so would be unfair. But the economy has advanced and as it has advanced we have been able and glad to increase the real value of pensions. As it advances further I have no doubt that we will be able to increase yet again the real value of pensions.

The honourable member for Grayndler asked about widows pensions. In the limit of the time available to me, I will refer to these pensions. 1 will take the class A widow with one child. In December 1949 when the Chifley Government went out of office her rate was $4.75. The present rate is $18.50. This, in terms of real purchasing power adjusted for price changes, has meant an increase of nearly $10. lt is not quite double but it is very nearly double. The rate for a class B widow has gone up from a little over $8 to nearly $12. This has happened in the period that this Government has been in office. In addition, the fringe benefits of which I have spoken are available. The class B widow is particularly interested, of course, in the aged persons homes programme, which has absorbed some $7f)m of government money so far and which will, I hope, absorb more as further homes are provided for our elderly people, lt is the accommodation problem that is the most pressing on so many pensioners.

The honourable member for Grayndler was good enough to refer to some remarks I made at Newcastle about child endowment. The report was a little simplified. 1 did not refer only to child endowment: I referred to other measures. There may be other financial measures that would be more effective than child endowment in increasing the birth rate and the rate of natural growth of our population. These are quite complicated questions and I hope that the committee which the Prime Minister has set up will consider them. They involve quite large possible changes in the structure of our social services. They are not to be undertaken lightly, but the Government has set its hand to the task. It will carry it through and the Opposition has a chance to co-operate in the programme for the benefit of pensioners and for the benefit of all. Australians.

If I have to some extent been guilty of political retaliation. I apologise. Perhaps I was led astray by the attitude, of the honourable member for Grayndler. 1 do not want to regard this as a political matter. We have only certain resources available to us. I will be competing with other Ministers for a share of the resources. 1 realise fully that there are other departments and other necessities in the national economy. I will get what I can and will then in my sphere endeavour to apply what I have obtained in a way that will give the most benefit to those most in need. But the Government has, in such matters as eligibility for pensions, improved the position that obtained when it took office in 1949. I thank the honourable member for Grayndler for starting his speech at that point. li was the correct place to start, it gives us a proper basis of comparison. I assure the House that I will be doing my best for pensioners.







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