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Thursday, 28 March 1968

Mr SINCLAIR (New England) (Minister for Shipping and Transport) - No section of the community deserves more sympathy and consideration than those persons who are in need and those persons to whom the Department of Social Services gives its attention. Accordingly I was very pleased to hear my successor as Minister for Social Services (Mr Wentworth) say at the opening of his contribution to this debate how he feels for these people and how he is concerned that .in his administration of the Department of Social Services he shall divorce politics from the whole subject and provide benefits which are suitably related to the needs of the people of this community. Having said that, may I add that it is deplorable that the Opposition, which has raised this matter should present it on a purely political basis. Members opposite see in the number of people who are receiving benefits - and they are considerable in number - not so much mouths to feed as people who might vote. It is far more essential for honourable members, and for those of us who are responsible for social welfare - as my successor in the portfolio now is - to be concerned with these people as individuals and not with issues just on political terms.

At the outset I should like to say that I feel that progressively over the years this Government has demonstrated just such a genuine concern for the people in need in the community. Certainly, a tremendous amount more needs to be done. We have consistently acknowledged this and the Minister for Social Services (Mr Wentworth) has again repeated it today. He said, quite rightly, that there are areas within the structure of benefits and the system of social security available that need to be examined. This is a continuing process and it will be a continuing process. No matter what we introduce this year we can be sure that next year there will need to be an examination of the structure, the content and amount of benefit that is available. I would suggest that this need will continue indefinitely.

Importantly, there are a couple of very notable things which have been achieved. First of all, there has been a progressive increase in the amount of benefits - an increase both in amount and in real value. My colleague has already forcibly and statistically demonstrated this to the House this morning. There has been a widening in the range of persons who receive the age pension. Although some people may consider figures should not be related to a particular year, honourable members will find that in 1949 there was something like 39% of persons of eligible age receiving a pension. Progressively over the years the range of entitlement has been broadened so that today about 54% of persons of eligible age receive the age pension. So we can see that this progression is continuing. Of course, it is not only the pension which is provided on the same basis as previously. For example, supplementary assistance is now being provided as a supplementary benefit to the original concept.

I think we have to take into account the increasing numbers of people in the Australian community who in the future will be able to provide for themselves through their contribution to superannuation, insurance and other types of annuity benefits. The Government recognises the advantages of this type of contribution. In the last Federal Budget, as honourable members will be aware, the Treasurer (Mr McMahon) introduced, first of all, an extension of benefits by way of income tax concessions for persons of pensionable age. In addition he provided for an addition to the permissible taxation concession for contributions to superannuation funds. This has been designed specifically to enable people who today are looking ahead to their retirement to. make provision for themselves so that they can secure an income which perhaps might be relative to the amount they are earning at the time of retirement. All these factors have to be taken into account when one looks at and examines the social security system in Australia.

The percentage of persons receiving the age pension is increasing. I think we have to be aware that in the future it appears that the age structure of the Australian society will change. This is due to numerous causes. Perhaps the principal cause is the remarkable developments in medicine which have enabled people today to live, I understand, about 15 years longer than they would have lived half a century ago. This is the changing age structure of the population. It means that people are living longer and that those people who come on to a pension at the age of 65 have life expectancies considerably greater than used to be the case. We are taking these factors into account in the social services field in the formulating of future policies for the payment and distribution of social security benefits.

In the few minutes that are available to me I have not time to examine all the points that have been raised. The honourable member for Watson (Mr Cope) referred to the entitlement for unemployment and sickness benefits. These are two very real cases of need. In fact, both the unemployment benefit and the sickness benefit are intended as temporary benefits. They are provided for people who have no other income and who are entirely dependent upon receiving some financial assistance. Because they are entirely dependent, a benefit is provided. There are a number of long term benefits such as the invalid pension to which the honourable member for Watson (Mr Cope) referred. This benefit is designed to cater for a person who is permanently disabled. Sickness benefits and unemployment benefits are designed to cater for people with a temporary inability to work. As every member of this House is aware, the Commonwealth Government has, by way of grants in terms of section 96 of the Constitution, created employment in areas in Australia where, for example, there has been drought and where there has been not only a suspicion but a reality of unemployment. As a result, employment opportunities and jobs have been created at the going rate of pay. To me, this is the way in which the Government should and does realistically approach the problems of unemployment. In other words, the Government provides employment, paying for it through the State governments and local government authorities at the rate applicable to the job and work performed. I do not think it is sufficient just to look at these temporary benefits and say that is the be all and end all of what the Commonwealth does in that area.

Before I conclude I want to mention two other matters: The first is that I feel that one of the notable contributions that this Commonwealth Government has made in the field of social welfare has been its coordination of effort and co-operation with both the responsibilities and the social welfare work being undertaken by the State legislatures and the valuable work that is being done by charitable and religious bodies. Both State and voluntary organisations have done a tremendous amount in the State fields. The States still have principal responsibility for providing short term benefits. Where there are severe bushfires, for example, such as those which occurred in Tasmania, benefits have been provided by the State Government and the Commonwealth has reimbursed the State Government where the circumstances warrant it. This, of course, was the case in the Tasmanian bushfires. The State governments are all doing a great deal to supplement what is being done by the Commonwealth. They are doing it within a held that is their continuing responsibility. As I said before, charitable organisations are also doing a tremendous amount. I think they deserve to be complimented and supported as indeed they have been.

Finally, J would tike to compliment the Director-General and staff of the Department of Social Services for the tremendous job they have done during the time I was Minister of that department. I believe that each one of us should be proud of their sense of administrative responsibility and their genuine care and consideration for the pensioners of this community. They are doing and have done a tremendous job. I believe that under the hands of the new Minister for Social Services they will continue to advance the social security of this Government and this country so that each one of us can join in saying that a jolly good job has been done.

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