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Wednesday, 21 October 1970

Mr BIRRELL (Port Adelaide) - In speaking to the estimates for the Department of Social Services I desire to comment upon what I believe to be the worst feature of an overall very mediocre social service structure. In using the word 'mediocre' 1 am conscious of trie fact that the majority of the Australian public will recognise that I am being most generous to the Government. The matter that greatly concerns me is the scandalous way the Government treats an enderly couple where the wife is not of pensionable age. In such cases these unfortunate frustrated people are expected to exist on a combined weekly income of $15.50. Week after week most honourable members receive inquiries on this matter from aged couples in this terrible position yet this Government during its 20-odd years of continuous office in our so-called prosperous society has consistently ignored appeals from members on both sides of the House to stop imposing this terrible penalty upon aged couples whose only fault, if it can be so called, is the fact that some 30 or 40 years ago when they married the difference in their ages was more than 5 years.

To illustrate the point more clearly 1 propose to refer to a typical case that came to my notice some time ago where the husband on reaching the age of 65 years was retrenched. He applied for and received an age pension. His wife, who was 58i years of age and the mother of 1 0 children, had not worked for wages for almost 40 years. She had no skills other than those of a housewife and mother but she was expected to seek employment in order to ensure that for the next 18 months that she and her husband would be able to exist. Instead of being completely disregarded by the Government and left to fend for herself in the jungle of the unskilled unemployed she should have been immediately granted some government assistance. In fact, a government with any sense of pride or decency would honour rather than humiliate her.

I am aware that this type of situation has been raised many times in this Parliament. It seems to me - it has even been suggested by some of the Government supporters - that the only reason why no corrective action has been taken is the fear that a small percentage of single pensioners may marry younger women in order to obtain the married couple rate of pension in lieu of the single rate. This type of reasoning is completely unacceptable to me. However, if that is the case, in an effort to offer some kind of compromise solution it is with sincerity that I suggest to the Minister for Social Services and the Government that the Act be amended immediately to make the wife of an age pensioner eligible for a similar pension, together with the fringe benefits, provided that the couple have been married for a period of at least 3 years prior to the date of the husband becoming eligible for the pension. I say this although in my heart I believe that this amendment should not be necessary because the wife should now receive the pension as soon as her husband becomes eligible.

The House will recall that the Minister for Social Services in his second reading speech on the 1969 Social Services Bill made reference to a survey on poverty in Australia conducted by Professor Henderson and his colleagues in the University of Melbourne. The Minister sought to show by way of a complicated table that pensioners who have no means beyond their pension - the people who are really at the bottom of the income scale - were, in real terms of purchasing power, substantially above the poverty line datum as disclosed by the Melbourne survey. The Minister, of course, made no reference in the table that he presented at that time to the couples in the category to which I am now referring. I challenge the Minister to tell the House just where these people stand in relation to Professor Henderson's 'poverty line' as adjusted to the latest level of the consumer price index. I invite the Minister to take up this important issue during this debate and tell the Committee and the people why the Government continues to keep a small section of the aged people of this community in a position well below the starvation line.

I have no doubt that if the Minister does reply to me he will endeavour to make a case that one or both of the couple should obtain a part-time job to supplement their social service pittance. This is practicable in some cases but in the majority it is not, especially when the male partner has no particular skills and his wife has not been engaged in industry for some 35 years or more. What employer is likely to employ aged people in these circumstances? Even if one or both of them is able to obtain some employment the means test still keeps them in a position much worse than that of the couple who are both eligible for the pension. As I understand the Act at present, a pensioner couple with no means beyond the pension can earn an additional $17 before the pension is affected, thus making their total weekly income $44.50 a week but where only one of the couple is a pensioner the total allowable income, before the pension is reduced, is still only $17, making a total income including pension of $32.50 a week or SI 2 below that applicable to the pensioner couple. In these special circumstances a simple amendment to the Act could be made to allow such a couple to earn the additional $12 a week and thus put them on par with the pensioner couple. This could be achieved without it costing the Government one additional cent.

Some aged couples in this category who cannot obtain employment and who happen to own their own small cottage are placed in an impossible position because of the fact that they are not even eligible for supplementary assistance. Some of these people who have approached me can show clearly that out of their miserable pittance of $15.50 a couple a week they must put aside over $4 a week in order to cover their land tax and council and water rates which, in total, almost invariably exceed $210 a year. Added to this is the high cost of urgent and necessary maintenance which most honourable members will realise would be considerable on a 40-year old wood and iron or asbestos cottage. Many of these people spend their aging years in constant fear that the roof may leak or that the plumbing may fail in the sure knowledge that, if these things happen and maintenance is needed, the small amount of money left for food and clothing will almost completely disappear.

Much has been said and written about the approach of Nazi Germany to the aged and the frail. This approach which consisted mainly of brutal extermination shocked and disgusted the world. Yet today in a rich country like Australia there is this small section of aged people who were among the pioneers of our land and who during their working life readily accepted heavy taxation in the belief that the government of the day would maintain them in a reasonable manner in the twilight of their lives. Instead they now find that they are expected to exist on this small pension income which can only be described as something very much less than is needed to cover the lowest concept of a reasonably plain diet. The subtle Government approach to this serious problem in my view can only be construed as a definite policy designed to shorten the normal life expectancy of these most unfortunate people. The Government must stand condemned for allowing such a tragic situation to continue for so long. I trust that the Minister for Social Services will recognise this injustice and take some immediate steps to rectify it.

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