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Wednesday, 21 October 1970

Mr Allan Fraser (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Monaro) - 1 am glad that the Minister for Social Services (Mr Wentworth) has directed a review of the 'form letter' recently sent to many pensioners. 1 am glad also that the Minister believes and will endeavour to arrange that the letter should be more personal and should relate to the particular circumstances of the pensioner to whom it is addressed. Mav 1 say, however, that I am disturbed at the Minister's statement that the decisions conveyed in the form letter are correct and are not in question but that it is only the wording - the form of the letter - which is in question.

How can the Minister be so complacently sure that the requirement to surrender pensioner medical cards is in every case correct? Already review has shown that in some cases it has not been correct. How can a pensioner, how can anyone, be sure that the income and property figures are stated correctly in the departmental records when no figures at all are given to the pensioner? It seems to me that the Minister himself recognised this when he said that the letter should set out the particular circumstances of the pensioner, that is, the particular circumstances on which the decision is based. But this is not in accord with his statement that the decisions are correct already and that no review of the decisions is necessary, only a review of the form of the letter.

Do not the letters show that the Department itself is doubtful of the correctness of its decision? In this respect, 1 refer particularly to those letters which state: 'Your pension is suspended'. If the Department is completely satisfied that the pensioner is not entitled to the pension, one would expect the pension to be cancelled, not suspended indefinitely without the pensioner being given any right of appeal or to challenge the decision conveyed to him.

I imagine that these 'pension-suspended' letters go out where it is the view of the Department that the person who is receiving a pension because of the tapered means test has nevertheless already received more than would entitle him to a pension even under the tapered means test for the remainder of the present financial year, that is, until 30th June next. But if that is so, surely the decision is of such importance to the pensioner that the matter should be set out in a way that the pensioner may examine.

I am particularly astonished that this Minister, in spite of his record in this House as a libertarian, as a champion of the rights of the individual and as an opponent of every form of authoritarianism, now should so roundly say that he is opposed to giving the pensioner the right of appeal against departmental decisions. He says that there is available to the pensioner something which is more valuable to him than the right of appeal to a tribunal; and that, he says, is the pensioner's right to go to his member of Parliament and the right of the member of Parliament to approach the Minister - a state of society, it seems to me, in which the Minister asserts that no-one counts for anything except the politician and the official, and, by the way in which it has been applied, a state of society in which as far as pensioners are concerned enterprise has no encouragement and thrift has no reward.

The abandonment, as indicated by the Minister, of the principle of democracy that the individual is superior to the state and that the state is the servant of the individual is the precursor of totalitarianism, the master state, either Communist or Fascist. It is sad to see a Minister of the Crown embracing attitudes in this House which make it easier to establish either of those forms of hateful dictatorship, Communist or Fascist. It is particularly sad when the Minister, prior to his promotion to the feather bed of high office, was himself so determined in his onslaught on any vestige of encouragement to this dictatorial rule and on any infringement of the rights of the individual in the community. 1 would never have thought that I should have to remind this Minister that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance and that part of that vigilance must be to establish and maintain - not favours to citizens, subject to politicians and officials - but the rights of citizens and the equal rights of all citizens - not a division into first class citizens on the one hand and pensioners as second class citizens on the other. Senior citizens are entitled to equal rights with all other citizens. Pensioners are not to be regarded as second class citizens for whom Big Brother always knows best and who must meekly accept the orders and decisions of politicians and officials who, as the Minister suggests - and I think he says it quite wrongly - will use their discretion, not apply the law but use their discretion either for or against the senior citizen, the pensioner, dealing with him by whim or by grace instead of in accord with the pensioner's rights under the law.

The basis of the Minister's argument would mean the destruction of the rights of appeal which every taxpayer has against a decision of the Taxation Department. It would mean the destruction of a whole system of appeals to tribunals, which has been established for repatriation pensioners. The Minister must know that if he attempted to abandon that right of appeal for ex-servicemen in pension matters he would bring down upon his head the tremendous wrath of the Returned Services League. He would not dare to go so far. Pensioners are not people with such power to exercise against the Government. They are, nevertheless, equally entitled to tribunals as are the other classes of people whom I have mentioned.

The pensioner does not seek charity, nor does he seek to be the object of compassion, as the Minister would, in his midVictorian way, appear to indicate. The pensioner seeks his rights as a human being, as one who has worked and paid taxes, as one who requires justice under the law rather than the exercise of official discretions.

I trust that the Minister in his review of the letter will review not only its form but also the decisions that it conveys. Also, I trust that he will consider whether, when a suspension of a pension is proposed the pensioners should be given the figures and the suspension should not operate until there has been time for the matter to be fully examined. Further, where the income of the person is only a very small amount above that amount which would enable him to retain all his pensioner medical card, he should be told plainly by how much his income now exceeds the permissible maximum so that he can in his own way, if he wishes, without deliberately divesting himself of assets, adjust his income so that he can once again obtain this pensioner medical entitlement, which is so much more valuable and precious to many pensioners than even the pension itself.

Progress reported.

Sitting suspended from 5.57 to 8 p.m.

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