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Thursday, 25 May 1972
Page: 3109

Mr Les Johnson (HUGHES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - It is necessary for me to remind the House that we are discussing the Social Services Bill (No. 3). Whilst the Minister for Immigration (Dr Forbes) gave us interesting but sometimes misleading information about immigration, he did not get very close to the Bill. I intend to be more precise. But let me say to him at the outset that migrants in Australia are not offended with the role of the Australian Labor Party or of the Opposition in this Parliament in the migration programme because they recognise that there probably would never have been an immigration programme had it not been initiated by this Party. The Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam) has given information about the departure of migrants which must present itself as a very worrying problem to every honourable member. When something like 22,000 migrants who came to Australia under assisted passages have returned home within 2 years, there are good reasons why we should look around for the causes. I do not know about the association which the Minister for Immigration might have with the various migrant groups, but I receive very considerable correspondence from many of these organisations indicating their concern about many aspects of Australian life and their desire that those aspects might be improved. Foremost among the points of agitation is the contention that the social welfare system in Australia is relatively inferior to the systems in other parts of the world. I hold in my hand a letter dated 30th March 1972 from the Federation of Netherlands Societies Ltd to the Prime Minister (Mr McMahon). It is a long letter in which the Federation refers to the inadequacy of social services and says:

We know from our own observation that this inadequacy causes feelings of insecurity in the minds of immigrants from the Netherlands, often leading to a decision to return to their country of origin, where the returnees find a system of social services, that is much further developed, that keeps in step with the rising cost of living and that knows no means test.

Dr Mackay - They would not want portable pension then, would they?

Mr Les Johnson (HUGHES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I am not sure but 1 will give the Minister a list of the countries that do have portable pensions without the trappings, the hang-ups and the inhibiting prohibitions imposed by this Government. I have referred to the Federation of Netherlands Societies Ltd of which there are many branches around Australia. Dutch people have come to Australia in large numbers. There was no reply to the Federation's letter to the Prime Minister. When I inquired by way of question placed on the parliamentary notice paper as to the reason, the Prime Minister said that neither he nor the department of Immigration had the address of the Federation of Netherlands Societies Ltd. Every honourable member on this side of the House, by virtue of the intensive contact he has had with that Federation and other migrant groups, would know not only the secretary's address but also the address of some members of the Federation. It is a reflection on the Government that the Prime Minister is so indifferent.

This Social Services Bill is bereft of substance and bewildering in its objectivity. Its stated purpose is to facilitate the continuation of the payment of pensions and other benefits to certain persons after they cease to be resident in Australia. Let me put in sharp relief .the contrasting attitude of the 2 parties. The Liberal and Country Party side of the House says: 'We will provide for the portability of pensions only where we can get reciprocal agreements with other countries'. The Labor Party says: Australian citizens shall not cease to receive pensions because of residence abroad'. In taking that view we are in common in our stance with many other countries. This Bill will not achieve the end which the Government attributes to it. When this debate is concluded and the Bill receives the assent of the Senate and of the Governor-General and passes into the statute book, not one citizen will benefit in any way at all. If the Minister for Social Services (Mr Wentworth), who is sitting at the table, disagrees with me I would like him to indicate his disagreement because I will soon prove that he is incorrect in his assumptions. No-one will benefit when this Bill is passed - that is the first fact to be acknowledged.

The mere sanctioning of this legislation will in no way compensate for this Government's dilatory approach to the longstanding need to provide for portability of Australian pensions. All this Bill purports to do is enable the Minister for Social Services to enter into agreements with other countries about the portability of pensions. It purports to do it, but in fact it cannot achieve that. Whether these agreements will, in fact, be entered into will depend on the acceptability or otherwise of the conditions which Australia and any prospective participating country may require. For that matter, the Minister has made the frank and incredible admission that the Bill is not necessary , at all. In his second reading speech he made that confession in these terms:

It would have been possible, of course, to carry out the Government's intention to make pensions payable abroad by agreements made by regulation under the provisions of section 137 of the existing Social Services Act.

The Minister went on to indicate that the same result could have been achieved by regulation rather than Act of Parliament, but he thought that this process would be inappropriate. Why would it be inappropriate? It seems to me that it would be inappropriate for the simple reason that the Government wanted to engage in a window dressing process in this period preceding the election campaign to give the migrants around Australia and those Australians who may be considering living abroad the idea that the Government at last was doing something positive about this question. It is inappropriate simply because the Leader of the Opposition goaded the Government into some course of action by the introduction of a private member's Bill some weeks ago.

Let us examine the Government's record in respect of the negotiation of reciprocal agreements. Australia concluded a reciprocal agreement on social security with the United Kingdom on 8th June 1953, and the agreement commenced to operate in 1954. The negotiations commenced 19 years ago. There have been 2 amendments since- one is 1958 and the second in 1962, 10 years ago. Little of consequence, apart from the agreement with New Zealand, has been achieved since then. The Minister says that he has been engaged in negotiations with Italy since May 1967. It is 5 years since those negotiations were initiated and still there has been no progress report. With Yugoslavia, negotiations commenced in July 1967, nearly 5 years ago; with Malta, in January 1968, nearly 4 years ago; with Germany, in May 1968, 4 years ago and with Turkey, in March 1970, over 2 years ago. It would have been helpful if the Minister, in his second reading speech, had indicated the likelihood of concluding some of those agreements, but he made no such mention.

Before the Parliament goes into recess he wants to herald out to the nation the vague idea that something is in progress, but he will not give the House or the country sufficient details. Obviously these negotiations will drag on. No agreements have been negotiated with any prospective participating country and some time may elapse before they ever will be. In fact it is both possible and likely that no further results will accrue in the limited lifetime of this Parliament and Government. None of the Minister's bleating alibis can condone the McMahon Government's failure and his lack of success and initiative in giving effect to this universally acclaimed reform. This Bill is not only a death bed repentance on the part of this Government but, I believe, it is also a hoax - a blatant attempt to whitewash the years of neglect that have characterised the Government's mishandling and non-handling of this issue. The issue is very simple. It is the need to provide for the portability of pensions. It can be achieved by the stroke of the Minister's 'Eversharp' and it is no more complicated than that. The Labor Party acknowledged this a long while ago. In fact, in 1965 - 7 years ago - the Australian Labor Party formally took a decision on this matter and made its commitment at its 1965 Federal Conference in these terms:

That Australian citizens shall not cease to receive pensions because of residence abroad.

That is the Labor Party's unambiguous, unequivocal commitment and if, after this year's elections, there is a change of government that is the uncluttered and positive result that will accrue. It is as plain and straightforward as that. Had the Government not prevailed in the interim since 1965 when that decision was taken, the principle would have been given effect to long ago - 7 years ago. But in any case Labor will do so after the next elections.

In his second reading speech the Minister said that this matter went to Cabinet - this indecisive, procrastinating Cabinet - 3 years ago when an interdepartmental committee was appointed to examine it. One can hardly feel that Cabinet was excited about the whole matter - about the implementive needs of this great principle - when 3 years ago a decision was taken to look at it. The interdepartmental committee deliberated on the basic principle for 2 long years and then submitted its secret report to Cabinet 6 months ago. The sequel to this long wait is what we have now in the form of this Social Services Bill (No. 3) which does not offer anything tangible at all but which obviously is designed to mislead the migrants in particular and those Australians who may choose to live overseas in their retirement.

The Minister, with characteristic impetuosity, has brought this unnecessary Bill to the Parliament with the announcement that he has written letters to embassies about the matter. I should like to see copies of those letters. I doubt whether any of them are competent or substantial. It would be interesting to see them tabled because it is quite likely that a superficial job is being done even at this time. The Minister can soon disabuse me on this matter by making available some details of his negotiations. The whole sorry story, the whole historical cavalcade of events, makes a laughing stock of any sincerity which the Government claims about its concern for the welfare of our migrant community whose desires and interests have been denied. Everything the Minister said in his second reading speech points to a tendency to envelope any arrangement which Australia may make with other countries about the portability of pensions with petty, pinchpenny and pedantic quibbles.

In fact the Government clearly has set out to get everything it can on the cheap. The Minister has made it clear that a condition of any agreement will be that the participating country will be required to make its own pension available to those former residents living in Australia; otherwise we assume that there will be no agree ment at all. Insistence on that requirement will imperil the chance of any agreement with many countries. Clearly the net result will be that some migrants may come to enjoy the right of portability to the country to which they want to go while others, whose countries do not co-operate, will be denied it. So we will have this divisive characteristic injected into our social service scheme.

It is apparent that to minimise expenditure on social services - to cut the cost - New Australians who establish pension eligibility by age, invalidity or widowhood and who meet residential qualifications will then run the rigours of the means test. The Leader of the Opposition has asked about the problems in that regard. They will first have to show that they have gained any pension to which they may have an entitlement in their homeland as this would bear on their Australian entitlement under the provisions of the means test. For that matter, the means test will trouble, haunt and plague the New Australian pensioner whether he chooses to live in Australia or in his homeland. If he receives a part pension from his homeland, his Australian pension will vary with every variation of the rate of pension paid overseas. To administer the scheme the Commonwealth Department of Social Services necessarily will introduce new internal and overseas appendages to that part of the bureaucracy which constantly sends out questionnaires and otherwise probes and pries into the pensioner's private income and assets. All of this is aggravated by the Minister's insistence that countries can be regarded as participants only if they agree to extend their pension benefit to former nationals now in Australia. I believe that many countries will baulk at such requirements.

I remind the House of the very fundamental declaration of human rights which, in article 13, says that everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country. Article 22 states:

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security . . .

But the fact is that migrants who leave Australia, who have earned their pensions here, cannot have social security under the present arrangements. My colleague, the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam), has referred to the contentions made by the United Council of Immigrants. He read out some of the extracts of the submission which that Council has made to many members of this House. I ask whether any of these contentions are unreasonable. The Council says that pensions are the right and the property of elderly people. Does anyone disagree with that? I certainly hope not. The Council contends that the payment of pensions should not be limited to only certain countries. Does anyone say that payments should be limited according to the country in which people live? I take it that silence is acquiescence. The Council also says that pensioners should be free to take their pensions to whichever country they like. Is that an undesirable principle?

I remind honourable members that when we talk of the United Council of Immigrants, the Council whose policy has been embraced today completely and unambiguously by the Australian Labor Party, we are speaking of the Central Council of Croatian Associations in Australia, the Italian Welfare Centre Co., the Netherlands Society of Sydney, the Association of Australian Slovaks, the Swiss Club of New South Wales, the Ukrainian Society of New South Wales, the Federal Council of Polish Associations, the Estonian Society in Sydney, the Hungarian Council of New South Wales, the Maltese Community Council of New South Wales, the Latvian community in Sydney, the Lithuanian community in Sydney and the Australian Romanian Association. Today the Leader of the Opposition spoke for the many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of the members of those organisations, and I also speak for them at this time. I want to indicate our very grave dissatisfaction with the attitude taken by the Government. The clear fact of the matter is that many of these persons have contributed substantially to their pension entitlement.

I will not have time to look at the taxation scales in this regard, but if one takes, for example, a single taxpayer - and I have a chart which would enable me to give many examples - one finds that the average weekly earnings of a single taxpayer is $84.70 a week. At the present rate of taxation he would be paying $13.15 a week or $683 a year in taxation. Over the 20 years in which such a person would be required to be resident in Australia to establish eligibility under the scheme proposed by the Minister, he would pay in direct taxation no less than $13,676. My colleague the honourable member for Melbourne Ports (Mr Crean) would quickly say: 'Indirect tax in volume at least equals direct tax'. If this were the case such a person would pay approximately $27,000 or $28,000 in taxation in those 20 years. This Government is saying that if such a person has cause to return to his country of origin he will be deprived of his right to a pension.

Let me refer to a case in my own electorate which came to my attention only last week. It involves a Czechoslovakian person who has been in Australia for about 30 years. He had the misfortune to lose his married daughter who was a widow with several children in Czechoslovakia. Now he has to return to that country to look after the children. He is receiving a pension in Australia, but if he returns to Czechoslovakia, where he would have no pension entitlement, this Government intends to deprive him of his means of sustenance. He will have no pension at all in those circumstances.

The issue is quite clear. The House has to make up its mind whether it will be caught up in all these unnecessary trappings or whether it will have regard to the practical fact and make pensions available to people who earn them, regardless of where they live. Included in the countries which already pay such pensions are Canada, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Greece, Holland, Italy, Malta, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Sweden in certain circumstances. If those countries can do it, Australia can do it. We have been dragging the chain for too long. If the Government is not prepared to do it, I believe that the people ought to take the earliest possible opportunity to remove it from trie treasury bench.

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