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Thursday, 21 September 1972
Page: 1785

Mr REYNOLDS (Barton) - I join with all other honourable members in this House in expressing a very warm welcome to our distinguished visitors from Japan. If the Minister for the Navy (Dr Mackay) was confused about the treatment of superannuation in the new means test, he can imagine what confusion it will cause to the many elderly people in the community who have to make application for pensions. Apart from these further contributions to confusion, great confusion already exists in our social service laws. I think that lends significance to the amendment moved by the honourable member for Oxley (Mr Hayden) which states:

While not opposing the Bill, the House is of opinion that the only satisfactory way to provide social services benefits is through a comprehensive national system of social security where benefits are above the poverty level and tied to an index adjusted at least annually.

We have a proposal before the Parliament at present for a poverty survey. I remember interjecting - I suppose I was out of order - at the time the announcement was made: 'What a commentary. What a trenchant commentary this is on 23 years of Liberal-Country Party Government that we should be organising a national poverty survey in an affluent country such as Australia*. In my view and in the view of my colleagues, the poverty survey is not wide enough to encompass the sort of thing to which this Bill refers. It is not wide enough to meet the wishes of the Council for Social Welfare which has ardently sought a comprehensive survey into social services.

I hope that the few words I have to say this afternoon will give a further indication of the lack of comprehensiveness and co-ordination that exists within our social services law.% One of the principal items mentioned in the Bill is the proposal to abolish the means test and the measures that are being taken in the Bill to that effect. In my view, the Government is entitled to take credit for the measure. I, along with other honourable members from this side of the House, have been calling for this for as long as we have been in Parliament. I am reminded that it was my distinguished predecessor in the electorate of Barton, the late Dr Evatt, who in 1954 made an appeal to the Australian public for support to abolish the means test within 3 years. On that occasion Dr Evatt and the Labor Party were very nearly successful. Just a matter of a few votes in a few different electorates made all the difference between implementation of his promise and this long delay. Many people in retirement will now have cause for regret because the means test could have been abolished by 1957. It would have been abolished 15 years ago if the Labor Party had received just a little extra support back in 1954. The Government now proposes the abolition of the means test within 3 years. This coincides with the promise made by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam).

Mr Dobie - But he made it subsequently.

Mr REYNOLDS - If you are to go into that, the Leader of the Opposidid say 3 years ago that we would abolish it within 6 years; so this is consistent with the proposal on that occasion. If you are going to quote any changes in plans then you will have to recognise the vast change in the attitude which has been adopted by this Government. I remember the Prime Minister, once removed, having said that he was ardently opposed to abolition of the means test and that a lot more attention should be given to those people on the lower rungs of social welfare.

Mr Sherry - Who said that?

Mr REYNOLDS - That was the view of the right honourable member for Higgins (Mr Gorton). If we are going to talk about a change in attitude, let us be consistent.

Mr Beazley - Menzies promised to abolish it in 1949.

Mr REYNOLDS - I am reminded by the honourable member for Fremantle that when Sir Robert Menzies was the Prime Minister he made this promise in 1949. When he came into office he said he would introduce a national superannuation scheme within, I think, the first 3 years of office. It seems to me to be rather ironic that here we aTe now about to abolish the means test, 23 years after this Government came into office, just on the eve of its departure from office. Even now the proposals made in connection with the means test exclude very important sections of our people. The proposals will not provide for invalid pensioners. Presumably the means test with all its provisions will still be imposed upon invalids, upon class A and class B widows and on service pensioners who are entitled to a pension at 60 years of age. Presumably service pensioners will not be exempt from the application of the means test until they reach the age of 65 despite the fact that they get a pension at 60 years of age because their assumed life expectation is 5 years shorter on an average than it would have been if they had not been in war service. Then there are all the female age pensioners between the ages of 60 and 65. There is a very large group of them. They also will be excluded from the Government's proposal to abolish the means test.

One other significant factor connected with the alleviation of the means test and the Government's proposal is that there will be no relaxation in respect of the various concessions. Most honourable members who have to deal with people in retirement know that the pensioner medical service and all the other concessions that are associated with it are very much prized by people in retirement. If there is one thing that worries elderly people more than any other it is the worry of the insecurity caused by possible long term sickness and all its attendant medical costs. For that reason I have seen pensioners prepared to spend quite a lot of money, inadvisedly in my own view, in order to get within the provisions of the means test as it applies to the pensioner medical service. It has always seemed to me to be a very harsh kind of means test. It means that any single pensioner who is in receipt of $30 a week or more in means as assessed will miss out on all the concessions. A difference of 10c can mean that a pensioner is eligible for the pensioner medical service, transport concessions, municipal rate concessions - I am talking about New South Wales now, the State which I know best - water rate concessions, telephone rental concessions and the radiotelevision licence concession. All those concessions are available to a person whose means as assessed in the case of a single person are $29.90 a week. But a person on $30 a week - just 10c more - receives none of these concessions. That seems an awfully painful and arbitrary decision to make. Likewise it applies in the case of married persons whose means as assessed are $51.50 a week; they lose the lot. But a married couple in receipt of just 10c a week less get all those benefits. This seems to be a grave injustice, in my view.

The proposals relating to superannuation, which I mentioned in my earlier remarks, will be of some use presumably to people on superannuation. I quite frankly have not had time to study it. All I can say is that having had a glance at it it seems to be a very complex measure and if it will be necessary for the Minister for the Navy to refer to a ready reckoner I imagine that most elderly people will need to do more than that in order to judge their eligibility for pensions.

The annual adjustment for the capitalisation of superannuation and annuity payments seems to me to be a complex measure which will only further add to the confusion that exists in the implementation of the means test. I notice that it is not expected to last more than 3 years for those people for whom the means test will be abolished, but presumably all those classes of people to whom I referred a while ago and who will not come within the purview of the abolished means test will have to carry on with all its complexities. That is one other disability that they will have.

I welcome the Government's measure to extend the pension to the wife of an age or invalid pensioner where the wife herself is not ordinarily eligible for an age or invalid pension. This is something which all of us have pressed for over a number of years. I am glad to see that it has been included in this measure. .Unfortunately there is no provision in this. Bill to establish a stable relationship between pensions and an index of community welfare. The Labor Party, in line with pensioner organisations, supports the view that pensions ought to be tied in a fixed relationship with average weekly earnings in the community. It has been said in the past that they ought to be related to some consumer price index. We think, and so do the pensioners, that it would be better to have pensions related to average weekly earnings because wa feel that this would be a better index of community prosperity. Senior citizens or pensioners ought to be entitled to share in such prosperity as exists in the community. The Labor Party's solemn pledge is that we will at the outset fix pensions at 25 per cent of average weekly earnings in the community. We will get to that point as soon as it is physically possible to do so and then the pensioners will have some kind of security. This has been done in at least 14 other countries so far as I have been able to ascertain. Countries which have this fixed relationship between pensions and some other index of community prosperity or price costs include Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Finland, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Uraguay. It ill behoves the Government to rubbish the idea that pensions should have a fixed relationship to some index on the lines which I have suggested.

I make an appeal on behalf of not a lot of people, although there are 43,000 of them and that is a fair number. I appeal to this Government to do something about pensions for class B widows. It seems to me to be totally illogical that we should ask a class B widow to live on $2.75 a week less than she would get if she were 60 years of age. A class B widow is, as honourable members know, a widow between the age of 50 and 59. She gets only the same rate as a married age or invalid pensioner, which is $17.25 a week, but when she turns 60 years of age - possibly her requirements will be less - she will get $2.75 a week more. Another appeal which has been made by widow pensioner associations to various members including myself is for an educational allowance for the children of a class A widow. A class A widow is a widow who has dependent children of school age. These organisations think that a class A widow is just as entitled to an educational allowance for their dependent children as are war widows. We are still lagging behind in the implementation of the promise to introduce portability of pensions. The Minister has said that he is making inquiries and investigations and is conducting negotiations. Long before this the Labor Party would have done something. As I understand it, the Labor Party has promised quite firmly, without waiting for agreements, to make it possible for all citizens who are eligible for pensions in Austrafia to take those pensions abroad to places at which they intend to retire.

Many necessary improvements are not included in the Bill. Time will not permit me to refer to all of them. For example the Bill contains no provision to increase the allowance for dependent children of widow, age ot invalid pensioners. No provision is made to increase the guardian allowance or the allowance to mothers, dependent children of class A widows or long term sickness beneficiaries other than the adult himself. His spouse remains on $8 a week. In other words, a long term sickness beneficiary couple are expected to live on $28 a week. I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government was not consistent in this matter. It should have extended to the wife of a long term sickness beneficiary the same benefit as obtains for age and invalid pensioners. Why not give to each of them the married rate pension? I hope that the Minister for Social Services, who is at the table, will take note of my query. The Government has acted inconsistently.

No increase whatsoever is made to the unemployment and short term sickness benefits despite the fact that Australia has one of the highest unemployment levels for many years. The adult unemployment benefit remains at $17 a week and the spouse receives $8 a week. In other words, an unemployed couple is expected to live on $25 a week. No extra payment is to be made for their dependent children. The maternity allowance has not been increased for years. As to child endowment, no increases are to be paid. The payment for the first child remains at 50c a week, for the second child $1 and for the third child $2. ls it any wonder that more and more wives and mothers are forced to join the work force in order to help the family to make ends meet? The funeral allowance is not increased. A short time ago reference was made to the subsidy for Meals on Wheels. Obviously the costs of that organisation have risen and like everybody else it must pay more for foodstuffs. Therefore an increase in the subsidy is warranted.

I turn now to the supplementary assistance provided for pensioners who pay rent. Pensioners who are not paying rent in some cases are up for greater expenditure in paying off their own homes. They do not get any help in this regard. Like the rest of us in the community they are faced by escalating council rates and water board rates. They receive no help from the Commonwealth Government. In some States they are subsidised, in others they are not. In respect of people who receive rent allowance, no taper has been applied. The means test remains unaltered and the permissible amount without interfering with the entitlement for rent allowance remains at $1. There has been no alleviation at all despite the fact, as everybody knows, that rents are escalating in keeping with rising home building costs.

I wish to press another point with the Minister and the Government concerning the required delay of 7 days before sickness or unemployment benefit eligibility is established. I have not heard a cogent reason why the benefit should not be paid for the first 7 days of sickness or unemployment. It simply means that when people come to your office you have to refer them to the State Welfare Branch to get some kind of urgent relief pending the processing of a claim. As far as the Commonwealth is concerned, for the first 14 days of sickness or unemployment these people are on their own. The payment is made retrospective for 7 days but for the other 7 days it seems that they are supposed to live on fresh air.

One of the social service regulations quite frequently comes to my notice. Apparently pensioners who enter a convalescent home are allowed to let their homes for up to 12 months, subject to review at the end of that period. I cannot see anything magical about the period of 12 months. They ought to be allowed to let their homes indefinitely to pay rates and other costs, or not al all. Another important issue 1 would like to discuss relates to the mentally and physically handicapped. The Senate Standing Committee on Health and Welfare furnished a report on mentally and physically handicapped persons about IS months ago. Twelve months ago it was referred to an interdepartmental committee. This important report dealt with many aspects affecting the administration of several Ministers, not the least of whom is the Minister for Social Services. It dealt with matters such as the registration of the numbers of handicapped persons, their employment, workers compensation, pensioner benefits, tax concessions for the mentally and physically handicapped, and suitable accommodation for them. It also referred to home nursing and domiciliary care amongst its 82 recommendations. Fifteen months later the Government has not seen fit to do anything about implementing the report.

This Bill contains some beneficial provisions that we have been seeking for years but it also has many deficiencies. 1 would have preferred the Government to set up a comprehensive inquiry into the whole sphere of social services as recommended in the amendment moved by the Labor Party.

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