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Thursday, 28 August 1980
Page: 890

Mr LLOYD (Murray) - The wording of the matter of public importance raised by the honourable member for Werriwa (Mr Kerin) is as follows:

The Fraser Government's unjust denial of invalid pensions to many deserving Australians.

The criteria for an invalid pension have remained unchanged since 1947, through both Labor and non-Labor governments. I quote from this year's Budget handbook the criteria for payment of an invalid pension. It states:

Invalid pensions are payable to people aged 16 years or more who are permanently incapacitated for work to the extent of not less than 85 per cent or are permanently blind.

There is a medical assessment and, apart from an income assessment, that is the basis for payment. I acknowledge the sincerity of the honourable member for Werriwa on this issue and other issues. However, when one looks at the words of his matter of public importance and at what he said in his speech, as well as the wording of the Social Services Act and the definition, there are a number of contradictions. There is a contradiction within the honourable members own terminology, because he is saying that there is an unjust denial of invalid pensions to many deserving Australians. Nowhere in his speech has he given evidence that a person who has a right to an invalid pension, because of the criteria and the medical assessment, has been denied such a pension.

The honourable member is talking about deserving Australians who, because of a degree of incapacity- but a less than permanent incapacity of 85 per cent- the problems of high unemployment, and problems of language- he has listed them well- are in very difficult circumstances and are deserving of compassion from our society. There is the point that, perhaps until now, this particular category has not been covered properly. I believe the honourable member for Werriwa is deserving of criticism for making no acknowledgment in his speech of one of the most significant extensions of social welfare policy of this Government in the Budget of last week- that is, the payment of fringe benefits to sickness beneficiaries. That picks up completely the sort of person about whom the honourable member is talking, but they are being picked up, appropriately, not by trying to stretch some form of definition or degree of permanent incapacity beyond what the Act has stated since 1947, through both Labor and non-Labor governments.

I want to refer to a few facts. The number of invalid pensioners in Australia in July of this year, 229,000, compares with 1 69,000 at the end of the Labor Government in 1975, and with the figure of 134,000 in 1970. The population of Australia has not increased in those 1 0 years to anywhere near the extent that the number of invalid pensioners has increased. Does this indicate some form of repressive government action? Does it indicate that the society is suddenly becoming permanently incapacitated or, more correctly, does it indicate that the medical assessment in some ways- I acknowledge this - has not been applied by the Act as it should have been?

Mr Innes - You are a hypocrite.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Millar -The honourable member for Melbourne will withdraw.

Mr Innes - I will withdraw but I hope that pensioners are listening to what this character is saying.

Mr LLOYD - Mr Deputy Speaker,that term coming from that person does not bother me at all. He should know what it means. It is also interesting that he uses that word when a person is giving facts. I have been called a hypocrite just for giving the facts. That is a terrible indictment of the attitude of the Opposition to this whole question. I quote a few more facts. Queensland figures indicate that at the end of June this year there were 36,818 invalid pensioners in Queensland compared with 34,706 last year. That is a significant increase. Does that indicate some form of witch hunt? The number of cancelled invalid pensions for the year to the end of June 1979 was 165; for the year just ended, to June 1980, there were 174 cancellations. Does that indicate a witch hunt? There are a few other facts. Federal Government spending on invalid pensions in the past financial year increased by $106m- from $690m to $796m. It is estimated in the Budget that for the next financial year that figure will increase to $936m, an increase of 14 per cent which is above the general increased level of expenditure estimated for social security.

For the benefit of Labor members who are interested in what their Government paid in the last year of its office, in 1975-76 the figure was $407m. So, there has been an increase of 95 per cent. Other assistance to the disabled - the handicapped children's allowance, Commonwealth rehabilitation services and voluntary organisations - rose from about $62m in 1975-76 to $104m in 1979-80- a rise of almost 70 per cent. Does that indicate a repressive Government which is not acknowledging the needs of the invalids, the handicapped, in this society? The number of invalid pensioners rose by more than 9,000 during last year. Does that indicate mass cancellations of or refusals to grant invalid pensions? I will repeat that since 1975 the number of invalid pensioners has increased from 169,000 to 229,000.

There have been many statements made by many people, particularly by welfare professionals and candidates for and members of the Opposition. Firstly, the consequences of many of these statements have been to worry needlessly large numbers of very sick and disabled people. It has been a very cynical political exercise to frighten unnecessarily the handicapped and invalids of this country. Furthermore, these statements have not been supported by evidence. The honourable member for Werriwa, who I acknowledge is sincere in this, has provided more examples than every other member of the Australian Labor Party and its candidates put together. In spite of all the publicity and the panic that this has created, where is the solid evidence? Secondly, the Minister for Social Security has made clear the Government's position on many occasions. The law relating to invalid pensions is quite specific, and it has not changed, lt is the responsibility of the Department of Social Security to ensure that all pensions and benefits are paid according to the law. Is the Opposition saying that the Department should break the law in its determination of this? The Department of Social Security is not undertaking medical reviews of all invalid pensioners. As has always been the case, medical reviews have been carried out on pensions granted subject to medical review. I understand that about 4 per cent of invalid pensioners are being reviewed in any 12-month period. I submit that that is less than what is generally the case in the other areas of social security pension benefits.

Opposition members interjecting -

Mr LLOYD - I just ask honourable members to listen. They may hear something of interest here. Thirdly, those who are dissatisfied with a determination have the right to appeal.

Mr Kerin - Oh!

Mr LLOYD - Just wait for it; I concede that the honourable member has made a valid point here. In the case of appeals, medical evidence is reviewed by a senior Commonwealth medical officer of the Department of Health.

Mr Leo McLeay (GRAYNDLER, NEW SOUTH WALES) - They have all got their instructions.

Mr LLOYD - I ask the honourable member to listen; he might learn something for a change. It might replace some of the blind prejudice he has. The Government is sympathetic to the view that there should be a right of appeal on medical matters to an independent tribunal. The Government is presently looking at ways this could be done through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The Government acknowledges, as it has in a whole range of reviews of administrative procedures, that there is a need for such a right of appeal. We are looking at that. When the Labor Party was in government it had a chance to do something about that but it did not do so. I believe that it is important for the Government to show that justice is appearing to be done as well as being done by providing this extra level of appeal.

The most significant thing that the Government has done constructively in this area has been to extend fringe benefits to sickness beneficiaries. That has been the major complaint of people who believed that they were entitled to an invalid pension and who have not got it. One has to acknowledge that a person who has a degree of incapacity of less than permanent incapacity is a person who will have medical expenses and other expenses higher than average and who will not be able to gain work, particularly in the difficult circumstances that prevail at the moment. I believe that what is being advanced by the present Government is most appropriate to overcome what is acknowledged as a weakness in criteria for the range of pensions and benefits. This is a compassionate and constructive action. It is far more appropriate than the negative scare-mongering tactics of the Opposition on this issue, providing needless worry to the invalids of this country.

Let me refresh the minds of those who need refreshing by stating some facts. The numbers are up for invalid pensions, the costs are up and the cancellations are average. I have been advised that the Department of Social Security has stated that the number of complaints about invalid pensions is no greater than or different from the ordinary run of complaints that come through. The honourable member for Werriwa is, I acknowledge, the only person opposite who has produced facts to any degree. The appeals procedure could be better and its improvement is being investigated. Fringe benefits have been extended to sickness beneficiaries.

What has the Labor Party done about this matter? As I have already said, it has not produced the evidence. The honourable member for Werriwa did not produce the evidence by using the definition that he used in this debate. He was talking about the many deserving Australians - there are all sorts of deserving Australians - not just the question of invalid pensions. He did not provide the evidence on that.

Mr Leo McLeay (GRAYNDLER, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The cockies.

Mr LLOYD - For the information of the honourable member, I point out that the average income of farming people in Australia was well below the minimum wage during the period when the Labor Party was in government. What did it do about that? As Opposition members do not like me quoting other people, I shall quote from something said by the honourable member for Port Adelaide, Mr Mick Young, who is a wellknown member of the front bench of the Labor Party. In a recent book which I am sure all Labor Party members have read and which is entitled / Want to Work,Mr Young argued that invalid pension figures are being inflated to sweep human beings off the unemployment statistics. In his book, M r Young said:

The pressure is on the administrators of unemployment benefits to keep the figures down at all costs. In 1975, the last year of the Labor Government, there were 32,394 new invalid pensions granted. In 1978, up to 30 October there were 43, 1 73 granted. New invalid pensions are up one-third on the number four years ago. Have we suddenly turned into a nation of cripples in those four years? The simple fact is that it's a very convenient way of sweeping human beings off the unemployment statistics.

There we have a prominent Labor Party front bencher saying in a book published this year that invalid pensions have increased in the dramatic way that they have not because of the fact that we have become a nation of cripples and not because the criteria are being applied restrictively but because the problem of unemployment has to be solved, with reasonable compassion extended to the unemployed, in an acceptable and correct way, not by bending the criteria for invalid pensions. What Mr Young is saying completely contradicts what the honourable member for Werriwa said. I hope that those two gentlemen get together at some stage in the near future.

I will give another example of the Labor Party's position on this matter. The alternative Budget was presented by the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Hayden) the other night. The honourable member for Werriwa, in the introduction to his speech, referred to this Government being a miserly government on unemployment benefit levels and family allowances before he finally got to the question of invalid pensions. There is not one definitive promise in that alternative Budget about the Labor Party increasing invalid pensions. What hypocrisy! The Labor Party has beautiful double standards. It says in its alternative Budget that it will be economically responsible and that it will not do this or that and then it moves an amendment about increasing expenditure for every piece of enabling legislation relating to the Budget that goes through this House, as happened last night in the debate on the Delivered Meals Subsidy Amendment Bill. If increased expenditure is a real priority for the Labor Party - if it is genuine about that - why did it not include reference to that in the alternative Budget? This is a cynical political exercise by the Labor Party to frighten unnecessarily the unfortunate people in our society who are invalid.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Millar)Order!The discussion is concluded.

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