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Wednesday, 19 March 1969

Mr WHITLAM (Werriwa) (Leader of the Opposition) - It is now 3 years since Melbourne University's Institute of Applied

Economic Research, to which I shall refer as the Institute, began to count and classify the poor in Australia. It is now 4 years since the Department of Social Services last surveyed a significant cross-section of social service beneficiaries, but only 4 weeks since the results of that survey were made available for the first time to members of the Parliament. It is now clear that at least 1 million Australians are victims of poverty or marginal poverty. It is now clear that the Government has inhibited independent research into poverty and withheld information on the condition of the poor.

On 25th January the Minister for Social Services (Mr Wentworth) addressed the Australian Institute of Political Science summer school on social services and poverty. He could not find time in his speech for the problems of Australians who have large families. He was therefore unable to point out that, according to a survey of living conditions in Melbourne which was conducted by the Institute, 22% of these families are living in poverty or marginal poverty. He had no opportunity to acknowledge that parenthood in the eyes of a Libera] government merits no financial recognition. The maternity allowance has remained unaltered for 25 years although costs associated with a confinement have increased five-fold over that period. Endowment of first children has not been increased for 18 years, of second children for 20 years and of third children for 4 yeaTs. In 1949, families with three children received in child endowment 11.5% of the average man's weekly income. They now receive 5%. In 1948, the minimum wage was $11.60 and a family with three children received in child endowment $4. In order to preserve this ratio, such a family would now need to receive $12 but in fact receives $6.75. Child endowment represented 1.28% of Australia's gross national product in 1950-51. In 1968-69 it will represent 0.74%.

The Minister, however, conceded that civilian widow pensioners with more than one child are likely to be impoverished, with this qualification:

Although there are undoubtedly bad individual cases, the overall position may not be as bad as would prima facie appear. Some de jure widows receive provision from their husband's estate or insurance or by way of compensation for his death; many divorcees and separated wives receive some alimony or maintenance; where the marriage has been in existence some time there is likely to be home ownership or a substantial equity in a home.

In fact, 76% of all class A widows have incomes of not more than $52 a year, 81% have property valued at not more than $400 and only 35% own or are acquiring a home. Similarly, 72% of class B widows have incomes of not more than $52, 73% have not more than $400 in property and only 42% have a home of their own. Despite the Minister's apologia, 22,000 civilian widow pensioners and 60,000 children who are dependent upon them receive, as an act of government policy, incomes below the poverty line.

Finally, the Minister proclaimed:

Measured in terms of today's prices ... the age pension for those who are single and pay rent and have nothing else to live on has gone up from $9.58 in December 1949 to $18 today - an increase of 88% in 19 years. This is a signal advance in the real value of the pension, considered as a weapon against poverty.

The Minister understandably did not point out that age pensions in 1948-49 equalled 24% of average weekly earnings and in 1967-68 20%. He did not mention that age pensioners even as recently as 1954 were allowed to earn additional income equal to 100% of the pension, but by 1968 could earn in the case of single pensioners 71% and of married couples 68%. He did not mention that every dollar earned over and above this amount reduced the pension by a dollar, thus in effect attracting marginal taxation at the rate of 100%. In a time of general prosperity, age pensioners find that the gap between their standard of living and standards enjoyed by the remainder of the community is greater than ever before. Moreover, the Melbourne survey revealed that 21% of all pensioners are victims of poverty, while a further 17% are living in marginal poverty.

The inadequacies of the Government's social services programmes are matched by the inadequacy of its social service statistics. In place of comprehensive poverty statistics we have the results of a survey of living standards in a single city, still after 3 years incompletely analysed. Figures so far released by the Institute suggest that at least one Australian in every sixteen is a victim of primary poverty, or deprivation arising from a simple lack of means. They tell us nothing about the incidence of secondary poverty, which arises as an economic consequence of alcoholism, acute marital discord and other symptoms of social or economic maladjustment.

The Interregional Expert Meeting on Social Welfare Organisation and Administration held in Geneva in 1967 observed that 'there is an explicit responsibility for government to ensure that all possible research resources should be made available as a reliable guide for the development of social welfare policies and programmes'. Research into the extent of poverty in Australia and the adequacy of Australian social services is rendered unnecessarily laborious, time-consuming and ineffectual by the Government's failure to accept such responsibility. Authorities responsible for providing various services should be obliged to document their activities with proper statistical data, collected and published in an agreed standard form. Many relevant statistics are not now collected. Many are collected but not published. Many are published in a form which renders them useless for comparative and evaluative purposes.

The Minister and the Prime Minister have repeatedly pleaded in answer to my questions on social services and social welfare that no information is available on such questions as the incomes of persons of pensionable age, the number of such persons in mental hospitals and the number of social workers to be trained. Moreover, gross inadequacies in the statistics of social security are magnified by ministerial proclivity for suppressing and distorting available information. In February 1965 the Department of Social Services conducted a Statistical Survey of the Characteristics of Age, Invalid and Widow Pensioners in New South Wales. The results of this 4- year-old survey were made available to honourable members only 4 weeks ago. They were tabled surreptitiously in the library after attention had been focussed on the reticence of the Minister and the Department by speakers at the summer school on poverty.

It is interesting to compare the full results of the survey with snippets included in the twenty-fourth report of the DirectorGeneral of Social Services. Information on widow pensioners set out in that report is in all cases but one dissected among widows, deserted wives and other categories of pensioner. Information on home ownership is a significant exception. Had the DirectorGeneral made this dissection, he would have been obliged to reveal that the proportion of home ownership among deserted wives was 11%, as opposed to 50% among de jure widows and 35% among civilian widows as a whole. Had this sad and politically inconvenient item of information been made available, the Government might long since have been compelled to improve the lot of these, the most unlucky of all Australians. It is deplorable that the Department cannot in these matters be as frank and self-critical as the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare. This department constantly surveys and assesses the adequacy and relevance of its activities. It publishes comprehensive survey results in a monthly 'Social Security Bulletin'. It encourages general participation in programme evaluation and improvement.

The extent and character of poverty in Australia will not be properly established, nor will public concern be adequately engaged and mobilised, without a national inquiry leading to a comprehensive and objective report. The Minister appears to concur with his predecessor in the view that poverty is a matter best left to 'academic institutions which can investigate the matter free from political pressure', and he has been similarly ineffectual in persuading his colleague, the Minister for Education and Science (Mr Malcolm Fraser), to provide the funds which such a project would require.

Professor Ronald Henderson of the Institute told the summer school that it would cost $250,000 merely to repeat in other parts of Australia the inquiries into living standards which the Institute had already conducted in Melbourne. It is not possible to take seriously a Government which asserts that poverty is a matter for academics to investigate but denies academics the funds to investigate it.

The Government in fact ignores and handicaps Australians who are well qualified by training and experience to provide advice on poverty. It ignores and belittles the example of industrial nations with which in other matters we compare ourselves. Britain, New Zeal'and, Canada, Ireland and Sweden are but five of the nations which now provide income-related, meanstestfree retirement benefits through public pension plans. Citizens of these nations are not faced upon retirement with a traumatic reduction in their living standards. Far from ensuring through national superannuation that all Australians enjoy dignity and comfort in retirement, the Liberal Party now disowns even its promise to abolish the means test, proclaiming that it would cost $340m. lt would not be ruinous, however, to take deliberate steps to abolish the means test. It would cost $65m to pay a full pension to ali persons of 75 years of age and over irrespective of their income, and another $12m to pay it to all persons of 74 years of age. These are practical! steps which a Commonwealth government could take to bring Australia progressively into line with other comparable developed countries. They are steps which the present Minister - in view of all his past postures, speeches and statements - should regard himself as bound to take. They are steps which a Labour government would in fact take.

Poverty is a moral question. It is an economic question. In Canada, for instance, it has been pointed out by the Government's Committee of Economic Advisors that poverty is costly not only to the poor individual but to the community. The Committee pointed out that in the United States one poor man can cost the public purse as much as $140,000 between the ages of 17 and 57. Under the Canadian Assistance Plan the resources of the Federal Government are combined with those of the provincial governments, local government and voluntary agencies to combat poverty. The plan authorises provision of such necessities as food, shelter, clothing, transport, health care and tools of trade. It finances welfare services to reintegrate the poor with the communities from which they have been outcast. It is, in short, a nation's charter for the overthrow of poverty.

The Labor Party does not regard poverty as a matter of merely academic concern. Labor senators have given notice of motion for a select committee of the Senate to inquire into and report upon the incidence, distribution, causes and effects of poverty in Australia. Professor Henderson and his team would assist the committee and be assisted by it.

Upon assuming office Labor will adopt as a matter of urgency legislation based upon the Canadian assistance plan. It will regard such legislation as a framework within which the welfare services of the Commonwealth, State governments, local government and voluntary agencies can be deployed against poverty most economically and with the greatest effect.

We will establish a joint statutory committee of the Parliament to make a constant review of the relevance and adequacy of social services. It will be enjoined to encourage general participation in the task of ensuring that for every dollar spent on social services the community makes maximum progress towards the reduction and ultimate elimination of poverty.

Realising that appropriate measures for income maintenance must play a vital part in the overthrow of poverty, Labor will investigate and introduce within its first 3 years a comprehensive national superannuation plan. We will expand the concept of child endowment to provide selective support for Australians with larger families and smaller incomes. We take the initiative in announcing such positive and realistic policies. They are not overnight decisions. They have been published in our platform for years past. They are relevant and practical steps which must be taken if Australia is to become a nation free of poverty. They are steps which must be taken if the children of today's poor are not to become the poor of tomorrow, and if ordinary Australians on retirement are not to be faced with a great, harmful reduction in their living standards. They are steps which can be taken only under a Labor government.

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