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Wednesday, 7 March 1973
Page: 314

Mr BENNETT (Swan) - Mr Deputy Speaker,may I take this opportunity to ask you to extend to the Speaker my congratulations upon his election to .that illustrious office, and may I congratulate you and other Deputy Speakers on your elevation to the very high office you hold. In this my first opportunity to speak in this House since my re-election I have cause to regret that it is not an opportunity to make wide reference to the problems in my electorate or to thank extensively those people who worked so hard to ensure my return here. In particular I would like to thank my wife. As did all other candidates' wives, she became so deeply involved. It would be wrong not to acknowledge the sterling efforts of my opponent's wife in her collection of sick and absentee votes. I regret for her sake that there could be only one successful candidate in what proved to be one of the most expensive and unfortunate campaigns I have experienced. I regret its unfortunate tone and sincerely hope that campaigns in future will be conducted on a higher plane.

It gives me great personal pleasure to have an opportunity to congratulate the Minister for Social Security (Mr Hayden) on measures which not only bring equality to areas where anomalies have existed but also take politics out of pensions and benefits. In past elections all social security beneficiaries have had to wait anxiously to see which party was elected and then to see what promises it was prepared to keep. I might say that they were often disappointed over the years. But at long last some system of automatic adjustment and automatic pension levels has been established, making pensions and benefits no longer a political football'. It was interesting to note that in Western Australia the Federal election was fought on State issues. This applied in particular to my own electorate of Swan. It demonstrated to the electorate just how little national leadership the then Government had to offer. It demonstrated to social security beneficiaries just how little hope they could expect from my opponents and how little concern my opponents really had for pensioners. When Labor's proposals were clearly and ably put forward the cry was: 'Where is the money coming from?' Frankly, we are still hearing it here today. We also heard the cry: 'You will pay', showing a complete disregard for the real needs of the under privileged within our community. This has been further illustrated by the attitude since taken by their Western Australian representatives. In fact one begins to wonder whether they are in the Federal or State Parliament.

In the social services field let us look at a few of the problems which have arisen out of the granting of increases in Western Australia. There can be no reflection on the Minister for the actions of those outside the Parliament but there is a reflection on the greed or lack of understanding of those parties to whom I shall refer. These increases in some instances have been taken completely or mortgaged in advance by so-called charitable organisations running aged persons homes for the purpose of receiving rent or maintenance payments which in many instances absorb up to 25 per cent of pension increases, and in fact in a number of cases substantially more. Automatic increases in rent attached to the automatic increases in pension are envisaged by these organisations, so instead of the people receiving the full benefit of each rise they will automatically lose up to 25 per cent of the increase as determined by the board of management of those homes.

Residents of these homes, who in the main have paid a donation of one-third of the cost of the building in which they reside, which donation is not legally recoverable - in fact they are prevented by the Act from recovering this amount of money - have protested that they would be financially better off in State housing commission accommodation because the rent for pensioners in such accommodation is much cheaper. Often they have no control over the amount of maintenance that has to be paid. I point out that no maximum amount is set out in the Act. No annual balance sheets have been distributed to the residents to justify these rises. No explanations have been made. The residents have not been granted representation on the boards of management of these homes. No election is held for membership of boards of management. There is no indication of the salaries being paid to those in control of the homes. It may well be that such persons are donating their time to the boards of control. This happens in many instances. In fact, I happen to be chairman of a body, the members of which all donate their time free of charge. It is unfortunate that, despite the good efforts of the Minister for Social Security to ensure regular pension payments and regular increases in pensions, action has been taken to mortgage such increases in advance. Such action is completely wrong and amounts to price rises without justification.

Hundreds of persons petitioned the Parliament during the last session requesting that action be taken to ensure resident representation on the boards of control of homes for the aged and to provide for the annual election of such boards which should report in detail to the residents of those homes. It is imperative that such action be taken so that the residents will have a complete understanding of the situation and will be able to live harmoniously and enjoy peace of mind in their retirement. I know of instances of persons entering such homes under contracts that provided for no maintenance payments to be made. Some of these persons have succumbed to pressures which have been brought to bear on them over a long period and are making maintenance payments. The appalling fact is that initially the Federal Government met twothirds of the capital cost of such homes and the remainder was sought through public subscription. Some charitable organisations are still seeking public subscriptions. I have made contributions myself so I have personal feelings about this matter.

The interior of many of these properties has been totally neglected. No maintenance has been carried out and will not be carried out until such time as the occupant pays the cost, leaves the home or passes on. This situation leads to dissension and anomalies. I have been given to understand that this situation has applied for a number of years. The creation of sub-standard accommodation is deplorable at any time. I hope that the Minister will be able to rectify the situation. The previous Minister was most reluctant to take any action. If the Minister cannot do so I will be perfectly willing to conduct a public appeal for funds to renovate disputed areas within such homes. It is only to be hoped that the boards of management will grant admission to the homes to contractors who are employed to undertake renovations. No matter what the reasons or the arguments, which undoubtedly will increase as the amounts allegedly owing by these residents become greater as a direct result of the pension increases granted by the Government, no-one should be disadvantaged in respect of the quality of the surroundings of his abode.

I appreciate that these organisations face rising administration costs. All possible government help should be given to them to reduce such costs even, if necessary, by the provision of management staff from the Department of Social Security. Such officers are experts in the field of administration and would be familiar with all aspects of the Act. Their services undoubtedly would remove the burden of administrative cost from the residents. When one has regard to the multiplicity of organisations in this field - frequently sited alongside each other - one can understand that it is not fair to expect voluntary workers to continue to bear the burden if they desire to opt out. It should be borne in mind that the money invested in these homes is either taxpayers' money provided from Federal funds, money raised from contributions by residents or money received from public subscriptions. It behoves the Government to take a closer interest in the housing of our aged and to ensure that all pensioners benefit from pension increases.

Undoubtedly the real interest of those people who organise such homes is in the provision of adequate housing for the aged. I have participated in the organisation of aged persons' homes and I believe that if the anomaly to which I have referred cannot be resolved, the New Zealand practice should be examined. In New Zealand the residents of such homes can capitalise on their homes - can sell them to the government for the housing of younger people or for the redevelopment of the area. The residents are given the opportunity to occupy government retirement flats at a nominal rental with no ingoing payment. In Australia there should be no mortgaging by outside bodies of pension increases without proper investigation, without representation of residents on boards of control and without a full and proper assessment of the needs of a particular establishment at a given time. Pensioners must be assured that maintenance charges are fully justified and that such payments are not to be utilised for expansion projects or for duplicated administrative costs.

Equally important, it is time that such units were made available on a no entry fee basis. Most people believed that this was the ultimate aim when these homes were first established. However, far too few are becoming available on a no entry fee basis. Even after such homes have been resold at a price in excess of the two times criterion, which is provided in the Act, a rent in advance ploy is being utilised on occasion. By rights most of these units should be available on a rental basis now. The charges for them should not be in excess of rentals charged by the State Housing Commission for similar accommodation. Some of these homes demand a payment of $7 to $9 a fortnight in advance plus one-quarter of all future pension increases. In addition charges are made for rubbish removal, for the attendance of a welfare sister and for a community centre. After meeting such charges the resident has little or nothing to put aside. The Western Australian State Housing Commission charges $6 for a double pensioner unit and $3.50 for a single unit with no ingoing charge and it maintains the grounds where necessary. It maintains the premises in a fit and proper condition.

The whole question must be examined. Many of these pensioners do not come within the categories listed in the findings of the survey on poverty conducted by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economics and Social Research. However, as this is the only reliable survey into poverty available at this juncture, one can assume that a similar situation applies in most major cities, including Perth. The findings of the survey as summarised indicate that more than 25 per cent of the aged were poor and that one in every 4 was in a state of marginal poverty; 35 per cent of aged pensioners were poor and one in 3 was marginally poor; and 14 per cent of aged non-pensioners were poor or one in 7 was marginally poor. These are the people who have provided the backbone of this nation. They served Australia in 2 world wars, weathered a depression and experienced many economic recessions under the previous government. The old catchcry of 'more for the needy, not the greedy', does not apply to them. They are the unfortunate victims of our growing affluence - the unwanted relatives of our new generation. Although they are not unloved in many cases, with our new standards - be they right or wrong - it is not now customary to look after one's own aged as these current pensioners would have done for their parents.

It is universally accepted that this is a community responsibility - a government responsibility. I congratulate the Minister for recognising and accepting this community challenge. Undoubtedly it will continue to be an increasing challenge, for we have seen the decline of the large family. It is interesting to note in my electorate of Swan that the demand for larger accommodation units is from migrant families who, in some cases, live frugally if not in poverty. This situation is highlighted by the findings of the Melbourne survey which indicated that large families with at least 4 dependent children, and particularly those with more than 5, were poor or marginally poor. This is true of people who migrated to Western Australia when there was a building boom in the north and who are now back in the city area receiving lower wages. Many of these people were affected by the latter Budgets of the now Opposition and are now receiving unemployment relief.

Although these pension increases are to be paid retrospectively it will not solve all the problems of the needy because they have suffered for so long. For the man who retired 10 to 15 years ago, and his wife, the situation is often pathetic. Annual charity and blanket appeals and food hampers on festive occasions reflect not charity but abject poverty and bad government. Throughout Australia, particularly in Western Australia in relation to which honourable members have spoken of boom years for industry, enormous development and profits, no one can escape the shame of our community which allows people to be cold and hungry and, so often, too proud to ask for relief. We can only hope that the benefits proposed in the Bill will not be opposed, but that in this area of long neglect these genuine attempts to raise community standards among our social service beneficiaries will receive unanimous support.

We can only hope that the defeat of the previous Government will impress on them in opposition the need to put people before profits, the need to honour promises that have been made, the need to honour the mandate given to them at elections which were won on promises made by them. If they can learn this they will become a useful Opposition, able to contribute constructively to the Parliament with ideas to improve standards in the community. They must learn not to oppose legislation mischievously when that legislation could bring benefits not only to government supporters but also to their own constituents. Honourable members opposite should remember that for 60 years their policies have encompassed a national insurance scheme which has never come to fruition. In 1913, 1927-28, 1938 and 1949 promises of such a scheme were made but were never honoured. The Government of 1938 introduced a National Insurance Bill which received royal assent in July 1938, but the government of the day, no doubt under the influence of private enterprise organisations which it represented in the Parliament, prevented regulations being gazetted, as a result of which the Act did not come into force. In 1949 R. G. Menzies said:

Australia still needs a contributory system of national insurance against sickness, widowhood, unemployment and old age. It is only under such a system that we can make all benefits a matter of right and so get completely rid of the means test. During the new Parliament we will further investigate tha complicated problems with a view to presenting you at the election of 1952 a scheme for your approval.

That is the end of the quote - the end of Menzies. Today, after 23 years, no such scheme exists and the means test is still in force waiting for the clearly stated policy of the new Government to be put into effect to abolish it.

The amendment proposed by the Opposition is farcical. The puerile attack by honourable members opposite on the increases proposed is amazing. On the one hand they move an amendment which states that the Bill cannot achieve the target it sets out to achieve, that is, to pay every pensioner a weekly amount which is equal to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings, and on the other hand they say it will be a taxpayers nightmare. What a constant contradiction of words and actions comes from the Opposition benches. Honourable members opposite argue that because apprentices in the main are underpaid, relative to our living standards, the unemployment benefit must be pegged at a level below or equal to the apprentices' wage. They pay no regard whatever to living standards in the community. With tongue in cheek they say that the adjustment of the unemployment benefit will disturb economically desirable employment patterns in our society. What they should say, if they are honest, is that they wish to see a continuance of the unemployment pattern, a situation in which a skilled worker who is thrown out of a job would not be able to wait for a better position or accept retraining because he or she would be forced to accept the first position available. Because of the unsuitability of the person to the position, further job turnover or unsatisfactory service to the employer would result.

It is a pity that honourable members opposite are opposing this measure merely for the sake of opposing instead of concentrating on giving a swift passage to the Bill, which will benefit every social service recipient. They should not be attempting to delay its passage. They may rest assured that the Government will insist that the benefits are passed on as quickly as possible. Despite the Opposition's alarm at the proposal to make payments retrospective, the Government will insist that the amounts be paid retrospectively. Honourable members on this side of the chamber hope that never again will a poverty survey result in findings so disastrous as those arrived at by the Melbourne poverty survey. We realise that more favourable results may be available in country areas and in other cities as a result of the increases which will be given by the Government, but it is unfortunate that such a period of neglect by the previous Government will still be reflected to some degree. However, it is impossible to make up such a tremendous backlog immediately. I am sure that as the problems are highlighted in the future they will be dealt with efficiently by the new Minister and the Government.

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