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Wednesday, 7 March 1973
Page: 323

Mr WENTWORTH (Mackellar) - I think the House should agree that the Government that went out left the economy in a very good state and it left great reserves - and we should be glad of this - which will enable a forward social service policy to be conducted. If we had remained in office we would have done this: We would have pushed on with a forward social service policy. I would remind the House that during the last three or four years our social service policy has been one of progress. We did leave resources. We showed real restraint. As against the easy accusations which were made in this House a few moments ago, we did not at election time put forward policies for election purposes. Just the opposite. We have left for the incoming government a margin, a momentum, which I hope it will continue.

In the social service field, as in other fields, the Government is the inheritor of something that the Australian people have created during our time in office. I hope that the Government will be able to continue the same progress that we showed. After all, it is not from the electors' point of view so important which government is in power or which gov ernment is not in power. From the electors' point of view it is important what is done for Australia and how fast and how far our progress goes. I would suggest that the House would appreciate this. I am sure that honourable members on this side of the House will appreciate that we will look on all of these things as Australians and when something is done which is good, even if this be done by a government of another colour, we will applaud and support it.

The main purpose of this Bill is to raise the main rate of pension by $1.50 per week. The Government has a mandate for this and should be therefore supported. It is regrettable, of course, that there is a little tack of clarity in the Government's formulation of policy. Some people would say that the pledge of the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) was to give not $1.50 now but $3 by autumn of this year. I do not press this point. This is not the only situation in which the Labor Government made promises which were perhaps a little far-reaching and which it may not be able to honour in their entirety. As I said, I do not press this point. I say only that, there was a little lack of clarity in the formulation of the promise and that some people, when they read the text of the Prime Minister's policy speech, might think that there should have been given $1.50 immediately and another $1 .50 this autumn, which would come within the 'thereafter' phrase in the Prime Minister's policy speech. However, be that as it may, I think that we should all support the present rise. However, I wonder if it can be squared with the Government's announced objective.

I listened with some care to what the Minister for Social Security (Mr Hayden) said about the situation, that if the $1.50 did not turn out to be enough the Government would consider increasing the . amount. I acknowledge that the Minister said this. But let us just look at the figures. If the average weekly earnings are to rise by $12 a year-and that seems to be about par for the course at the moment - an increase in pensions of S3 a year, which is twice the proposed increase of $1.50 to be paid each spring and autumn, will just about hold the present relative position and the Government will never under these circumstances be able to catch up . to . 25 per cent of average weekly earnings simply by giving an increment of $1.50 every 6 months. This may be so, and all of us fear that the inflation under the Labor, administration will be somewhat fierce and will be greater in the wage category than the $12 per week rise in average weekly earnings that I have suggested. It seems to me that under present conditions we are not likely to catch up. I do not want to be taken as attributing the inflation which I am afraid will occur to extravagant social service expenditure. I do not hold that view. It seems to me that the elements of inflation are somewhat deeper and more massive, lying as they do in industrial indiscipline rising to industrial sabotage and to extravagant wage claims. Whereas I support the proposal that we should tie the rate of pension to some external index, it seems to me that average weekly earnings are not the happiest of indices to tie it to because, first, it is volatile and it fluctuates. The difference between the March and December quarters, for example, is obviously fairly well known but, more importantly, it is itself subjective and is itself indicative only of a section of the community. I would rather have tied the rate of pension to national income per capita. The results would not have been vastly different over the past couple of years but it seems to me that this is a fairer and more practical criterion to invoke.

I now come to a part of the Bill which causes me, as it caused other speakers on this side of the House, a certain amount of apprehension, and that is what is being done in regard to unemployment benefits. 1 admit that it is desirable to give to those who are unemployed through no fault of their own relief on a scale greater than the accepted norm. I agree about that. But what is the best way of doing this without at the same time involving yourself in quite important difficulties? It is all very well for honourable members opposite to brush these difficulties away but in the United Kingdom there has grown up a class of what you would almost call 'professional unemployed'. Those who follow the comic strips in the newspapers will remember Andy Capp. Andy Capp is not altogether a figment of the imagination. In the midlands of the United Kingdom there is a class of professional unemployed. We do not want this in Australia. I will assert rather than admit that our past system was not sufficient but I am not in any way convinced that the acrosstheboard approach of the Government at the present time to this matter is any better. You do, it is true, get rid of one evil but it may be that you invoke a worse one. This can compound if you have changes in administration.

There are 2 changes which the Minister for Social Security (Mr Hayden) has made clear. Firstly, he has relaxed certain of the safeguards in the Department of Social Security and has changed the administration in that regard. Secondly, he has gone away from the old Chifley-Evatt-McKenna concept and is using unemployment relief in order to help finance rolling strikes. Rolling strikes are one of the most important forms of industrial sabotage which I assert is a key component in the inflationary spiral.

But there is something else which has been done. I think that the success of what was in the past my Department has been due very largely to the influence of a man who was the Director-General and I hope that the House will go with me in regretting the circumstances, whether they be ill-health or whatever they may have been, that have caused the retirement of Mr L. B. Hamilton, O.B.E., as Director-General of Social Services. He is a great loss to the administration of that Department and I think, on a wider scale, to other departments also.

Sitting suspended from 6.14 to 8 p.m.

Mr WENTWORTH - Before the suspension of the sitting I had mentioned that there were many good features in the proposals for increasing the rate of unemployment benefit. Everybody appreciates that fact. The question is: Does the harm that is done sometimes outweigh the good features? It is all very well to say that the work test can be applied. All of us who have had some practical experience in this field know that there are ways and means of avoiding the effectiveness of the work test. As good as this proposal is in so many respects, it has those unfortunate features. It has an especially unfortunate impact on particular groups. Let me instance two of them. The first are the Aborigines in the northern part of Australia. This is a matter of which I have some practical knowledge. I assure the House that the introduction of this Bill spells ruin for Aboriginal advancement in the north of Australia. The Aboriginal people there will be doomed to a life of scrounging, hanging on and penury. The hopes we may have had for their advancement vanish with this Bill.

The second group, which is perhaps of even greater importance because so many people are involved, are the children - people under the age of 21. This Bill grants to them the full unemployment benefit rate. That is a most retrograde step which will have social consequences of quite immense impact. It means that those who leave school will have no incentive to find jobs immediately because, if they can manipulate the work test as so many of them can, they will live in small communities or at home. It is important that these habits of idleness be not inculcated in people who leave school. Every parent with children in this age group will agree with me. These children will be able to bring into the home large incomes through unemployment benefit because there is no expense for a child who is being maintained at home, as most children of 16 and 17 are. This $21.50 a week is quite a big sum: Let the House have no illusions about that.

In this Bill we are putting our imprimatur to an engine of social change of quite massive consequences, lt may be that these consequences will not appear immediately. They will not, but the deterioration which is inherent in this scheme over the long term - surely in a matter like this the House should have some regard for long term consequences - is quite massive indeed. I suggest to honourable members that they should think very carefully about the long term effects of the proposal to pay full rates of unemployment benefit - I am not speaking about sickness benefits - to people under the full adult age. I know that this is the popular thing to do and it is the type of thing which will gain the immediate plaudits of the unthinking, but it is a bad thing to do because its long term consequences can be quite disastrous. The Government has no mandate for this kind of social change. The Governor-General's Speech refers to the Government's proposals being designed to achieve basic changes in the administration and structure of Australian society. I do not think the people who voted the Government into power really understand that such massive changes in this and other fields were contemplated.

I will not refer to the figures quoted by the Minister except to say that some of them are wrong. The main error was in the omission from the comparison table of supplementary assistance, which is included in Professor Henderson's basic poverty line, which makes an allowance for rent. The figures are therefore misleading to the extent of about $4 a week. No doubt when the Minister has greater experience he will not repeat this kind of egregious error. I do not want to trip the

Minister so I will let the matter pass for the time being.

Professor Henderson, who has been inquiring into poverty, has found a number of people living below what he calls the poverty line, but in general they are not the people dealt with by this Bill. We should be thinking more in terms of the low income earner. The beneficiary under this Bill may be better off than many normal low income families. 1 hope that the Government has some plan for helping in this field, but this was not mentioned in the Governor-General's Speech. It is a field which was set as one of the targets of the outgoing Government which undoubtedly it would have dealt with effectively if it had been returned to power for these 3 years. The omission of this matter -seems to me to be evidence of a lack of some sense of proportion in dealing with social service and social security matters. There are many good things in this Bill and many that I perhaps more than any member of the Opposition would support, but there are some defects and some blemishes and I have tried to draw them to the attention of the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Collard) adjourned.

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