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Wednesday, 7 March 1973
Page: 337

Mr COLLARD (Kalgoorlie) - The Social Services Bill seeks to amend the Social Services Act and, naturally, we on this side of the House, appreciating what it will mean to many people, wish to see the Bill passed as speedily as possible so that the recipients of social service benefits can more quickly enjoy the substantial improvements to the Act which this Bill sets out to provide. Therefore it is not my intention to delay the House to any great extent. The provisions in this Bill are sufficient to leave no doubt in the minds of the people that the Labor Government intends to ensure, by way of legislation or other means at its disposal, that the entire population of Australia - not just some small sections of it - will be able to look to the future with a feeling of security. For instance, it will be seen that the very people directly concerned with the measure now before the House can look to the future with complete confidence, safe in the knowledge that at long last there is a federal government in Australia which will treat them as persons who have a right to live in a dignified and respectable manner. They can look forward with the knowledge that while there remains a Labor government in the federal field they will be treated with the respect and sympathy they deserve as citizens of this great country. Certainly that was something they could never look forward to during the life of the LiberalCountry Party coalition Government.

The amendment moved today by the Opposition to the motion that the Bill be read a second time and the speeches of Opposition members in this debate are sufficient proof that the Liberal-Country Party Opposition can see no reason for the increases which we have proposed in pensions and other social service benefits. For 23 years the aged, the invalid, the handicapped, the sick and the unemployed have suffered immeasurable hardship and, in many cases, just a miserable existence due to the attitude and policies of an unsympathetic, inconsiderate and disinterested government. That situation and those conditions will now change. What a great relief it must be to so many of those people to be able to see ahead of them a clear future of security and happiness rather than one of utter despair.

Last week, on the very first business day in the Parliament of the new Government, we had the pleasure and satisfaction of witnessing the introduction of amending legislation which will go a long way - certainly not all the way because there is still much more to be done - towards correcting the many anomalies and injustices in the existing Act which have been created and aggravated by the previous Government. No-one could expect to find the wrongs imposed over so many years rectified by one Bill. Over the years the Liberal-Country Party Government introduced a number of Bills to amend the Social Services Act, but invariably those Bills were not notable for what they contained in the way of increased benefits or for what they did to improve the Act or the circumstances of the recipients. They were notable in particular for what they failed to provide, what they failed to do and what they left undone as well as for the further anomalies and injustices which they created. What a significant and welcome change is the present Bill. As the Minister for Social Security (Mr Hayden) said during his second reading speech, this Bill will not only remove a number of the seriously unjust and penalising anomalies in the existing Act but will also provide generous increases in all pensions and in sickness and unemployment benefits.

The existing amounts of benefits payable in the several areas of social services will, as a result of the proposals in the Bill, be increased by amounts ranging from $1.50 a week to $14 a week. That is certainly a very welcome change from what we had become accustomed to expect from the previous Government, when the increases generally ranged from 50c down to nothing. For instance, between October 1961 and 1964 married pensioner couples received no increases at all. Between October 1964 and January 1968 they received a total increase of 75c a week. Incidentally, if measured against the consumer price index which the then Government claimed to adopt as a measuring stick, that latter amount was less than half the increase the pensioners should have received during that period. Of course, they have never caught up. Perhaps I should also point out, while referring to the previous Government's 'generosity', that over the period of 20 years between 1950 and the end of 1970 the average weekly increase in each of those years for married pensioner couples was only 52±c and for single pensioners it was a mere 43 4c This can only be described as being no better than extremely miserable and certainly it did nothing to help the recipients overcome their problems.

The Government intends to improve very substantially the circumstances of social service recipients. The people know its intentions in relation to pensioners and the average weekly male earnings. The Government has said that its first move in that direction will be to increase pensions by $1.50 a week and that thereafter the base rates will be raised by a further $1.50 a week during each spring and autumn session of the Parliament until such time as the pension reaches 25 per cent of average weekly male earnings. Furthermore, the Government has said that while it remains the Government, which will undoubtedly be for many years, the rate of pension will not be allowed to fall below that 25 per cent level. The Bill which we are now debating is the first legislative step in the direction of our final objective. We have taken the very first opportunity of honouring our promise to the people in this regard. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, this attitude is completely opposite to the attitude of the previous Government in relation to promises. One immediately recalls its promise of 1949 to abolish the means test. For a continuous period of 23 years it had the opportunity to honour that promise. Indeed, it was invited to do so on several occasions by the Australian Labor Party which would have been happy to support such a proposition. As everyone knows, the previous Government failed to accept the invitation.

In July 1969 the then Liberal Prime Minister, the right honourable member for Higgins (Mr Gorton), told a Liberal women's rally in Brisbane that the means test should not be abolished and would not be abolished and that he could see no reason why it should be abolished. Yet despite that refusal to honour a promise made over 23 years ago, despite the fact that one of its Prime Ministers said as recently as July 1969 that it should not be abolished and despite the fact that the immediate past Liberal Minister for Social Services, the honourable member for Mackellar (Mr Wentworth), did not attempt to abolish it during his term of office, we now have the ridiculous and hypocritical situation in which that self same immediate past Minister has submitted a notice calling for its abolition in the 1973 Budget. It would certainly be in line with the hypocrisy displayed by the Opposition if we were to see the right honourable member for Higgins second the motion.

As 1 said earlier, this Bill will provide some generous increases in pensions, and those increases will be made retrospective to the first pension day following the election on 2nd December last year. Referring to the retrospectivity provision, I should point out that the previous Government and its Ministers always claimed that it was extremely difficult and well nigh impossible to backdate pension payments. They always refused our requests to do so. This shows the difference between an apathetic and disinterested government and a vigorous and considerate government. Of course there were difficulties and obstacles, but unlike the previous Government our present Government and the present Minister acted promptly and positively, and very quickly proved not only that it could be done but also that it would be done on this occasion. The Minister for Social Security and the Cabinet are to be congratulated for the way in which they have acted to give the pensioners a fair deal.

This Bill also honours a further election promise of the Labor Party in that the rate of class B and class C widows pensions will be raised to the same base rate as class A widows pensions, namely $21.50 a week. Due to the fact that the previous Government has treated these women as second or third class citizens and paid them at a rate of $2.75 a week less than the class A widow, the rate of $21.50 provided in this Bill will mean an actual increase to them of $4.25 a week. It therefore removes an injustice that we were not prepared to tolerate. The Government has also grasped this early opportunity to correct the unrealistic and unjust provisions which exist at the moment in relation to unemployment and sickness benefits. It is well known - the honourable member for Balaclava (Mr Whittorn) made it clear the other night as did other honourable members on the Opposition side that the present Opposition does not believe in assisting people who, through lack of opportunity, through no fault of their own or through sickness, are unable to obtain employment. The honourable member for Balaclava would deny relief to all sufferers on the ground that he believed that there are some who are voluntarily unemployed. I would not disagree that there is the odd one in that category but, by the same token, I would point out that there are a number who may be and in fact are placed wrongly in that category simply because they are victims of some particular condition that requires some particular type of treatment to put them back or to bring them forward to a condition, physical or mental, in which they could accept and be acceptable for employment.

The Opposition stands condemned in that during 23 years in government it failed to take any action to help those poor unfortunate people and was prepared simply to leave them to face their hopeless future. Under the Act as it stands at the moment, except in such cases where sickness payments have been made for a period of 6 consecutive weeks, a single person aged 18, 19 or 20 years who is unemployed or sick and unable to obtain work may receive the very generous amount, according to the previous Government, of $11 a week. If such a person is only 16 or 17 years old the benefit, again apparently generous in the eyes of the Opposition, is $7.50 a week. I have never been able to work out how a boy or a girl 17 years of age could live on an amount $3.50 a week less than that received by persons 18 years of age, but there it is. What happens in all these cases, or in many of them, is quite obvious. They cannot exist on the amount that is paid to them and they must therefore become dependent upon their parents who, in many instances, are in very poor circumstances themselves and may even be pensioners. Those young people have either never worked before or have never worked long enough to accumulate any moneys and, therefore, in desperation are forced to look other ways and means of gaining a few dollars and the only ways and means that are available to them are not acceptable to society and therefore they are quickly on the road to ruin.

The previous Government has undoubtedly done a very great disservice to a large number of people, particularly young people, simply by refusing to pay realistic benefits to the sick and the unemployed. We intend to correct that deplorable situation. The majority of those who are now unemployed have been forced into that position as a result of the previous Government's Budget of 1971 and they are entitled to sympathetic consideration; they will receive it from this Government. Unemployed unmarried adults and unmarried minors who do not have a parent resident in Australia receive the princely amount at the moment of $17 a week. Those people and the juniors to whom I have referred will, when this Bill receives royal assent, be entitled to receive $21.50 a week, which represents increases ranging from $4.50 a week to $14 a week, which is further proof of the miserable attitude displayed by the previous Government in this regard.

At the moment, a married but unemployed or sick adult or a married minor receives only $25 a week, made up of $17 for the husband and $8 for his wife. This is to be increased by $12.50 to a total of $37.50 a week, or the same amount that will be received by married age or invalid pensioners. It is only fair and proper that they should do so. Actually, a young married couple with the breadwinner out of work and, for instance, trying to pay off a home or furniture could be in a much worse financial situation than some pensioners. Therefore, there seems to be no reason why they should not receive the same amount. Also, at present, where a sickness benefit has been paid for at least 6 consecutive weeks and the person is 16 to 21 years of age, that benefit is only $13 a week. This will be increased to $21.50 a week. Adults and minors who are married and in a similar situation, having been on sickness benefits for 6 weeks, will enjoy an increase from a total of $28 a week to $37.50 a week.

The several discriminations imposed by the previous Government in this respect have been removed. As I said earlier, there is much more to be done before we will be satisfied. But this is a good Bill; it will go a long way towards removing those injustices and anomalies to which I have referred. It is a Bill that deserves the full commendation of this House. The Minister for Social Security (Mr Hayden) is to be congratulated upon introducing the Bill so early in the session. It deserves the full and unanimous support of the chamber.

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