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Wednesday, 7 March 1973
Page: 342

Mr LYNCH (Flinders) - I welcome the increase in pensions and the opportunity to speak on the Social Services Bill because it allows me to emphasise the Opposition's recognition of the importance of social welfare measures. It is, in fact, a matter of public record that the most effective and farreaching social welfare initiatives introduced in Australia have been the result of LiberalCountry Party governments. I think of the introduction of age and invalid pensions, child endowment, homes for the aged, the national health scheme, the easing of the means test and, of course, the foreshadowed abolition of the means test. This is, without any shadow of doubt, an impressive, record of care and concern for the needy and underprivileged in our community.

The record of the Government is yet to be established but it should note that the Opposition parties will be carefully analysing its initiatives and proposals in the field of social welfare. The Opposition will seek to ensure that every measure is consistent with humanitarian objctives, meets those objectives in the most effective manner and has an impact which benefits the greatest number possible while remaining within the bounds of economic responsibility. The Bill is not opposed by the Opposition, but in seeking its amendment we make 2 points. First, the Bill leaves unresolved the policy undertaking of the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) to raise the pension rate to 25 per cent of average weekly earnings. Secondly, the adjustments to the rate of and basis of entitlement to unemployment benefit will disturb economically desirable employment patterns in our society.

In relation to the first point, there has been considerable confusion, as my colleague the honourable member for Herbert (Mr Bonnett) has rightly pointed out, concerning the Labor Party's election promise. Pensioners throughout the country came to believe., as the result of a sentence in the Australian Labor Party policy speech delivered by the Prime Minister, that they were to be the recipients of what became commonly known as the

Christmas bonus'. They were deluded by the word 'immediately' contained in the policy speech in the sentence which reads:

All pensions will be immediately raised by $1.50 and thereafter, every Spring and every Autumn, the basic pension rate will be raised by $1.50 until it reaches 25 per cent of the average weekly, male earnings.

This promise was not capable, of implementation in the terms in which it was put forward because it could be achieved only through legislation, and that is a process which necessarily takes time. It was, I believe, a promise dishonoured against the context of the statement made in the Prime Minister's poli speech. The Prime Minister and bis advisers knew exactly what the. position was ana yet they chose this misleading reference for the Australian Labor Party policy speech. The honourable member interjecting has a very large mouth which he would be well advised to keep closed. By using the word 'immediately' without any qualification the ALP caused considerable frustrations-

Mr Armitage - Your government never gave any retrospectivity.

Mr LYNCH - The honourable gentleman is obviously very frustrated for various reasons which, perhaps, it would not be proper to entertain here. By using the word 'immediately' without any qualifications the ALP caused considerable frustration and bewilderment among tens of thousands of age and invalid pensioners and people on fixed incomes. In many cases known personally to members on this side of the House their frustration turned to anger when they were told that the first payment could not be made in anything less than 3 months.

While the proposal to establish a nexus between pension rates and some external index has merit, it is questionable that the planned course of tying pensions to average weekly male earnings is the most effective way. I do not intend, because of pressure of time, to canvass this point in depth. I want to observe, in passing, that average weekly male earnings have a tendency on occasions to be volatile and fluctuate relatively widely. The second point to be made concerning average weekly earnings concerns the impact on them of inflation. The Bill proposes 2 increases of $1.50 a year, making a total of $3, and the aim is to bring pensions up to one quarter of average weekly male earnings. But these earnings have been rising by about $12 a year recently, which means that the proposed increases will do no more than hold the present relativity.

The effect of the new Government's wide range of policy initiatives, grants and sundry expenditures - no matter how meritorious each of them may be individually - will be an exacerbation of the inflationary trend in the Australian economy. On this side of the House we recognise the very real impact which inflation has upon all members of the Australian community, particularly those for whom the Government party has alleged a monopoly of concern - pensioners, people on fixed incomes, the rural sector and other disadvantaged groups. It is ironic that this inflation should today be caused, in increasing measure, by a Labor Government, when the Party it represents has so often professed concern for people in this particular disadvantaged position. Inflation, more than any other factor, destroys their standard of living and causes real suffering and hardship.

I turn briefly to the significant point that adjustments to entitlement for unemployment benefit will disturb economically desirable employment patterns in Australian society. The Minister for Social Security (Mr Hayden) has instructed his Department to pay unemployment benefits to people who cannot obtain jobs reasonably similar to those which they have previously held. The result of this policy is that a skilled or semi-skilled worker who refuses a menial job will receive unemployment relief. We believe that people who are not prepared to take jobs simply because they do not like those particular jobs should not be paid unemployment relief. No reasonable person for one moment would suggest that any individual who is unable to obtain a job should be denied the benefit of unemployment relief. When circumstances over which he has no control prevent him from taking employment he should not be required to pay an additional penalty by being denied unemployment relief. The former Government recognised this by providing to people who found themselves in these circumstances the maximum benefits economically possible, but it always exercised the greatest possible degree of economic prudence in establishing appropriate benefit rates. I believe this is in complete contradistinction to the attitude adopted by the Minister for Social Security, who displays reckless regard for taxpayers' funds in relation to unemployment benefits. ,

The Minister announced with some pride recently that more Australians than ever before were receiving the unemployment benefit as a result of new government initiatives. This is the position when the unemployment level in Australia has shown a dramatic downturn. I believe that what the Government is putting forward is contrary to the philosophy of work ethic which has been responsible for building this country to the stage it has reached. Because the parties have made an agreement concerning the conclusion of the debate I conclude by saying that the Minister for Social Security and his Government should not continue to misuse taxpayers' funds by making the unemployment benefit available to people who refuse to accept jobs open to them or who conduct themselves at job interviews in such a way that they are regarded as unemployable. We understood from what the Minister has said that if a person's general demeanour - namely, his long hair and unkempt appearance - is such that he is unable to obtain work from an employer he has every entitlement to the unemployment benefit which is provided to him by the Minister for Social Security from the taxpayers' funds. We believe that the Government has already committed itself to unprecedented levels of expenditure and should examine programs of this nature with a greater degree of responsibility than that which it has been prepared to show so far. I support very much the amendment which is before the House.

Amendment negatived.

Original question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.

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