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Tuesday, 22 May 1973
Page: 2382

Mr HAYDEN (Oxley) (Minister for Social Security) - I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

The fact that I have already introduced 2 Social Services Bills into this House since the Parliament was reopened on 27 February is evidence of the Government's intention to proceed as quickly as possible with a progressive re-structuring of our social security system. Honourable members will recall that the first Bill which I introduced early in March gave substantial increases in age, invalid and widows pensions retrospective to December last, and also provided for substantial increases in unemployment and sickness benefits.

The second Bill which I introduced on 5 April gave effect to another of the Government's election promises and provided for the continuation of age, invalid and widows pensions to Australian pensioners proceeding overseas, irrespective .of their destination and without any of the restrictions which had been imposed by the previous Government and which had limited the. operation of their reciprocal pension portability scheme to 4 countries only. The present Bill is a further step along the road to realising the Australian Labor Party's objective of removing anomalies and discriminatory practices imposed by past governments. The Bill fills a gap in our existing structure for which there has long been a need.

The Bill introduces a completely new benefit to be known as supporting mother's benefit. The classes of women to whom the new benefit will be payable under this Bill are (a) unmarried mothers, including deserted de facto wives and de facto wives of prisoners; and (b) married women not living with their husbands (deserting wives) or wives who have been separated for various other reasons, provided that the women be living with, and have the custody, care and control of a child (or children) of whom they are the mothers. These women are those who are not at present eligible for a widow's pension under the Social Services Act and who, with their children, have been subject to discrimination in the level of assistance available to them in the past. As with widows pensions, supporting mother's benefit will not be payable if the women return to live with their husbands or if they are living with any man on a de facto basis.

The new benefit will become payable 6 months after the date of the event which gives rise to eligibility - for example, the birth of a child or separation. For the moment these women will continue to be the responsibility of the States for the first 6 months, and the States will continue to receive assistance from the Commonwealth under the States Grants (Deserted Wives) Act during that period. There will, however, be some women who will become eligible to the supporting mother's benefit who have not received State assistance because they would have been excluded by the State means tests.

At this point, I would like to interpose and say that I am anxious to have all cash social welfare payments made by the Commonwealth in an effort to reduce anomalies. At the present time, pensions and benefits from the Australian and State government authorities are complicated and confused by their conflicting means testing for benefits, by anomalies and by a perplexing range of benefits which have developed in a spasmodic way. If the Australian Government assumes responsibility for all personal benefit payments it will relieve the States of these financial programs which they often find to be beyond their resources.

I have already had talks with my counterparts in a number of the States on this matter and I am happy to say that the reaction has been mainly favourable. Further discussions will take place at a meeting of Commonwealth and State Welfare Ministers expected to be held in June next. I am hopeful that when these talks are finalised benefits payable to women through these proposed amendments will be paid immediately instead of requiring a 6 months' lapse, as is necessary now. I still regard the position brought about by this Bill on its enactment,

Sitting suspended from 1 to 2.15 p.m.

Mr HAYDEN - I still regard the position brought about by this Bill on its enactment, although a considerable improvement on present practices, as not without its anomalies. I repeat that we aim to end these anomalies, but the important thing about this Bill is that it is a clear demonstration of this Government's determination to bring an end as quickly as it can to the discrimination that existed against women and, in this case, certain classes of women such as unmarried mothers, deserted wives or wives who have been separated for other reasons. This is a good start in this direction and in this area. It is not as much as we want to do or will be doing, but the start has been made and we will press on with the further improvements I have mentioned; that is, the Australian Government accepting full responsibility for the operation of these benefits instead of resorting to involved CommonwealthState arrangements which not only cause difficulties for beneficiaries but are often an unreasonable imposition on States.

Returning now to the Bill, the rate of supporting mother's benefit will be the same as the rate of class 'A' widow's pension, including mother's allowance, additional pension for children and, where applicable, supplementary assistance for those mothers who are paying rent. Honourable members will recall that these rates in weekly amounts are: pensions, $21.50; mother's allowance, $4, or $6 if the child is under 6 or an invalid; additional pension, $4.50 for each child; and supplementary assistance, $4. The means test and other conditions for payment will be broadly the same as those applying to class 'A' widow pensioners; for example, the residence qualifications will be the same and it will also be a responsibility of the supporting mother to seek maintenance from the father of the child if, in the circumstances of her case, it would be reasonable to expect her to do this. I understand that in Tasmania a deserted de facto wife of 12 months' standing may sue for maintenance for herself and children, but in the other States she may claim maintenance for children only.

The supporting mother's benefit will be portable on the same basis as widow's pension, that is, a woman receiving supporting mother's benefit may continue to receive this benefit outside Australia so long as she remains a supporting mother. Supporting mothers will also be eligible to participate in the national rehabilitation service and to participate in the training scheme for widow pensioners. They will be eligible, subject to the same conditions as class 'A' widows, for hearing aids at the nominal hire of $10, for reduced telephone rental and reduced fees for radio and television licences. Pending the outcome of negotiations with the Australian Medical Association concerning the pensioner medical service, supporting mothers may be covered by the subsidised health benefits plan. A funeral benefit of $40 will also be payable on the death of a supporting mother if the funeral expenses are met by another supporting mother or by a pensioner.

A word about children: The Government believes that when a mother gives birth to a child she should not be discriminated against merely because conception may have occurred after she became a widow or after she became separated from her husband. This form of discrimination, which has been practised in the past, involves undesirable moral overtones. This Bill will remove such discrimination. In future, both for widow's pension purposes and for supporting mother's benefit, a widow's own child or a supporting mother's own child will qualify them for the respective pension or benefit, irrespective or whether their child was conceived before or after the date of widowhood, desertion or separation. This Bill therefore amends the old definition of 'child' which has remained in the legislation since 1942 and introduces a new definition, which defines a 'child' as any child born of the mother or a child of whom she had the care prior to the date on which she became a widow or a supporting mother, including a child who was an adopted child at that time.

A further advance made by the Bill is that the additional pension of $4.50 a week for children will be payable for all other children in the care of the widow or supporting mother, whether those other children are qualifying children or not. A deduction of $6 a week for each dependent child will continue to be made from the widow's income and will also be made from the supporting mother's income before the means test is applied. This, in effect, gaves a class 'A' widow or supporting mother with one child a permissible income of $26 a week plus a further $6 for each other child dependent on her. A child will also be accepted as being in the custody, care and control of a widow or supporting mother where that child is not living with the widow - for example, where it is living away from home to attend school, provided the widow is making a reasonable contribution towards the child's maintenance. This now applies to widows' pensions and will be extended to supporting mother's benefit.

The Bill will come into operation on the date of royal assent and the first payment of the new benefit will be made on the first widow's pension payday after that date. The Bill also provides that any mother who lodges a claim for benefit within 3 months of the date of royal assent, will receive payment from the first payday after the date of royal assent if she was a supporting mother and otherwise eligible on that date. I had originally indicated that the date of commencement of the new benefit would be the 1 July 1973. However, because of the Government's heavy legislative program, it would seem that it will not be possible for the Bill to be passed through both Houses of the Parliament before the Budget session. The cost of the new benefit is expected to be $26m per annum or $21m for 1973-74 but its value cannot be measured in terms of money alone. As I previously mentioned, it will place all supporting mothers with children in the same position as widows with children and will remove the unjustifiable discrimination which has hitherto existed. Its effect will perhaps be felt mainly by the children of the women concerned. I commend the Bill to the House.

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