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Tuesday, 26 September 1972
Page: 1155

Senator WEBSTER (Victoria) - The Budget Speech of the Treasurer (Mr Snedden) foreshadowed very substantial changes in social service benefits that are to be paid to the less fortunate people in the community. I suggest that all Australians will take great pride in the fact that the level of contribution to the less fortunate people has been lifted to the standard that it has reached today. Senator Gietzelt, in what I imagine to be typical Opposition form, criticised the amounts that are paid and said that a Labor government, if it were elected, would certainly contribute more to those in the community who were in need. One would have to agree that no matter what is done within the community, those in more affluent circumstances can never do enough to assist those persons of the community who through no fault of their own are placed in indigent circumstances.

The appropriations under the Budget provide for an increase in pensions. I believe that all Australian citizens should be particularly proud of this action which has been taken by the Government on their behalf. Let us consider the facts. There has been an improvement in the main area of contribution to those in receipt of the age, invalid, widows and Service pensions. The consumer price index has increased by approximately 8 per cent over a period, during which the amounts paid in pension, if we include the rise which has taken place within the last 6 months, have increased by 29 per cent. They are the 2 most important figures to compare because usually the suggestion is that prices have escalated beyond the point at which a person has the ability to live reasonably. The Treasurer announced this enormous increase in his Budget Speech and suggested that at no time during the past 20 years or more had the increase been so great. The Attorney-General (Senator Greenwood) said in his second reading speech on this Bill:

The increases now proposed represent the fourth separate occasion on which the rales of pension have been raised by the McMahon Government in the past 18 months.

A little later he said:

In no other period in Australias history have increases in pension rates been on a scale remotely approaching these amounts.

I have some pleasure in feeling that the less fortunate people in the community will now receive this benefit. The Opposition has moved an amendment to the motion that the Bill be now read a second time. The amendment states: but the Senate is of the opinion that the only satisfactory way to provide social service benefits Ls through a comprehensive national system of social security where benefits are above the poverty level and lied to an index adjusted at least annually. lt would be interesting to hear a member of the Opposition tell us what that wording means. Certainly Senator Gietzelt was unable to do so, or perhaps it was just that he did not direct his remarks to that aspect. Probably the main point to be taken is the suggestion that social service benefits should be tied to an index which is adjusted at least annually. Some argument has arisen in relation to the circumstances which have pervaded the Australian economy in the past years. The cost of living has been increasing. The value of the Australian dollar has continued to depreciate. This has been tied to a diminished ability to buy goods on our markets with that dollar. I think that a need exists for social service benefits to be reviewed annually. I suggest that this worthy idea should be implemented. I would be confident that the Department of Social Services would put forward to the appropriate Minister responsible for this area of government the reasons why such adjustment should be made at each Budget period which, as we all know, is an annual event in Australian financial affairs.

I think that we could take the argument advanced by the Opposition a little further and ask whether it represents the type of philosophy which it would adopt if a situation arose in which the value of the Australian dollar and inflation were steadied and the cost of goods did not continue to rise. If the ever increasing cost and inflation spiral lessened, would the Opposition suggest that an adjustment should be made at least annually to depreciate the pension that was paid? I am sure that the wording of the argument put forward by the Opposition renders that argument stupid with respect to its basic aim for the future. Whilst this proposition may be argued at the present time, it is not a basis on which planning for future years should be formulated.

Senator Milliner - Is that why the Government gave 50c a week to pensioners the year before last?

Senator WEBSTER - There was some wisdom in what was done. I do not doubt that the honourable senator would want more no matter what the Government's contribution was. If ever his Party happened to gain the treasury bench I wonder whether the honourable senator would say truthfully that what that Government was capable of offering was sufficient. The honourable senator would be proud of such a government if it performed as well as this Government has done - I know that he would agree with me - in that whereas the increase in the cost of goods has been 8 per cent, this Government has been able to increase pensions by 29 per cent. The honourable senator should be one to stand up and to say as an Australian citizen that he was proud of a government that had been able to handle the country's finances so well.

Senator Jessop - Did not the Labor Party once reduce pensions?

Senator WEBSTER - A most important comment has been made by my South Australian friend on the Government side. He indicated that there was a stage when the Opposition Party was in government and found it necessary to reduce the level of pensions. Perhaps the wording used by the Opposition in this revised amendment may convey that thought to the community. I reiterate those words:

.   . that the only satisfactory way to provide social service benefits is through a comprehensive national system of social security where benefits are above the poverty level and tied to an index adjusted at least annually.

I hope that it is not the wish of any honourable senator, any member of Parliament or any person in the community to see or to countenance a situation in which a government would consider reducing pensions. A reduction in pensions has certainly not been laid down in the programme of this Federal Government. I doubt that the Labor Opposition ever intended to introduce such a suggestion into its amendment. Some enormously important changes were envisaged in the Budget Speech which was presented on 15th August this year, and also in the Bill which the Senate is debating at the present time. I have mentioned the proposed variation in the pension rate. I cannot help but think that the variation in pension rates will mean an enormous change in the lives of some of those people who are in difficult circumstances. There are people who are without any other means of income whatsoever and are entirely dependent upon the pension. It will be most difficult for those people to live even a reasonable life at this level of pension. I believe consideration should be given to something which was said by the Treasurer (Mr Snedden) in the Budget Speech of last year. He said:

It has been my wish that nobody in the Australian community since the last war should be considering that they hope to aim for a situation in life where they are going to be completely reliant for their maintenance on a pension.

That is, a pension provided by the Federal Government.

In our kind of society every reasonable young person should have an opportunity to save money and to provide himself with a home and with some of the things which are necessities in our type of economy but which in many countries of the world are considered to be luxuries. There are people who, through no fault of their own, are forced to live on the Budget commitment to social services. It is difficult to imagine the circumstances in which the average person should not find the Budget contribution very acceptable. In Victoria I know pensioners who drive their own vehicle to collect their pension fortnightly, lt is a fact that it is possible for an Australian citizen to have in excess of $100,000 in assets and still be entitled to receive a pension payment. That is a pretty wonderful thing. It means that an Australian citizen is entitled to have his own home, no matter what the value of it is, to furnish it in whatever fashion he desires and to have a means of transport which, in many instances, as honourable senators know, can be luxurious.

I often recall the instance of a foreign friend of mine who had recently completed a block of flats in an area in which I was involved. Some 10 or 12 years ago, this gentleman was making an attempt to let these flats and he wanted the local estate agent to get a $50 bond from the people who were likely to be moving into the flats. The agent at that time said that it was impossible and that all he was able to get from the individuals going into the flats was the rental per week let alone a bond of $50. The $50 bond would have been a guarantee against damage to the property by people renting the flats. The flats were finally let and the $50 bond obtained from each tenant. The owner was satisfied with the use to which he put the money. The owner certainly had a respectable type of client in his property. He said to me: 'Mr Webster, I am a new citizen in this country and if there is any citizen in this country who has been here for over 3 months and is unable to raise a $50 bond, I do not want him in my home'. I thought perhaps it was a hard comment but it expressed generally the view of at least one individual who came to this country that any person who comes to Australia and works reasonably hard, will find prospects for doing particularly well. I need only refer to comments made in the. second reading speech where it was suggested that what the Government was attempting to do, even now, was to create a situation in which there would be some basis for thrift and self-reliance by individuals in their working lives. 1 applaud the rise in the rental allowance from $2 to S4. The payment of rent must be a great hardship for pensioners. They will now find some relief in this concession. We find in the Bill with which we are dealing an indication that a change is likely to take place in the ensuing years relating to the progressive elimination of the means test. An easing of the means test is proposed under the legislation which we have before us. Over many years, you, Mr Acting Deputy President, as well as I have paid attention to the arguments for and against a complete elimination of the means test.

To me it would be most appealing if all people who contribute to the welfare of this country by paying taxes could look forward to some return from the country when they became aged. The argument has been well put that there should be no means test associated with the granting of a pension. I am afraid that I, to some extent, hold to the old view that those who are not in indigent circumstances should not necessarily receive a pension. But 1 think that that argument may be adjusted by the general proposition that in the future pensions may become taxable, to some extent; that is, when people who receive high incomes accept a pension they will find that they have to repay it all again to the community by way of taxation.

No matter which parly were in office, there would not be the same volume of cash available for distribution to those less fortunate in the community if we were to provide a pension to people who really did not need it. The opinion polls indicate that the proposals contained in the legislation before us apparently are entirely acceptable to the people in the community. As I have already said, we now have this enormously imporant proposition that by 1975 the means test will be eliminated altogether. I think that in general the proposals contained in the legislation before us ought to be applauded. I think that every Australian citizen should laud the fact that we in this country have reached the stage where we are able to provide a pension as high as that proposed in this legislation. I, in common with other honourable senators, hope that this Bill will be given the most hurried passage that is likely to be given to any Bill that comes before us in this session.

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