...The most significant document tabled in this Parliament in recent years is the interim report, of March 1974, of the Henderson Commission of Inquiry into Poverty. It has revealed a degree of poverty in this country that is nothing short of alarming Of all income units chosen, 10.2 per cent live below a modest poverty line and can be described as very poor. Another 7.8 per cent live at a standard less than 20 per cent above the poverty line and can be described as rather poor.
...Eighteen percent of all income units in Australia have an annual income leaving them in abject poverty or near poverty. Whether this would mean that more or less than 18 per cent of our population, or over 2 million of our people, live in this way is not clear, but the interim report has left no doubt that cancerous poverty exists in our cities, our towns and our countryside to an extent that none of us can ignore and to an extent that none of us would have believed.
...For too long the poor have been a political pawn in this country. For too long their plight and their salvation have been used to tear the eyes of sympath- etic voters. Could we blame the cynical poor for thinking that politicians would be upset if poverty disappeared? What fewer opportunities they would have to display their virtue. When Henry Lawson wrote in your electorate, Mr. Speaker, 'They lie the men who tell us for reasons of their own that want is here a stranger and that misery's unknown,' he was probably expressing the view of many of the politicians of his day. But is the Prime Minister (Mr. Whitlam) or his Government or his Party any more virtuous when, knowing the alarming extent of poverty in this country, and claiming to be the champions of the poor, they offer no commitment to remove it in the program they place before this Parliament?
Perhaps the faces in the street have largely disap- peared, though shortly to return. Poverty today is perhaps less obvious, a more insidious phenomenon, and the measures needed to remove it are more difficult to implement, more needful of expert know- ledge and understanding and more demanding of courage and concern on the part of those committed to remove it. There are those who still think that the poor deserve their lot, that they are the lazy ones who lack the will to work. But the Henderson report gives the lie to this. The great majority of our poor are the aged, the fatherless, the motherless, the sick and the invalid. The poverty we are talking about is poverty which inhibits the growth of human personality, which prevents people from realising their potential in a free society, from finding their identity as human beings. For a Government to condone it or, with direct knowledge of its alarming extent, not to make an immediate commitment to steps calculated to eradicate it is unprincipled, inhumane, undemocratic, unprogressive and politically, economically and socially morally inde- fensible.
I would remind honourable members that in 1937 President Roosevelt said:
The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much - it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.
I have used the word 'commitment' often and intentionally so. Poverty will never be removed or even greatly alleviated by ad hoc annual proposals - only by a conscious, firm commitment to the task by all of us Government, Parliament and people, but initially and most importantly by Government. It requires a persist- ent endeavour involving the conscious diversion of resources and adjustment of priorities. A program for the alleviation of poverty is expensive, at times experimental demanding great wisdom and constant concern. It requires self-sacrifice on the part of both Government and people. It can bring a government under electoral criticism. A government which lacks real courage will avoid it.
I have no doubt that our people, given strong leadership, are ready to attempt the task. My concern is whether the Government is - whether it is prepared to change its priorities, whether after all the greatest really has the courage to be the servant of all, the poor as well as the affluent, or whether it will persist in its declared program for those who already have much and whether in its pursuit of it the opportunities for an effective attack on poverty in this country will be lost for many years to come. It is no answer for the Government to say that the Henderson report is only an interim report. The message it bears is stark, the cry is urgent. The program the Government has presented is a program for this Parliament. That it would require a change of priorities on the part of the Government there can be no doubt. Unless the people are to be taxed to an inordinate extent the community just cannot afford the social welfare program, however attractive it may seem to some, which the Government urges upon us and at the same time adopt an effective program against poverty. We are at the cross roads. Who will come first - the poor or the affluent? Have we the courage now in this country to express in a material way the humanity which we have so often expressed through our lips?
...We on this side of the House believe that the ultimate worth is the individual, his dignity, his freedom, his self-respect. We make no apology for it. It is our credo and we shall pursue it with unabated vigour. So I ask sincerely: What does the average Australian who is not poor require in times of economic stability by way of social welfare of his Government? Some measure of assistance he may need and expect, but does he need to be propped up, except in adversity, at every moment of his life, as the Government's program is tending to do? If he is propped up in this way, at what price to his freedom, his privacy, his individuality, his concern for others? At what price will it be to future generations in terms of healthy concerned individuals? Let us not be deluded into thinking that humanism springs from the state. It is the product of a healthy individual's mind and spirit
I realise that these are basic and perennial ques- tions, but I believe we have to answer them now in this Parliament because of the nature of the Government's social welfare program. Our national life has hardly begun. The form our democracy will take is barely visible. The opportunity we have to mould it is, I believe, unique. No other country in history has been so free to choose the path it will take. The task we face in this Parliament, if we are really concerned to build a democracy, is to find and tread that delicate line which will achieve complete social justice for all while affording the greatest individual freedom in personal, social and economic affairs consistent with a basic concern for others.
Commonwealth Parliamentary Debate: House of Representatives 16 July 1974
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