About this record
In this letter, advice is requested from the Governor-General about a man’s eligibility for the ‘old-age’ pension. The Invalid and Old-age Pensions Act 1908 created the first social security benefits at a national level in Australia.
Before Federation, people who were not physically or mentally able to work were reliant on family or charity to survive. Some of the colonies provided limited welfare support, often in the form of institutional care.
During the 1890s depression, a number of political parties emerged from the trade union movement (which later became the Labor Party). These parties argued that social policies were necessary to counter the injustices created by unregulated capitalism. There was widespread support for an ‘old-age’ pension, as it was considered to be a reward for a lifetime of hard work. Due to this support, the drafters of the Constitution allowed the Commonwealth to make policies in this area.
After Federation, the newly established Labor Party campaigned on a range of policies including ‘White Australia’ and pensions. In 1908 Prime Minister Alfred Deakin’s Protectionist Party formed a minority government with the support of the Labor Party. Labor supported Deakin’s government on the condition that it would legislate to establish an ‘invalid and old-age pension’. In keeping with both parties’ platforms, only white Australians were eligible.
In the original Act, home ownership was included in means-testing, which meant that many people who owned their own home were unable to receive the pension. Opposition Labor leader Andrew Fisher disputed this and later, when Fisher became Prime Minister, he removed this barrier so that pensions would be more accessible.
The Invalid and Old-age Pensions Act 1908 provided a means-tested pension to people over the age of 16 who were unable to work due to injury or disability, as well as to men over 65 and women over 60. In 1908, a much smaller proportion of the population was eligible for the pension than today because life expectancy was much lower: the average life expectancy for both men and women was less than 60 and only 4 per cent of the population were over 65. The Act entitled older people and people with disabilities to a maximum of 26 pounds per annum (which is the equivalent of approximately $3500 per annum in 2020).
The Invalid and Old-age Pension Act 1908 was the first piece of legislation in the development of the Australian welfare state. Since 1908, the Australian Government has continued to fund other forms of pension to meet the needs of Australians.