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Monday, 20 May 1985
Page: 2131


Senator MACKLIN —by leave-I move:

That the Senate take note of the paper tabled by the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) during Question Time this day relating to veterans' entitlements.

The paper that Senator Ryan tabled has a number of items in it which suggest basically that the comments I made were grossly inaccurate and misleading. In particular, she refers in the paper to the O'Brien case and says:

Senator Macklin belittles the view that the High Court judgment in the O'Brien case has serious implications for pension determination and spending.

In fact, what I said and what I also said in my Press statement was that it does have serious implications for the determination of pensions, particularly the means of altering section 47 in terms of the reverse onus of proof.

The judgment in the O'Brien case is very clear and very interesting. I shall read from the High Court judgment itself and then I will look at the section in the economic statement which says that basically in the O'Brien case-although that case is not mentioned by name, but it is in the explanatory memorandum put out by the Department itself-there is a situation in which the Government is actually looking at honouring its promises. However it then goes on to talk about the problems that have arisen with recent High Court determinations. It says this:

These decisions, particularly a decision made this year--

that decision is the O'Brien case-

mean that such pensions may have to be granted even where there is no evidence whatsoever--

I repeat those words 'even where there is no evidence whatsoever'-

linking disabilities or death to war service.

This is the section from the High Court judgment:

With all respect and despite the valiant advocacy of the Solicitor-General, we consider it to be a surprising conclusion-that is that it does not have any connection-In our opinion, it flies in the face of commonsense to say that anxiety neurosis which is occasioned by reason of the separation of the respondent from his wife because of his war service at a time when she is in desperate need of his company is not attributable to war service.

In other words, the judges say they find it surprising and indeed, flying in the face of commonsense, to suggest that something which has been caused by his war service cannot be attributed to that war service. The O'Brien case very clearly says the exact opposite to what the Government has put in its economic statement. I suggest that it is not I who has been misleading and inaccurate; it is the Government in its own documentation on this matter.

Senator Ryan said, by way of an interpolation in her response, that there was unrest and concern within the veteran community. Before I put out my statement my office was inundated with calls, as I am sure were those offices of any other senators who actually work in this area. On Friday last week-which, as honourable senators know, was the only Friday available to us-I spent most of the morning in the psychiatric ward of Greenslopes Hospital because a large number of Vietnam veterans who are in that ward had called me and asked me to come out and talk to them because of their concern. It was only right and proper, bearing in mind what those people have done at the behest of this country, that I should have acceded to that call. My visit was very interesting. I found out that, the previous day, the veterans had had a visit from officers of the Department of Veterans' Affairs yet they were totally confused as to what their entitlements were. The reason for that is very clear: The people in the Department, the people at the end of the hot lines which have been established, have no idea themselves of what is to happen to those veterans. So it is absolute humbug for the Minister to come in here and say that I am stirring up concern. It is the Minister who is stirring up concern. If departmental officers and veterans knew what was going on, the veterans probably would not be so concerned. The Government has to tell its decisions to the veterans. It is the Government which has to make sure that the veterans do not have those types of concerns by giving them full and frank information about what is to happen.

I give the Minister for Community Services (Senator Grimes), who is at the table, an example. One of the veterans asked, during my visit: 'How am I going to get to hospital? I cannot drive a car'. He had calipers on his legs. He said: 'When I asked the departmental people yesterday, they said that I was not entitled to any Commonwealth transport'. When I checked, I found out that that person was entitled to Commonwealth transport. So the information the veterans received the previous day from officers of the Department was incorrect. I suggest that the people who are supposed to be going out doing the briefings ought to have the information. To say that I have been spreading alarm and unrest is absolute garbage. That is precisely what officers of the Government's Department of Veterans' Affairs have been spreading, because they have been misinformed.

I suggest that there is a great deal of concern in this area. Quite frankly, I think that concern is justified. The Government has given a categorical promise in this place to me, in answer to a question-an answer given by the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, not by the Minister who is acting in his place-that any changes to the Repatriation Act that were to be brought into this chamber would, firstly, be done with full consultation with the associations and the Returned Services League and, secondly, would not be done until the Budget session. Yet we have these changes brought in here and it is said that, as a matter of urgency, they are to be made now. That is the type of promise that has been given and broken. That is why the veterans are concerned. They do not know what effects these changes will have on them and they want to have some time to study them. That is fair enough.

The Minister at the table, when in opposition, was arguing those self-same things. He knows that there has to be reasonable consultation with those groups so they know what is going on and so they can look at the fine print. This Government and the various organisations involved have been taking part in discussions now for over 18 months regarding changes to the repatriation legislation. We were due to receive the reports of these discussions in this chamber this week or next week and then to have them laid on the table. That is now not to be the case. The change which concerns people most is the change to the onus of proof provisions by which we are moving away from a situation in which veterans had no necessity to go into a court or tribunal and to argue; it was for the other side to show that certain conditions were not caused by war service. In the last couple of years I have been on quite a number of platforms with Senator Gietzelt at conferences of various ex-service organisations at which he has said categorically that no changes would be made to section 47 of the Act, that no changes would be made to the onus of proof provisions. Yet legislation has been introduced into the House of Representatives to do precisely that.

The material before us is obviously an attempt to justify an area that is now littered with broken promises to veterans. At least one of the things that this Government could do to allay veterans' fears-the Minister in the chamber knows they are out there-would be to lay the legislation on the table until the Budget session to allow the Returned Services League and all the veterans' organisations to go through it carefully and make sure that there is nothing adverse. If the Government believes that there is nothing adverse in the legislation, why not give those associations the time to look at it and find out for themselves? If the Government does this those organisations will be able to go to their members and say 'Do not worry', and there will not be any concern. In closing, I point out that I would be very interested in an exercise that could cut $123.6m from the veterans' budget without affecting them.