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Wednesday, 4 December 1935


Senator A J McLACHLAN (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) (Postmaster-General) . - I move -

That the bill be now read a second time.

I regard it as a great privilege to introduce a bill to amend the Australian Soldiers' Repatriation Act, and, in dealing with a matter of such importance to so many members of the community, I believe that honorable senators will welcome a brief account of the activities of the commission since it was first appointed in July, 1920. The Repatriation Commission, which has been entrusted with the administration of the act, has concerned itself with not only the establishment of general principles calculated to conserve the interests of both the general community and the ex-soldiers and their dependants, but also has endeavoured to ensure that the provisions for the various classes of beneficiaries shall be maintained in equitable relation, and that within the statutory limits the well-being of every individual entitled to benefits, for reasons arising out of war service, shall be carefully safeguarded.

In order to meet the convenience of applicants, and to' effect a well-considered scheme of decentralization, a branch office of the Repatriation Department has been established in the capital city of each Stale. Each is under the control of a Deputy Commissioner for Repatriation, who is responsible to the commission, for the whole organization and administration in his State. Ex officio, the deputy commissioner is chairman of the State Repatriation Board, on which there is one member chosen from the commission's staff, and one returned soldier nominated by returned soldier organizations. Each board determines applications for war pensions or living allowances. There is also a Branch Purchase and Contract Board in each State to arrange the supply °y public tender, of commodities for use in the branch office and hospitals ; and a Soldiers' Children Education Board which deals with all matters regarding the scheme of education and training for the children of those who were killed, or who are totally and permanently incapacitated, or blinded as the result of war service.

The Branch Purchase and Contract Board consists of an independent business man as chairman and two senior departmental officials; whilst the Education Board has on it representatives of the returned soldiers' associations, the Trustees of the Sir Samuel McCaughey Bequest, the primary, secondary and technical branches of the State Education Department, the University and non-State secondary schools, and the Repatriation Commission.

To ensure that an appeal against a decision of the commission may be heard by an authority entirely independent of the normal departmental machinery, the Government has created four tribunals - two War Pensions Entitlement Appeal Tribunals consisting of a legal man as chairman, one representative of the Government and one nominee of returned soldiers, to determine whether a man shall receive a pension ; and two War Pensions Assessment Appeal Tribunals consisting of a legal man representative of returned soldiers as chairman and two medical men selected from a panel approved by the Minister, and having a special knowledge of the disability from which the appellant suffers, to decide the rate of pension which a man shall receive.

A claimant for pension lodges an application to the branch office in the capital city of the State in which he resides, and after full investigation, including in most instances careful observation in hospital, the complete evidence is placed before the board which may approve or disapprove. If the claim is refused, an appeal may be submitted to the commission, and in the event of refusal, a further appeal lies to an Entitlement Appeal Tribunal. If, when a pension is granted, the recipient is dissatisfied with the rate, he has the right of appeal to an Assessment Appeal Tribunal.

For the 264,000 soldiers who returned from service abroad, the commission, through its employment activities, found over 280,000 positions, and to assist further in this desirable object, supplied tools of trade, necessary equipment and rail warrants to the value of over £2.250,000, whilst a sum of £450,000 was granted to the municipal authorities throughout Australia. At present, and for many years past, £2,500 is paid annually to the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia to assist in finding employment for returned soldiers. Through the commission's scheme of vocational and industrial training, over 27,000 men qualified as wage earners, and in practically every instance these were placed in employment, whilst 46,000 men were given efficiency courses in order to fit them to occupy positions of higher responsibility with consequent increase of pay. Gifts and loans totalling over £1,000,000 were made for furniture rind £422,000 was expended in establishing men in businesses. For the medical treatment of those suffering as a result of war service, there have been established up-to-date institutions efficiently staffed by returned men and women and visited regularly by leading consultant physicians and surgeons in the capital city of each State. Interesting on account of the skilful manufacture of artificial arms and legs, crutches, surgical boots and other artificial surgical aids are the Commonwealth Artificial Limb Factories. Available for consultant purposes in this work is a highly skilled orthopedic surgeon. Some idea of the vastness of the work performed will be gathered by honorable senators from the fact that in 1922 there were approximately 4,000 returned soldiers receiving treatment, whilst to-day this number has grown to approximately 19,000. Last year some 40,000 cases were treated and more than 146,000 outpatient attendances were recorded at departmental institutions and .clinics.

One of the commission's valuable contributions to the civic life of the community is its scheme of training for the children of those who died, or who are totally and permanently incapacitated, or who are blinded as the result of their war service. These children are at all times under the personal guidance of teachers who take a great interest in their careers, and the scheme itself is governed by experts in primary, secondary, technical and university education. So far the scheme has cost over £1,500,000, the expenditure last year being approximately £S0,000. A total of 18,000 applications had been dealt with, and of the 10,000 children who have completed training and qualified for positions, almost every one is employed. Over 2,000 boys and approximately 2,000 girls are still attending school, whilst over 1,500 are serving apprenticeships or are unindentured apprentices; 1S9 are doing professional courses and 46 are in agricultural training. This living memorial to those who served and suffered is of immense benefit, not only to the children themselves, but to the community at large.

In war pensions an amount exceeding *130,000,000 of money has been paid, iris expenditure last year exceeding £7,369,000. .Each fortnight £280,000, or £20,000 a day, is needed to meet this obligation. There are 75,000 soldiers and 189,000 dependants receiving pensions. The administrative cost for every £100 of pensions paid is £2 2s. 5d., and this is regarded as satisfactory.

The whole of our repatriation scheme compares more than favorably with similar legislation in operation in any other country, and many of its features find no parallel elsewhere. The special rate of pension of £4 a week for those who are blinded or totally and permanently incapacitated, or who suffer from an advanced stage of pulmonary tuberculosis, is peculiar to Australia. The permanent pension at 100 per cent, rate to sufferers from pulmonary tuberculosis is not found elsewhere, nor is there such a liberal scheme of allowances for those who are confined to wheeled chairs or cots, or whose injuries are so severe as to warrant the constant services of an attendant. Honorable senators, I am sure, will agree, from this hurried resume of the activities of the department that successive governments have done all that is possible to alleviate sufferings directly traceable to the Great War.

Experience gained in administering the provisions of the act, has made it abundantly clear that there was a large body of men who were suffering so severely that their employable usefulness had departed. These were suffering, some effects impossible to define, effects which were not directly or indirectly traceable to war service but which nevertheless made an insistent appeal for consideration by the Government. This class of sufferer was not confined to Australia; all the belligerent nations have had to cope with a similar problem, but only in Canada and New Zealand has special legislation been introduced to alleviate their conditions. In both Canada and New Zealand, an allowance approximating £1 a week for a single man and £2 a week for a married man has been granted, and after fully considering the situation in the Commonwealth, this Government has now decided to introduce special remedial measures. Shortly, it is proposed to make provision for a pension at 60 years of age for a soldier, and at 55 years of age for a nurse, who served in a theatre of war. This, in effect, is a reduction by five years of the age of eligibility for the old-age pension, and is a recognition by the Government that those former service men and women whose employable usefulness departs at an age earlier than it does in the case of a civilian, are due for special consideration. Irrespective of age, for those whose physical or mental condition renders them permanently unemployable, the Government intends to grant a pension at the rate provided in the new bill, provided they served in a theatre of war, whilst to those former soldiers who suffer from pulmonary tuberculosis and whose condition has not been accepted for war pension payment, the Government intends to grant a service pension whether they served in a theatre of war or not or whether they are permanently unemployable or not. Having in view the necessity for doing everything possible to prevent the spread of pulmonary tuberculosis the Government also proposes to give free treatment in repatriation institutions for sufferers of this class, and to enable them to purchase extra or special foods as their condition necessitates, the tubercular sufferers will he permitted to draw invalid pension in addition to service pension. The maximum rate of pension will be 18s. a week for a single man or widower, 30s. a week for a man and his wife, and 2s. 6d. a week for each child, limited to four. The total allowed income in respect of any pensioner will be £79 6s. per annum.

I emphasize that so far as social legislation in this country is concerned, the proposal now before the Senate is entirely new and it is easy to visualize the difficulties which will confront the administration. Honorable senators can call to mind certain classes of returned men who in some respects are abnormal, and whose ability to obtain and pursue remunerative employment is strictly limited. The class the Government has in mind in this respect is not so seriously afflicted as a totally and permanently incapacitated man, nor does the Government desire the definition to be so stringently interpreted as is necessary under the provisions of the Invalid and Old-age Pensions Act. It is intended that in respect of those soldiers who, whilst not bedridden, or totally and permanently incapacitated for life, are, through physical or mental disablement, prevented from obtaining and following a remunerative occupation, each case shall he determined on its merits in a reasonable manner, due regard being paid to the applicant's experience, previous occupation and general, qualifications. The Government desires that the commission, in adminis tering the provisions for service pensions, shall act with both sympathy and commonsense.

Whilst, no doubt, all will agree that the main object of this bill is to provide a new scheme of service pensions, to which I have made brief reference, it has another object. The Government proposes to liberalize the existing provisions. In many cases, the Repatriation Commission commuted pensions where the condition was stationary, where the proposition submitted was a sound one, t.nd where the degree of disability did not exceed 30 per cent. Unfortunately, since the pensioner accepted the lump sum, his conditions has retrogressed, and the Government, after full consideration, has decided to restore pensions in commuted cases at a rate shown to be justified by medical examination.

A most important clause in the bill gives the commission power to accept the death of a blinded soldier, of a totally and permanently incapacitated soldier drawing a pension under the second schedule of the act, and the death of a double amputation case, from any causes whatsoever, as being due to war service. Dependants of these three classes will then be eligible to receive increased war pension and other benefits as if the death of the soldier had been due to war sei* vice. Honorable senators will agree, ] am sure, that this is a very liberal action on the part of the Government.

A further clause in the amending bill seeks to remedy certain injustices which some soldiers are now suffering. In December, 1921, the Repatriation Act was amended to permit of the payment of war pension in cases where a disability which i originated before enlistment was increased to a material degree us n result of war service. In such cases an applicant had to apply within six months of the amendment. This restriction is operating harshly and it is now proposed to repeal it so that a material aggravation case may apply at any time. The bill also extends the act to permit a material aggravation case to appeal to an entitlement appeal tribunal or to an assessment appeal tribunal. A further clause worthy of special mention limits the time within which the commission may appeal against the decision of an entitlement appeal tribunal. At present the commission may appeal at any time. It is now intended to reduce this period to six months, except in cases where the pension has been obtained by fraud or impersonation.

The Government has authorized the commission to liberalize the basis of pensions payable to aged parents and other dependants who are without adequate means of support. Certain items which are now classed as income, such as friendly society benefits and gifts from children, will be disregarded in arriving at the amount of pension payable. This will result in some pensions being increased. The annual cost of the proposed new pensions and benefits is estimated to be -

 

The proposals are a distinct step forward in affording benefits to returned soldiers and their dependants. 1 commend the measure to the earnest and sympathetic considerationof all honorable senators.

Debate (on motion by Senator Collings) adjourned.







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