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Thursday, 8 March 1928

Mr COLEMAN (Reid) .-While we may find some small consolation in the admission of the honorable member for Herbert (Dr. Nott) that the pro visions of the Australian Soldiers' Repatriation Act should be amended - he has made such an admission by moving his amendment - I must say that the concession he is willing to grant is almost negligible. At- the same time, I am amazed at the change of front of the honorable member. His view now appears to be quite different from that which he expressed prior to the dinner adjournment. I disagree with his statement that the amendment will meet the wishes of the Tubercular Soldiers' Association, as set out in its circular letter of the 6th March, which, possibly, has influenced him. I consider that even if we carry the amendment, we shall not materially help our tubercular soldiers or their dependants. I regret that the motion of the honorable member for Adelaide has not been received in a more sympathetic fashion. Its object, it appears to me, has been deliberately distorted. We should have accepted the motion, for it amounts to nothing more than an instruction to the Government. It is not binding as to procedure, but merely declares that honorable members are of the opinion that the. treatment of tubercular ex-service men should be liberalized. As a matter of fact, it is in the nature of a compromise. During 1926 the honorable member for Melbourne (Dr. Maloney) moved in this House a motion to the following effect:-

It is the opinion of this House that no soldier who was accepted after passing his examinations, and who actually went to the front and satisfactorily performed his allotted duties, should be refused any rights under the War , Pensions Act for himself or his dependants through certain present medical experts giving as their opinion the causes arose from pre-war causes.

It is also the opinion of this House that all nien who offered their lives, and passed the above scientific examination, should be considered perfectly healthy men from that date; and that discretionary power be vested in the .Repatriation Commissioners to grant pensions and other benefits where sufficient incapacity exists which did not appear at the time of enlistment - such discretionary power to be executed in the light of the character of the service rendered by the soldier.

I have not given the complete motion, but the part of it that I have quoted is sufficient to indicate that it was comprehensive. It was strongly supported by the honorable member for Forrest (Mr.

Prowse), the honorable member for Brisbane (Mr. D. Cameron), the honorable member for Lang (Sir Elliot Johnson), the right honorable member for North Sydney (Mr. Hughes),, and honorable members on this side of the chamber, but was defeated. The honorable member for Adelaide has framed this motion in much less comprehensive terms, and I say in all seriousness, that it should not have been met with captious opposition on party political lines. Let me analyze the proposal. The motion mentions two requisites - (1) That the soldier must have had overseas service, which means that he must have passed through the testing period that followed enlistment and the rigors associated with training, transportation to England, and possibly further intensive training in a severe winter on Salisbury Plains; and (2) that the soldier is suffering from tubercular disease. The only objection that can be raised to the motion is that no time limit is prescribed within which a claim may be made. That objection is not serious, because the carrying of the motion would be merely a direction to the Government to submit to Parliament a measure to liberalize the Repatriation Act. The Minister, and other honorable members opposite, have asked, however, why we should discriminate in favour of 'tubercular cases. Why should we not? Even the Minister has admitted that there is always an element of doubt as to the extent to which illness or other circumstances during ser- vice contributed towards tubercular infection, and that detection in the early stages is difficult. The honorable gentleman told us that years might elapse before the disease made itself evident, although all the time it was insidiously increasing its grip on the system of the victim. Plenty of soldiers had been subject to chronic colds and other ailments for years, and never realized the significance of . their symptoms until a serious hemorrhage occurred.These facts are known to the Minister, and he should give. due attention to them. I have brought to his notice many cases which, but for persistent agitation, would have been deprived of their pension rights. In one instance I had to agitate for four years before a pension was> granted. The man had been wounded badly, and returned to Australia debilitated by his war service. Subsequently he caught a cold and contracted tuberculosis, from which he died. His widow was awarded a small pension because her husband had lost an eye, but the department refused to admit that there was any evidence that the tubercular infection had been caused by war service. The claim for a full pension was repeatedly before the department, the Treasurer, who was then administering repatriation, and the present Minister for Repatriation (Sir Neville Howse), who ultimately granted it. If the unfortunate widow had not had somebody to represent her claims to the Minister, she would still be slaving over a wash-tub. Such obstruction and delays are wrong. Another case brought under my notice a fewweeks ago was that of a man v/ho, upon his return from the front, developed tuberculosis. Evidence of a pre-war infection was found .by the doctors, who admitted that war service had aggravated his weakness. He was granted a pension for a fixed period. The term of aggravation having ended, in the opinion of the doctors, the pension was terminated. To-day that man is dying in Auburn of tuberculosis, and the department still absurdly disclaims liability. The decision in these cases should not be left to the discretion of a Minister. I agree that the gentleman who is at present in charge of repatriation has been fairly generous.

Sir Neville Howse - The claims are not left to the discretion of the Minister. They are dealt with by the commission.

Mr COLEMAN - But often the Minister has to intervene in behalf of a claimant or his dependants to influence the commission and its advisory boards to give further consideration to a case. The honorable gentleman admitted today that he had stretched the act to its limits. I believe he has done so, but that is wrong in principle. If the act is faulty, it should be amended. Justice in pension affairs should not be dependent upon the sympathetic predisposition of any individual or group of individuals who happen to be administering the law. I do not suggest that the present Minister would show favoritism, but in the absence of a specific direction by

Parliament, there is a danger that some future Minister may be swayed by considerations of party or friendship to give a favorable decision. The responsibility of determining the pension rights of the soldiers belongs to Parliament, and this matter should be decided free of any attempt to make political capital out of it. I feel sure that there is in the House a majority of members who, if free to deal with the matter on its merits, would support the principle which the motion enunciates.

I stress the unfortunate position of hundreds, and, possibly, even thousands of men, sufferers from tuberculosis and other war disabilities, who in spite of the reforms in the Department, which have been a feature of the present Minister's administration, were refused pensions, and are now living in asylums and hospitals in various parts of the Commonwealth. Visiting the State hospital at Lidcombe, which is in my electorate, I saw in the chest war.d 60 or 70 patients of all sorts and conditions - returned soldiers, black fellows, Chinamen, and whites - in all stages of tubercular infection ; some were dying and others were in the intermediate stages of the disease. I did what I could to assist those poor chaps financially and otherwise, but no doubt amongst them are some who, if they were aware of the more liberal administration of the Repatriation Department, could establish a claim for a pension which would give to them greater comforts for the brief remainder of their lives. In regard to tuberculosis one broad principle has to be borne in mind. The disease is insidious in its development, and pitiful in its consequence. It requires the most careful treatment, the best nutrition and most skilled help that are available, and the victims are entitled to the maximum degree of sympathy from this Parliament. The tendency of the legislature has been steadily to liberalize the treatment of tubercular soldiers, and that is the justification for the motion.

Reference has been made to the probable financial consequences of a more generous treatment of tubercular cases. I have a letter from the Tubercular Soldiers' Association in Sydney, in which it is stated that about 200 consumptive soldiers are receiving no pension from the Federal Government. No doubt they are left to wander about and make the best of things; and no one is prepared to accept responsibility for the maintenance of their wives and families. A man who becomes infected with tuberculosis is' more or less a leper ; only one other disease has more dreadful social consequences to the victim.

I join issue with those honorable members who stated that war service generally increased the stamina of the soldiers. Possibly it did so in many cases; some of us undoubtedly felt- the benefit of the training and military life; nevertheless, exposure, hardship, malnutrition, sordid surroundings, slush, sleet and snow in one climate and enervating heat in another combined to undermine the resistance of many men and to send them back to Australia debilitated. In the Repatriation Commission's report reference is made to the slow progress of tubercular infection amongst soldiers and their diffidence in approaching the department for medical treatment. According to a return contained in the report, out of 72,388 pensioners, 24,936 suffered from diseases of the respiratory organs, and other diseases which are invariably the outcome of exposure; there were 2,675 tubercular victims, 5,829 suffering from asthma, bronchitis, pleurisy and pneumonia, and 16,432 sufferers from rheumatism, debility, gas poisoning, nephritis, and other diseases. In other words, more than onethird of the total number of pensioners owe their disability to exposure and hardship during war service. Next in the list were the heart cases, also due to exposure, which numbered 6,561.

The Minister took credit for the fact that the number of pensions has increased during the regime of the presentGovernment. That is due to the liberalization of certain pension schedules, but the number of soldier pensioners has not increased. According to the commission's report, in 1920 there were 90,389 incapacitated members of the expeditionary forces. In 1927 the number had decreased to 72,388 ; but the number of dependants had increased in that- period from 86,000 to 147,000. The whole increase has been in respect of soldiers' wives and children, and other dependants. The number of soldiers is declining all the time; possibly 20,000 members of the Austraiian Imperial Forces have died since the end of the war, and the Commonwealth's liability in respect of the soldiers, apart from their dependants, has been considerably diminished. The motion moved by the honorable member for Adelaide speaks for itself, in spite of all the hair-splitting and quibbling which have been indulged in during this debate. It is simply a broad direction to the Government, and if it is accepted by honorable members in the spirit in which it has been moved, it can do no harm. It will simply give the Government a direction to introduce further amending legislation during this session. If the House is not prepared to accept the motion, it should certainly be prepared to submit some alternative. The onus of proving a war disability should be thrown not upon the soldier, but upon the department. If honorable members are not prepared to accept the motion they should certainly fix the period during which tuberculosis, in the absence of contributing causes, can be reckoned as being caused through war service. It is no use rejecting this motion and accepting in its stead the amendment moved by the honorable member for Herbert, which can achieve nothing. It would simply re-affirm the present administration of the act, and would certainly not meet the requirements of the Tubercular Soldiers' Association. That body complains that when it was decided to give a permanent pension to tubercular soldiers, the general impression -was that it was a generous concession that would apply to the whole of them, but when it came to a matter of administration it was decided that all men proved to be tubercular on 1st July, 1925, were to receive a permanent pension at a minimum rate of £2 2s. a week, and, of course, a proportionate allowance for their wives and other dependants. That concession has created an anomaly. All the men who suffered from tuberculosis prior to July, 1925, and whose disease possibly had then been arrested but who are just as much disabled as those whose disease has since been arrested, are not covered by this concession. They are not covered by the administration of the act, nor, unless I am mistaken, would they be by the amendment moved by the honorable member for Herbert. These men will always be disabled. Their disease has had a detrimental effect on their general health and mental condition, yet because their disease was arrested prior to July, 1925, they are not entitled to the pension. The amendment moved by the honorable member for Herbert provides for no protection for these men. The Minister suggested that the establishment of a war pensions, appeal board was unnecessary so long as he administered the department. I would direct the attention of Government supporters to the fact that the establishment of an appeal board is now part of the policy of the Returned Soldiers' League of Australia. I mention that because it indicates dissatisfaction with the Repatriation administration, with the policy that the returned soldier has to prove his case, and with the policy of refusing him the right of access to his medical file. It also indicates resentment of the fact that doctors can disagree in their diagnosis of a complaint, and yet the returned soldier concerned is not able to put his point of view. I have looked through the medical files, and discovered that in the case of a man suffering loss of voice, one doctor decided that the disability Avas due to venereal disease. Two other doctors disagreed with that diagnosis, but the soldier himself had no knowledge of the conflicting opinions. As a result of a strenuous fight that man received a pension. Appeal boards have operated successfully in New Zealand and Canada. A man should have the right to go before a board and argue his case, proffer medical testimony, and, if necessary, engage a legal advocate. The board should be well balanced, consisting of representatives of the public, the returned soldiers, and the medical officers. Every phase of thought could be represented on it. A board - of that description would end these everlasting appeals to the Minister, and frequent ventilation of cases on the floor of this House. The returned soldiers would feel that they were getting a full measure of justice. The work of the department itself would be lightened and dissatisfaction would be brought to an end. It is wrong in principle for any Minister to say that he will give personal attention to the cases that are brought under his notice. I am concerned about hundreds of returned soldiers who are ignorant that they can approach a member of Parliament and have their cases ventilated in this House. Some time ago the Opposition in another place were responsible for the appointment of a select committee which overrode the determination of the Repatriation Commission, and as a result, £1,000, as arrears of pension, was paid to the returned soldier concerned. These men should know the nature of the evidence tendered against them. It is against all the accepted principles of British justice to allow a man's case to be heard by a board and he personally not to come into contact with it. The practice of referring files to a Medical Advisory Board in Melbourne, whose duty it is to examine the documents only, and not the individual, is utterly wrong. I apologize for taking up so much -time in discussing this motion, and possibly preventing others from speaking. This subject has been debated in the House before, and I hope that the motion will be carried in the spirit in which it has been submitted to the House.

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