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Tuesday, 15 March 1932

Mr WHITE (Balaclava) .- Without giving the measure very close attention, it would appear that some of its provisions are innocuous. When I first heard that it was the intention of the Government to introduce an amending war service homes bill I assumed, without perhaps any ground for- the assumption, that it would afford relief to those occupying war service homes. An examination of the measure shows that it is a bill framed by a departmental official to validate regulation 17, which the Full Court of Victoria declared ultra vires. This measure is now submitted to validate that regulation, and to make it retrospective.

Mr Riley - It has been in operation for eleven or twelve years.

Mr WHITE - The fact that it has been in force for that period does not prove its justice or validity. Other departments are administered under regulations. For instance, under one clause in the Navigation Act, pages and pages of regulations have been framed by departmental officers, and concerning them Parliament knows very little. On the first occasion on which the regulation in question was tested it was found to be ultra vires, and the Government now introduces this bill to close up a loophole in the act. I join with the honorable member for Werriwa (Mr. McNicoll) in what he has said in support of those occupying war service homes, and congratulate him upon the fact that his maiden speech in this chamber should have been upon so worthy a subject. I agree with the honorable member that this is not the time to make conditions more severe for returned soldiers, who are worthy of any preference that can be given to them. It is unfair and inequitable that an act which has been in operation all these years should be amended when a conference is to be held to inquire into the whole ' matter.

Mr Francis - The honorable member is quite wrong.

Mr WHITE - I am not. I heard what the Assistant Minister said, and I intend to correct him on a few of the points on which he was wrong. He said just now that occupants of war service homes, even if out of work, are not ejected, and the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Scullin) said that when his Government was in office a similar policy was adopted.

Mr Scullin - I said that definite instructions were given to that effect. If such occupants were ejected, the Government's instructions were disobeyed.

Mr WHITE - In October last, the honorable member for Henty (Mr. Gullett) moved the adjournment of the House to discuss the subject of war service homes, and his remarks on that occasion were supported by honorable members on both sides of the chamber including myself. It was not regarded as a party matter. During the discussion the then Assistant Minister (Mr. Cunningham) made a statement on the subject. I then received the following telegram from the State Executive in Victoria : -

Secretary Savings Bank Victoria which controls wor service homes Victoria states bank not bound by assurance Cunningham Hansard 7th October but no evictions unemployed tenants declares bank will evict at its discretion suggests you question Cunningham what action he proposes make assurance effective Victoria in absence action much qualify statement to House.

Mr Scullin - Are the houses referred to in that telegram under the control of the War Service Homes Commission or the State Savings Bank ai Victoria 2

Mr WHITE - In 1926, the Commonwealth Government entered into an agreement with the State Savings Bank of Victoria under which all the war service homes in that State were placed under the control of that institution. The Commonwealth insisted on the payment of principal and interest whether the bank had, or had not, received the money from the tenants. The State Savings Bank of Victoria has the right under the agreement to evict tenants, and it has evicted them ; but in doing so, its action has been tempered by finding houses for evicted tenants in other districts. We have heard nothing about that from the Assistant Minister. Under the agreement between the Commonwealth and the bank they can be evicted.

Mr Gibson - Does that condition not exist in other States?

Mr WHITE - I am referring now only to Victoria; but I understand that a somewhat similar arrangement has been made in South Australia. A subcommittee of Cabinet was appointed by the Scullin Government to deal with this matter and I congratulate the present Government upon setting up a committee. There should he a greater reduction in the interest payable by the occupants of war service homes. I submit that what is fair for the creditor is also fair for the debtor. The, people of Australia, who were creditors of the Commonwealth and had lent money to the Federal Government - with the exception of 3 per cent. - voluntarily agreed to reduce their interest rates by 22£ per cent. The remainder converted under compulsion. The Commonwealth's debtors, the returned soldiers in this instance, are entitled to a similar reduction instead of the i per cent, reduction made by the late Government. Although no reduction has been made by this Government, the conference which is to be held shortly may make a recommendation in that regard.

Mr McGrath - The interest rate is low.

Mr WHITE - It is too high, considering the reductions made in other directions. I do not know any of the members of the proposed committee, with the exception of the chairman, whom I regard as a particularly suitable man. In Major Treloar, we have a returned soldier who will sift thoroughly all the matters that come before him.

Mr Scullin - But -will the interest question be submitted to the committee? I was under the impression that it had already been decided.

Mr WHITE - That point was not cleared up in the speech of the honorable Minister.

Mr Francis - It was the subject of a special statement. The interest question has been decided.

Mr WHITE - If that is so, the hands of the committee have been tied. I ask the Minister to indicate in his reply the exact terms of reference to this committee. It appears to me that the committee has a string on it, the string being this bill. I was under the impression that the statement made by the Minister recently on the subject of interest di'd not finally determine the matter, but that it would be re-opened when this committee was making its investigation. It has been argued that it is impossible to reduce the interest rate because some of the money loaned to the soldiers to buy war service homes was borrowed overseas, but that is small satisfaction to the man who is in distress. What does he care whether the money was borrowed at home or abroad?

Mr Riordan - Men who bought homes with money borrowed locally may apply for 224 per cent, reduction of interest.

Mr Scullin - But not below 5 per cent.

Mr WHITE - It is a mere quibble to say that the interest cannot be reduced because some of the money was borrowed overseas. We ought to face the facts.

I cannot understand why the Government should want us to pass this bill with such indecent haste, and before the investigation committee has met. In my opinion, consideration of the measure should be deferred until the report of that committee has been obtained. We are labouring under a grave disability in considering the bill at present, for our information is restricted to that obtainable from the Minister, the department, or our own personal contact with returned soldiers. If we could wait until the report of the committee is available, we should be much better equipped to deal with the bill.

Mr Riordan - Will the committee inquire into the high price paid for land for war service homes purposes?

Mr WHITE - I do not know; but I certainly think it should do so. Profiteering was indulged in, and high prices charged to the Government for land for soldier settlement purposes, and because of this many returned men have hardly been able to scratch a living from their holdings. A few have succeeded in doing so, but very many others have failed through no fault of their own. Unduly high prices were also paid for land bought for war service homes purposes. Honorable members should contrast what this Government is proposing to do for the occupants of war service homes with what the Victorian Government has done for soldier settlers. Victoria spent £24,140,000 in placing 11,400 settlers on the land. The concessions granted to these men have amounted to £4,203,000, the land values have been reduced by £250,000, and an amount of £1,370,124 has been written off in respect of excess cost of buildings. But very little has been done to help the occupants of war service homes. There was a slight reduction in charges in 1923. The Auditor-General has pointed out that the spending of money on war service homes by the Commonwealth Government has been an excellent investment. He has shown clearly that the men have acquitted themselves as might be expected of them, yet the Government has brought down a bill designed to make things still harder for them. In his annual report for the year ended the 30th June, 1931, the Auditor-General says, in connexion with war service homes -

It is of interest to note that this is .the first year in which a reduction in the liability to the Treasury has been effected. Such reduction indicating that repayments of principle and interests are in excess of expenditure plus interest on capital. In fact, capital expenditure has been reduced to a minimum,. and is now practically confined to repairs and maintenance of homes abandoned by purchasers.

He also pointed out that -

The percentage of arrears to instalments due has increased from 2.19, compared with 1.12 in 1929-30.

The greatest increase occurred in New South Wales, where unemployment is most acute. No doubt, the percentage of arrears has increased since that time; but it is quite evident that the men have done their best to meet their obligations in spite of scandals associated with the building of war service homes such as those to which the honorable member foi' Werriwa (Mr. McNicoll) referred. Land scandals and timber scandals were occurring about the time some of us returned from active service. Many jerry-built houses came into the hands of the returned men who had been thrifty enough to invest their gratuity and savings in a home of their own. In spite of all this, the occupants of these homes have not unduly protested. It is, therefore, regrettable that a bill of this description should have been introduced before the investigation committee has had an opportunity to present a report to the Government on the subject.

The most important amendment to the principal Act, the Minister informed us, was designed to validate regulation 17, and so make it legal for the commission to sue for arrears. We were told that about £10,000 had been collected under regulation 17, but that £28,000 was still outstanding, and that the Government was afraid that application might be made for the refund of money already paid. But surely it cannot be argued that there is any urgency in the matter. Only one case has succeeded, and every individual occupant will have to take his case to the court for determination.

The next amendment, in point df importance, has relation to repairs. According to the Minister, the commission should be empowered to maintain houses, and the amendment will give it legal authority to do so. Another amendment is designed to permit the commission to let houses that become empty. At present, if a house becomes empty, it may be sold to anybody, whether he is a returned man or not.

Mr Gander - May a returned man let his house if he desires to do so ?

Mr WHITE - I think he may do so with the consent of the commission: Some of the men who put their money into war service homes on their return from the war, are in a most unhappy position. A man may have bought a house in 1920 for £800, and its value today may be only £500. Many war service homes are in distant suburbs. I have very few of them in my constituency, but I know that there are many in the division of Henty. The men bought homes in distant suburbs, because of the favorable terms that were available at that time; but to-day they are feeling the detrimental effects of living at a distance from the city. They have to pay higher rail fares,. and, in other ways, are handicapped. The result has been that many men have abandoned their war service homes, and have rented houses nearer the city at a considerably cheaper rate than they were paying previously.

A perpetuation of the present state of affairs will mean the penalizing of our best returned men. The man who squandered his substance has now no binding property obligations. We know very well that many of the men who bought war service homes are government employees, who have had their salaries or wages reduced to such a point that they are now finding it very difficult to make ends meet. I shall be told that men who are in difficulties are not being forced to pay their rent ; but the amount they are in arrears is being placed to their debit, and they will be required to continue their payments for a greater number of years than was stipulated in their contract in order that they may repay their full indebtedness. Of the 2,000 men who were retrenched in the Postmaster-General's Department last year, 1,500 were returned soldiers, who have very little chance of getting back to their old standard of home comfort. In these circumstances, we should not hastily pass this bill, even though it would validate something that is allegedly wrong.

If a man is forced to vacate his home, he gets no credit whatever for the improvements that he may have made during his occupancy. If the original cost of a house was £800, and if the amount owing on it was £500, because of the depreciation of values, the occupant would be lucky if he got £400 or £500 for the property, so that the whole of his equity in it would be lost. If through Unemployment a returned soldier is forced to vacate a home, the commission may decide that certain repairs are necessary, and debit him with the cost. One could say a great deal more about this subject, if time permitted. I know that the Government is anxious to pass the bill, but I urge the Minister to defer it until after the forthcoming conference. If this course is not adopted I shall be forced to conclude that the Government desires to pass the bill in order to tie the hands of the conference.

Mr Riordan - The act has been in. operation for eleven or twelve years now, so a short delay would not mean much. It would be better if the Government got on with the business of providing means to relieve unemployment.

Mr WHITE - Very many of these returned soldiers are unemployed, and if further charges are levied upon them in respect of repairs to homes which, through force of circumstances, they have been compelled to vacate, the Government, which, I know, sincerely desires to improve their lot, will at all events be misunderstood by them.

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