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Tuesday, 15 March 1932

Mr JAMES (Hunter) .- I am entirely opposed to the bill, and I cannot understand why the honorable member for Cook (Mr. Riley) should have given it his blessing. So far from affording relief to returned soldiers it will further harass them.

Mr Riley - That is not so.

Mr JAMES - If the honorable member will study the bill he will discover that the Commissioner, and not occupants of. war service homes, will benefit from the passage of this measure.

Mr Francis - No alteration has been made in the obligations of returned soldiers.

Mr JAMES - I do not agree with the Minister. The bill provides in clause 3 that the Commissioner may enter any home and may effect all repairs which he deems necessary, and the expenses thereby incurred, together with interest at the same annual rate as that which is payable on the purchase money or advance, as the case may be, shall be paid to the commissioner by the purchaser or borrower on demand or by such instalments and at such times as are prescribed, or the commissioner determines, and until repayment shall be a charge under the contract of sale or mortgage or other security upon the property . . .

No one can mistake the meaning of that language. In the event of an occupant of a war service home being unemployed, and falling into arrears with his payments, the commissioner may determine that certain renovations and repairs are necessary.

Mr Francis - That provision refers only to homes that have been vacated by returned soldiers.

Mr JAMES - Nevertheless, it gives the commissioner power to enter a war service home at any time, and decide that certain repairs or renovations should be carried out. I also object to proposed new section 2, which provides that this amendment of the Principal Act shall he retrospective to 1918.

Mr Francis - The honorable member is quite wrong.

Mr JAMES - For the Minister's benefit I quote the proposed new section. It reads -

The amendment of the principal act made by sub-section I of this section shall be deemed to have commenced on the date of the commencement of the War Service Homes Act 1918, and any action or proceeding taken or instituted, prior to the commencement of this sub-section, under the provisions of any regulation made or purporting to have been made under the WarService Homes Act 1918, or under that act as amended by any subsequent act, for the recovery of any money which became due under a contract of sale at any time prior to the date of cancellation of the contract, shall be as valid and effectual as if section thirty-six of the principal act, as amended by sub-section 1 of this section, had been in force at the date of such action or proceeding, and the action or proceeding had been commenced under that section as so amended.

As a layman, that is the only meaning which I can read into the provision. The bill also seeks to repeal section 43 of the principal act, and to insert in its stead provisions authorizing the Commissioner to serve notices upon the estate of the deceased occupant or purchaser for the recovery of any money due. Will the honorable member for Cook say that this provision will benefit the unfortunate dependants of deceased soldiers ?

Mr Francis - That is the ordinary procedure.

Mr JAMES - The benefits conferred upon returned soldiers and their dependants for sacrifices made during the war are insignificant compared to those given to another section of the community - not the bondholders alone, but shipping companies which suffered losses through enemy action. In some cases, so if is alleged, ships were deliberately destroyed by their owners in order to obtain compensation from the governments of the various nations engaged in the war. I agree with the honorable member for Balaclava (Mr. White) that the passage of the bill should be deferred until after the approaching conference has been held. I have been instructed by four or five returned soldiers' leagues in my division to oppose it.

Mr Francis - Returned soldiers' leagues throughout Australia, with the exception of Victoria, have raised no objection to it.

Mr JAMES - I do not like contradicting the Minister, but let me read a letter dated the 8th March addressed to me by Mr. G. H. Shaw, secretary of the Newcastle branch of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia.

Mr McGrath - Was that not before the bill was circulated?

Mr JAMES - The bill was circulated long before the Sth March. The letter says -

I thank you very much for your courtesy in forwarding a copy of the proposed amendments to the War Service Homes Act. These were placed before my committee at the meeting held on the 7th March, and were severely criticized; and during the discussion that* ensued it was pointed out that several of the amendments proposed were all to the. advantage of the commission, and that no benefit would be derived by the occupiers.

I have also letters from the Kurri Kurri, Wallsend, Cessnock, Weston and Abermain branches. They are couched in stronger terms, and tell me to fight like hell against the bill. I am sorry to have to correct the Minister, but he is absolutely wrong in saying that the whole of the leagues of Australia are in favour of these amendments.

Many hardships have been suffered by purchasers of these homes. Many soldiers were ejected from their homes during the regime of the Bruce-Page Government. When the then Minister for Markets (Mr. Paterson) was administering war service homes, I appealed to him to extend some humane consideration to the occupants of these homes. In Maitland, a soldier with three children was evicted. Many evictions have taken place in Kurri Kurri and other places. I have the names, and the departmental records can show the letters of protest I forwarded in respect of many who, subjected to harassing tactics and the continual threat of court proceedings, preferred to leave their homes rather than face a court with the certainty of being evicted. It was unemployment which prevented them from meeting their obligations to the department. In this connexion, I pay a tribute to the late Government. It did very little good, but what little it did do I am not anxious to overlook. When Mr. Parker Moloney was administering war service homes, he extended every sympathy to the occupiers of these homes, and even reinstated many who had been evicted by the Bruce-Page Government.

This bill is unnecessary. The act under which the homes have been administered for years past is harsh enough. Do not let us make it harsher. Let us even extend to the occupiers the consideration that many owners extend to their tenants. A home in Mayfield was resumed by the commission because the instalments had not been met, and the occupant, who happened to be the tenant of the purchaser, was evicted. The property was first purchased when the employment of the purchaser necessitated his living at Mayfield. He was subsequently transferred to Newcastle, and it was more convenient for him to live at Carrington. He therefore let his home at Mayfield, but the tenant subsequently became unemployed and accumulated arrears of rent. The owner would not evict the tenant. He preferred not to follow the inhuman policy of the commission as applied to occupiers who fail to pay their instalments, and, as a result, lost his house.

Mr Francis - When did this occur?

Mr JAMES - About two years ago. I can furnish the particulars to the Minister at the conclusion of the debate.

Hardship has been inflicted in cases where the department has come to the decision that homes must be renovated, although the occupiers may not think that repairs are necessary. The Mayor of Cessnock has written to me saying that he has paid approximately £300 towards the purchase of his home, and still owes the original amount he contracted to pay. If the improvements for which these amendments make provision are to be effected, men may be thrown further into debt.

Mr Francis - That is not possible if a man is paying his weekly instalments. These are fixed on an actuarial basis, and in due course a man pays off both prin cipal and interest. No amount owing to the department could remain dormant if the occupier is paying his instalments.

Mr JAMES - I do not wish the Minister to gather the impression that the. people to whom I am referring have fallen into arrears because they will not pay the instalments due. In each case unemployment has been responsible for the non-payment of instalments.

Mr Francis - I have appointed a committee to inquire into cases of the kind mentioned by the honorable member. They are not covered by this bill.

Mr JAMES - I consider that the bill confers no benefit on the soldier occupant. Many requests have been made for a reduction in the purchase price of property in accordance with the Premiers plan, but there has not yet been a re-valuation of war service homes. The Valuer-General of New South Wales has reported that the value of property has fallen in New South Wales, and I dare say it has fallen in the other States too, yet there has been no reduction in the price of war service homes, nor is any such reduction proposed by this bill. The Government does not even propose to reduce rents in accordance with the Premiers plan.

Mr Riley - There has been no reduction by the Workers Homes Board in New South Wales.

Mr JAMES - In New South Wales rents have been reduced by 22½ per cent. Some war service homes were built without proper outlets for waste water, and the purchasers are now being compelled by the local governing bodies to effect the necessary connexions with the sewerage system. I submitted to the commissioner one such case from Edward-street, Kurri Kurri; the shire council said that it could not be held responsible for an omission on the part of the commission when the home was built. The Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia has asked that when an occupier, through circumstances over which he has no control, is forced to surrender his property, he shall get the benefit of the full value of it, including the improvements. I had to deal with one case in Abermain where a home was sold at a price higher than the original purchase price, and the evicted occupant was not given the advantage of the added value.

Mr Francis - If the honorable member will let me have the name of that man I shall inquire into the case.

Mr JAMES - The man was Mr. Endean, but the commission has all particulars of the case. The Returned Soldiers Congress resolved -

This congress requests that no evictions be made from war service homes where the arrears are caused by unemployment or other circumstances over which the occupant has no control.

That is a reasonable request, but I am afraid that the humane policy of the Scullin Ministry will be discontinued, and the commission will revert to the harsher treatment that characterized the administration of war service homes during the Bruce-Page regime. At that time many unfortunate men whose payments fell into arrears through unemployment were evicted from their homes. When an occupier through unemployment is forced to suspend his payments for a period the commission could be adequately protected by extending the period of purchase accordingly.

Mr Makin - That is fair.

Mr JAMES - I propose to move an amendment to that effect in committee. The bill generally does not commend itself to the occupants of war service homes, particularly that provision which seeks to validate an invalid law and thus deprive the soldiers of their legal rights. Although one successful litigant named Davies successfully appealed to the Full Court in Melbourne, and is not to be robbed of the fruits of his victory, this amendment is being made retrospective in order to prevent other occupants from getting the benefit of the defect in the law.

Mr Francis - The case was won on a technical point. In the lower court arid the Supreme Court judgment was given for the Crown, but on final appeal to the Full Court judgment was given in favour of the occupant.

Mr JAMES - Apart from the point dealt with by that judgment, this bill does propose to' impose on the occupants of war service homes a retrospective liability. These men have made greater sacrifices than any other section of the community, and are entitled to special con sideration; for that reason the interest rate should be further reduced from 4£ per cent, to 2£ per cent. Owing to the general trade depression which has robbed men of their employment, a house for which the occupant contracted to pay £500 may ultimately cost him £1,100, through the accumulation of interest and penalties. Some of the purchasers are so far in arrears through no fault of their own that they have no prospect of ever becoming the owners of their homes. Another objectionable provision in the bill is that which enables the commission to sue the estate of a deceased soldier for the recovery of arrears. In committee I shall move several amendments, which I trust will be sympathetically considered by the Minister in charge of the bill.

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