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Tuesday, 15 March 1932

Mr NAIRN (Perth) .- It is futile to talk of the soldiers as having been harassed or being likely to receive anything but considerate treatment. The Scullin Government laid down and honestly administered the principle that where default was due to unemployment or any other cause over which the soldier had no control, the contract of purchase would not be enforced by ejectment or other drastic measures. The present Government is following that policy to the satisfaction of representative soldier organizations. The bill has two main objects. The first is to give to the Commissioner the right to recover amounts in respect of which the soldier purchaser has defaulted. An ordinary contract of sale contains a clause setting out the remedies available to the vendor if the purchaser should default. The War Service Homes Act purported to provide similar remedies, but the enumeration of them was defective. The act provides for the annulment of the contract, and for the commission to repossess itself of the house ; but it fails to provide the ordinary right to recover arrears from the purchaser. If the act had not attempted to enumerate the remedies available to the vendor, the right of' recovery would have existed as a matter of ordinary law. An attempt was made to cure the omission by regulation, and for many years both the commission and the soldier occupants were of opinion that the ordinary conditions of a contract of sale applied to war service homes. Recently, however, one Davies took advantage of the defect in the act, and although there was no merit in his claim, the superior court gave judgment in his favour on a technical flaw. It is not desirable that the department should be required to refund many thousands of pounds that it has collected in accordance with what was believed by both vendor and purchaser to be the law. I doubt whether many soldiers would care to take advantage of the defect on which Davies succeeded; and it is questionable whether the administration of the act strictly in accordance with its language rather than its spirit would be in the interests of the soldiers. The act has been administered in a spirit of sympathy with, and consideration for the soldiers, and if an attempt were made to have their agreements carried out strictly in accordance with the law, it would be much to the disadvantage of the soldiers. Such legislation as this should be administered in a spirit of fairness, equity and good conscience; it is hot desirable to take advantage of technical defects which may have been discovered in the operation of the law.

A similar comment is applicable to the second defect which the bill seeks to remedy. In nearly all cases, the clause enabling the Commissioner to recover the sum expended on repairs is quite unnecessary. Up to the 30th June last, the occupants paid their contributions regularly, and I do not think that any other section of the community can be said to have done so well in that respect.

Mr Francis - They honoured all their contracts.

Mr NAIRN - At least 98 per cent of them did so, and these . are the men to whom the repairs clause has no application. The reputable occupant, who pays his way, will keep his house in order, and repairs will be unnecessary. The unfortunate but respectable soldier who may have to leave his home will not abandon it without giving notice, and before leaving the premises he will see that they are in a fair state of repair. That is all that is required under the conditions of contract. Of course, there are a few exsoldiers who will allow their homes to go to rack and ruin, but such delinquents are to be found among all sections. In those case1, the commission should have the right to effect repairs. If a property is tobe sold, it is necessary, in the interests of the soldiers, that repairs should be made before it is offered at auction. In assessing the sum to be allowed for the equity in a house it is fair to debit the soldier with the amount spent on' repairs. Repairs mean renovations, and can be distinguished from improvements, which involve the addition of something that is new. The only risk is that a departmental officer might think it clever to include in the cost of repairs a work which amounted to an improvement, and that would operate unfairly against the ex-soldier. But the department can be trusted, I think, to act fairly towards the occupants in the future, as it has in the past. The only other complaint made is that this legislation is to be retrospective. Ordinarily that is a sound objection ; but, as I have pointed out, it is not desirable that the department should be obliged to refund moneys which have been paid to it. I do not consider that the retrospective operation of this measure is likely to prove unfair, because for years the department has believed that it had the power now sought, and giving it this power is not likely to make it search for new cases.

The suggestion has been made that the interest rate should be reduced to 2£ per cent., but that is quite impracticable. The money advanced for these homes costs the Government 4-£ per cent. Whatever the reduction may be, the loss has to be made up by the general community. Some day it may be desirable to consider the necessity for re-valuing these properties, but this is not a suitable time to raise that question, because values are now abnormally low. If it should prove, after a few years' further experience, that these properties have permanently dropped below the value they had when they were sold, there might then be good reason for assessing the losses of the occupants due to the general depreciation of property through general economic conditions.

Mr White - Why not wait until the returned soldiers' committee has made a recommendation on the matter?

Mr NAIRN - I would do that, if I thought the committee could suggest measures that would result in real improvement.

Mr Francis - That committee is authorized to suggest means by which the owners of war service homes can be kept in occupation of their premises, and no good object could be served by delaying this bill, which validates past acts.

Mr NAIRN - Whatever government may be in power, it must deal with the occupants of these homes sympathetically and fairly, and, therefore, I see no objection to bringing the conditions of contract into line with what was necessary in the first instance.

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