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Thursday, 13 October 1921

Senator E D MILLEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for Repatriation) . - I move -

That this Bill be now read a second time.

I take this opportunity to explain briefly what this measure is, although I have no doubt that honorable senators understand it. It is really a formal measure to give effect to a practice which has been adopted in connexion with Commonwealth finance - the practice of appropriating in lump sums certain amounts to be paid into Trust Funds. In this case the appropriation is for the purpose of the War Pensions Trust 'Fund, from which amounts are drawn when pensions become due. The same practice is followed for many of our other services, but it is necessary to make separate appropriations for each Trust Fund. The previous appropriation, amounting to £10,000,000, was obtained on 19th May, 1920. It is expected that the provision will be exhausted towards the close of the present month. The Bill now submitted is for £10,000,000, and. will probably suffice for eighteen months. As the surplus remaining at the close of the present financial year will be set aside for the payment of invalid and old-age and war pensions, it is desirable to have a considerable appropriation available at the 30th June next. The total expenditure on war pensions from their inception to 30th September last was £23,990,000; and the total estimated expenditure for the current financial year is £6,650,000. The annual liability reached its highest point in August, 1920, when it stood at £7,613,682. Since then, the liability has gradually receded, until at 30th September last it stood at £6,818,262. The number of pensions granted to June, 1921, was 288,928. These were reduced by cancellations (60,275) and deaths (6,116). The total outstanding at 30th June, 1921, was 222,537. That term " cancellation," without a note of explanation, may be misunderstood. Ordinarily the expression might suggest that these were pensions which had been terminated or withdrawn. That would be literally correct, but they include all those cases in which, on the recovery of the patient, the pensions automatically cease. These cases represent by far the largest percentage. They are regarded as cancelled pensions, and in one sense they are; but it must not be assumed that they have been withdrawn by any arbitrary act of the Department, or that they are withheld from any men who have a claim to them. I have not the definite percentages with me, but the term " cancellation " represents, in the large proportion of cases, the happy, natural consequences of a recovery of health.

Senator Duncan - Among the other cases there are many hard ones.

Senator E D MILLEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Complaints of hard cases reach the Government, and I have no doubt that there are hard cases. It is not every claimant who can prove his eligibility under the Act. New pension claims are being received to the number of between 300 and 400 per week, mainly from wives and children of partially incapacitated soldiers. The new grants are counterbalanced by the number of deaths and cancellations, and the variation in the actual number of pensions in force has been very slight during the past six months. Consequent upon the interjection by Senator Duncan, I would like to draw special attention to the remarks I have just made. If there is any idea that the Pensions authorities are moving in the matter merely with a desire to save money, I ask the Senate to dismiss the idea from their minds entirely. The Repatriation Commissioners are human, and' may make mistakes, but there is not the slightest ground for the suggestion that a mere desire to save money has influenced them or their subordinate officers. Of that I am quite convinced. When the fact is borne in mind that to-day, so long after the war, when there has been a diminution in the number of pensioners unfortunately by deaths, and when thousands of them have oeased to be pensioners because of recovery and restoration to health, there is practically only a slight diminution in the total number of pensioners, it will indicate that there is no harsh administration of the Pensions Act. If it could be shown that there had been a wholesale cutting down in the number of pensioners, some support might be found for the complaints of harsh treatment.

Senator Duncan - I have some individual cases that seem to be very harsh.

Senator E D MILLEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - That may beso. They appear harsh to honorable senators who put them up. I find that these cases come under one or two headings. In many of them the question arises, Was the man's ailment a result of war service or not? Those are the most frequent class of complaint that comes under my notice. Some of the cases may appear to be harsh, but the law says that a pension shall be payable to those suffering because of war services. In view of that stipulation, there is only one thing for the Commissioners to do, the administration of the Act having been intrusted to their care. I venture to say that if the Commissioners have inadvertently made a mistake to the detriment of one applicant, there have, on the other hand, been dozens of cases in which, on the very slightest ground, they have given the benefit of the doubt to the applicants. The Commissioners aim at being on the liberal side in their dealings with the returned men, to whom we owe so much.

Senator Foster - I asked you some time ago whether the Commissioners had asked for further powers, which could only be given by legislative enactment. Have they asked for those powers?

Senator E D MILLEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Not formally. I do not know that it is their duty to do so. The responsibility rests upon Parliament, and I cannot see that there is an obligation upon the Commissioners to suggest an alteration of the law.

Senator Foster - Have they not said that they were unable to do certain things because they had not the power ?

Senator E D MILLEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - They have said so frequently. They say it to honorable senators. Notwithstanding that they write to honorable senators to point these things out, I find senators standing up and blaming the Commissioners for harshness. I feel that it is an obligation upon me to say a word or two in defence of these gentlemen. I have been working closely with them, and there is not the slightest ground for saying that they are wanting in sympathy to the returned soldiers.

Senator Foster - When we bring cases under notice, the Ministry sometimes replies, "It has nothing to do with us; go to the Commissioners." Between the two, the Government on the one side and the Commissioners on the other, we do not know who is responsible.

Senator E D MILLEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - There are certain things in regard to which I would be very loath indeed to interfere with the Commissioners, unless it could be shown that' a great blunder or a great injustice had been committed. The purpose of creating a Commission was to make the administration of the Act as free as possible from political influence. I respect the intention underlying the Act.

Senator Foster - Between the two positions we sometimes do not know whether the policy of the Government or the administration of the Commission is to blame for harsh cases.

Senator E D MILLEN (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I do not find much difficulty in deciding between policy and administration. I have tried to put in a word regarding what I feel to be right and fair to the Commissioners, who are criticised in certain quarters because they administer the Act as they read it. In th'eir reading of the Act they are supported by the legal authorities of the country. I submit the Bill and ask the Senate to signify its approval-.

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