Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Friday, 27 November 1936

Senator HARDY - The only way to deal with cases of tuberculosis among soldiers is to give a full war pension to the sufferers.

Senator COLLINGS - I agree with the honorable senator; and, knowing his sympathy with the returned men, I imagine that he believes that the pension should be inviolable, and subject to no reductions whatsoever. If the honorable senator means that, as I am sure he does, I support him entirely.

The Government might well have made this measure more complete than it is. Honorable senators will acquit me of being enthusiastic about the business of soldiering. No honorable senator is less enthusiastic about that business than I am. But I say that when, in a time of. national emergency, men take up the onerous duty of soldiering, as they did in 1914 and the following years, the definite promises made to them should be kept. I freely admit that the Australian nation has stood up to its responsibilites in this respect fairly well; but not all the promises made to the men who enlisted have been kept. Such promises are never kept. However well-intentioned the people who made promises on behalf of the nation were at the time - and I believe that they were well-intentioned - all history teaches us that no nation has ever kept its promise fully to the heroes of its war activities. Australian soldiers are being reasonably well dealt with by the nation because their numbers, in proportion to the total population, are large.

Senator Hardy - There are many cases of hardship.

Senator COLLINGS - That is so. They should be dealt with as cases of hardship; there should not be foo much haggling about the terms of settlement when they come before the appropriate tribunal. I have had to deal with numbers of claims on behalf of returned soldiers, and at times I have been satisfied with the decision given ; but on other occasions I have gone away saddened because, although the decisions could be justified in that the letter of the law had been observed, I believed that the spirit of the law, and the intention of those who made the bargain and of the people who so wholeheartedly supported it, had been broken. Returned soldiers who are so handicapped by war injuries as to be incapable of engaging in industrial activities are definitely handicapped. Those responsible for the administration of the act should say where they stand in this matter. For example, there is the anomaly that a person who is regarded as being eligible for an invalid pension may not be given a service pension. After all, the same government administers both acts. There are numerous instances of men who have been granted invalid pensions, because of their total and permanent incapacitation, and yet have been refused service pensions. By way of illustration I shall quote an example that has come under my notice. Recently a woman was brought by her daughter into the Federal Members' Rooms, Brisbane, to interview me. She could only swing round the table in my room and take her seat in a chair by putting both hands on the table and lifting the weight of her body with her hands, swinging her useless limbs until she was able to collapse into the chair. It was claimed by the department that she was not totally and permanently incapacitated for work. I admit that she was not totally and permanently incapacitated for work, because she could remain seated in a chair once she was able to get into it, and, for example, could work a hand sewing machine or a typewriter. I submit, especially in these times of stress, when there is not work enough to be found even for able-bodied men and women of the community - young, middle-aged or old - it should be accepted that such a. person is, for all practical purposes, totally and permanently incapacitated, unless the administration is to stand meticulously by the crossing of every " t " and the dotting of every " i " of the letter of the law. I do not blame the officers of the department; I know they have to administer the law. Other cases somewhat similar to that have been brought under my notice. I am dealing with a ease now, which I propose to investigate when I return to Brisbane, of a soldier who is at present in hospital. The authorities at the hospital believe that it will be necessary to amputate his foot in order to prevent further disability. The man says, " If I can get the invalid pension it will not be so bad; it is true that I can work with my hands; if you could find me some work to dp which require only the use of my hands I would be perfectly content". But if he were given a job, how would he get to and from his work? I know the officers of the department are tied down by the definite provision of the act that,, before an invalid pension can be granted, an applicant must be totally and permanently incapacitated.

Senator Dein - Parliament formulated the act.

Senator COLLINGS - Surely in cases where the applicant is a soldier some loosening of the provisions of the act could be expected. The position is equally unsatisfactory, however, in both civil and military cases. If the law is to be stretched at all, I suggest, as Senator Dein does by interjection, that what is needed is a complete revision of the law and a provision to ensure that the special condition of the soldier applicants shall be taken into account. I have no desire to see the law liberalized to such an extent that loo great a burden will be placed upon the taxpayers of this country, but I want the soldier to feel, when he appears before the various pensions tribunals, that he is presenting his case to sympathetic judges. The great trouble in connexion with government departmental administration usually- is - and here again I do not blame the officers, because they are restricted by departmental regulations - that every precaution is taken to see that expenditure is not increased. If an officer in charge allows the expenditure of his department to increase appreciably he is immediately asked for an explanation. I am sure that, in respect of both the civil and military administrations, if a responsible officer were discovered to be so sympathetic that his expenditure was increasing while others who, shall I say, had less heart and more head, were able to keep their departmental expenditure within bounds, it would not be long before the man whose head was ruled by his heart was reminded of his duty. I think ; hat all cases should be looked at all the time with sympathetic eyes: we should not have anomalies so continually occurring. When Cabinet Ministers are away from their offices they are, almost without exception, kind-hearted gentlemen : but immediately they become absorbed in their departmental activities, they take the stand that they must restrain themselves, and see that they are not unduly moved by sympathy for the suffering people of the community.

Senator Payne - We compel them to adopt that attitude by our laws.

Senator COLLINGS - I admit that; but here is an opportunity to change the law. In the bill now before the Senate certain amendments are proposed, and I lj ave indicated some directions in which I think those amendments are wrong. In committee I shall .have something to say with regard to those defects, though possibly the Minister may be able to show me that I am under a misapprehension. However, the opportunity is presented to us now to overhaul the whole of the machinery of the law relating to soldiers' pensions. Recently Senator Hardy submitted an exceptionally strong case in connexion with the composition of the War Pensions Entitlement Tribunal. I am in full sympathy with the honorable senator. We should not deny to the soldier to whose case I have referred the right to obtain consideration for his disabilities. Although he was in receipt of an invalid pension from the civil authorities for a number of years, when he applied for a war pension all sorts of difficulties were placed in his way. I am reminded again of an experience of my own in connexion with the great difficulty that the soldier has in establishing his claim for a pension, because of tlie fact that he has to prove beyond any shadow of doubt that his disability is attributable to war service.

Senator Hardy - Only one out of every four, applicants was able to prove it last year.

Senator COLLINGS - There, again, we should stretch out the letter of the law to its last extremity, and forget its spirit. Let me indicate to honorable senators a particular case which was brought prominently under my notice. A man came along with his discharge papers, which showed that he was accepted for military service on a given date as being physically fit ; on discharge he was not suffering from any apparent disability. What must be kept in mind, however, is the fact that he was perfectly healthy when lie enlisted. During Iris active service abroad he went through experiences which, as is well known to the authorities, were likely to produce certain after-effects. The army medical authorities know perfectly well that being badly gassed subsequently sets up certain conditions which, are not always manifested immediately after recovery. The evil after effects of poison gas may not be exhibited within twelve months or two years; at any time subsequently, they may reduce the efficiency of the soldier who has returned to civilian life. Why should an attitude of incredulous surprise be adopted in such cases? In common with many others, the man to whom I have referred, was informed that his condition could not be attributable to war service, and that his complaint could not be classed as a war disability.

Senator Hardy - All that applicants, whose claims have been refused, receive, as a rule, is a bald statement of that fact.

Senator COLLINGS - That is so. I know the law lays it down that it must be so; the war pensions tribunals must decide definitely whether an applicant is suffering froma war disability or not, and if, in their opinion, he is not, then that cold, curt, official reply is sent on to him. I am not a medical man, and am unable to diagnoze the symptoms of these men, or to describe them in medical terms, nor am I ableto appear before the tribunals and prove that the disabilities of applicants in whose cases I am interested are due to war service. But at least I know that those men were in perfect health when they were accepted for service, and in many cases their family histories constitute a completely healthy record. In border-line cases the applicant should be given the benefit of the doubt; I am at a loss to understand why there should be unseemly haggling over them. This nation is wealthy enough to say that, if there is a doubt, the applicant is entitled to the benefit of it, and leave the matter rest there.

Senator Payne - The applicant gets the benefit of the doubt now.

Senator COLLINGS - I want it to be understood that I do not in any way blame the departmental officers; they are all worthy gentlemen, and are certainly as humane as I am; but they are tied by the law as it stands. If the law says now that, where there is an element of doubt the benefit of it shall be given to the applicant, we have to make quite surethat the authorities administering the law under stand that it is the desire of this Parliament that there shall be no unseemly haggling in regard to the matter.

Senator A J McLACHLAN (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - There is no doubt about that whatever.

Senator Hardy - Parliament is entitled to know whether or not the benefit of the doubt is being given to the applicant.

Senator COLLINGS - Why are those men who are still suffering as a result of their service in the South African war not brought within the scope of this bill? Having served their country in that conflict they are as much entitled to consideration as are those who served in the Great War. I do not know the position in the other States - probably the Minister will info rm me - but in Queensland during the South African war a patriotic fund raised to assist those who served during that campaign was not all distributed amongst the men who served. When the Great War broke out the balance - I cannot remember the amount but it was very considerable - was handed over to assist those who served in the Great War. Every year there is a re-union of the veterans of the South African campaign. There is no valid reason why we should not be actuated by our hearts instead of by our heads alone, and bring within the scope of the Repatriation Act, those men who served in that conflict.

Senator Hardy - The amount involved would not. be large; not many South African veterans are left.

Senator COLLINGS - That is so. The expense would not be great and it would be a wonderful gesture to the men who. are left. Some of them are in impoverished financial circumstances, and are quite beyond the age at which they can engage in strenuous work. It would be an acknowledgment by the nation of the sacrifices they made so long ago.

I have already said that I am opposed to the provision under which contributions are made to repatriation hospitals in which returned soldiers may, for the time being, be obliged to take refuge.

Senator A J McLACHLAN (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - Does the honorable senator suggest that no such contribution should be made?

Senator COLLINGS - Any pension payable under legislative enactment or by administrative act should be inviolable. Institutions in which returned soldiers, who, owing to their physical or mental condition are inmates, should not deprive them of a portion of their pensions. I shall be surprised if the Minister can convince me that in such circumstances it is fair to deprive a pensioner of a portion of his pension. The Minister for Health and Repatriation (Mr. Hughes) said -

If a married mau becomes an inmate of one of these institutions his pension ceases, but 1) is wife's pension continues to be paid.

It is a wonder that the department doesnot also deprive the wife of her pension. Later the Minister said -

It is the liability of the State to look after its citizens. Where a man is suffering from a war disability we relieve the State of all responsibility; where he is not suffering a war disability he remains a unit of the general body of citizens.

That is stressing the obvious; but the point I am trying to make is entirely disconnected, with the responsibility of the State and closely associated with the responsibility of the Commonwealth Parliament. If a man is suffering from n disability which becomes so accentuated that he has to take refuge in an institution, it is cruel - almost cowardly - to deprive him of a portion of his war pension by making a contribution to an institution. If those institutions cannot carry on without such "contributions it would be infinitely better for the Commonwealth to make a direct gre nl: to them of the amount which, under this bill, will be taken from the ex-soldiers. At the end of the year the Government could ask for a statement showing how many disabled men have been inmates of institutions, and the Commonwealth Government could then foot the bill. That should be done instead of making returned soldiers, who, in consequence of increased suffering or disability have been compelled to become inmates of an institution, lose a portion of their meagre pensions.

I realize that the promises made to returned soldiers have been liberally redeemed, and I know exactly what the Minister will say in reply. I realize that Australia has stood up to its financial responsibilities in this connexion, but that does not dispose of the fact, which is becoming increasingly obvious, that many of these men. are still . suffering the gravest disabilities. It is useless to tell them that the nation has stood up very well to its responsibilities, because they are concerned with only their own cases. It is futile to show them a mass of figures and statistics giving the amounts paid in affording relief to returned soldiers. They want their own cases dealt with sympathetically. We should scrutinize the provisions of this bill with the greatest possible care and allow our hearts rather than our heads to actuate us. We realize to the full the difficulties encountered by officers administering the Repatriation Act; nevertheless we should replace parsimony with magnanimity. This bill affords a convenient opportunity to review the whole situation and endeavour to remove some of the anomalies from the principal act so that the legislation and the regulations framed under it can be interpreted more sympathetically. That cannot be done by setting up an additional entitlement tribunal. The members of the present entitlement tribunal are very sympathetic towards applicants, but they are tied down by the law.

Senator HARDY - At least one member of the tribunal is not very sympathetic.

Senator COLLINGS - I hope that that is not so. I can hardly imagine the persons associated with such an important tribunal being other than sympathetic. I can, however, visualize the members of that body being controlled almost completely by the letter of the law which they have to administer. It is not a matter of lack of sympathy; they are compelled to be guided by their heads and not by their hearts. I appeal to the Minister to give a lead to the members of the entitlement tribunal and also to the officers under his control so that they will understand that it is not the desire of the Parliament or the Government to act in other than a generous way towards these unfortunate men. Members of this Parliament have a good deal of their time taken up in handling the claims of ex-soldiers, and in endeavouring to get a fair deal for them. Before I left Brisbane recently I had an accumulation of cases to bring before the Department of Repatriation, some of which were dealt with to my satisfaction. I do not expect to succeed with all cases, because I know that some returned soldiers try to gain an unfair advantage. They are not the only ones who do so; there are always in every community some persons who will try to obtain concessions to which they are not entitled. Sometimes we are told stories by applicants that are not entirely true, and when investigations are made the department can show that the case is not as it lias been represented. But it is better that a dozen men should get something to which they are not entitled, than that one deserving man should be denied justice. It is better to be beaten by an unscrupulous scoundrel than to turn a deaf ear to the just claims of the men who are entitled to sympathetic consideration. I appeal to the Minister in charge of the bill to give the closest attention to the points I have raised, and I sincerely trust that before the measure is passed, important amendments will have been made to benefit these disabled soldiers.

Suggest corrections