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Friday, 27 November 1936

Senator HARDY (New South Wales) . - I am in agreement with a great deal of what has been said by the Leader of the Opposition (Senator Collings). I may differ from him in the interpretation of the principles which govern pension rights, but I have no doubt as to his desire that justice should be given to the returned soldiers throughout Australia, who, in their declining years are, unfortunately, suffering from ill-health. This measure affords an opportunity to consider the administration of the Repatriation Commission from various aspects. Members of the 3taff of the commission have been deprived of certain rights which they should possess. The employees number 1,328 - 552 in . the branch offices throughout the Commonwealth and 776 in hospitals and limb factories. The plea I make on their behalf is that they should be granted the same furlough rights as have been enjoyed for years in other departments of the Public Service. It appears that the repatriation staff has been practically forgotten in this respect. I am assured by those who are in a position to estimate the cost of conferring furlough rights on the, members of this staff, that the amount involved is only £3,000 or £4,000 per annum. Why deny to this department a right which is given to others? In the report of the Repatriation Commission for the year ended the 30th June last, this matter was referred to by the chairman and the other two members of the commission. They said -

It is a matter of very deep concern to the Commission that the staff has no retiring or furlough rights such as are enjoyed by the Commonwealth Public Service, even though practically all the male adult lay staff are returned soldiers, as are many of the medical officers and nursing sisters. Many members of the staff have been continuously employed for the past fifteen years, and some since the act was proclaimed in 1918. There are other federal departments outside the Public Service in which these officers have these privileges available to them.

If the Government is prepared to grant these privileges to others of its employees who are outside the Public Service, why should the repatriation staff be denied what is unquestionably a definite right': Furlough privileges are enjoyed by the employees in practically all government departments, semi-government institutions, and private industrial undertakings throughout the world.

Commonwealth public servants have had furlough rights since the establishment of the service, and, if the Repatriation Department had been formed as a separate department under the Public Service Act, furlough rights would have been given to the employees as a matter of course. This department was established at a time of turmoil and upheaval, when full consideration could not be given to the staff's conditions of employment. The department ds quite as permanent, in my opinion, as most departments established under the. Public Service Act. For instance, the War Service Homes branch of the Repatriation Department is definitely of a permanent character. It is debatable whether certain branches of the Commonwealth Public Service, in which furlough is already granted, have as assured a future as have the Repatriation Department and the War Service Homes branch. This matter has already received some consideration by the Government, and I hope that it will be realized that there is no logical reason why the employees should be debarred ordinary furlough rights. The majority of them are returned soldiers, and they should receive treatment similar to that accorded to oilier public servants. Their work has been beyond praise. They have no superannuation benefits, and they do not share in many of the privileges enjoyed by other members of the Public Service. Since the sum involved is only about £3,000 a year, I trust that the Government will adopt my suggestion at the earliest possible date.

I shall not traverse the ground I covered in a previous speech in regard to the War Pensions Entitlement Appeal Tribunal, but I propose to comment on the activities of this body, owing to certain answers which I have received in reply to questions asked in this chamber. The replies have confirmed my worst fears. The decisions of the tribunal ave obscured by a screen of secrecy, which is not beneficial to either the tribunal or the ex-soldiers who go before it for justice. In my speech on another bill, I pointed out that an outstanding fact which the Government should bear in mind is that the appellants should have complete confidence in the decisions of the tribunal; otherwise its work will be abortive. It appears to have overlooked that it is not a judicial body, but is merely a statutory authority appointed by the Parliament. The members of this body display a definite tendency to consider that they are a. law unto themselves, and that they possess a crown of divine right. I suggest to honorable senators that the tribunal possesses no judicial rights. The intention of the Parliament was that the tribunal should observe certain principles laid down in the Repatriation Act. If it departs from them, this Parliament has every right, not- only to criticize its actions, but also to examine its work.

Senator Collings - It is another instance of the establishment of a body which is superior to Parliament.

Senator HARDY - I do not say that of this tribunal, but we ought to be satisfied that the principles embodied in the act are being observed. In view of the fact that the reasons for its decisions are not made available, in every case, to either the Parliament or the appellants, it is impossible for any member of this chamber to satisfy himself as to whether the tribunal is properly discharging its functions. Little discussion has occurred as to the position of this body, and the Minister for Repatriation (Mr. Hughes) has at times adopted the attitude that it is not competent for him to interfere with its decisions. In my opinion, that attitude is wrong. In an interesting judgment by the High Court, in which a decision of this tribunal came under review, the court remarked -

The tribunal is administrative in its character; it is not a court of justice.

That being so, the Minister for Repatriation could control the administration of the tribunal. It is competent for this Parliament to ask for information so that it may be satisfied that its work is being done in accordance with the act. In another portion of the majority judgment, it was stated -

The tribunal is not a court of law, but is a statutory body, set up to carry out certain functions set out in the act.

How can the Parliament judge as to whether this body, created by it to discharge certain functions specified in the act, is doing its work properly, if we are denied the information necessary to reach a decision on the matter \ I recently submitted certain questions to the Minister for Repatriation, and the replies are startling. I asked -

In view of the fact that the Repatriation Act requires that the tribunal shall act according to substantial justice and the merits of the case, and shall give the appellant the benefit of the doubt, are the reasons governing the decisions of each individual member of the tribunal recorded in the minutes?

Is that not a reasonable question for any member of this Senate to ask ? The reply which. I received was : " The reasons governing the decisions are not recorded in the minutes." I now ask, and this is a question that demands an answer: "If the reasons governing decisions are not recorded in the minutes, where are they recorded?" A most illuminating reply was given to the next question. I asked -

What was the number of affirmative decisions recorded individually during the past year by the chairman of the tribunal?

The reason why I asked that question - I was perfectly frank about it at the time - was in order to endeavour to ascertain whether each member of the tribunal was giving the appellants the benefit of the doubt. The reply was -

No record, is kept of the opinion of individual members as to the decision reached as it is that of the tribunal, andnot of the individual members.

I invite honorable senators to consider those two answers. The first answer stated that the reasons governing the decisions were not recorded in the minutes; the second stated that the reasons of each individual member were not recorded at all. Again I ask, and this is a question now asked by every exsoldier who appears before the tribunal : " Where are those reasons recorded ? "

Senator Duncan-Hughes - The same practice is adopted by Cabinet.

Senator HARDY - I do not deny that, but an appellant does not have to appear before that body.

Senator A J McLACHLAN (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - And by the Privy Council, too.

Senator HARDY - If the PostmasterGeneral (Senator A. J. McLachlan) advances that contention I shall take him up on the point, because I have been studying some of the judgments of the Privy Council recently, and they do not fail to give detailed reasons for the decisions reached.

Senator A J McLACHLAN (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - The whole of the reasons!

Senator HARDY - I should like to know where the War Pensions Entitlement Tribunal keeps the reasons for its decisions in regard to appeals by returned soldiers. This is the point: When, on the grounds of fresh evidence, a claimant appeals a second time to the RepatriationCommission, it is only right that he should know the reasons for the rejection of his original appeal. Also, it is only right that when the Repatriation Commission considers a reapplication, it should be able to study the reasons governing the decision of the tribunal for disallowing the appeal. In certain instances, a further appeal may bo made from the Repatriation Commission to the Appeal Tribunal itself. If no record of the reasons why the tribunal reached a certain decision is kept, how in the name of logic can it decide the merits of the appeal when it comes up again for further hearing?

Senator A J McLACHLAN (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - To which tribunal does the honorable senator refer ?

Senator HARDY - To the War Pensions Entitlement Tribunal.

Senator Sir George Pearce - That is the final court of appeal.

Senator HARDY - I am aware of that fact; but the point which I desire to make is that, in respect of this court of final appeal, I have been told that no record is kept of the reasons governing its decisions. The Leader of the Senate interjected that this tribunal is the court of final appeal; but I am in a position to submit to the Senate instances where it has not been in the first case a court of final appeal. An appellant may appear a second time before the commission, by virtue of certain rights given to him under the Australian Soldiers Repatriation Act 1935.

Senator Sir George Pearce - If the appellant can produce fresh evidence.

Senator HARDY - That is so; therefore, he appears before the commission again, or his case is reheard by that body. But I desire to emphasize that no record of the reason for the rejection of his appeal in the first place is keptby the tribunal.

Senator A J McLACHLAN (SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - But that is not an appeal; it is a rehearing of the case.

Senator HARDY - I am afraid that the Postmaster-General is merely splitting words, because the same case has to be reconsidered.. I ask leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted ; debate adjourned.

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