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Thursday, 24 October 1974
Page: 2001


The PRESIDENT -Is leave granted? There being no dissent leave is granted. (The document read as follows)-

This Bill will give effect to the Government's proposals to bring up to date repatriation benefits provided for those for whom this country has a continuing responsibility. This is a combined Bill which will authorise changes to the Repatriation Act, the Interim Forces Benefits Act, the Repatriation (Far East Strategic Reserve) Act, the Repatriation (Special Overseas Service) Act, the Native Members of the Forces Benefits Act to be retitled the 'Papua New Guinea (Members of the Forces Benefits) Act', and the Seamen's War Pensions and Allowances Act. The last 2 Acts are now administered by me. During this speech I shall be using the term veterans to describe those exservicemen and women who are covered by repatriation legislation.

Most Repatriation pensions and allowances will be increased by this Bill. Free medical and hospital treatment will be made available for all Australian veterans who were interned as prisoners of war. Last year the Government took a decision to provide free medical and hospital treatment for cancer for those veterans who suffered from that disease, provided they had served in a theatre of war. This year we will extend the provision to cover all veterans no matter where they served. The Bill provides for an increase in the addition to service pension on account of children and an increase in the rate of supplementary assistance or, as it is often referred to, 'rent allowance'. The Bill will place beyond doubt the validity of majority decisions by the determining authorities appointed under the Repatriation Act and the Seamen's War Pensions and Allowances Act.

Retention of eligibility for repatriation benefits which are available only to residents in Australia and its Territories will be proposed in respect of Australian veterans and their dependants who are resident in Papua New Guinea prior to that country gaining independence, and who continue to reside there. It will be proposed that special appropriation provisions be included in each of the principal Acts to appropriate from the Consolidated Revenue fund the moneys necessary to meet the liability for pensions, allowances and other payments, the rates of which are specified in the legislation. Some improvements will be made to the Seamen's War Pensions and Allowances Act and some discrepancies in the Repatriation Act will be corrected.

As well as some further increases in the main pension rates next autumn, it is proposed to introduce some new provisions in the repatriation area at that time. These provisions, which are not included in this Bill, are mentioned at this stage for the information of honourable senators. In the autumn of 1975, the means test on service pensions will be eliminated for all persons aged 70 years or over. A further 25 per cent of disability and dependants' pensions and allowances, making 50 per cent in all, will be disregarded as income for the means test that will still apply to service pensioners aged 69 years or less. In addition, service pension eligibility will be extended to veterans of other British Commonwealth countries who served during wars or warlike operations in which Australian Forces were engaged. To be eligible to be granted a service pension, such persons must have served in a theatre of war and have had at least 10 years residence in Australia at the time of application for the pension. After this proposal has been adopted we will give consideration to the question of whether it would be practicable to extend service pension eligibility, on the same terms, to members of the armed forces of our other war-time allies.

While not included in this Bill, another improvement to be granted by the Government is in the amount available by way of loan for the re-establishment of ex-national servicemen and former members of the Regular Defence Force. The maximum amount available will be increased by $2,000 to $5,000 for business loans and by $4,000 to $10,000 for agricultural loans. All these changes are further tangible proof that this Government is honouring its undertaking to provide a just and adequate compensation system for Australia's veterans. The major changes introduced by this Government are in marked contrast to the meagre hand-outs made by the Opposition in the twenty-odd years they occupied the benches on this side of the Senate.

I shall now outline the specific increases proposed in the Bill. Where a rate of payment is referred to it will be for a weekly period unless otherwise stated.

Special Rate (T.& P.I.) Pension

The Bill proposes that this rate, payable to those who, because of service-related incapacity, are incapable of earning other than a negligible percentage of a living wage, will be increased by $4 to $64.10. There will be a further increase of $4 to $68.10 in the autumn when this rate will again be the equivalent of the present minimum wage. Other veterans who will receive these increases are the service-blinded, certain sufferers from tuberculosis and those temporarily totally incapacitated by service-related incapacity. Altogether about 1 8,600 will benefit from this proposal.

Let me remove any misunderstandings honourable senators may have regarding the amount of this pension compared with the minimum wage. The special rate pension is not subject to income tax and, in real terms, has a higher purchasing value than a similar amount earned by way of salary or wages. Even the current special rate of $60.10 is the equivalent of a taxable income, on the present tax scale, of $69. 1 5 a week if earned by a single man. The proposed rate of $64.10 has a taxable equivalent of $74.10 a week or $6 a week more than the minimum wage. In addition, the special rate pensioner has access to some valuable fringe benefits and his dependants also receive pensions. These also add further actual value to the special rate pension.

Intermediate Rate Pension

This rate of pension is paid to nearly 1 ,900 veterans who, because of service-related incapacity, are able to work only part-time or intermittently and, consequently, are unable to earn a living wage. The Bill provides that this rate will be increased by $3.50 to $44.55. An increase of a similar amount is proposed in the autumn of 1975.

General Rate Pension

The Bill provides that this rate of pension, at the maximum 100 per cent level, will be increased by $3 to $25. There will be appropriate increases at other levels based on the degrees of incapacity suffered. This rate also will be increased again by a like amount in the autumn.

About 190,000 veterans receive this rate of pension because they suffer, to varying degrees, from service-related incapacity. Although this group of pensioners may be able to engage in employment, and most of them do so, many find that because of their disabilities their earning powers are restricted.

The Government has undertaken to raise this rate, at the 100 per cent level, to 50 per cent of the minimum wage. After the autumn increase it will have reached 41 per cent of the current minimum wage compared with 27 per cent when the Government took up office. We had a long way to go; we have made appreciable progress towards achieving our goal and we shall continue until that goal has been reached.

Dependants of Deceased Veterans

All honourable senators will be aware that the rate of pension paid to war widows and defence widows was increased by an unprecedented $5 to $31 as from 1 August 1974. No further increase in this pension rate is proposed in the Bill but this rate will, of course, be reviewed in the autumn of 1975. There will be an increase in the rate of domestic allowance paid to 98 per cent of these widows and I will give details of this increase in a moment.

Increases are now proposed in the rates of pensions payable to the children of veterans who died from service-related causes. It is proposed to increase by $1.20 to $10.45 the pension payable to each such child who is in the care of its mother. Where the child has neither mother nor father, the rate will be increased by $2.40 to $20.90.

The Bill proposes that the attendants allowance which, as the name signifies, is payable to a veteran who requires an attendant to help him in his normal daily personal activities, will be increased by $2.90 to $24.90 or by $1.70 to $14.70, depending upon the degree of need for an attendant.

For any who, due to war or defence service, have suffered the amputation of a limb or limbs and/or the loss of an eye, an amount additional to the pension is payable. The Bill provides for an increase of about 13 per cent in these amounts. Depending upon the degree of incapacity resulting from the amputation, the increases will range from 30 cents to $1.90 and the new rates from $2.55 to $16.60.

Other allowances and benefits will be increased but these will not require amendment to the Repatriation Act. In most instances they will be authorised by regulations. For the benefit of honourable senators I shall briefly list these improvements.

The domestic allowance, payable in addition to pension to about 98 per cent of all war widows and defence widows, will be increased by $2.50 to $12. This allowance is paid to a widow who has a dependent child or children, including fulltime students, a widow who is over the age of 50 years, or one who is unemployable.

The hourly rate of allowance paid to a person who suffers loss of earnings because he is required to attend for authorised purposes, including attendance at an appeal tribunal, will be increased.

The allowances paid under the soldiers' children education scheme to students undertaking secondary education, or industrial or agricultural training, will be increased by about 13 per cent. The increases will range from 45c to $2.25 and the new rates from $3.70 to $ 1 8.80 depending on the child 's age and whether it is necessary to live away from home to undertake study. Overall, about 4,500 children are involved.

Recreation transport allowance, payable to some 3,200 very seriously incapacitated veterans, will be increased by $2 a month to $18 a month or by $4 to S36 a month depending upon the restriction on mobility. Those veterans who have been issued with gift motor cars do not receive this allowance. Instead they receive an annual grant towards the upkeep of their cars. That grant will be increased by $48 to $342 a year. Where the body of a deceased veteran who has died in a hospital to which his admission has been authorised, is returned to his home town for burial, the Department will in future meet the full costs involved. At present assistance for this purpose is limited to $30.

The 1974-75 cost of increasing pensions and allowances outlined above is estimated to be $ 15.6m and, in addition, the proposed autumn increases are likely to cost $3.9m. The cost in a full year of both increases is estimated to be $40.6m.

Medical Treatment

Medical and hospital treatment for any condition will be extended to all veterans who were prisoners of war. About 13,600 will benefit from this proposal. It may be asked why single out prisoners of war. The answer is that, during their incarceration, these people suffered abnormal hardships and privations which could affect their general health and well-being as they get on in years and, for this reason, they are obviously deserving of special consideration.

The extension of repatriation eligibility for treatment of cancer regardless of the area of service is estimated will benefit a further 2,400 veterans. Both these treatment provisions will be introduced by regulations. The cost of both items is expected to be about $3.158m in 1974-75 and $4.830m in a full year.

Service Pensions

Service pensions, which are analogous to social security age and invalid pensions, were increased as from 1 August 1974 and the main rates will not be altered again at this time. However, there will be an increase in the addition to pension payable in respect of children in the custody, care and control of the pensioner. The addition in respect of each child will be increased by the Bill by 50c to $5.50.

Supplementary assistance is payable to those service pensioners who are entirely or substantially dependent upon their service pension and who pay rent for accommodation. The Bill proposes that the rate of this allowance be increased by $1 to $5 for a single pensioner or as a combined amount for married couples.

The cost of increases in the service pension areas are $0.27m for 1974-75 and $0.37m for a full year.

I now turn to some matters of a non-Budgetary nature which are also dealt with in this Bill.

Majority Decisions

Each of the determining authorities authorised by the legislation is comprised of 3 persons. Obviously, in some cases decisions are not unanimous. To remove any doubt as to whether a majority decision is valid, especially in view of the benefit-of-the-doubt clause in the Repatriation Act (section 47), it is considered desirable that clauses be inserted in the appropriate Acts to put the matter beyond question. The Bill does this.

Australians Resident in Papua New Guinea after Independence

Some benefits provided under repatriation legislation are restricted to persons resident in Australia or its Territories. The main benefits included in this category are service pensions and medical treatment for non-service-related incapacity. Many of these people have spent many years in Papua New Guinea and have established their means of livelihood there, and it would seem unjust to deprive them of benefits because of changed circumstances beyond their control. The Government proposes to allow persons resident in Papua New Guinea prior to that country gaining its independence, and who continue to reside there after independence, to be then considered still resident in Australia or its Territories for repatriation purposes. The Bill makes provision accordingly.

Special Appropriation Clause

The Bill makes provision for a special appropriation clause to be inserted in the principal Acts to appropriate automatically from the Consolidated Revenue fund sufficient moneys to cover the payment of all pensions, allowances and other payments, the rates of which are set by legislation and which are a legally committed liability of the Australian Government. Such an arrangement will remove the need to provide funds necessary to pay repatriation pensions and allowances in Supply Bills before the passage of the annual Appropriation Bills.

Better Provisions for Australian Mariners

The Bill provides for amendments to the Seamen's War Pensions and Allowances Act to allow a right of appeal to a War Pensions Entitlement Appeal Tribunal or an Assessment Appeal Tribunal against an unfavourable decision by a Pensions Committee or the Repatriation Commission on a claim by, or on behalf of, an Australian mariner relating to death or incapacity resulting from a war injury. Medical practitioners reporting upon claims will be required to indicate any doubt, and the nature and extent of that doubt, on matters relating to those claims. These changes will bring the Seamen's War Pensions and Allowances Act more in line with the provisions of the Repatriation Act.

Chairman of the Repatriation Commission

The Bill also makes provision for the person who is appointed as Secretary to the Department of Repatriation and Compensation to also be appointed as Chairman of the Repatriation Commission and to continue as such without contravening certain provisions of the Repatriation Act. A person appointed as Secretary to the Department will not receive additional remuneration for carrying out the duties of Chairman of the Commission.

Application

It is proposed that increased rates and new and improved benefits will be effective from the date on which the Bill receives royal assent. The clause of the Bill which makes provision for the one person to be appointed the Secretary to the

Department and the Chairman of the Commission shall come into operation on a date to be fixed by proclamation.

This Bill covers a fairly wide field of Repatriation activities and, in order to assist honourable senators in their consideration of it, I have had prepared some explanatory notes dealing with each clause of the Bill. Copies of these notes have been made available to all honourable senators.

It is my pleasure to commend the Bill to the Senate.

Debate (on motion by Senator Marriott) adjourned.







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