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Friday, 15 June 1984
Page: 3102

Senator SCOTT (Leader of the National Party of Australia)(9.40) -I rise to address the Repatriation Legislation Amendment Bill 1984. Although it is somewhat unusual to support the legislation of a socialist government when one believes in a quite different political philosophy, on this occasion it is my determination and the determination of the Opposition to support this very important repatriation legislation. The Bill before us is a response to a review of the Repatriation Acts and this response is directly relevant to a matter of great concern, extending right across the repatriation area. I refer to the matter of determining claims for disability and service pensions. Gross delays have been building up in this area over a considerable period. The need for decisions has become greater as the number of people of an age to seek pension assistance has significantly increased.

Over a considerable period we have been confronted with delays and confusion which has been confusion generated in no small measure in the discussion of this legislation. On the basis of information I have on various organisations on an expedition for support, it is my belief that they have been put into a confused position largely because this legislation applies significantly to the determining system and is not referable to a future Bill, a Bill on entitlements , which will be a vastly more complex piece of legislation which will need to receive significantly more intense discussion by all the people involved. It is to be brought down some time in the next session of this Parliament.

The determining legislation has resulted from delays averaging eight, nine and 10 months and extending to the almost unbelievable period of four or five years, which have brought about a desperate situation amongst ex-service men and women in this country. It has been determined to try to get a quicker and more effective system. This Bill is the result of investigations carried out in depth , in the first place by the Administrative Review Council and then by the Advisory Committee on Repatriation Legislation Review which comprised the heads of ex-service organisations in Australia. It was established during the time of the Fraser Government and under the auspices of the then Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Senator Messner. It delved in great depth into the problem of finding a method or mechanism by which this great matter of delay could be overcome. I must say that the current Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt), in pursuing the matters that were begun by Senator Messner some time ago, deserves great commendation. He has pursued vigorously a solution to this problem. This Bill is the attempted solution and all people of goodwill would hope that it is indeed a solution. There is no doubt that the cluttering up of claims has been due to a whole range of things over a period. Not the least of these may be the efficiency or lack of efficiency in the controls and the methods within the Department of Veterans' Affairs itself. These, of course, are under review.

A number of other matters have become evident in the course of the inquiries of the Council and the Committee to which I have referred. I believe we should recognise that the results of the investigations of the Review Council and the Advisory Committee have been available to and studied by a very wide spectrum of ex-service organisations for a very significant period. Indeed, in the last month or more departmental people have had well-advertised meetings in every capital city in Australia and in Townsville. They have sought to identify any problems that relate to the proposed legislation and, as I understand it, they have found a generally satisfied reaction. I have been anxious to check with the major ex-service organisations of this country as to their consideration of the proposed legislation. It is my view from the information I can get-I have pursued the matter diligently-that the National Executive of the Returned Services League unanimously approves the proposition which is before the Senate today. I understand that it also has the support of Legacy in Australia, the War Widows Guild, the Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Association and so on.

One of my regrets is that it seems to me that the opposition to the Bill which has surfaced significantly only recently and has a similar thread or line through it is related to specific organisations or even people. That may well be so, but the wider problem is that that type of perhaps ill-informed opposition, coming from a misunderstanding of the purpose of this legislation, tends to create divisions in the great Australian ex-service community. That is something we can ill afford because ex-service organisations in this country cover a very large number of people. There are extremely large numbers of ex-service men and women and their dependants in Australia. There are still in excess of half a million veterans from World War II alone. From memory there are 160,000-odd recipients of disability pensions, 240,000-odd dependants and 370,000 or 380,000 recipients of service pensions. We are looking at three-quarters of a million people. Any sort of exercise that tends to confuse and distort their approach to an enormously important problem is a mischievous, if not ill-informed, operation . I think it is to be very greatly regretted that this type of circumstance should have arisen.

Briefly, let me refer to the legislation before the Senate and examine its intent and its mechanics. As I have indicated, this legislation obviously seeks to implement government decisions on the repatriation determining system. It is important to remember in the first place that we are talking about the determining system and not entitlements legislation which is not yet available. When the entitlements legislation is available it will cover a much wider spectrum of circumstances and will be much more complex.

This Repatriation Legislation Amendment Bill very significantly follows the decisions of report No. 20 of the Administrative Review Council which has been overviewed by the Advisory Committee on Repatriation Legislation Review, created by Senator Messner for the specific purpose of looking across the whole spectrum of repatriation legislation with a view to bringing it together, consolidating it, simplifying it and matching it with 1984 since its birth was in 1920, some 70-odd years ago. The legislation seeks to introduce a more logical process of applications and reviews aimed at overcoming the enormous backlog to which I have referred. One of the most significant requirements, expressed clearly in this legislation, is that there should be as much information as possible at the initial determining stage. This will enable the initial determination to be arrived at with full knowledge of the full facts. That alone should significantly reduce the number of appeals and reviews of recent times. Unacceptable delay might indeed be removed.

The legislation before us amends a number of Acts: The Repatriation Act 1920, the Interim Forces Benefits Act 1947, the Repatriation (Far East Strategic Reserve) Act 1956, the Repatriation (Special Overseas Services) Act 1962 and the Seamen's War Pension and Allowances Act 1940. The Council identified as a significant deficiency the fact that primary decisions were being made on incomplete evidence. This legislation seeks to overcome that problem. Primary investigation will take place of the maximum possible evidence available. The other matter to which I wish to refer concerns the inadequacy of reasons for decisions. That too is an enormously important matter with which we have to come to grips. Indeed, if proper explanations are available in written form, quite a few of the reviews that have been made and the claims that have followed that have helped to delay and clutter up the system will be avoided. That is the purpose of that reference.

Briefly, the purpose of the Bill is to abolish the three member repatriation boards which are the first level of inquiry at the moment. They will be replaced ultimately by some 75 single delegate inquiries. Quite clearly, if this can work on proper and full evidence it will speed up the whole process very significantly indeed. These single member inquiries will be looking at both disability and service pension areas and claims for increases in disability pensions. The Veterans' Review Board will be established as the area of intermediate review for disability pensions at this stage and whilst in the past there has not been an intermediate review for service pensions they will be reviewed by single delegates, senior delegates as individuals, in the future. It is hoped that that too will be a step in the right direction.

The Repatriation Review Tribunal will be abolished and in its place a special repatriation division of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal will be established , in the formation of which there will be consultation in considerable depth with ex-service organisations. Of course, a service member will be present on the Tribunal. That is the structural change. Very briefly, it envisages 75 single member primary investigatory boards. It envisages a veterans' review board at the second level and a repatriation division of the AAT at the third and final level on the merits with the existing capacity to extend on matters of law to the Federal Court of Australia and, if necessary, beyond.

The repatriation system in Australia is over 70 years old. It has been reviewed on only a number of occasions but there has been virtually no overall legislation in all the years that have transpired since it grew out of the War Pensions Act of 1914 and the Repatriation Act of 1917 into the Australian Soldiers' Repatriation Act of 1920. In 1943, there was a joint parliamentary committee related to certain aspects of the legislation. In 1973 the Senate Standing Committee on Health and Welfare was established and in June 1975 there was an independent inquiry into repatriation by Mr Justice Toose. But as I have said, there has been no overall legislation following these inquiries although a number of Mr Justice Toose's recommendations are incorporated in the proposed legislation which is before us today.

In my view-I have sought diligently to establish the measure and area of support-the legislation does have a very significant measure of support across a wide cross-section of ex-service communities. It is important to remember that it seeks to establish a new and quicker system of determining disability pensions and service pensions. It is an area in which it is necessary for speed to be established because a backlog of nearly 30,000 claims is an intolerable situation. The ex-service organisations to which I have spoken more than once are of the opinion that it is necessary to get this matter on the road, that it is necessary to establish it as quickly as possible in order to recruit the type of people who will be necessary and who have the necessary qualifications and capacity to carry out these jobs at the primary level.

In order that that can be done in time to start by 1 January it seems to be the almost unanimous view of organisations that the legislation should be passed in the shortest possible time, that it should come into operation and that the Department should start the immense task of establishing a group of people with the qualifications and capacities that will be necessary to make it a successful operation. That is the purpose of this debate in the Senate this morning. The legislation seems to have the support of a very wide-ranging group of ex-service people. I believe it needs the support of the Senate. It has my support and the support of the Opposition.