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Tuesday, 9 June 1970

Mr JESS (Latrobe) - I support the Bill and welcome it as a further move along a rather slow and tortuous track that the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Act has taken through this House over the period of years that I have been here. I could not speak on the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Fund without giving considerable credit, as the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr Barnard) gave credit, to the former member for Maribyrnong who was most assuredly the main spokesman on the Fund from this side of the House. I had the honour, as did many other honourable members, of working on the Government committee with him and I know that he was the only one who seemed to have most of the sections and technicalities of the Act at his fingertips. He worked most vigorously with the Defence Forces Retirement Welfare Association on all matters and became its consultant on amendments and suggestions to the Government on how the Act should best be altered for the welfare of the Services. 1 say without hesitation - and 1 am sure this view is shared by all honourable members on this side of the House and I would think by some on the other side - that the former member for Maribyrnong will be missed. He has left his mark here in the gains and advances that were made in the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Act in his time.

As the Deputy Leader of the Opposition said, it is one of the most involved and confused Acts ever introduced into this Parliament and on many occasions over the years I, like other honourable members, have had to go to Treasurers to ask their advice, to ask for an explanation, to ask them in some way to help me go through the mire of sections and counter sections which are in the Act, in order to arrive at a clear understanding as to the entitlement of a soldier or an ex-soldier, but to no avail. I am not referring to the present Treasurer (Mr Bury) because 1 have not yet tested him, but previous Treasurers when confronted, have almost said - I do not attribute this as a direct statement to them - that they did not understand the Act and for goodness sake get in touch with the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Board which would endeavour to sort it out for me. I give credit to the Board and all those who work in association with it. But 1. must say that in co-operation wilh most other members of this House they work with a most confused Bill and it is very difficult for the layman to understand exactly what it is all about. 1 believe that this complexity is one of the major reasons why recruiting has not been as successful as we would like it to have been, particularly recruiting for the regular Services. I think also that this has been one of the reasons why many regular servicemen have decided to get out earlier than they might otherwise have done. They have been greatly frustrated by being unable to understand exactly what their entitlements are under the Act and exactly what their rights are in the event of some malady or disability overtaking them. This applies particularly to the class C area in which men have just not known whether they were coming or going and just what their entitlements were. Many a father, completely disgusted with the treatment he received under the scheme, has discouraged sons who perhaps may have wished to enter the regular Services. I -think that in the overall picture we have suffered very considerably from the adverse publicity that this legislation has received.

I have never understood why it was possible to provide a small handbook for a Commonwealth public servant setting out clearly his every entitlement while it has not been possible to provide this information for a serviceman. The public servant knows that if he retires at, say, point A in his career he will receive so much, or that in the event that sickness overtakes him at a certain time of his life he will receive so much. One can always find public servants who know their rights and entitlements and who have no confusion about them whatsoever. But in the case of a soldier who has served his country we find confusion upon confusion. I have here a circular from the Regular Defence Forces Welfare Association. lt refers to the Commonwealth Employees Compensation Act and its application to ex-servicemen. When the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Act was originally introduced it was modelled on the Commonwealth Employees Compensation Act. That is one of the reasons we are experiencing our present difficulties. This circular states:

The CMC Act is an act designed to meet the requirements of civilian employees in a civil environment. As an afterthought, perhaps with little thought, the application of the Act was widened to include servicemen not serving in a declared 'special area' under the Repatriation (Special Overseas Service) Act 1963. Add to this the fact that the Commonwealth Compensation Commissioner invariably interprets the Act in accordance wilh civilian practice and appears to be entirely unaware, or uncaring, as to the special conditions and circumstances applicable to members of the armed Services, and one has the basis of what can only be termed an unjust, uncertain, and unsatisfactory compensation cover for servicemen.

This is a feeling that I share to some extent. Take the case of a man who enlists as a regular soldier. He may not be sent to Vietnor or to some other overseas posting but he may still be injured on the firing range at Puckapunyal. He is injured in connection with his military duties which are entirely different in type and in every other way from the duties of the average public servant. However, he is not treated as a serviceman when it comes to the assessment of his disability and his future. He is given treatment very similar to that received by a public servant working in an office. The circular goes on to say:

Further, the entire philosophy adopted by both the Government, and by its administration, _ in relation to the compensation of servicemen, requires urgent revision. The traditional policy has been to draw a marked distinction between volunteers for service overseas and other soldiers. The result has been Repatriation legislation on the basis that nothing is too good for the volunteer for the AIF and that for all other servicemen compensation for peace time disability was to be on a civilian basis. At the time this was acceptable as the permanent serviceman had no commitment to serve overseas and was virtually a uniformed civilian. However, the whole situation has been changed by the introduction of a Regular Army. The philosophy, and the legislation based upon it, has failed to reflect this change. Today, every regular serviceman is a volunteer for overseas service. It is a condition of his enlistment. The national service soldier has no choice. However, should a regular, or a national serviceman fail to be posted to a so-called 'special area' (for example South Vietnam) as a result of an accident of age, trade or employment, he is not subject to the Repatriation Act. These servicemen enlisted under exactly the same terms as the AIF man, fall under the provisions of a civil act, i.e. the Commonwealth Compensation Act. despite the fact that the volunteer for the AIF, and the compulsorily enlisted militia man, were covered by the Repatriation Act whilst serving in Australia up to 30th June 1951. The result of the circumstances outlined above is glaring anomalies in compensation cases, a marked and adverse effect on the morale of the regular servicemen, injustice to individuals, and considerable adverse judicial criticism.

Those words contain a lot of truth. It is too often forgotten that the regular serviceman today enlists for overseas service. It is not his choice whether he goes or not. He goes where he is sent. He is available to be sent at a moment's notice and if he happens to be injured somewhere within Australia he should not be treated differently from any other soldier. He takes his risks. If he had not incurred his injury he might have received an overseas posting half an hour later and might have been injured overseas.

There are other anomalies in the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Act. There is one provision to which I still object. Even after a man has given many years of distinguished service he is not allowed to resign except in the most exceptional - and I repeat the word exceptional - circumstances. He may not retire except with the approval of the Military Board or the Naval Board. Should he decide to resign he is not entitled to any pension whatsoever. This is an inequity. Men who have given 30 or more years service and who wish to resign, whether their reasons are personal or otherwise, should he entitled to do so and to receive a reasonable pension. 1 support the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in everything that he has said. I would like to think that the House was unanimous in agreeing that something needs to be done to investigate the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Act with a view to drawing up clearer and more precise legislation so that every soldier will know exactly where he stands and what his future is. I will have great pleasure in supporting the amendment of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition that a joint committee of both Houses of the Parliament be set up to investigate the Act and all its ramifications, and I am quite sure that there are others who feel as I do.

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