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Monday, 17 September 1973
Page: 1061


Mr BONNETT (Herbert) - First may I state that the Opposition will support the principles contained in this Bill. I have no desire to oppose the benefits that this Bill proposes for the repatriation pensioner. However, there are some portions of the Bill that I question and some suggestions that I have to offer which I feel could be advantageous to all repatriation pensioners. The first clause I would question is the one which does away with the special compensation allowance which is provided to the general rate pensioner. I would imagine that quite a number of honourable members in the House, including those on the Government side, would have received letters objecting to this move which is proposed by the Government. This special compensation allowance was introduced by the Gorton Government in 1968 when it was felt that there were a number of repatriation members in a specific category whose particular disabilities deserved compensatory payment. Consequently the Government of that day decided to ease the financial problems of these people and to pay them $6 a week in addition to their normal 100 per cent rate pension. It has been a very satisfactory arrangement for members in this category even though it caused some comment as it was thought at the time that it could discriminate against members in a lower category of pension payment.

The Government now intends to dispense with the special compensation allowance. So far I have not seen a satisfactory explanation of that action, except that the Government might think that it puts all pensioners on a more equitable basis. That may be so in the thinking of the Minister for Repatriation (Senator Bishop), who authorised the move, but in fact a pensioner on the 100 per cent general rate who is receiving the compensation allowance because of special disabilities does not benefit one little bit under the proposed legislation. His present pension is $16 a week. With the special compensation allowance he gets $22 a week. This Government in its generosity is awarding him $3 a week increase in the basic rate pension, bringing his payment to $19 a week, but is reducing his compensation allowance by $3 a week which means that he gets the same weekly amount of $22 that he does now before this legislation is passed.

In the autumn of next year again the generous Government will give him an increase of $3 a week in his basic rate but it will take away from him the remaining $3 of his compensation allowance so that by Budget time next year members in that category will be receiving the same weekly amount that they now receive. If there is any generosity in that thinking I would like the Minister to explain it to me. I do not know why the Government singled out this particular category of repatriation pensioner to discriminate against unless it is because it is the easiest category in which to save money. I repeat that people receiving the special compensation allowance were granted the payment for a special reason in the first place. In my opinion it should have been paid many years before.

Some pensioners receiving the special compensation allowance have facial disfigurements. Others have lost a limb, while others have physical disabilities which in some instances have altered their whole way of life. It is all very well to compare general rate category pensioners with other pensioners and to say that the Government would like to see all repatriation pensioners treated in the same way, but it is not as if the disabilities can be cured or will improve. They will always be the same and even though the war has been finished for a considerable time these people still deserve the greatest consideration. It astounds me that the Government chose to save in this way. According to the Press about $18m a year will be saved by penalising about 27,000 seriously incapacitated former .servicemen to whom this country should be exceedingly greatful. If the Government wants to save money as badly as that in the repatriation field why does it not investigate the system and penalise those people who take advantage of it? We all know that there are some who do that. I think an explanation is due from the Minister to the Parliament and the nation, and particularly to the 27,000 repatriation pensioners who are effected. I earnestly request the Government to reconsider its discriminatory . decision to cancel the special compensation allowance.

I remind the Government that the principle that is fundamental to the repatriation system is compensation. This philosophy is universally accepted. Citizens who have defended their country in time of war by serving in the armed forces should be assured by the Government that they shall adequately be provided with compensation for Serviceconnected disabilities and with satisfactory facilities to assist their re-establishment in civil life at the completion of their service. The first principle of compensation should be considered when dealing with repatriation pensioners receiving 100 per cent general rate. Whilst I suppose I possibly could have moved an amendment to this Bill to attempt to adjust this allowance, I felt that more explanation as to the cause of this withdrawal was required and that a request to the Minister would be complied with for serious reconsideration of its deletion.

On the subject of benefits for repatriation pensioners and for those members who, incidentally, for the first time, will be applying for compensation benefits due possibly to some disability suffered during the War and manifesting itself because of age and time, we all know the procedure. The person applies to the Repatriation Commission and the Commission either allows or disallows the application. There is an avenue for appeal, of which we are all aware, and eventually the applicant has the opportunity for an appeal to a tribunal. These appeals concern the benefits paid to an applicant and also a person applying for a review of his case. This tribunal area is one that interests me most at the moment. When an applicant reaches the appeals tribunal the onus is on him to prove that his disability is in some way connected with his war service. This may be fine where a member has served in units that were able to maintain complete medical records but not all units - such as my own, for instance - were able to keep records. Consequently, a person applying for benefits is, in some instances, put in the embarrassing position of being told that his disability could not possibly be attributed to war service when he knows full well the facts of the case. There have been occasions when I have known of actual cases and have been at the scene at the time a person received a wound, the evidence of which was never recorded in a medical history sheet. Fortunately I have been able to substantiate the appeal later. There is no blame attached to the units for this because the circumstances at the time did not permit a record to be kept.

Honourable members know of this situation, but when the member appeals to the tri bunal to have his disability recognised is it not right to assume that he should be treated with courtesy and dignity and not treated as if he were some loafer who wanted to get something for nothing? Are the tribunals not established to employ reason and justice in their findings? I think the Minister for Defence (Mr Barnard) would agree that tribunals are established for this purpose. Why do so many complain of the treatment they receive at the appeals tribunal hearings when they apply for increased benefits or for benefits for the first time? I believe the Minister for Defence and one senator have received complaints about the attitude adopted by a tribunal chairman. I am led to believe that the Minister for Repatriation (Senator Bishop), after investigating these complaints, stated that there was nothing he could do because the chairman was a government appointee, and, as such, would have to complete his term of duty in this regard. When one is dealing with repatriation members - people who may be relying on the pension they hope to get - this seems to be a lot of nonsense. If a government appointee is not performing his task to the satisfaction of the Government why cannot he be dismissed or replaced? I will not accept that the Minister for Repatriation can do nothing about this situation. Frankly, I think there is a lot he could do if he so desired. However, I am perfectly willing to hear the reasons why he will not.

This is not just one isolated case. There must be other cases, because I know of instances where members have come back from interviews and have complained of the treatment they received. In the last couple of months one member told me that he was going to Brisbane to be interviewed about having another disability accepted. He came back and stated to me that he did not receive much satisfaction from the tribunal. His words were: 'I'm not a dog, I don't want anything for nothing and I'm not a bludger. I just want to know if Repatriation can help me.' As I have said, these men who were prepared to offer their lives in the service of this country are entitled to be treated with dignity. I ask the Minister for Defence in his capacity as representative in this House of the Minister for Repatriation to pass on my comments to the Minister in the hope that in future the tribunal chairmen will adopt a more reasonable attitude. This is a disturbing matter for quite a number of people and one that I think could be cleared up without any problems.

Another matter affecting repatriation benefits and pensions is the persistent rumour that this Government will dispense with the Repatriation Department and will integrate it with other departments. I think that this would have a great bearing on repatriation benefits. Although the Minister for Defence introduced the Bill relating to benefits, the rumour persists in Sydney, Brisbane and north Queensland. I do not know about the other States at the moment. I can only assure all recipients of repatriation benefits that the Repatriation Department will not be dispensed with and integrated with other departments such as the Department of Social Security or the Department of Health when the Liberal and Country Parties are returned to government. I have queried this rumour. During a recent discussion between Sir Arthur Lee, who is the national President of the Returned Services League, and the Minister for Defence the Minister is reported to have said that, as far as he personally was concerned, the Repatriation Department would not be done away with. I was more than surprised to find that some members of the Government were considering this proposal and that this prompted the question.

The Repatriation Department has done and is still doing a great job in assisting our returned servicemen. It is not what the Minister personally thinks that bothers me; it is what the Government thinks that is disturbing me. I spoke to the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Snedden) on this matter because I was quite worried about it and I thought that it was rather serious. He was as surprised as I was when he heard about it. He assured me that this was certainly not the thinking of the Liberal Party or of the Country Party and that he would support me in any move I made to retain the Department in its present form. I know that there was talk early in the piece about using the repatriation hospitals to assist the public hospitals. Provision for this is contained in the Bill. It is something with which one could not quarrel. In the event of an emergency or a serious overcrowding situation no-one could object to such a move. The repatriation hospitals are doing a specific job for a specific purpose. There is no objection to their being used otherwise, provided that this specific purpose is not disturbed because the men and women whom the Repatriation Department was instituted to assist have, through their actions in defence of this country, earned the right to receive this assistance. Whilst I would endeavour to streamline the administration processes, the Repatriation Department will remain as it is when the Opposition becomes the Government. As I said earlier, the Opposition supports the principles contained in the Bill. It certainly has no desire to oppose the benefits that the Bill proposes for repatriation pensioners. I ask the Minister for Defence to pass on these suggestions to the Minister for Repatriation.







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