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Monday, 17 September 1973
Page: 1068

Mr REYNOLDS (Barton) - I cannot properly say that I am absolutely amazed at the speech I have just heard by the honourable member for Indi (Mr Holten). It was rather characteristic of the former Minister. The honourable member for Herbert (Mr Bonnett), who led for the Opposition in this debate, had more sense. He realised the popularity of this measure and the action taken by the Government in March last. He realised how popular were the actions of the 9- months-old Government with ex-servicemen and for that reason he made a low key speech. But that was not true of the former Minister for Repatriation, the honourable member for Indi. He made a great song and dance about the rumour that the Repatriation Department is to be disbanded. I have not heard such a proposition and I am a member of the Labor Party and of the Government's Repatriation Committee. I am sure that the Minister for Defence (Mr Barnard), who represents the Minister for Repatriation (Senator Bishop) and who is now at the table, will answer those allegations categorically when he gets a chance later in this debate.

The honourable member for Herbert referred to the special compensation allowance. The honourable member for Scullin (Dr Jenkins), who spoke earlier in this debate, indicated why Labor has always opposed the special compensation allowance. It was introduced as a dodge in about 1968 to avoid giving pension increases to persons receiving below 75 per cent of the war pension rate. Even now, with the gradual elimination of this special compensation allowance, there will be pension increases for the 100 per cent or general rate pension as it is called. Furthermore, even with the reduction of the special compensation allowance, it will enable those pensioners who happen also to be in receipt of a part service pension, and possibly in some cases a full service pension, to be more than compensated for the loss of that special compensation allowance. So a loss will not be sustained, which is what the Opposition would have us believe.

I do not want to dwell on these negative aspects of the Opposition's case. The Government has done many positive things and I hope that the public will get to know of them and to recognise them. I agree with the comments of the honourable member for Herbert concerning allegations of the poor treatment that many ex-servicemen get when they go before entitlement appeals tribunals. I have heard it said on many occasions that they do not get a fair hearing, they do not get a chance to put their own case and they feel that they are in a court of law with all its coldness. With all due respect to my legal friend, the Minister for the Capital Territory (Mr Enderby), I would suggest that an appeal tribunal was designed to avoid the notion of it being a court. Lawyers do not appear before tribunals and efforts are made to get away from the court atmosphere to enable people to loosen up, to be at ease and to put their cases at their own discretion. 1 understand that there are many complaints from ex-servicemen about their not having that opportunity. This is not the first time that I have registered such a protest myself. I am glad that so well informed a member of the Opposition as the honourable member for Herbert also recognises this situation and brings it before the Parliament.

As I have already said, there is little comment to make on what was said by the honourable member for Indi. He referred to the possibility of the Repatriation Department being abolished. This is hearsay. He had little else to talk about so he had to make a big speech about a rumour that most probably is completely baseless. He referred to Labor's election promise to bring the totally and permanently incapacitated pension up to the level of the minimum wage. That pension will be up to the minimum wage in March, slightly more than a year after the Government was elected. I wonder whether the honourable member cares to recall, when he stirs the Returned Services League to protest, the very strenuous protests he received as Minister for Repatriation about the woeful inadequacy of the pensions that were paid to totally and premanently incapacitated ex-servicemen and general rate pensioners. I have documents in my possession concerning those protests but I will not bother the House with them because most honourable members who have been in this House for a time are familiar with them. They show how the TPI rate, the war widows rate, the services pension rate and the general rate of war pension declined substantially in relation to the average wage in the community and even in relation to the minimum wage in the community. This Labor Government has done much to remedy that situation. My colleague, the honourable member for Scullin, referred to this aspect.

I wonder where the Opposition stands. On the one hand the Government is being berated for being a spendthrift government and for causing inflation by the mammoth amount of money it is spending on welfare - welfare includes ex-servicemen in particular - and on the other hand the Opposition is asking the Government why it does not spend more still. Where does the Opposition stand? Its reasoning is pretty hard to follow. Let me dwell for a short time on the positive things that are included in this Bill. I remind the House again that these follow on the immediate increases made when the Government came to power. Let me refer to Service pensions. For those who are not aware of it let me say that the Service pension is equivalent to the age pension or the invalid pension that is paid under social service provisions. Service pensions were increased by $1.50 in March and made retrospective to the day the Government was elected. What is more, this Bill does the same for Service pensioners as the current Social Services Bill does for age pensioners. For all persons over 75 years of age the means test has at last been abolished. The previous Government had 23 years of opportunity to do that, but it did not do it.

The Bill contains provision for free medical and hospital treatment to be provided for all ex-servicemen of the Boer War and the 1914- 18 War. I would not care to think how long ago it was that the Returned Services League first made a plea for that provision. Many of those ex-servicemen have died without the benefit of it. If there are not so many around now to benefit by it, that is the fault of the previous Government for not having done anything about it. Let me turn to another feature of this Bill - the provision for treatment of those servicemen who suffer from malignant cancer. The Bill does not go so far as I would like it to go; I will be frank about that. On a few occasions in this House I have been responsible - as have a number of my colleagues - for moving amendments to Bills presented by the previous Government in order to make cancer an automatically accepted war-caused disability. This Bill does not go that far but it does do something very important. It goes a good part of the way by making treatment of cancer a repatriation hospital and medical responsibility. That should help some of those unfortunate victims - there all too many of them in our community - who suffer from this wretched disease. That should please the 'RSL because it has been very strong in its pleas on that ground.

My colleague the honourable member for Scullin . also referred to the very beneficial provision of artificial limbs which are to be made available not only to all ex-servicemen and serving servicemen but also to all civilians in the community. Let me be frank again. We will not be able to do this overnight. I hope that all those civilians and exservicemen who want their artificial limbs renewed will not expect to be able to go along to the artificial limb factory and receive them tomorrow. This will take a while. I hope that they will be patient. But they have the assurance that in this legislation it is guaranteed to them. As has been mentioned, the Bill contains provision for repatriation hospitals to be used by civilians when the beds are not being taken up by ex-servicemen. I want to be assured that priority will be given to wives of ex-servicemen in this matter. I think that is a fair thing to ask. This Bill, generous as it is, still has not got around to making the wives of totally and permanently incapacitated ex-servicemen automatically entitled to repatriation hospital and medical treatment. I hope that they will receive top priority when these beds are made available to people other than entitled ex-servicemen.

There was a whole schedule of the various pension increases read out by the Minister the other night when presenting the Bill. To cite a few examples, TPI ex-servicemen will be receiving $55.60 a week, an increase of $4.50. I think this is easily the biggest increase ever granted. What is more, they have the assurance they will get another increase of $4.50 in March to bring them up to $60.10, which is now the minimum wage. The general rate or 100 per cent rate pensioner will also receive an increase. For those who are not familiar with these matters, a 100 per cent rate pensioner is not a man who is totally reliant on his war pension. He is a man who could be going to work. He suffers a disability. He suffers the disability that he is not getting the promotional opportunities that he might have had if he had not had the disability he suffered. So we try to compensate him. I think 'compensation' is a much more appropriate word than 'pension'. We try to compensate him. So the man who gets this 100 per cent rate pension will be getting an increase in this Bill with the qualifications which have been criticised by the Opposition. I remind honourable members again that a number of men on the 100 per cent rate war pension are no longer working; they are retired. They are also entitled, under the means test, to receive a part service pension, and in some cases possibly the full service pension. Those over 75 will most certainly receive the full service pension.

I am delighted to note another thing that has not been referred to in the debate so far. We are in the process of doing, something that has been asked for by ex-servicemen and their various organisations such as the Returned Services League and the other TPI and exservicemen's associations for years. For the purposes of the means test for the service pension, which I said before is equivalent to the age pension for a lot of people, we shall not count war pensions as income in the same sense as income derived from other sources, say from employment. Under this Bill we shall disregard 25 per cent of what a man receives by way of war pension. That will not be held against him under the means test while the means test is retained. Of course I know that in another couple of years there will not be a means test anyway for those over 65 years of age.

As I say, so many positive things and so many things that have been asked for for so many years have been provided in this Bill. Of course there are particular cases of people who have suffered special disabilities or who need clothing allowances. There is provision for increases for children of ex-servicemen. I have already referred to the provision for cancer patients. As we all know, under existing and past provisions, there is no guarantee that if a service pensioner or a part war pensioner - somebody on less than 100 per cent - goes into a repatriation hospital he will be allowed to stay there indefinitely. He is allowed to stay there indefinitely if he is being treated for an accepted war-caused disability, but if a service pensioner is being treated in a repatriation hospital for a medical condition he will be retained there only until his condition has cleared up to such an extent that he needs only convalescence. The position is that then he is often asked to leave the repatriation hospital and go into a private convalescent home. I hope that in time we will do away with that requirement. We are taking one step towards it in this Bill. We are providing that if a pensioner of the 1914-18 war who has been given therapy in a repatriation hospital has to go to a private nursing home he will have to pay only $17-odd. I cannot put my finger on the exact figure at the moment.

Mr Holten - It is $17.85.

Mr REYNOLDS - I thank the ex-Minister, whom I have been severely castigating. It will assure him that he will not need to rely on somebody else to help him to pay his convalescent home bill. Unfortunately this does not apply to so many other people, civilians, who have to go into convalescent homes. Despite the Government's huge subsidy to nursing homes many relatives are being called on to subsidise the treatment of persons in nursing homes at this stage. I am sure that this is a matter which is worrying the Government

Also in the Bills is the extension of repatriation benefits to serving members of the forces. This is another very significant measure. This is revolutionary. It was asked for by the Returned Services League as recently as 24 February 1972, when the National Secretary of the RSL, Mr Keys, was reported in the 'Australian' of that day as having made a submission to one of the two commissions of inquiry into the repatriation system. He said:

The RSL believes it is very difficult to distinguish between involvement in warlike operations and preparations for those operations.

From a national viewpoint, it is essential that the conditions under which members serve in the armed forces be of a level to attract and hold the necessary number of volunteers.

He was asking that serving members of the forces be eligible for repatriation benefits. They are also covered by Commonwealth compensation benefits. They cannot get both but they can maximise by taking the best of the two that are offering. I cannot elaborate on it. There are certain qualifications that have to be met. As from last December one qualification normally is that a member should have served in the forces for at least 3 years. This is an attraction and it is also a very great benefit to members serving in the forces.

We are castigated often as not being interested in the welfare of servicemen. I wonder, in the face of this Bill, whether we can possibly be accused of ignoring their interests. So much has been done. Of course, this legislation comes on top of what we are doing for the housing of servicemen, the vastly increased amount of money that has been made available for them, the increase in the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Scheme, the increase of salary payments and so on. And there is probably a lot more still to come. We are committed to taking account of the recommendations of the 2 commissions of inquiry - one set up by the Senate at the behest of the Labor Opposition of the day and the other an independent inquiry set up by the previous Government in succession to our actions.

So a lot has been done by this Government in 9 months for which I know the exservicemen, their dependants and their wives are very grateful. Those who are unfortunate enough to be widows of ex-servicemen are also very grateful. They have the assurance that there is a lot more to come. This Government is committed to giving deep consideration to the recommendations of those 2 commissions of inquiry to which I have referred. I heartily support the Bill.

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