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Thursday, 10 May 1928

Sir NEVILLE HOWSE (CalareMinister for Home and Territories) . - I congratulate the honorable member for Reid (Mr. Coleman) upon the calm and dispassionate way in which he presented his case, but I deeply deplore one portion of his speech. Honorable members will, recognize that frequently, in and out of this House, I have begged my comrades and all men with whom I have any influence, not to make this a party matter. It was, therefore, with extreme regret that I heard the honorable member say what he proposed had been incorporated in the policy of the Labour party. I again appeal to all tosee that the subject is removed from the hurly-burly of party politics.

The motion of the honorable member asks for the appointment of a select committee to deal with three things. First, it is to inquire into and report upon the operations of the Australian Soldiers' Repatriation Act. I remind thehonorable member that soon after I entered this House in 1923 I brought under the notice of the Treasurer certain dissatisfaction that existed in connexion with the administration of the Repatriation Department. At that time the Government appointed a royal commission to report upon these matters. After inquiry, the commission stated definitely that most of the difficulties of the Repatriation Department arose from medical causes. For that reason, a royal commission consisting of medical men - the only persons, I suggest, who were competent to deal with the problem - was appointed. It was composed of the best men the Government was able to find, and was representative in that a man from each State was appointed to it. These gentlemen were all returned soldiers, and most of them had lived with the soldiers under the conditions of actual warfare. The majority of cases with which the Repatriation Commission has to deal are really medical problems. The reference to this royal commission was very wide. It read -

Is the present method of determining whether an ex-soldier's disability is due to or aggravated by war service adequate to decide the origin or the degree to which it is aggravated, and what portion of his present incapacity can be regarded as having resulted from his war service?

The motion which the honorable' member has just moved covers practically the same ground. The difference between the two is merely that between tweedledum and tweedledee. But in spite of that the honorable member has made the most extraordinary statements on the subject that I have ever heard, and has said something about certain vague and abstract recommendations. I appeal to honorable members to say whether the terms . of reference which I read were not perfectly clear. The. merest glance at the names of the persons who were members of that royal commission would be sufficient to convince any one that they were in every sense thoroughly competent to deal with the matter submitted to them. They were qualified not only as members of the medical profession, but also as ex-service men who were vitally interested in the welfare of those who had been their comrades on active service. We- have only four medical men in the membership of this House. It might be reasonable for us to ask them to consider the matter which the honorable member for Reid has introduced ; but seeing that from 90 per cent, to 95 per' cent of the appeals which are made against the decisions of the Repatriation Commission to-day involve medical considerations, it would be ridiculous for us to submit it to other than qualified medical practitioners.

The members of the royal commission made many valuable suggestions and recommendations in the report which they submitted to the Government. A large number of these have been given effect, and I do not need to refer to them. The crux of the present situation, however, is bound up with paragraph No. 28, which reads -

Much of the difficulty has arisen owing to a confusion in the lay mind (and even in the medical mind) between sympathy for the soldier and just appreciation of the cause of his disability.

The recommendation of the commission gave general satisfaction to the soldiers.

The first specific matter upon which the honorable member for Reid has asked that there shall be an investigation is: " The method of assessing war pensions." The honorable member made an elaborate and accurate statement of the methods adopted in Canada and other countries to assess war pensions; but he failed to outline the procedure adopted by our own Repatriation Commission. This commission consists of three members, one of whom must be a nominee of the Returned Sailors' aud Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia. As a matter of fact, the commission has always consisted of three ex-service men. The commission has under it in each State a board, which consists of three members, also all returned men. All cases submitted for consideration are carefully analysed by the officers of the Repatriation Department and the State board. The medical history of the applicant, all documents in connexion with the case, and the nature and continuity of his employment are considered. The board may decide the case, or report to the commission. If the decision, reached is appealed against, the case may be submitted to the commission.

Mr Brennan - In what sense is the chairman of the commission a returned soldier ?

Sir NEVILLE HOWSE - I am entitled to describe him as a returned soldier, because he volunteered for service, and proceeded to Egypt. His health broke down while he was in training there, and he had to return to Australia. That was the experience of many men who enlisted. These are entitled to, and receive, exactly the same consideration as the men who served in the front line. When a case is submitted to the commission in Melbourne, all the evidence is reviewed and any additional evidence is secured, always with the object of connecting the applicant's disability with his war service. If it be a mental case, the services of the best alienist available are obtained; if it be an eye or ear case, the best specialist available in that branch of medical science is secured; if the case be of a special nature which does not come within the province of the medical advisory committee, all the relevant evidence of whatsoever kind that is available in connexion with it is secured with the object of arriving at a decision favorable to the applicant. After a case has been considered by the commission, it may, whether there is an appeal, or, in som? cases, whether there is not, be submitted to the medical advisory committee, which consists of men who are foremost in the medical profession in Melbourne. It was not practicable to constitute this body of one medical man from each State, because practitioners of the calibre required cannot be expected to give their whole time to this work. But I feel sure that any medical man in New SouthWales, or elsewhere, who heard the names of the practitioners who comprise this committee would be quite satisfied that they could not be improved upon even if selections were made from each State.

Recommendation No. 29 of the royal commission is also very important. Itreads -

The consideration of matters connected with the assessment of pensions is essentially medical, and it is, therefore, difficult for the lay mind to appreciate either the problems or the principles involved in their solution.

I have examined thousands of ex-service men, and I claim to be able to speak with some authority on this subject. Each year the percentage of appeals which present medical problems is increasing. From the time that the medical advisory committee first sat in February, 1919, up to the time that I took charge of the department in January, 1925, 99 individual cases had been considered. Immediately I assumed control of the department I recognized that as the great majority of cases which came up for consideration presentedmedical (problems, we should have a more effective method of dealing with them, and they were thereafter submitted to the medical advisory committee. In the last three years more than 1,000 cases have been considered by it. This shows that I was convinced, right from the beginning of my administration of the department that, as the royal commission subsequently pointed out, the cases which came up for consideration from time to time being principally medical, needed the attention of qualified medical practitioners.

Since my appointment as Minister in charge of Repatriation, the pension conditions have been liberalized considerably, and the cases for which pensions are obtainable have been widened. Australia stands to-day in the unique position of having the most liberalWar Pensions Act in the world, though it may be that the conditions of other countries are, in one or two respects only, a little more elastic than our own. It is important that honorable members should remember this fact. Among the approved recommendations which I have submitted to the Government since I have had charge of the administration of the department are the following: -

Removal of hardship which resulted from the operation of section 40 of the act.

Payment of a permanent pension to men suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis as a result of war service.

Allowance of 7s.6d. per week to certain partially-blinded men.

Restoration of benefits to widows who. remarry and again become widowed.

Increased pensions for third and subsequent children.

Provision of motor transport for certain classes of totally and permanently disabled men.

Some difficulty has arisen in dealing with tubercular men, possibly owing to ambiguity in the statement which I made to the House on this subject in August, 1925. I accept full responsibility for such ambiguity. I admit that in certain cases tubercular men to whom it was the intention of the Government to grant, a permanent pension of £2 2s. per week are not receiving a permanent pension. Let me make it quite clear that they are receiving the pension of £2 2s. per week, but they labour under the disadvantage of not knowing definitely that the payment of it will not be discontinued. This, naturally, causes a great deal of dissatisfaction, and justly so. However, I trust that after a conference which is to be held on Sunday next, instructions will be issued which will overcome this disadvantage. The matter is under consideration, and I have every hope that it will be determined satisfactorily to the men concerned.

The next specific matter upon which the honorable member has asked that an investigation shall be made is " The question of establishing an appeal board in regard to war pensions." I understood the honorable member to say that his respect for me, in consequence of what has happened in this connexion, has been considerably lowered. I trust that the honorable member is open to the conviction that there may have been legitimate grounds for any action that I have taken in this regard. Surely, his extraordinary remarks couched in such weird language do not mean that he will refuse to take into consideration any evidence that may be forthcoming on this subject. If, after hearing what I have to say, he still feels that I have lowered myself in his esteem, that is a differentmatter. I have served in all for a little more than eight years with men on active service, and I submit that this, together with the position which I occupy in the medical profession, and my interest in the welfare of ex-service men generally, gives me some right to speak with authority on this subject, and protects me from the accusation of being a party hack in any advice that I submit to the Government on this vexed question.

Surely the honorable member for Reid will not deny me the pleasure of saying that I, of all men in Australia, am most likely to be able to estimate the effects of service on the health of the troops in all theatres of war - because I visited all of them - and the results likely to accrue from war injuries. I considered this question from all angles - I have not lightly passed it by - before tendering advice to the Government. I have carefully and very gravely considered all aspects of the proposal to appoint an appeal board. I have examined the constitution of the appeal boards that are now in existence in England, and, in fact, in all countries of the world with the exception of Australia. The honorable member for Reid lays stress upon the fact that other countries have these boards, but the reason that appeal boards are not in existence in Australia to-day is that they would not add one iota to the benefits enjoyed by our ex-soldiers. I have only one interest to serve, and it is that of my comrades. I am not concerned whether the Government likes my recommendations or not. I came into the House to perform a certain duty, and I mean to carry it out. I go further, and say that I have more right than has the honorable member for Reid to judge what is best in the interests of returned soldiers, because I have been in close association with the disabled men for the last three years, and, therefore, have been in a position to make definite and dear recommendations to the Government. Those recommendations have been placed before the House. There is no reason for the appointment of an appeal board in Australia, because we have something better in operation. Every man and his dependants has the right to appeal to the Minister in charge of Repatriation. When I took charge of the department in 1925 I stated on the floor of the House that, not only was I prepared to receive appeals through members, but that I preferred them to be conveyed through associations, who, very often, were able to supply missing details, and thus enable me to give full consideration to cases.

Mr Brennan - The Soldiers' League does not seem to agree with the Minister. Surely there are a few experts among them?

Sir NEVILLE HOWSE - Does the honorable member mean medical experts ?

Mr Brennan - No. This is not wholly a technical matter.

Sir NEVILLE HOWSE - I said that I thought that about 90 per cent, of the cases were now purely medical, and thai such cases were gradually increasing year by year. That is the opinion of most of those who have considered this question.

I should like briefly to refer to the press notices that have been quoted. The honorable member for Reid laid great stress upon certain circulars which have been distributed to honorable members asking them to interest themselves in respect of the appointment of appeal boards. Those circulars were couched in very extravagant language; but gave not one reason to show that the returned soldiers would be in a better position with an appeal board; therefore, they carry very little weight as far as I am concerned. The honorable member for Reid also said that he thought all returned soldier associations, including the tubercular association, were in favour of the appeal board. That is not the case.

Mr Coleman - I have just ascertained that I was wrong in regard to the tubercular association.

Sir NEVILLE HOWSE - That association is not in favour of an appeal board. It has expressed very definite opinions, not only at its recent meeting, but for years past, in favour of the continuance of the present policy. The moment an appeal board is appointed we, without question, shall commit a grave mistake.

Any honorable member who votes' for the motion- to-day will be doing an injustice to the men who served for this Country. I have not the slightest- hesitation in saying, noi1 has any other man who knows how the act is administered, that if it were not for a certain amount of underground engineering that is now taking place, this subject would never have been discussed in this House. Every one knows that this underground engineering is gradually increasing.

Mr Brennan - The Minister has no right to make a statement like that. Who are the engineers referred to ?

Sir NEVILLE HOWSE - Will the honorable member permit me to answer his question?

Mr Brennan - Yes, by all means, but do not run away from it.

Sir NEVILLE HOWSE - I am not attempting, to run away from it, but I cannot answer it and be heard by the House while, the honorable member ; is shouting. There, are to-day a certain number of returned men who are dissatisfied with the administration of the department. There is, as the honorable member for Reid has said, between 40,000 and 50,000 appellants whose claims have been refused. Supposing that some of them have been unjustly refused, we should immediately try to remedy the injustices, but not to take up the claims of those that have been rightly refused. I would remind honorable members that one of the principles underlying the Pensions Acts in all countries of the world is that the disabilities must have been caused or aggravated by war service. Wipe that out and there is nothing left except to prove service, which is easily ascertained from the books, and to prove disability after service. In other words it would not matter what the cause of the disability might be the sufferer would get a pension. That is the position taken up by many honorable members.

Mr Theodore - Does the Minister say that honorable members, by voting for a select committee, will do the returned men an injustice?

Sir NEVILLE HOWSE - I have pointed out that a select committee would not be competent to deal with this question. I said so in calm and measured terms. I went on to say that any honorable member who voted for the motion and thus permitted the appointment of an appeal board, would be doing an injustice to the returned men.

Mr Lacey - Who did the underground engineering to which the Minister has referred ?

Sir NEVILLE HOWSE - I have already given that information. I said that it has been carried out by a certain number of appellants whose claims for pensions have been refused. The honorable member for Reid said that the number was 52,000,' but I was under the impression that it was 42,000.

I, as Minister of Repatriation, have attempted to explain the position to honorable members, and I could place on the table thousands "of letters, including, dozens, from returned soldier associations, thanking me for what I have done in the interests of the disabled men. I stand in a. position totally different from that of other 'honorable members, many of whom are not returned men. "I am a member of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers' League.

Mr Brennan - I am a member of the public, and they are very much concerned in this question.

Sir NEVILLE HOWSE - I have thd right to speak for the soldiers themselves. I am speaking on behalf of the soldiers when I say that I refuse to make any alterations to the Repatriation Act. Rather, I shall continue to improve the present policy, which is to ~take every case into consideration, to give it my personal attention, and to make every effort, where there is a reasonable doubt, to give the benefit to the returned soldier. I shall not assist in doing what I consider to be an injustice to my comrades. Since I have been a member of the Government it has not refused one of my recommendations on behalf of the soldiers. Had it done so I should have considered that I had no right to hold my position, and I would have handed my resignation to the Prime Minister without delay.

I beg honorable members to keep this question out of party politics, because it has no right there. The sickness and illness of our soldiers should be sacred to us. I oppose any alteration of the present policy of the department, and I ask honorable members before voting on the motion to recognize that the appointment of an appeal board would do a grave injustice to those men who fought so bravely against a ruthless enemy.

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