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Thursday, 10 May 1928

Dr EARLE PAGE (Cowper) (Treasurer) . - The suggestion of the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Scullin) that considerations of expense have prevented the Government from appointing appeal boards is grotesque. Nobody could honestly suggest that any Government that has been in office in Australia since the war .has dealt in a cheese-paring fashion with repatriation problems. The Government has not agreed to the appointment of appeal boards simply because it believes that this would not be the most effective method of dealing with the problem it is designed to overcome. I have independent testimony, which I shall submit presently, to show that no more satisfactory results than are obtained in Australia have followed the appointment of appeal boards in other parts of the Empire. That Australia is determined to do justice to her returned men is shown in the Commonwealth accounts made public only a couple of days ago. These indicate that we -have paid £378,000 more in war pensions in the nine months of this financial year than in the corresponding period of the last financial year. In every other country the pensions bill is either at a standstill or is diminishing.

A proper knowledge of the history of repatriation in Australia is necessary to enable honorable members to vote intelligently on this motion. During the years immediately succeeding the war a good deal of dissatisfaction existed in respect to the administration of the Repatriation Act. When I first became a member of this Parliament in 1919 about half of my weekly mail consisted of letters relating to repatriation matters. ' The act was altered in 1921 while the honorable member for Wannon (Mr. Rodgers) was acting as Minister for Repatriation. It will be remembered that when the amending bill was before us we searched every standard dictionary to find words which would ensure full justice being done to the soldiers and yet safeguard the interests of the general public. The conditions governing the payment of pensions were considerably liberalized at that time, and since then the number of cases of hardship brought under notice has continually declined. When I was Minister for Repatriation during 1923 and 1924 at my suggestion a committee of returned soldiers representative of three parties in the House, was appointed to look personally into these cases, with the object of removing anomalies and causes of complaint which then existed. It was found at that time that nearly every case which presented difficulties involved medical considerations. Consequently, towards the end of 1924 the Government appointed a royal commission, composed of medical practitioners of the highest reputation who had been on active service, to consider the matter.

The reference to it was in the following terms : -

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 commission came to the conclusion that except for tubercular cases in the -main, the existing method was effective. It dealt in paragraph 17 of its report with the proposal to appoint appeal boards, and made the following comment : -

Much of the evidence related to the question of the opportunities for appeal open to an ex-soldier. On this question your commissioners have formed the opinion that from the appellant's point of view the method in vogue in Australia compares favorably with that in force in other parts of the Empire in that no final appeal board exists. This principle, it is held, should be always maintained.

The reason for this is that immediately a form of words is fixed with the object of rigidly determining the- issue at stake finality, it is true, can be reached, but such finality may . cause a tremendous amount of dissatisfaction and hardship. I well remember the honorable member for' Hunter (Mr. Charlton), the right honorable member for North Sydney (Mr. Hughes), Sir Robert Garran and myself in 1921 searching for a word which would do justice to the soldiers on the one hand and protect the interests of the taxpayers on the other. We found, after considerable study, that we could not employ better language than that now embodied in the act.For that reason the Government, following the advice of the royal commission, has adhered to the existing position. In doing so it is very fortunate in having the services of the Minister for Repatriation (Sir Neville Howse), who was DirectorGeneral of Medical Services during the great war, was also associated with a previous war, and knows intimately the temperament of soldiers. Despite the many demands upon his time he has always been willing to personally investigate every case brought under his notice. As a result of the Minister's activities, there is no other country in which returned soldiers receive such liberal treatment as is given in Australia.

Mr FENTON (MARIBYRNONG, VICTORIA) - He cannot go personally into every case.

Dr EARLE PAGE - Of course he cannot, and neither could any one else, or any board except over a long period of time. In a communication written, last year, I was informed that during a period of four years the appeal board in Canada had heard only 13,000 of 52,000 appeals, 400 of which were made by members of the Imperial Forces resident in Canada. Even if an appeal board were appointed it would be found that appeals would not be dealt with as expeditiously as they are at present handled by the Minister for Repatriation. I believe the general opinion of honorable members and people outside is that the present system under which theMinister is devoting his time and applying his expert medical knowledge to the consideration of these cases is much more satisfactory from the view-point of returned soldiers than any other system that could be introduced. If, however, it is found to be ineffective, the Government is quite willing to adopt the suggestion embodied in the amendment moved by the honorable member for Brisbane (Mr. D. Cameron), or any other reasonable proposal, in order to give just and even generous treatment to every case. We are able, however, to give not merely justice, but even generous treatment under the present system, particularly whilst we have at our disposal the services of the present Minister for Repatriation, who has ah intimate knowledge of the work, and is able to render valuable service to the Government and to ex-service men.

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