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Thursday, 13 September 1928

Mr COLEMAN (Reid) .- I second the motion, but regret that the Minister in charge of repatriation does not seem inclined to discuss it. The onus of proving that a disability was 11Ot incurred on war service should rest upon the Repatriation Department and not upon the applicant for a pension. It is to be hoped that the appointment of the proposed appeal boards will overcome some of the difficulties at present experienced in administering the Repatriation Act. It must be apparent to all honorable members that it is impossible for the Minister in charge of this work to give personal consideration to every appeal that is made. Exception was taken by the Minister to certain criticisms of the present system made by the New South Wales branch of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers' Imperial League in a circular issued some time ago, which stated that in thirteen appeal cases thirteen replies had been received in exactly similar terms, to the effect that the department's previous decision was confirmed. The returned soldiers' organizations contend that all appellants should be examined personally. In the past the appeals have been determined by the Minister and an advisory medical board, solely on documentary evidence. This system has proved entirely unsatisfactory.' I trust that when the new arrangement becomes effective appellants will have the right to appear in person. Like the honorable member for Ballarat, I should like to know how long it will be before the boards - for there should certainly be one of them in each State; - will become operative. It has been suggested that it will be necessary for the Government to make extensive inquiries to ascertain how other countries deal with appeals, but I submit that it would be far better for the Government to consult with our returned soldier organizations on the matter. The appeal boards should be given as much discretion as possible, and the act should be administered in such a way that no hardships will be inflicted upon applicants. Hitherto, the Minister has exercised more discretion in administering the act than the measure confers upon him, and some of his decisions have been valuable to the returned soldiers and their dependents. The appeal boards should be given at. least as much discretion as the Minister has been exercising with the tacit approval of Parliament. It has been said that it would be unfair to establish appeal boards, for it would mean that once a decision had been given by a board, the case could not be reopened. Surely it should be competent for any case to be re-opened when additional evidence is forthcoming. It would, of course, be useless for a person to make constant appeals against previous decisions unless he had fresh evidence to submit; but men who are able to bring additional testimony in support of their claims, should be granted a hearing at any time. The appeal system of New Zealand has worked satisfactorily, and the returned soldiers of that dominion are delighted with it. We could probably not do better than adopt the New Zealand system; but whether we do that or not there is no justification for a long delay in setting up these boards. Had the motion that I moved last May been carried we should by this time have gathered all the information available on this subject, and it would have been possible to set up the boards immediately. Whether the appeal boards will be sympathetic or not depends largely upon the powers conferred upon them. In discussing this point on the 10th May, the Minister said -

I opposeany 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 groat injustice to those men who fought so bravely against a ruthless enemy.

It must be admitted now that those remarks were quite unwarranted. I trust that the Government will clothe the boards with full authority and give them all necessary powers.

I hope that the improvement of our repatriation methods will not end here. The suggestion has been made that soldier appellants against war pension assessments should have the right of free advice and assistance. In Canada soldier advisers have been appointed, and to them pensioners and their dependants may go for advice, assistance, and advocacy. It is desirable to introduce sonde such system in Australia. Since 1916, over 50,000 pension claims have been disallowed. In certain cases, as every honorable member knows, as the result of repeated representations, increased pensions have been secured for persons who have communicated with honorable members; but for every claimant who approaches an honorable member for assistance, there may be a thousand who do not know that they can obtain that assistance. As I argued in support of the motion that I submitted on this subject, this is an undesirable state of affairs, and the determination of war pensions and all questions relating to them should not be the subject of parliamentary discussion except in relation to broad matters of policy. Ever since my entry into this Parliament, in 1923 I have advocated the appointment of an appeal board, and I have carried that advocacy personally into the branches of the league. When the Minister was referring to underground engineering I do not know whether he had my action in mind, but I am not ashamed to admit that I have taken an active interest as a citizen in the returned soldiers' organizations in my electorate. In the Homebush sub-branch of the league in my State I moved the original motion asking for an appeal board. That motion was debated by the State and Federal congresses, and ultimately became the accepted policy of the league. It was regarded as the best alternative to the present system, which undoubtedly has caused a good deal of criticism, and has not operated as well as might be expected. As the war recedes into the distance the assessment of war disabilities becomes increasingly difficult, as also does proof of the measure of aggravation caused by war service. Therefore, we are likely to have more criticism at the present time than has been met with heretofore. I hope that the Government, in determining its repatriation policy, will not limit itself to the mere constitution of an appeal board, but will also alter the method of assessing disabilities in the first instance. At the present time the soldier goes before a departmental medical officer who examines him, and submits a report which is accepted or qualified, or referred by officers of the Repatriation Department to another authority. It has been suggested to me by members of the Returned Soldiers' League in New South Wales that in such a case the applicant for a war pension should have the right to submit his own medical evidence, and have his case argued, if necessary, by a medical representative. Undoubtedly a good deal of dissatisfaction has arisen over the cases in which it has been decided that the applicants are not entitled to pensions because their present disabilities are not due to war service. If it were possible to widen the ambit of the provision relating to the measure of aggravation of the disability caused by war service, the difficulty would be largely overcome. If the Government appoints an independent appeal board or boards in consultation with the soldiers' organization much controversy will certainly be avoided. A good deal of the criticism of the present system is based on the belief that the ex-soldier appeals from Cæsar to Caesar. The department acts both as a court of trial and a court of appeal, and the appellant has no right to have his case put by his own representative. I suggest that, whatever reform comes from the Government's action, the State Repatriation Boards as at present constituted should be abolished. They are more or less useless, like a fifth wheel to a coach. Nobody knows just where their jurisdiction begins or ends, or -what value they have been to the returned soldiers. They seem to act more as an advisory than as a deliberative body. The appointment of an independent appeal board and the abolition of the State Repatriation Boards are both desirable reforms. I am glad that the need for an appeal board has been recognized by the Government. After all the criticism that was directed by honorable members opposite to my motion, by which the discussion was initiated, and which was defeated on a division on party lines, I feel that I have some cause for congratulating myself.

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