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Tuesday, 26 March 1968

Mr BARNARD (Bass) - For the second time in 6 months the Opposition raises as a matter of urgency the Government's failure to prevent drastic erosion in the value of repatriation pensions. We do this today for two reasons. Firstly, in recent years there has been a drastic curtailment of the ability of this House to deal with repatriation Bills. There have been repeated instances of Government reluctance to put repatriation legislation before this Parliament! This pronounced sensitivity of the Government in relation to repatriation policies has been exposed repeatedly. The Opposition asserts that the Government has sought repeatedly to curtail debate on repatriation legislation and stifle parliamentary scrutiny of the meagre repatriation benefits paid in this country. The Government has been reduced to the expedient of giving lengthy and precise titles to its repatriation Bills so that debate can be confined to a very narrow range. In this House, the Government has frequently resorted to use of the gag to prevent Opposition members from dissecting this important issue. Furthermore, the Government has even resorted to redrafting a Repatriation Bill, after it had been amended in another place, to ensure its passage through this Parliament in the form it wanted. Honourable members will recall that only 2 years ago, when the members of another place had agreed to an amendment which had been submitted by the Opposition there and which had been carried, the Government took the unprecedented course of introducing a further Repatriation Bill in this chamber, merely to defeat the move that had been made by the Opposition in the Senate. As a result of the Government's action on that occasion, repatriation legislation introduced by the Government in future will be restrictive and the Opposition will no longer be able to propose the kind of amendment that has been traditionally regarded as its right in this Parliament.

Earlier this afternoon, I heard the honourable member for Mallee (Mr Turnbull) speaking about repatriation. No- one was more vocal about repatriation than was he when he was in opposition. In those days, he and his colleagues of the then Opposition were able freely to propose amendments to Repatriation Bills if they wished to do so. I should like to hear the honourable member this afternoon justify to the House the Government's action in introducing, as it did last year and the year before, repatriation measures that are completely restrictive, thereby preventing open and frank discussion in this Parliament of matters that are of great importance to the many thousands of ex-servicemen who look to this Government for generosity. We believe that the Government's extreme sensitivity and its blatantly restrictive practices represent grave dangers to parliamentary legislative procedure. Similar tactics could be applied in any field in which the Government feared embarrassment, with a consequent limitation of debate in the Parliament. We should be able to have comprehensive debates and we should be untrammelled by an unfair use of parliamentary forms. I urge the honourable member for Mallee and especially the honourable member for Bradfield (Mr Turner) and the honourable member for Warringah (Mr St John) who in this place frequently discuss the rights of individual members freely to express their opinions on any legislation that comes before the Parliament, and if necessary to propose amendments, to speak up on this issue.

The second reason for the submission of this urgency proposal to permit discussion of this subject. Sir, is the dramatic growth of dissatisfaction with the Government's pension payments to ex-servicemen. This has been illustrated in many ways. The Returned Services League, after many years of patient advocacy of higher pension benefits, has taken the unprecedented step of conducting a public campaign against the Government. The RSL is not a radical body; it is not a partisan organisation; and it is not noted for any basic sympathy with the aspirations of the Australian Labor Party. The campaign mounted by the League at the time of the last Senate election can be interpreted only as a reflection of grave dissatisfaction with the Government among hundreds of thousands of returned service men and women. This dissatisfaction was demonstrated clearly yesterday at a meeting in Canberra, when representatives of twelve national ex-service organisations, representing more than a million ex-service men and women and war widows, condemned the present inadequate level of war and service pensions and allowances. During the whole of the time that I have been a member of this Parliament, I have never before known this course of action to be adopted by those who represent ex-servicemen in this country. On this occasion, they have met in Canberra to protest against the Government's action in allowing pension rates in recent years to deteriorate to an alarmingly low level. The conference found that there was ample evidence that the Government had not honoured the principle of fair compensation for incapacity, ill health, and bereavement resulting from war injuries. Delegates said that there was widespread and mounting evidence of hardship and distress because of inadequate pension levels. In this Parliament, the Opposition has ceaselessly urged improvements in the Repatriation Act, and restoration of the relative values of benefits. In association with the national ex-service organisations, we shall continue to press to the utmost a concerted campaign for improved pension payments.

The economic argument for higher payments can be put quite briefly. When the present system of payments was introduced in 1920, the special rate total and permanent incapacity pension was 103% of the basic wage of the day. In 1943, it matched the basic wage. In 1950, it rose to 101% of the basic wage. That was one year after the Menzies Government assumed office. Sir Robert Menzies, then Mr Menzies, as Leader of the Opposition, had promised to increase repatriation benefits. He undertook that the purchasing power of pensions would be maintained. So, in 1950, the special rate TPI pension rose to 101% of the basic wage. These comparisons are significant, because the years that I have mentioned were the only ones in which there were general reviews of repatriation pensions and allowances. A consistent relationship between the special rate pension and the Commonwealth basic wage was regarded as a desired welfare objective by the governments that made those reviews. In the 17 years since the last general review of payments and allowances, the special rate pension has dwindled to 81% of the minimum wage, which now stands at $37.55 a week.

Id other words, in 17 years the relative value of the special rate pension has deteriorated by 20%. This is despite the promise in J 949 that the purchasing power of pensions would be maintained. Sir Robert Menzies at that time made special reference to ex-servicemen and those who represent them. The erosion of purchasing power induced by this decline can be emphasised by reference to the prices spiral of the same period. A similar marked deterioraion in relative value can be shown by examining the general rate 100% pension payable to an ex-serviceman whose war caused disabilities reduce his earning capacity. In 1920, this pension was 54% of the Commonwealth basic wage. By 1943, it had fallen marginally to 52% and toy 1950 to 51%. The relative stability up to that time has not been maintained since. Between 1943 and 1950, the decline was very small indeed. Today, the genera] rate pension, which is $12 a week, is only 32% of the minimum wage. This represents a drop of about 40% from the level established by the review made by the Government in 1950.

These comparative figures illustrate plainly how the purchasing power of repatriation pensions has withered away under the administration of this Government. The figures explain in telling form the reason for the grave dissatisfaction of the whole ex-service community in Australia at this continuing trend. It is a trend that can only intensify as further gains in the minimum wage are made. It is an alarming trend at a time when most Australians believe that there has been a marked eating away of their living standards. If this feeling is widespread among relatively affluent sections of the community, it must weigh much more heavily on disabled people on meagre pensions whose purchasing power is not being maintained.

When this deterioration in pensions and payments was last raised in this House, the Minister for Civil Aviation (Mr Swartz) made a considered defence of the Government's repatriation policies. He attempted to justify its failure to maintain the relative values of benefits by listing improvements made over the past 17 years. Undoubtedly advances have been made in this period in the facilities and benefits available to veterans. But these improvements cannot seriously be put forward as offsetting the erosion of pension values. In the main, the improvements have not produced any sizeable increase in repatriation expenditure. They should not be used to gloss over the position of the general and special rate pensioners or war widows who are still forced to rely on pensions that have surrendered considerable purchasing power since 1950.

The Minister also justified the entire repatriation scheme by comparing it most favourably with schemes for veterans in other countries. Undoubtedly there are many fine features of the Australian repatriation system, but if the Minister sought to imply that pensions paid in this country are superior to those paid in other countries he is completely wrong. I have briefly examined the level of benefits for veterans payable in the United States of America that are listed in the 1964 edition of the United States Code. It should be noted that these payments are 4 years old and quite probably they have been increased. Unfortunately, these are the most recent figures available to me at this time. But even allowing for the fact that these are 1964 figures, the United States benefits are considerably higher than the pension payments of this Government. I take as one brief example the basic compensation payment for total disability, which in 1964 stood at $US250 a month. This works out at about $A54 a week. Compare that sum with the special rate that is now being paid by this Government-

Mr Stokes - What about the cost of living in the United States?

Mr BARNARD - Even allowing for higher living costs in the United States, this payment compares very favourably with the special rate of $30.55 a week paid in Australia. In addition there is a graduated scale for special kinds of permanent disabilities caused by war service. For example, in the USA an ex-serviceman who is totally deaf and blind because of war injuries receives a weekly compensation that is equivalent to $A118. In Australia an ex-serviceman in the same position would receive no more than the amount that is now paid to the special rate pensioner. I am not convinced that the principle of differentiating between various forms of permanent and total disability is a sound one, but certainly the maximum benefit paid in the United States under veterans' legislation is roughly four times the basic rate paid in Australia. The minimum benefit payable to a totally and permanently incapacitated ex-serviceman is almost twice the Australian payment. As I have said, these figures are 4 years out of date and it is quite probable that they understate the comparison. Even so, I believe that they show the relative stagnation of repatriation pensions and payments in Australia by comparison with world standards.

Sir, asI stated when I first commenced to address the House, the Opposition raises this urgent matter today - the second occasion in 6 months that we have done so - 'because we believe that the representations that have been made by ex-servicemen's organisations in this country are fully justified. They are entitled to teck an increase. This Government has allowed standards to deteriorate.

Mr SPEAKER -Order! The honourable member's time has expired.

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