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Tuesday, 26 March 1968

Mr SWARTZ (Darling Downs) (Minister for Civil Aviation) - After listening to the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr Barnard) I am sure that we can only come to the conclusion that this motion is a form of political opportunism designed to coincide with the meeting of ex-servicemen's organisations that was held in Canberra yesterday. I am sure that from the Government's point of view there could be no possible objection to a meeting such as the one held yesterday. Indeed, I think we would feel that exservicemen's organisations were failing in their duty if they did not continue to press the case for ex-servicemen and their dependants. T am sure that submissions that are made from the meeting yesterday will go to the appropriate Minister or Ministers and will be considered in relation to the Budget proposals at a later stage. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition suggested that there was some form of restriction on the debating of repatriation matters-

Mr Barnard - So there is.

Mr SWARTZ - I can recall when I was Minister for Repatriation a few years ago sitting up here till the early hours of the morning during the annual debate on Repatriation Bills. I can recall similar debates virtually each year since I have been representing the Minister for Repatriation in this House. In addition, opportunities to discuss repatriation matters arise during the Budget debate, the Estimates debate, the Address-in-Reply debate, urgency debates and adjournment debates. Also, there is a period for questions each day. How many of these opportunities have been used by the Opposition to debate repatriation matters? When all these occasions are available it is no use the Opposition claiming that there is some form of restriction on repatriation debates in this House.

The basic questions for consideration are whether repatriation pension and benefit levels are generally satisfactory and whether the Government's approach to changing the levels from time to time is a reasonable one. In considering the adequacy of pension rates there are two important matters to be taken into account so that the issue can be judged in proper perspective. These are the general purpose of the repatriation system and the place of pensions as part of a broadly based and wide ranging overall system for the care of disabled ex-servicemen or the dependants of deceased ex-servicemen. So far as purpose is concerned, we set out in Australia to provide a compensatory system which includes financial compensation by way of pensions, medical treatment facilities and re-establishment measures where these are appropriate and a range of additional assistance, including help for the education of the children of the more seriously disabled or deceased ex-servicemen. Within this compensation framework pensions and allowances are obviously very important. The Government accepts this and has demonstrated over the years a practical concern for keeping rates at a reasonable level that is consistent with the purpose of our repatriation system and the varying needs of incapacitated ex-servicemen and their dependants.

It is always relatively easy to mount a criticism of a government on the grounds that it has not done as much as it could have done or that it has failed in some other way. For that reason I think it important that the Government's approach to the fixing of repatriation pension levels is known and understood. Fixing these levels is no simple matter. It involves the Government's responsibility to the whole community and some assessment of the prospective resources and the many compelling and competing demands on them. It is of the essence of government that this type of judgment be made. In relation to repatriation matters specifically, when the Government considers adjustments to the level of repatriation pensions it does not look at any one specific criterion - for example, the single criterion of changes in wages rates, which is often urged as the only possible yardstick by those who claim pensions rates to be insufficient. The Government's approach is to have regard to a variety of factors, including movement in wage rates, movement in the cost of living, the freedom of war pensions from income tax and the fact that various ancillary benefits which have been extended from time to time, as has been mentioned by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, are available to war pensioners.

I believe that it must be agreed that this is a responsible approach both to the Government's overall responsibility for the conduct of the country's affairs and its responsibility for the specific problems arising from the needs of one special segment of the community which is looked after within the repatriation system. The fact is that from this responsible approach a consistent pattern of progress has emerged in repatriation affairs, part of which has been a steady increase in repatriation pensions levels. The Government's review of repatriation matters takes place, not just occasionally, but every year. In fact there has been some change for the better in repatriation arrangements in every year since the Government came to office and there have been some pensions increases in almost every year.

As a result of this practice of continuing review we have rates now which are by no means unreasonable and which certainly should not attract the kind of criticism which the motion here today implies. This is illustrated both by the present level of the main pension rates and by the significant increases in them since the Government came to office. The totally and permanently incapacitated rate of pensions is now S30.50, compared with $10.60 in 1949. This is an increase over the period of 188%. The 100% general rate pension, now $12, has increased 1 18%. The war widows pensions, now $13, have increased by \\lc.'r . The war widows pension and domestic allowances, in combination, which are now $20, have increased by 196% and it is of interest that approximately 96% of war widows receive the domestic allowance in addition to their pension. It is interesting that those who criticise pension levels make comparisons with movements in the basic wage and minimum wage. It seems to be overlooked, however, that one could use quite validly another criterion in the same way. A study of the movements since 1949-50 of the cost of living, as measured by the consumer price index, clearly shows that the Government has more than maintained the value of the special and general rate pensions. The movement in the index from 1949-50 to 1966-67 was 110%. This of course compares with the pensions increases, ranging from 118% to 196%, which I have already mentioned. Therefore if it is satisfactory for one comparison to be made, I believe consideration must be given to a comparison of that type associated with the cost of living.

Looking in more detail at the amounts that may be received by way of pension and allowances, a married TPI pensioner with two children now receives $37.30 per week in war pension. Subject to means, he may also receive service pension of up to $16.45, giving a total family pension income of $53.75 per week. The fact that a married TPI pensioner can receive the service pension supplement leads rae to a further point. In making any assessment of repatriation pension rates, one must give due weight to the changes which the Government has brought about in the conditions which apply to the receipt of pensions. For example, in 1955 the Government, in accordance with its policy of providing additional assistance where the need is greatest, removed the ceilings laid down in the Repatriation Act on the amounts that, a war pensioner could receive by way of war, service and civil pensions. In 1949-50 a special rate pensioner and his wife could receive war pension only, totalling then between them $13 per week. Today, subject to the means test, the total payment to a special rate pensioner and his wife by way of war and service pension is $41.76 per week, an increase of 221%, compared with the increase of 110% in the consumer price index. In 1949-50, under the ceiling maintained by the previous Government, a general rate pensioner could, subject to the means test, receive a maximum weekly payment of war and service pension of §6.25. Now the maximum payment has been increased to §23 per week, comprising war pension of $12 and the part service pension of $11, an increase of 268% over the 1949-50 level.

In addition to pensions there are, of course, additional allowances according to the severity or type of disablement. For example, there is attendant's allowance of $6.50 or $10.50 per week and recreation transport allowance of $10 or $20 per month. When looked at in detail the present repatriation rates are comparable with any in the world and cad be supplemented by way of allowances for those with particular types of disablement or if disablement is of special severity. I have a record showing a comparison with every country in the world where assistance is maintained. I can assure honourable members that the facts I have stated are correct. The war pensions can be supplemented also by means test pension for those who otherwise qualify.

It may interest the House to know that repatriation expenditure on pensions has increased in a dramatic way since 1949-50. The expenditure on war pensions and allowances in that year was $41m, compared with an estimated expenditure of $165m in 1967-68. Service pension payments have risen in the same time from $2.8m to $32m.

To return to the thoughts with which 1 began on whether pensions levels themselves are reasonable, given the overall system of which they are a part, and whether the Government's approach to repatriation pensioning is responsible. I am sure that, after consideration of the facts that I have mentioned, the answer to both these questions in this House should be yes. The real test is whether our wide range system of compensation and treatment, sympathetically administered, reasonably looks after the needs of those who have become incapacitated as a result of war service; or, in the case of those who have died as a result of it, makes proper provision for their dependants. The criticism of pensions rates, which has been made, certainly demonstrates no real deficency in the present arrangements. There will be room for difference of opinion always about whether a particular amount at a particular time is exactly as it should be. The differences can be accounted for, at least in part, by the different responsibilities of those who are obliged to make the final decisions. A Government, with the high responsibility for guiding the direction of a nation's progress, from time to time necessarily may take a different view, as to priorities or amounts, from those who are directly concerned as recipients of repatriation pensions. I have been concerned to show, however, that the Government has been able to meet both its overall responsibility and its responsibility for its repatriation pensioners.

I conclude by reminding honourable members that the Government believes that there is real merit in its programme of annual review and that it proposes to continue reviewing repatriation arrangements on this annual basis and making such adjustments as are warranted in the light of each separate examination.

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