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Tuesday, 26 March 1968

Mr ARMSTRONG (Riverina) - I wonder how much enthusiasm has been engendered for this debate, initiated by the Opposition, by what happened yesterday at the meeting of ex-service organisations. Honourable members opposite may talk as much as they like about pensions being at an all time low, but they are suggesting that a standard must be maintained which they themselves did not adhere to. I believe that certain adjustments and reforms are necessary but they should be made only after reasoned thinking and not as a result of political stunts. Later I will outline the reforms which I think are worthy of earnest consideration, but first let me elaborate on my claim that Opposition members are seeking standards which they did not adhere to when they were in power. In .1949 the special rate pension was $10.60 a week. Upon assuming office in 1950 this Government immediately increased the pension to $14 a week. Similarly, the general rate was increased by $2 immediately - an increase of 40%. Since 1949 the Government has made many improvements in repatriation pensions and allowances. It conducted a basic review of repatriation benefits immediately on taking office and has reviewed benefits in each subsequent year. It made substantial increases in all main pension rates and has added new benefits to those already existing. It has adapted repatriation measures to meet new conditions of service and has improved and developed medical treatment services. All these repatriation reforms have been built onto an already sound system.

Consideration should be given to a review of the basic rate and such a review should be made in the light of the whole aspect of repatriation benefits which have been widened over a period of years by this Government. 1 believe that any criticism on particular points should be weighed against the overall picture. I suggest that the Australian repatriation system compares more than favourably with repatriation systems in other countries. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr Barnard) mentioned the American system and he cited the basic rate in the United States but he would agree with me that the provision of benefits in that country is not nearly as wide as under our system. There is one aspect of repatriation on which I propose to dwell in some detail. I refer to the method of determining claims. AU honourable members are aware that claims are determined by independent bodies and there is provision for a series of appeals. I understand that all members of repatriation boards, the Repatriation Commission, the Entitlement Appeal Tribunals and chairmen of Assessment Appeal Tribunals are ex-servicemen who have seen active service. One member of each of the boards, the Commission and each Entitlement Appeal Board, as well as all chairmen of Assessment Appeal Tribunals are selected from lists of names submitted by ex-service organisations. This system, it is claimed, relieves the claimant of the burden of proof and gives him the benefit of any doubt. Further appeal is available to a claimant provided only that additional evidence of a substantial nature is furnished.

I should like to dwell for a moment on the onus of proof provisions under which a claimant is given the benefit of any doubt. I believe that in some cases this provision should be applied more liberally. I am not critical of the general approach to the onus of proof provisions, but it is laid down that all claims and appeals are to be decided according to natural justice and the merits of the case, lt is laid down also that the determining authorities are not bound by technicalities, legal forms or the laws of evidence. The provision states also that the claimant or appellant is to be given the benefit of any doubt and that all reasonable inferences are to be drawn in his favour to the exclusion of all other inferences. It is set down finally that where there is any doubt in the mind of the determining authority the claim is to be allowed. It has been laid down that it is not necessary for a claimant to prove his case but that the determining authority must allow a claim unless the Commonwealth proves that it should not be allowed. 1 should like to deal with that at greater length because I suggest, with respect, that this provision could be applied much more liberally to many exservicemen who served during the Great War. I refer particularly to men who did not report minor disabilities because their object was to get home as quickly as possible. This was particularly the case in the Great War when these men were overseas. They all wanted to get home as soon as they could and, in many cases, they avoided reporting disabilities because they thought that it would prevent them from getting home as soon as they might otherwise have done.

I should like to see free hospital and medical benefits for ex-servicemen of the 1914-18 war. Many of them are coming to a stage where they are in advanced years. Any man who served in the Great War must be of fairly advanced years. I believe also that no war pension should be included in income in applying a means test for service pensions. The justice of a pension should not necessarily be tied to any figure; it should be measured by a comparison with the claimant's disabilities. As the Minister for Civil Aviation (Mr Swartz) has said, almost in these words, whether any sum paid as a pension is right at a particular time is often questionable. But there are many First World War men who are now suffering from disabilities which they may not be able to prove resulted from service in the First World War. Because of the lapse of time it is very difficult for them to furnish proof. However, this situation does create what I believe are almost injustices when a claim is not allowed. I have in mind a particular case in my electorate. The man of whom I speak saw service in the First World War. He was wounded while in service, came back to Australia and then went overseas again. He receives a pension for a 10% disability but is now completely and absolutely invalided. Unfortunately his income is just enough to debar him from receiving any further benefit, so he has to struggle along on his income for the rest of his life. Tragically, it seems that that will not be very long.

I urge the Government to give very close consideration also to the funeral benefit. This may not sound very important, but it certainly is of great importance to Returned Services League branches which have to bear the expense of funerals. I believe that the funeral grant made under the Repatriation Act should be increased. I ask the Government to give very careful and favourable consideration to the reforms that I have suggested. I do not agree with the honourable member for East Sydney (Mr Devine) who made the very wide and sweeping charge about our present Minister for Repatriation (Senator McKellar). He is a very considerate and sympathetic man. I support the Government in its whole approach to the generalities of the repatriation system which I believe is a good one. Nevertheless, I ask that careful consideration be given to the reforms I have suggested and that some increase be made in the levels of payment throughout our repatriation system.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER -Order! The time allotted for the discussion of this matter has expired.

Sitting suspended from 5.58 to 8 p.m.

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