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Tuesday, 6 April 1971

Senator BISHOP (South Australia) - I understand that the procedure to be followed in this debate is to talk about this Bill, together with the Repatriation Bill and the Seamen's War Pensions and Allowances Bill. 1 intend to refer particularly to repatriation and seamen's war pensions, and I indicate also that at the conclusion of my remarks I intend to foreshadow amendments which I shall move at the second reading stages of those Bills. Consequently, whilst this debate is on the general question of social services, my comments will be related particularly to repatriation and seamen's war pensions. Senator Mulvihill suggested that this has been an extraordinary debate because most Government supporters who previously had commended the Government under the former Prime Minister, Mr Gorton, who said that no improvements could be made in pension levels, now support what has been said by the Prime Minister (Mr McMahon), that it is reasonable to give an increase of 50c. But I remind honourable senators that the increase is a meagre 50c.

At the time when Prime Minister Gorton was in power and Mr Wentworth was the Minister for Social Services, it was claimed that no immediate increase could be given to pensioners, but now for reasons stated by Government senators tonight reviews of the situation are being made by the Government. The Minister for Health (Senator Greenwood) has referred to reviews which are currently under discussion by the Government and as a result of which we might find during the Budget debates that the Government has again increased pensions by 50c. The fact is that pensions for ex-servicemen, aged persons and seamen are not only inadequate but also are quite unreal. Anybody who talks about $16 a week for a widow of a serviceman killed in Vietnam being a reasonable pension is being most unreasonable. Anyone who contends this is not looking at the wage standards for this country and certainly is not conforming with the philosophical concepts which have been stated in the past by the Prime Minister.

When Prime Minister Gorton came to power he said that it was the intention of the Liberal Government to abolish poverty and to take the strain off people who were on the bread line and who were not able to live at a reasonable standard. But we find in 1971 that the best that the Government can do is to provide a meagre basic increase to the pension of 50c a week. This increase gives to a widow who has recently lost her husband in Vietnam a pension of $16 a week. At present, of course, the minimum wage, which is the wage for almost the lowest category of labourer under awards of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, is at least $47. Very few people in industry would receive only $47 a week; yet a widow who has lost her husband in Vietnam receives $16 a week. The totally and permanently incapacitated pensioner will receive an additional $1 a week, :f he is lucky, and it has been calculated that only two-thirds of TPI pensioners will receive the increase. Their rate will become $39 a week. The minimum wage awarded by the Arbitration Commission is $47 and the average weekly earnings in Australia are $88 a week. How can Government supporters stand up in this place and justify this situation?

Senator Marriottsaid that he was disappointed with the levels of improvements but that he does not intend to vote against the Government. Senator Davidson talked about a new formula being required, but when will we see a new formula introduced? Senator - Maunsell, who has now disappeared from the chamber, said that he intended to talk about repatriation benefits, but after a few short sentences left that issue. The Opposition does not intend to oppose the legislation, but we intend to move amendments in the second reading stage. Our reason for not opposing these measures is that we think it is better to have an increase of 50c than to have no increase. We can only conclude that for political reasons the Prime Minister has found it expedient to give this very small increase to pensioners. But in giving this small increase to pensioners he has not met the requirements of the ex-service organisations which since 1965-66 have been pressing the Government to establish a relativity with what was awarded after the review in 1950. They argued reasonably, in my opinion - I have never heard an argument which has been able to knock the concept - that if the Government in 1950 established a review of repatriation benefits and believed that that was the proper level for all these benefits - TPI, the general rate pension, the service pension and all the other associated pensions - then the benefits payable ought to be adjusted regularly in each year. In the arbitration field and in industry generally the courts do this.

Despite the criticism by governments of the present Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, it is fair to say that the Commission has discharged its task in accordance with the Act and, to a large extent, in accordance with justice and the propositions advanced by the union movement. Workers generally, through the good offices and representations of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, have been able to get regular increases in the national wage. If these increases in the national wage occasion price increases because of the lack of controls by the Commonwealth Government, it is certainly not the fault of the Commission or the trade union movement. Australia can have, and has had, an increase in productivity but that increase has not been reflected in wages, because there is no price control, profit control or investment control. So the Government has an obligation to see that wage standards and particularly repatriation pensions are increased to the standard which it accepted in 1950.

Repatriation is a subject which is charged with a great deal of sentiment because it refers to people who have served in the Services and the dependants of those servicemen who have lost their lives. As honourable senators know - we have canvassed this in the Senate on many occasions - the arguments of the Returned Services League and other ex-service organisations have been that there ought to be proper compensation for the people who have served in the Services, and that that service should be quite apart from any other employment. I completely agree with that argument. I might mention that former repatriation Ministers have accepted this proposition. 1 refer in particular to the late Senator McKellar who on many occasions stated that he accepted that service in the armed Services, either in -war conditions or under peace conditions, was a peculiar sort of service and ought to be recognised. His excuse for not achieving a proper repatriation standard was always that he had made recommendations to the Cabinet but that the Cabinet had not agreed with them.

The attitude of the Opposition is that we can be justly proud that in all the years we have supported the argument that repatriation benefits ought to be related to the last government review, although we criticiCisc the Government for not commencing this sort of review which was carried out by the Labor Government in 1943. As most honourable senators know, some earlier examinations of repatriation benefits were made in 1917, and again in 1918, but the last real inquiry was conducted in 1943 under the then Labor Minister for Repatriation, Mr Reg Pollard. That was the last inquiry into proper methods of testing the sort of benefits to which ex-servicemen should be entitled which was conducted by a government. Although repeated requests have been made by the Opposition, the Returned Services League and others to have this inquiry re-established, the only acceptance we got from the Government was that it would conduct its own inquiry. In 1950 the Government made such a review but the 1950 standard, as has been pointed out by the RSL and other people, has been depleted and not maintained by the Government. The argument of the Government is that it accepts the review of repatriation standards in the same way as it would accept the review of social service payments. We of the Opposition do not accept that as being a proper consideration of repatriation benefits. We believe that the long dissatisfaction with repatriation benefits arises from this situation.

The Returned Servicemen's League has put up 2 main principles in relation to repatriation. The first states:

The very nature of service in the armed forces, especially in time of war, sets it apart from other forms of employment. The harshness of the conditions under which men serve, the element of danger, the strain lo which mind and body are subjected-

Senator O'Byrne - The sentence of death.

Senator BISHOP - That is true, not to mention the situation in Vietnam today, which 1 will talk about shortly, lt continues: the separation from home and loved ones, the burden of responsibility for human life which so often must be accepted, all combine to impose exceptional demands on all who serve. All this means that the conditions under which men serve, especially those relating io compensation, medical treatment and re-establishment in civil life, must be the best the community can afford. This is a principle that has in modern times been universally accepted. These are the principles on which the Australian Repatriation Aci and all associated legislation is based. lt is true to say that those reviews to which I referred had this concept in mind, and in those years repatriation benefits in Australia were the best in the world. The second principle set out by the RSL is as follows:

A commitment, freely and unreservedly given by the community in time of danger, cannot subsequently be repudiated. Every man and every woman who served in the 2nd World War, and those who served subsequently, were reassured by the knowledge that in the event of incapacity or death arising out of their service they, or their dependants, will be properly compensated and cared for. This is an undertaking which the community must honour to the full, in spite of the pressure of opinions originating frequently from those who in many cases were loo young to appreciate the circumstances of total war . . .

This is the very concept which many young mcn in Australia think the Government is accepting, but the Government is not accepting this concept. Frequently I - no doubt other honourable senators also have had this experience - in the course of my movements within my State have met young people, not only those conscripted but those who intend to join the Services, who talk about the benefits they will receive if they serve in Vietnam. They expect to get from the provisions of the repatriation legislation the sort of benefits which were applicable in 1943 and between 1943 and 1950. They will not receive those benefits because, as I have pointed out, the pensions which are now provided by the Government are much lower than they should be. The standard has been allowed to decline. As a result we have had the persistent agitation by the

RSL and other ex-servicemen's organisations which have argued that the level should be restored. In addition to this basic position we have had a long standing complaint about the Act itself.

In the background of all this dissatisfaction we have the Government developing a great agitation in support of the present policy of conscription for Vietnam, as a result of which young people are forced to go to Vietnam to fight in a war which is of long standing and which, in the opinion of most people, is almost unfruitful and might continue for many years. Despite the fact that these young people will be moving into these sorts of circumstances, they will not be rewarded on the basis of the repatriation legislation as it was when it was first introduced. They ought to be rewarded on that basis. If we require those people to go to war we should see that the standards are adequate, that they are equivalent to the standards set by the reviews which I have spoken about. If they are not, something should be done about it. We should see that those who volunteer to serve their nation should be rewarded. We know the long history of agitation about the conditions of exservicemen, because the conditions have been ventilated in this Senate. This is another reason why there is great discontent in the Services. I put it to the Senate that in the context of the present commitments of the Government the position in relation to repatriation benefits is most unsatisfactory.

I have mentioned the position of a widow whose husband was killed in Vietnam. At present she receives $15.50 a week. When this increase is granted she will receive an extra 50c a week. She will get the magnificent sum of $16 a week. As recently as October 1970 Senator Keeffe asked:

How many Australian widows are in receipt of war widows pensions as a result of - the loss of their husbands in the Vietnam war?

The answer was that there were 9 V widows and that there were 162 children, including one double orphan. Against a background of Government agitation to get more men to serve in Vietnam, it pays a very paltry pension of $16 a week to widows of men killed in Vietnam. That is not enough. The situation should be remedied quickly. As at 21st October 1970 the number of wounded ex-servicemen who had served in Vietnam and who were entitled to a special total and permanent incapacity pension was 22. Most of those ex-servicemen would be working in industry if they had not been injured. Today they would have been receiving a wage between the minimum wage of $47 a week and the average weekly earnings of $89 a week. As most people know, today many people are receiving not only their basic salary of $69 or $70 a week as a mechanic or fitter but also a number of fringe benefits such as overtime. This brings their earnings up to the average weekly earnings of $89 a week. Twenty-two soldiers, who were wounded in Vietnam and about whom we are always hearing great platitude from Government speakers, will receive an extra $1 a week pension. They will receive $39 a week because they are totally and permanently incapacitated as a result of the Vietnam war. Something has to be done about these people.

On a number of occasions in the Senate we have asked that a special inquiry be conducted. On 3 occasions the Senate - the Australian Labor Party moving the motion, which was supported by the- Democratic Labor Party and by the independent senator - has carried motions which called for the setting up of an inquiry and which affirmed the principle of free ' hospitalisation for veterans of the Boer War and the First World War. As honourable' senators know, the Government has decided to take no action in respect of free hospitalisation. On one occasion it dropped a Bill which had been introduced in the Senate. It introduced a new Bill which ' was - a complete denial of what the Senate had carried. On the other 2 occasions' the Minister said that the Government did hot intend to take any action in respect of the decisions of the Senate. So we have the spectacle that on 3 occasions the Senate nas affirmed the principle that the Government has a case to answer in relation'" to the' Repatriation Act and that the benefits df exservicemen should be re-examined by some kind of specialist committee.

The only time we have been successful in getting any attention paid to this matter was when we moved a motion in September last year. Earlier we were defeated by the Government because the new Minister for Repatriation '(Mr1 Holten), after the Senate had carried a motion for an inquiry, wrote saying that the Government did not intend to take any notice of the Senate's opinion. In September last year we moved:

That there be referred lo the Standing Committee on Health and Welfare the following matter - All aspects of Repatriation, including the operation of the Repatriation Act and of the War Service Land Settlement Agreements Act.

I understand that that Committee has been very heavily laden with work. It is possible that the Committee may not be able to discharge its obligations in respect of this matter. I make it very clear that in all these debates, with the exception of 1967 when Senator Wright gave us some support, Government senators have always voted against the amendments which have been moved by the Opposition. The amendments have been based on requests by the Returned Services League and by ex-service organisations.

I repeat what the National President of the RSL said in 1970 when the matter was then under consideration. This is a quotation from the New South Wales journal of the RSL. The article states:

The National President of the RSL (Sir Arthur Lee, K.B.E., M.C.) said the new Budget increases for repatriation pensioners were 'totally unacceptable'. Sir Arthur said: 'Why should ex-servicemen and women who had suffered disabilities through war service find the compensation they receive adversely affected by the need for allocation in other areas of Government expenditure?'

That shows the failure of the Government in respect of repatriation. What happens with repatriation is that the Government makes the same tests in respect of this compensation as it does in respect of the general level of social service payments. It is a consideration with which exservicemen and the Opposition do not agree. We think that the RSL plan this year is reasonable. The RSL advocates the setting up of an independent inquiry. On this occasion the Opposition does not intend to promote this concept because, as I have mentioned, we were able to get the matter referred to the Standing Committee. The compensation plan seeks:

2.   A general review of war and Service pension rates and allowances with a view to correcting deficiencies within the range of compensation provided, and increasing rates to bring these into line with present cost of living standards. In this review, it is recommended that the special rate pension should be increased to an amount equal to the present minimum wage . . .

That is the $47 which I have mentioned. The plan continues:

.   . the 100 per cent general rale and war widows pensions should be increased to an amount equal to 50 per cent of the minimum wage . . .

That would make it half of the $47, which is the minimum wage. The plan goes on:

.   . and all other pensions and allowances increased proportionately.

The plan also seeks:

3.   The extension of repatriation, hospital, medical and pharmaceutical benefits lo all returned exservicemen of the First World War ....

The Senate carried a motion to that effect. It also included returned ex-servicemen of the Second World War. The Government decided not to support that motion. The compensation plan then calls for something which is so evident that one would have thought that the Government would have approved it. I refer to the funeral benefit. The present benefit is $50. In 1970 we asked that the amount be increased to $150. At the time there was evidence from a number of organisations which proved that funerals cost much more than $150. On this occasion the RSL has asked that the amount be increased to $200.

For the reasons I have given, it is evident that the Government intends to mark time in respect of these matters. A case has been made out for the setting up of an inquiry. The only movement which the Government has made since pressure for an inquiry was applied was to say that it is conducting its own inquiry. The Government's inquiry will probably take a number of years to complete. It is a closed inquiry. Representatives of ex-service organisations and other people will not be able to say what they think the Government should do. Much argument in support of what the Government now proposes to do has been based on what it calls fringe benefits. I point out to the Government that many of the fringe benefits that are now extended to repatriation pensioners come from the State governments. State governments are becoming increasingly unable to provide the fringe benefits. This is because of the current lack of Commonwealth financial support to the States. I refer to the restrictions that the States are placing on transport concessions to pensioners. If the present inflationary policies of the Government continue, subsequently most of the fringe benefits provided by the States will cease.

The payments to pensioners are most unsatisfactory. Repatriation pensions should be adjusted to the 1950 standards. We have asked for and supported that standard over the years. No effort has been made by the Government to adjust the outstanding anomalies in the Repatriation Act. I refer to the contentions which have been made in this debate and on previous occasions about the failure of the Government to apply the onus of proof provision in the Act correctly, I refer also to the number of unsuccessful applications to the Repatriation Commission and to the tribunals by people who have a history of complaints arising from their war service. I also refer to a pertinent argument which ought to be repeated in respect of serving servicemen. In the wars that have passed many servicemen have failed to have an application to the Commission or tribunals granted because their record of medical service has been deficient. It has been deficient because many servicemen have nol made application for treatment to commanding officers, doctors or regimental aid post services. So nothing has appeared on their records.

This position was accepted in principle by the late Senator McKellar who put on record in this Senate what he accepted to be a deficiency. He said he accepted that many applications were deficient and would be restricted because the record of the serviceman was not complete because* he had not obtained medical attention. But the late senator said: 'Despite that, 1 think tribunals might give proper weight to the applications.' Those of us who are interested in this matter know that in many cases many ex-servicemen fail to obtain justice from tribunals because of these very circumstances. But there are some other circumstances too. The Act wants reviewing.

There is the anomaly of people who have served in organisations like the Red Cross and various philanthropic organisations such as the Salvation Army who are entitled to act of grace benefits under the Act but who. are not entitled to benefits in respect of war service homes or taxation allowances which people at present serving in Vietnam are entitled to. Although submissions have been made to the Government by people who are affected and who have asked for these concessions the Government is not prepared to alter the position. There are lots of anomalies in the Act. The Opposition takes the same stand now as it did in the years when we discussed repatriation. We think that not only are social service standards wrong and inadequate but also in respect of repatriation they are most unjust. When the Repatriation Bill and the Seamen's ' War Pensions and Allowances Bill is again debated in the Senate at the second reading stage I intend to move this amendment:

At the end of the motion add: 'But the Senate is of the opinion that the pension rate for totally and permanently incapacitated ex-servicemen, the general rate pensioners and war widows should not have been allowed to decline notwithstanding the proposed increases in relation to average weekly earnings'.

A social service matter has come to my attention in recent days, it is' the plight of unmarried mothers in respect of social service payments. 1 mention this because in recent months there has been some publicity as to the position of unmarried mothers. I refer mainly to the group of women who have enough courage to decide that because of circumstances they- cannot marry the father of their child. 'They have the child and try to keep it iri proper comfort. Recently with 2 cases I . have found that Commonwealth social services are not applicable to unmarried mothers. They cannot obtain unemployment benefits because they are not available for work as they have to stop home and look after the child. They cannot receive sickness benefits because they are not sick. They cannot obtain the defacto wife entitlement because they do not have ihe qualifying status accepted by the Department of Social Services. They do not live as a wife and would live with a husband under the conditions which the Government accepts. The Department of Social Service's accepts a defacto qualification, but an unmarried mother who decides to raise a child and not take the ordinary course which is now available in many cases cannot receive the defacto benefit. She cannot receive the various State social services unless she is destitute, if she happens to have some moneys in the bank or if she happens to receive some compensation from the father of the child she is not eligible for any pension from the State social service departments. Here we have a grave anomaly which ought to be corrected. I direct this position to the attention of the Minister. I hope that he will occasion some inquiries to be made. Those young girls who have enough courage to decide to keep a child the father of which might be unable to marry her. perhaps because he is already married, ought to be given the same consideration as a defacto wife. With those comments 1 indicate that I intend to move the resolution lo which 1 have referred at a later stage.

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