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Thursday, 7 October 1971
Page: 2027

Mr BARNARD (Bass) - It is almost 30 years since the last comprehensive examination of the operation of the Repatriation Act was made. This was by a joint committee of this Parliament with Mr Reg Pollard as Chairman. It presented its report to the Parliament in January 1943, so it could never be claimed that the Government has acted rashly in initiating its inquiry. The Pollard Committee made its examination of the Repatriation Act at a time when World War II was entering its final years and the Curtin Government was preparing for the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of ex-servicemen. The Pollard Committee did not try to project beyond the complexities of the immediate postwar years.

The strict meaning of repatriation is restoration or return to the native land; accordingly, the primary objective of Government policy after World War II was to get our soldiers back to Australia and reestablish them in the domestic economy. With this objective achieved, the focus of the Act switched to the care and welfare of returned soldiers and the dependants of those who had died. In a sense the term 'repatriation' is a misnomer as applied in Australia; the whole range of activities covered under what we call the Repatriation Actis usually designated as veterans legislation in other countries. Largely for traditional reasons the term repatriation has persisted in Australia. This is one example of the urgent need for a comprehensive review of this wide-ranging Act; the title of the Act is redolent of limited periods of Australian history, that is, a few years after World War I and a few years after World War II. In terms of its overall impact, the Repatriation Act is one of the most important pieces of legislation administered by the Commonwealth Government. Its range is so vast that it could be said with fairness to affect a majority of Australian families.

The scope of the Act and the period of 28 years since it was last reviewed make it extremely unfortunate that the Government has delayed for so long in initiating this inquiry. I raised certain matters related to this inquiry when the repatriation legislation was debated in this House only a few weeks ago. The Minister for Repatriation (Mr Holten) will recall that this question has been raised by means of our moving amendments to repatriation Bills over a number of years. Our request has been for the establishment of a joint select committee of the Parliament to review the Repatriation Act. In the first place it is regrettable that the Government took so long to announce the terms of reference and the appointment of the person to conduct the inquiry. Apparently the Government wanted a senior judge; I belive that it is fortunate in getting Mr Justice Toose to conduct the inquiry.

What is alarming is the fetish the Government has about insisting on senior members of the bench to conduct these inquiries. These resources are already severely overtaxed. It would be most regrettable if a stage were reached where a government insisted that an inquiry of this sort could be conducted only by a top judge. I make no criticism in this respect except to mention what I believe is a possibility. We could be placed in a position in which an important inquiry could be held in abeyance because of the Government's insistence that only a top judge could accept these responsibilities.

This legislation is the responsibility of this Parliament. Accordingly when it is revised the Parliament should be responsible. For this reason the Opposition has always moved for a joint committee of this Parliament to make the examination. All too often matters which are the prerogative of this Parliament are delegated outside. Of course there are circumstances where an inquiry by a senior member of the judiciary is appropriate. Examples are the Fox inquiry into bastardisation at Duntroon and the Rapke inquiry into treatment of naval cadets. But where a major piece of legislation which is the responsibility of this Parliament comes up for review it should be done by the Parliament.

Having stressed this point I make no criticism of the appointment of Mr Justice Toose. From the detailed biography given by the Minister his legal, civil and military record appears to be exemplary. Indeed, one would assume that as a result of his activities on behalf of servicemen, particularly those with whom he served during the Second World War, he has maintained his interest in military matters since his discharge from the forces. Therefore one could expect, and I know, that Judge Toose will most certainly conduct an inquiry of this kind with sympathy and understanding towards those with whom he served, and others who served in the First and Second World Wars and the other wars which have followed.

With regard to the terms of reference there is one grave source of disappointment and dissatisfaction. This is the refusal to include any specific recommendation on rates of pension. The reasons given for rejecting this course of action are extremely feeble. Obviously it has been done to prevent any recommendations of pension rates which would embarrass the Government. One of the reasons given is that the inquiry would make known the views of ex-servicemen's organisations and the public on pension rates. It is then intended that Mr Justice Toose should collate these views and include them in his report. This procedure is open to challenge on two grounds. Firstly, the views of exservicemen and other organisations on pension values are widely known. They could be collated in a matter of hours by a junior clerk. A senior judge is not needed to perform such an elementary and menial task as collating sets of figures already on the public record.

Secondly, it is an insult to a top judge to expect him just to collate these figures and present them to the Government. This was not the practice adopted in the Kerr Committee's inquiry into service pay rates. The Kerr Committee was given a clear mandate to set new pay rates and the Government has accepted its recommendations and introduced them. Presumably, Mr Justice Kerr will follow a similar line in his inquiry into Parliamentary pay rates and allowances. However, Mr Justice Toose will not be able to express himself on proper levels of pension payments and other benefits for ex-servicemen. This is a notable down grading of the status of this inquiry. It is a clear indication that the Government fears the consequences of any assessment of repatriation benefits by an independent authority.

There is also a clear implication in this tactic that present benefits are much too low and that their values have been eroded sharply in the 28 years since the last inquiry. The excuse given by the Minister that it was not considered appropriate for the judge to shoulder the heavy responsibility of reaching conclusions on matters involving large amounts of Commonwealth money is sanctimonious eyewash. On this line of reasoning no committee of inquiry would ever recommend anything that cost money because of the charge on the Commonwealth. A term of reference specifying recommendations of pension rates has not been incorporated because the Government fears political embarrassment. In the years since the Act was last reviewed, in 1943, Australian servicemen have been committed to three other wars. These have raised new problems which were not envisaged by the Pollard committee.

One of the areas which should be looked at closely by Mr Justice Toose is the impact of Vietnam on the whole structure of the Repatriation Act. In America at the moment there is considerable debate on the medical care of veterans wounded in Vietnam. The basis of this debate is the need to give care and rehabilitation to a large number of very seriously wounded veterans. The point is that many of these men would not have survived in earlier wars. Because of fast evacuation by helicopter, new drugs, new medical techniques it is now possible for men with enormously devastating wounds to survive. This has meant a much greater proportion of 100 per cent disability, or what our terminology calls totally and permanently incapacitated pensioners. In actual fact it is a special rate of pension.

It has been estimated that in the United States there are three times as many permanently disabled from Vietnam as from World War II and there are twice as many from Vietnam as from Korea. The nature of the weapons used in Vietnam has produced many more multiple injuries, many more spinal cord injuries and many. more wounds which are permanently disabling. This raises the problem of matching rehabilitation and care techniques with the medical miracle achieved in the field in Vietnam when the veteran returns home. The same problems will occur in Australia though on a much smaller scale. I do not know whether it is yet possible to assess categories of wounds relative to pension and repatriation benefits for our Vietnam disabled. On the figures available there seems to be a much higher proportion of permanently disabled among the wounded.

For example, in the four months from 1st April to 31st July 1970, 32 Australian soldiers in Vietnam incurred serious disabilities described in the fourth and fifth schedules of the Repatriation Act. Of these, 13 received wounds, injuries and disease involving total and permanent disabling effects. Thb means that one in three of these seriously injured men will automatically be a TPI pensioner. The Act describes them in this way. The other 19 men listed under these schedules are not automatically described as TPI pensioners in the same way. From the nature of their wounds they will qualify for TPI status. We should accept the fact that the Vietnam war will produce a greater proportion of TPI pensioners than any war in Australia's history, lt is then our duty to evaluate techniques for rehabilitation and re-establishment. These may have been successful in handling the disabled of past wars. They may need substantial changes to cope with the peculiar circumstances of the Vietnam war. This is one particular and important area which I hope will receive special attention from Mr Justice Toose.

In summary the Opposition is pleased that this belated inquiry is about to begin. We would have preferred a Parliamentary committee. 1 acknowledge that exservicemen's organisations and other interested organisations have pressed for an inquiry of this sort. Therefore, one must accept it as being a reasonable approach on behalf of the Government to accede to that request. In the main the terms of reference are acceptable but the Government warrants severe censure for ducking the issue of having pension and benefit values assessed by an independent authority. These serious reservations apart, the Opposition welcomes the appointment of this Committee. I conclude by making one or two brief observations. I reiterate what I said in relation to the appointment of a very senior judge with special qualifications. I join with the Minister in extending my good wishes for the success of the inquiry. I know that it will be a successful committee of inquiry into one of the most important aspects of government in this country. I have already drawn attention, as has the Minister, to the need for this inquiry and the requests made for it.

Although I have been critical of that important aspect of the terms of reference which denies a qualified person the right to assess pension rates and the extent to which their values have been eroded - if it can be successfully argued that they have been eroded, and I believe it can - I think it is competent for a man of the calibre of Mr Justice Toose, with the evidence that will be placed before him, to be able to recommend to the Government what he believes ought to be the schedules of repatriation benefits and how those schedules should be applied.

Having made that criticism I again acknowledge that the terms of reference will at least provide to those organisations and persons interested, particularly the Returned Services League, members of this Parliament and others, the opportunity to place their views before Mr Justice Toose in relation to the many other matters that have been raised in this Parliament and which 1 believe would improve the existing Repatriation Act and remove some of the anomalies. I refer particularly, of course, to section 47.

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