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Thursday, 8 March 1973
Page: 391

Mr BARNARD (Bass) (Minister for Defence, Minister for the Navy, Minister for the Army, Minister for Air and Minister for Supply) - in reply - A number of speakers have participated in this debate. Most of them offered some commendation for the Government's movement on repatriation matters generally. It should be said at the outset that over the years I have spoken at great length in this House on repatriation matters. Clearly, honourable members opposite, who were then Government supporters, had some knowledge of my attitude and of the policy of my Party. That had been clearly spelt out. The honourable member for Indi (Mr Holten) referred to the general rate of pension and said he was not sure what the figure should be but that the Government had not moved to increase it immediately to 50 per cent of the minimum wage paid in this country. Of course, the honourable member had not done his homework in this respect. 1 do not say that in any derogatory sense. Had he looked at the Bill and the second reading speech he would know that today the minimum wage is $51.10.

One of the promises that the Government made when it was in Opposition was that it would immediately increase the special rate of pension to the amount of the minimum wage paid to a worker in this country. That was made quite clear in the policy speech delivered by the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam). It is also a provision in my Party's platform. So the Government moved immediately to increase the special rate of pension to the equivalent of the minimum wage paid in this country, lt should be pointed out that this was done immediately. There was no suggestion that any increases in repatriation benefits should be made immediately. We were dealing with a program for the next 3 years. Some of these matters may well have been left until the Budget session, But we did not do that. We moved immediately to increase the special rate of pension to the equivalent of the minimum wage.

A second promise was that we would increase the general rate of pension to 50 per cent of the minimum wage. That was to be the ultimate objective. Anyone who cares to read through Hansard will appreciate that it is beyond the financial capacity or ability of any government to restore immediately the general rate of pension to 50 per cent of the minimum wage as the result of one legislative action in this Parliament. It simply can not be done. The record of the previous Government made it difficult in this respect. The honourable member for Indi knows that there have been periods in the history of governments in this country when the general rate of pension has reached a level of 50 per cent of the men basic wage. We said that it ought to be restored to this level. The minimum wage today is $51.10. The honourable member for Indi destroyed his own argument by suggesting that he himself had worked out the figures. Of course, one could not accept that as being the ultimate cost to this country, but that is another question. I shall deal with it in a few moments.

On this occasion we increased the general rate of pension by $2 a week as an immediate step to reach what we propose should be the position in relation to the general rate of pension. One can compare that action with the record of the previous Government. Records and comparisons are not always satisfactory, but I made the point that it has been and will be difficult for this Government to reach that level because under the previous Government the general rate of pension was increased in 1964 to $12 a week and it remained unchanged until 1972 - at the time of the last Budget of the previous Government. For 8 years the previous Government made no change in the general rate of pension and in 1972, as the result of the pressures that had been applied to it, that Government increased it by $2 to $14 a week. That Government had a record of leaving a particular rate of pension under the Repatriation Act unchanged for 8 years. I had spoken about this when I had the responsibility, on behalf of my Party, for repatriation matters in this Parliament. I had drawn attention to the fact that the previous Government had refused to increase the general rate of pensions.

The present Government said that it would increase the general rate of pension to at least 50 per cent of the minimum wage. No-one suggested at any time, my Party's platform does not suggest and the Prime Minister did not indicate in his speech at the. time of the general election that we expected to increase the general rate of pension or restore its relativity to the minimum wage as a result of one legislative action by this Government. But we did move to do something immediately. We increased the rate by $2 a week and made it retrospective. I do not think that the previous Government can claim to have made a repatriation increase retrospective. Certainly it did not in my time. I think the answer to the honourable member for Indi is that the rate will be increased but it must be done progressively. If the previous Government had accepted its responsibility and had maintained the relativity of the general rate of pension to me minimum wage our task would not have been as difficult as it now is.

The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Bryant) said quite correctly that the Government has a responsibility is this field. I have submitted that to this House on numerous occasions. The. Government is prepared to accept that responsibility. Many things have to be done that cannot be done immediately. Surely the honourable member for Indi does not suggest that the policy is vague. If it is vague it is because he was not able to achieve any of these objectives while he was the Minister for Repatriation. At one stage he said that' some members of the Cabinet are not invited into the Cabinet when decisions are made. Of course, that is completely untrue. When the honourable member for Indi was the Minister for Repatriation he was not invited into the Cabinet. His decisions and his views were never considered. He was not a member of the Cabinet. I do not believe that there can be any criticism of what the Government has done in relation to these matters. It has increased the funeral benefit from $50 to $100. The question that the honourable member for Indi raised will be examined.

It has worried me too. Again it is not a matter that one can determine immediately but I should point out to the House that, as honourable members know, there is at this time a committee of inquiry under the chairmanship of Mr Justice Toose looking into the Repatriation Act. I extended the period in which Mr Justice Toose would have the opportunity to investigate the Repatriation Act. It was one of the first things that I did during the first Whitlam Ministry. I was then the Minister for Repatriation. It was one of my 14 ministries. I extended the terms of reference of that Committee and, for the information of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, I point out that I asked Mr Justice Toose to take into consideration, with the other matters at which he would be looking, the question of repatriation hospitals and what extensions should be made to them in terms of the facilities they provide and in other ways. That matter is now under consideration. All of these matters will be dealt with. However, I believe it should be made perfectly clear to those who have offered criticism of certain matters contained in this legislation that the legislation should not be looked at on the basis that this is the only decision that the Government will be taking in relation to repatriation matters. It must be considered over the life of the Parliament. Our policy is clear and we will not equivocate on it. We have inherited some difficulties from the previous Government but it will be our responsibility to deal with what we have put to the people of this country as a responsible policy in relation to repatriation matters.

There are 2 other matters which have been raised on which I should like to comment. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs referred to repatriation tribunals. I can appreciate that difficulties and problems exist in this field. I do not believe that any member in the Federal Parliament has had more experience in this field than have I. I have appeared before repatriation tribunals over a long period. Again, this is one of the matters that the Toose Committee will be examining, and when the report of that inquiry is available to this Parliament the Government will take appropriate action after full consideration of the recommendations of the Committee.

I conclude by referring to the matters raised by the honourable member for Prospect (Dr Klugman) which I believe was a relevant matter to raise in a debate of this nature. It indicates the difficulties that are associated with ex-servicemen, former members of the Services, and their rights under the Repatriation Act. We have been able to overcome some of the difficulties because the Act will be extended by this Bill to include all serving members of the armed forces. The matter raised by the honourable member for Prospect related to an incident that occurred before the Government was able to make a decision on the matter. But I believe that, under the Repatriation Act and certainly as a result of decisions that we have made in relation to compensation laws, this matter should be examined on an individual basis. No member of the armed forces should be disadvantaged financially, particularly if his condition is one of permanent incapacity as a result of service in the armed forces, whether the incident occurred during the period of his service or, as was pointed out by the honourable member for Prospect, whether it occurred over a weekend. It would, I believe, be completely incorrect for the Government of Australia to adopt the attitude that it has no responsibility in this matter. I believe that it has. This matter should be examined, and I can assure the honourable member for Prospect that I will draw it to the attention of the Minister for Repatriation (Senator Bishop) as indeed I will draw to the Minister's attention the matter that was referred to me by the honourable member for Angas (Mr Giles) which, again, is a matter worthy of consideration. It probably would be advisable for the Committee to which I have just referred to examine the situation in that area. The Committee will be investigating repatriation systems overseas and I have no doubt that the views of the servicemen referred to by the honourable member for Angas will be taken into consideration at that time.

I believe that the amendments proposed in the Repatriation Bill, particularly the increased benefits, are in line with the policy expressed by the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) back in 1972. The Bill goes a long way towards achieving the Government's objective of an improved basis for providing for those who have served this country in the First and Second World Wars and in the other wars in which this country has been involved.

Mr KING(Wimmera) - Mr Speaker, I wish to make a personal explanation.

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