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Monday, 17 September 1973
Page: 1066

Mr HOLTEN (INDI, VICTORIA) - -As has been indicated by the honourable member for Herbert (Mr Bonnett) who spoke first for the Opposition on this Bill, the Opposition will support the legislation. On behalf of the Australian Country Party I indicate that that Party supports the Bill. But our support comes with quite severe reservations because of certain provisions in the Bill, and I will outline the reasons for them as I go along. 1 have studied the provisions of the Bill, particularly the new ones. It seems to me that because of the number of almost pure social service measures in this Bill one could forecast that the Repatriation Department will be abolished as a separate entity by the Labor Government and absorbed by that empire building department, the Department of Social Security. At the outset I want to issue a challenge to the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Barnard) who is the Minister representing the Minister for Repatriation (Senator Bishop) in this House and who is at the table now, and also the Minister for Repatriation and the

Government, to refute this prediction and to announce the Government's intentions in regard to the Repatriation Department. The Government has a responsibility to make its intentions clear. It has a responsibility to the 800,000 surviving ex-servicemen and women, to the ex-service organisations and, above all, to the nearly 10,000 people on the staff of the Repatriation Department. Members of the Department from clerks to the professional people such as doctors, nursing sisters and senior officers, must be told about the future position of the Department in clear and unequivocal terms.

As mentioned by the honourable member for Herbert, rumours are prevalent that the Repatriation Department will disappear as a department. The only public statement 1 know of on this matter was a rather vague answer which was given in the Senate last week by the Minister for Repatriation, for whom I have a deal of respect. When he was asked whether the Repatriation Department would be absorbed and abolished he said that as far as he and the Minister for Defence were concerned, they would strongly resist any attempt to bring that about. I suggest that this statement is not sufficient. I challenge the Government to make a definite statement of policy on the future of the Department and not to say that a couple of Ministers will resist the idea as strongly as they possibly can. When I looked at the provisions of the Bill I wondered whether Dr Coombs had had his sticky fingers in this area also. I wondered whether he had made some entry into this field. On this point I urge the Returned Services League and other ex-service organisations to speak up loud and clear and to demand that the Repatriation Department be retained as a specialist organisation responsible for and to the 800,000 ex-service men and women who defended their country when defence was needed. I am not the only one who has doubts or concern about this matter. The RSL in its national newsletter of 1 June this year has also expressed its concern. It stated:

The RSL is concerned at a spate of rumours drifting round the corridors of power that the Repatriation Department may be absorbed into a Health and Welfare complex, and Repatriation hospitals transferred to either Commonwealth or State control.

The Prime Minister has been advised ir a letter from the National Office that the RSL is implacably opposed to any such suggestions. It has been indicated to Mr Whitlam that the Repatriation

Department and its many facilities represent a national response to an undertaking given in a time of war.

Not only am I, as a member of the Opposition and as a former Minister for Repatriation, concerned, but also members of the Australian Country Party, members of the Opposition generally, the RSL and the 800,000 ex-service men and women want to know the position. The large and skilled professional staff of the Department want to know the position. Again I challenge the Deputy Prime Minister to ensure that the Government makes a clear and unequivocal statement, if possible here and now, giving a firm policy commitment which will retain the Repatriation Department. The second challenge I issue to the Government is one which I issued when I spoke in this House in March this year. It still has not been answered. I challenge the Government to specify exactly what is meant in the policy speech of the Australian Labor Party where the Prime Minister stated:

The basic compensation payments under the Repatriation Act will be given a fixed relationship with the Commonwealth minimum wage so that the special (TPI) rate equals the minimum wage-

It does not - and the general (100 per cent) rate pension equals SO per cent of the minimum wage-

And it does not. What that means is quite clear; it is the rest of the sentence that I think should be clarified, and I challenge the Deputy Prime Minister to clarify it. The sentence continues: and other pension rates and allowances are adjusted proportionately.

I think the House and all the other people to whom I have been referring have a right to know exactly what 'and other pension rates and allowances are adjusted proportionately' means. On performances to date, the people vitally interested in repatriation have been misled by the tone and implication of this paragraph. I will show why and how, shortly. Accompanying this Bill is an explanatory memorandum which has been made available to all honourable members. It is an excellent document and, having been Minister for Repatriation, I can appreciate the amount of time and effort that some senior officers of the Department have had to devote to preparing this paper; I compliment them on it. It is most helpful in enabling members to understand the wide ramifications of this Bill.

I said that people had been misled by the paragraph on repatriation in the Labor Party's policy speech. I will now illustrate how this is the truth and I urge the Returned Services League and other interested bodies to get stuck into the Government for reneging and welshing on its promises. In his pre-election speech, the Prime Minister promised that the totally and permanently incapacitated pension would equal the minimum wage. The implication was that this would take effect as from when the Australian Labor Party became the Government. The Labor Government has failed to live up to this promise. The minimum wage has been $60.10 since about May of this year. The TPI pension will not reach that figure until autumn next year - say, March. So, about 20,000 TPI pensioners have been misled as to the level of pension they could expect and will be underpaid for a period of about 10 months. They will lose a total of $8m over this period. The Government should be ashamed of itself for breaking its word to the TPI pensioners of Australia. Even when the pension is raised to the present $60.10 in the autumn of next year, it will by then have been or be about to be outdated by a new minimum wage. A decision probably will have been taken by then to raise the minimum wage to counter the dreadful effect of the roaring inflation which has been tremendously stimulated by the nohoping economic policies of this Government. So, where will the promise of the Government to make the TPI pension rate equal to the minimum wage be then?

Another major let-down for the ex-service men and women is in the area of the general rate pension. Admittedly, there is to be a significant increase. However, I believe that some 27,000 general rate pensioners between the 75 per cent and 100 per cent disability rates will receive no increase at all under this Bill; nor will they receive any increase in the autumn of next year. But, once again, the increased rates announced are not in keeping with the promises made by the Prime Minister before the election. Surely, many people, already confronted with a growing list of broken promises, have completely lost faith in the credibility of the Prime Minister and the undertakings he gave in bis Utopia-like preelection speech. The Prime Minister said that the general rate of pension would be adjusted so that it reached 50 per cent of the minimum wage. The increase provided for in this

Bill, namely $3, leaves the general rate pension $11.05 behind the Labor Government's promise of nearly a year ago. It is just as far behind as it was when Labor came into office. The deficit of $11.05 a week represents a total of $44m on the present minimum wage, or extra expenditure of $44m. Even when another $3 a week is added next autumn, if the minimum wage is the same the payment will still be $8.05 a week behind or a total of $32m behind 50 per cent of the present minimum wage. As I mentioned earlier, by that time there will probably have been a further increase in the wage.

The Labor Government stands indicted on its promises in the repatriation field. For the factual reasons I have advanced the Government deserves to be condemned by the 800,000 ex-servicemen and women of Australia and the Service organisations that represent them. I have a fair idea of what is in the mind of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Barnard), who is at the table. For many years he had a few words to say on this side of the House about the repatriation policies of the government of the day. He is saying to himself, as he almost implied by interjection: We put the pensions up more than you did'.

Mr Barnard - 1 am not saying that. I am just listening to you.

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