Thursday, 3 June 2010
Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010
I rise to lend my support to the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010, which will go some way to improving the wellbeing of Australia’s veterans and the wider ex-services community. It was only last week that I, together with many, rose in this place to speak on another bill that was introduced. This one actually made minor technical amendments to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986. Nevertheless, they were amendments that were designed to further align the veterans law with social security law and were another step in making improvements to conditions for our ex-service personnel, our veterans. During my contribution I spoke about what the veterans community can expect under this government and how our efforts will address a range of veterans issues, particularly around entitlements, services, wellbeing and recognition. This bill is another step in building better services for the Australian veterans community.
I have on many occasions had the opportunity to acknowledge the veterans community organisations that operate tirelessly in my area, the south-west of Sydney, such as the Macarthur veterans recreational centre, the Vietnam Veterans Association, the Ingleburn, Campbelltown and Liverpool RSL clubs and the Cabra-Vale Diggers. I should mention Mr Ron Brown of the National Servicemen’s Association. Last time I mentioned him, a number of members of the opposition approached me to tell me how active he was in organisations in their electorates in pursuing the very just causes of national servicemen.
Their hard work and devotion to improving the wellbeing of Australian veterans and the wider ex-services community particularly impresses me. On behalf of a very grateful community, I give thanks for their efforts. I know much of their effort goes unrecognised, but, without that assistance, the veterans community would not have the voice that it has today. Despite all the well-meaning commitment of others to their cause, we need those veterans associations to ensure that veterans have a proper and unfettered voice in determining their needs.
I have also had the opportunity on a couple of occasions to take Minister Alan Griffin out to my electorate. As I said, we have a very active veterans community there. Formerly, the Ingleburn Army Camp was plumb in the middle of my electorate, and a lot of people, after they demobbed from the service, stayed in the area. It is easy to understand why Werriwa is home to a lot of ex-servicemen. The minister has been very good with his time, coming out and addressing those issues with the local veterans community. I think he has a very clear understanding of the issues of the veterans community, certainly as it applies to my region, and I genuinely thank him for spending time with our local veterans.
Veterans can be assured that, under this government, their interests will always be a priority. One of the things the previous speaker, my colleague from Greenway, had to leave out of her contribution to the House, for obvious reasons, was that in their 11 years they were very slow to act on improvements for veterans. I do welcome a degree of bipartisanship when it comes to these bills, however, to improve clearly and decisively the conditions of veterans across the nation. I am confident that working more closely with our ex-services community will allow us to be more responsive to the needs of veterans and be prepared to meet the future challenges of our ex-services personnel and, importantly, their families. The introduction of this bill I think is an example of that.
Only this week I had the opportunity of welcoming to Parliament House Greg Brassil and Ian Fulton from the local army cadets operating in my region. They spent time with the office of the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support, Mike Kelly, because of some concerns they had. They also spent some time talking with the Deputy Prime Minister. I should indicate what these people are doing in an area of great need. They have a base operating in Rosemeadow in south-west Sydney. You may recall, Mr Deputy Speaker, that was the location of considerable social upheaval last year with riots in the 3M estate. The area very clearly is social disadvantaged and many of the families within that community do not have positive role models. What these two gentlemen have done is set up an army cadet base where they are actively providing very positive role models for younger people in the community. I know the juvenile justice services are working very closely with them now by referring young people to the army cadets.
On a very positive note, over the last five years this one unit in the south-west of Sydney has been getting between 10 and 12 recruits into the ADF per year. Young people have decided to stay with the army cadets, finish high school and then apply to our military forces as a consequence. So I am certainly unashamed in introducing both these gentlemen to Colonel Mike Kelly’s office and to the Deputy Prime Minister and in telling people what they do. They are without doubt doing a very good job in the community. But what I see them doing through their local cadet unit, in assisting recruitment of personnel into the ADF, I think is extraordinary.
This bill will give effect to a number of veterans’ affairs budget measures that I would like to take just a little time to go through. First, the bill will create a new category of service of eligibility under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, to be known as defence service. It will importantly provide participants of that program in Australia with access to compensation and healthcare benefits for conditions accepted as related to the British nuclear test service. Currently, former personnel who participated in the British nuclear tests program have access to the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 for any related period of their service. However, the Clarke review, in 2003, recommended—but it was not acted upon—that these people be considered for acceptance into the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986. It was recommended that participation by defence personnel in the British nuclear test program in Australia be deemed non-warlike hazardous service and, therefore, the legislation be amended to ensure that the declaration can have effect in extending Veterans’ Entitlements Act coverage. While the recommendation was not acted upon by the Howard government, I do appreciate that on this occasion it is now being supported by members in opposition. When this comes into law, it will have an effect for 2,700 former defence personnel, which is quite significant.
The second element of the bill is the reclassification of certain submarine operations between 1978 and 1992 as operationally and qualifying service. At present, this service is classified as peacetime service. In the 2003 review of veterans’ entitlements, conducted by Justice John Clarke, it was recommended that service on submarine special operations during this time be classified as non-warlike hazardous under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. As I understand it, over this period our submarines were equipped with special intelligence-gathering equipment and were deployed in covert operations. It was only fitting in that instance to accept the recommendation of Justice John Clarke that this be regarded as non-warlike, but nevertheless hazardous, for persons qualifying under the Veterans’ Entitlements ct. In 2009, Defence recommended that service on these operations and deployment on those submarines did meet the criteria for allotment of duty, the qualifying service requirement that applied at the time of those operations. Consequently, this measure will provide relevant members of the Australian Defence Force with qualifying service under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, which will provide a service pension at age 60 and, importantly, an automatic gold card at age 70. I understand that, whilst this is long overdue, it is nevertheless very welcomed by the ADF and will affect 890 members as a consequence.
The third measure in this bill I wish to discuss relates to RAAF service in Ubon, Thailand as qualifying service for the purposes of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. After a review was undertaken by Defence, it was determined that the initial deployment between 31 May 1962 and 27 July 1962 mirrored the readiness of the RAAF presence in Ubon between June 1965 and August 1968. By the way, that later service is already deemed to qualify for the purposes of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986.
This bill seeks to recognise that those RAAF air crews and ground crews, from which there were some 60 members on base in Ubon, were exposed to the potential risk of hostile activities and that as a consequence they should be treated as falling within the definitions in the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. It is the right thing to do. It recognises that the outbreak of fighting against the Pathet Lao forces along the Thai border with Laos and Cambodia was considered—and is still considered, when the history is looked at—a very real and imminent possibility which would have impacted on our forces. As a consequence, the period between May 1962 and July 1962 will be treated in the same way as the later occasion in 1968 in that the earlier of the two periods of service will qualify and be recognised under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act.
Another measure in the bill will lower the age of domicile of choice from 21 to 18 for the purposes of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. I know a small number of British, Commonwealth and allied forces veterans have not been able to access the compensatory benefits under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act because they were between the ages of 18 and 21 when they enrolled in the forces and, because of their age, were automatically determined to be domiciled in the same country as their father or, if their father was not alive, that of their mother. This was an automatic default position, and men who enlisted between the ages of 18 and 21 are directly impacted by it as a consequence. I doubt whether this affects many, but it is certainly an injustice to many of those who fought alongside Australian servicemen, who were part of the British, Commonwealth and allied forces at that time. It is almost anachronistic to us these days that an 18 year-old person could go to war and vote in this country but not have his place of residence acknowledged as valid when making an application to join the services.
This bill corrects an anomaly that has long been a bugbear for a number of people, though I know that it does not affect many. One person it has affected, albeit in a slightly different way, is my father-in-law. He was 20 when he disembarked from a British Navy ship in Sydney, so he had his discharge papers signed here. He went through his whole working life, and it was not until sometime well into the future that issues were discovered, because his point of engagement on the British ship was in Scotland. We had to work a number of things through for him, but the measures in this bill will help a number of people in the same age group as my father-in-law who joined the services outside Australia.
It should be known that under this bill all other aspects of the domicile rules still need to be met. The condition of residency in Australia—including the intention to reside, the length of the period of residency et cetera—still needs to be met. So it is not just a matter of the point in time that the individual in question made application to join the service.
I turn to the final aspect of this bill that I wish to mention. An amendment in this bill will end the eligibility for the war widows pension and the war widowers pension of war widows and widowers who enter into a de facto relationship prior to claiming the war widows pension or the war widowers pension. This seeks to provide equal treatment for partners who enter into a de facto relationship and those who enter into a marriage or a form of marriage-like arrangement which is registered. The amendment will apply only to claims made from 1 October 2010 or where there is an automatic grant of a widows pension or a widowers pension in relation to a death that occurs on or after 1 October 2010. So importantly, no existing widow’s or widower’s pension will be affected by this measure.
In conclusion, this government will ensure that the ex-servicemen’s community and our veterans get a fair go. I think this bill goes some way to improving the existing arrangements for veterans. Australians are justifiably proud of their veterans and their ex-service community. This government believes that the provision of robust services and support for our ex-service community is a sincere way to show our gratitude in recognition of the bravery and sacrifice of these Australian men and women in a time of need in this country. As the Prime Minister said on 13 August 2007:
There is perhaps no greater duty that we as a nation and as a parliament have than to honour, remember and express our gratitude to those Australians who have served in the defence of our nation in times of war, because our security and liberty have not come without a price.
I commend the bill to the House.