Thursday, 3 June 2010
Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010
I rise to make my contribution to the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010. It was an election commitment to look at the five areas that are in this bill. It is disappointing, to say the least, that the member for Paterson’s contribution was overshadowed by having a swipe at the government. The point was made by the minister earlier today, when introducing the bill, that the former government had ample opportunity to address these matters and failed to do so. We are addressing them now. But we have come to expect that from those opposite, that even when they do support a bill, they still find it very difficult to speak in a proper manner of support.
The bill will give effect to a number of Veterans’ Affairs budget measures. Firstly, it will create a new category of service eligibility under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 to be known as the British nuclear test defence service; secondly, reclassify certain submarine special operations between 1978 and 1992 as operational and qualifying service; thirdly, reclassify certain service in Ubon in Thailand as qualifying service; fourthly, lower the age of domicile of choice from 21 to 18 for the purpose of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986; and, finally, cease eligibility for war widow and war widower pensions for widows or widowers who enter into a de facto relationship prior to claiming the war widow or war widower pension. I will look at each of these in some more detail.
The compensation for military participants in British nuclear testing is important because the British government conducted a series of nuclear weapons tests at Maralinga, Emu Field and Montebello Islands in the 1950s and 1960s and participants have long sought recognition and compensation under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 for conditions arising from their service. In reviewing recommendations of the 2003 Clarke review, the government has decided that former Defence Force personnel who participated in the British nuclear tests program will be provided with access to compensation and benefits under the VEA, as intended by the Clarke review. This will provide disability pensions and healthcare benefits to former Defence Force personnel who suffer from conditions accepted as related to the BNT service. It will also provide the war widow/war widower pension and gold card to the widows and widowers where the participant’s death is accepted as related to the BNT service. People who will benefit from this will be former Defence Force personnel who participated in the BNT program. It is estimated 2,700 surviving personnel will potentially benefit, at a cost of $24.2 million over five years.
The second item we have looked at is the domicile of choice. It is important that veterans who served with the British, Commonwealth and allied forces during the Second World War are able to access benefits under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 if they have served during the war and were domiciled in Australia prior to the war. A small number of these veterans, the BCAL veterans, have been able to access VEA compensation benefits because they were between 18 and 21, thus automatically determined to be domiciled in the same country as their father or their mother if their father was deceased. The Clarke review of veterans entitlements recommended that this discretionary treatment be removed by lowering the age of domicile of choice to 18 years, but this was not implemented. The government committed to reviewing the unimplemented recommendations of the Clarke review and is now implementing these recommendations.
The other aspects of the domicile rules still need to be met, such as integration into Australian society and residency in Australia including intention to reside and length of such residency. The BCAL veterans who enlisted aged between 18 and 21 and would have had Australia as their domicile had they been legally able to choose will benefit from this measure. It is estimated to affect only a handful of veterans and war widows but is an important point of principle. The cost of this amendment will be $700,000 over four years on the forward estimates.
As to the reclassification of certain submarine operations, the Clarke review of veterans entitlements recommended that certain submarine special operations between 1978 and 1992 be deemed non-warlike hazardous for the purposes of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986. This recommendation was not accepted by the previous government. The government committed to reviewing the unimplemented recommendations of the Clarke review, and in 2009 the Vice Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Navy concluded that the special operations met the special criteria for qualifying service and operational service that applied at the time. The reclassification of the service to qualifying service and operational service will provide access to benefits under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986, including access to disability pensions, the service pension at age 60 and automatic entitlement to the gold card at age 70 to all submariners who served on certain special operations between 1978 and 1992 and who are eligible for the award of Australian Service Medal with Special Operations Clasp for that service.
The beneficiaries of this amendment are some 890 former submariners and others who are eligible for the award of the Australian Service Medal with Special Operations Clasp for certain special submarine operations between 1978 and 1990. The government has committed $11.1 million over four years to fund this amendment.
The fourth part of the bill concerns the Defence-initiated nature of service review and the reclassification of service at RAAF Base Ubon in Thailand. The Clarke review of veterans entitlements recommended that the classification of service at RAAF Base Ubon in Thailand between 31 May 1962 and 24 June 1965 not be changed. This recommendation was accepted by the previous government. Although not part of the revisitation of the Clarke review recommendations, a recent separate Defence nature of service review recommended the classification of service between 31 May 1962 and 27 July 1962 as qualifying service. This reclassification will allow veterans to access further benefits under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 for this service, including a service pension at age 60 and automatic entitlement to the gold card at age 70.
Personnel who served at RAAF Base Ubon in Thailand between 31 May and 27 July 1962 will be the beneficiaries of this. About 60 of the estimated 215 surviving veterans with this service currently do not have access to these benefits. This will be funded by the government at a cost of $2.7 million over the next four years.
The Clarke review also recommended the removal of inequities in treatment of widows or widowers who marry or remarry as opposed to those who enter into a de facto relationship. Under this proposal, if a deceased veteran’s partner enters into a marriage-like relationship, they will no longer be eligible to claim the war widow or widowers pension, in the same way as those who marry or remarry are not eligible. This ineligibility will be permanent. Eligibility will not be reinstated if the de facto relationship ends. This removes the inequity in treatment of widows and widowers who marry or remarry as opposed to those who enter into a de facto relationship. This measure will ensure equal treatment of partners who marry or remarry and those who enter into a de facto relationship. This only applies to new claims. No current pensions are affected. There will be a saving to the government over four years of $1.4 million.
There is always a lot of passion in this House when we talk about our veterans. Our war veterans are often left behind, and I know the member for Dobell has many veterans in his community who have served their country. I look forward to being able to inform the veterans in my community of the amendments that have been made to this bill.
The 2010-11 budget delivers on key election commitments that the Rudd Labor government made to the veterans community—some $246 million worth of new initiatives, greater access to compensation and income support, preventing unnecessary hospital admissions from members of the veterans community, action on further recommendations of the Clarke review, better access to health care and compensation for the F111 workers. I have often spoken in this House about the F111 workers and how moving and gut wrenching that inquiry was. I was very happy to see that there was compensation for those people affected all those years ago. Some $55 million will be invested to give an additional 2,400 F111 aircraft fuel tank maintenance workers access to better health care and compensation. These workers include those known as pick and patch personnel, who were not deemed eligible under the previous scheme. This means that more than 3,000 F111 workers will now have access to benefits should they need them. That is very important, and I was glad to see that that compensation will be paid to those people who so thoroughly deserve it.
I know that people are now turning up in the chamber, but not to listen to me talk about this bill. That is being a bit harsh on myself, but I would like to add my congratulations to the member for Kooyong. As a new member here, he is somebody I have looked up to and respected. He took many different positions on issues within the former government. I certainly congratulate him on his contribution to this place, and I look forward to his valedictory speech.
In conclusion, David Hardy has worked for me for three years. He is going back to work in his previous job. David Hardy is a lifelong friend of mine. During the election campaign he took 13 weeks annual leave to help me campaign and then he took a $5,000 pay cut and lost his airfares to come to work for me. He has finally seen the light and is going back to the Northern Territory government. So, to David Hardy: thanks a lot. And, to Petro: congratulations, and I look forward to your speech. I commend the bill to the House.