House debates

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010

Second Reading

12:10 pm

Photo of Alan GriffinAlan Griffin (Bruce, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | Hansard source

I will concentrate my comments on a number of issues that have been raised in the debate on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010 and address some of the concerns that have been raised. Some of the issues include not only the legislation but also, in a wider sense, the government’s conduct in veterans affairs over the last couple of years. I think some of these points need to be addressed. I will go back in time a bit, because much of what we are dealing with in this legislation is about going back in time and dealing with issues which were outstanding over many years.

I make the point that the government, when in opposition, came forward with a very comprehensive plan for veterans affairs. It has been mentioned by some of the speakers and I have a copy with me today. The funny thing about it, though, is that a number of people who have brandished the document or have endeavoured to quote from the document have, frankly, just quoted selectively. They have not gone to the details. They have picked headings out. They have used quotes such as, ‘The government promised to restore the value of compensation and entitlements.’ And, yes, we did. We then listed a series of specific commitments that we would act on, which we have overwhelmingly done.

Some people have sought to expand upon that far beyond what the government ever said, far beyond what the government ever suggested. In that way, they try and say on the basis of a heading or one line, ‘That means that the government meant (a), (b), (c).’ Well, it did not. We laid it right out there. That is why there was a document this big—some 28 pages—with details and specific commitments. What we heard from the ex-service community was that they were sick of being lied to, they were sick of being led down a path and they were concerned that matters were not getting addressed and had been outstanding for more than a decade.

In fact, when we look at the Clarke review, some of the issues that it raised are dealt with in this legislation. The Clarke review was the result of, under the previous government, massive concern within the veteran and ex-service community about the government’s lack of action around a whole range of issues. That is why the Clarke review was established. It was a commitment by the previous government earlier this century to look at what they had not addressed in the last part of the last century. It was about going to an all-encompassing inquiry which produced a range of different issues.

The government of the day subsequently responded to that, but, as has been said, many recommendations were not accepted and that was the nature of the commitment that was made by the government. We made the commitment to review those recommendations, not to accept them all, not to implement them all but to review them and to see what could be done about those recommendations that were worthy of action and those recommendations that were worthy of support.

We stipulated in our election commitment—in fact, it was in our platform—two particular recommendations that had received a good deal of public interest and a good deal of concern. We made sure that the debate internally around those issues was considered carefully and we looked to the question of what should be done with those particular issues. On this occasion and in this response one of those key issues—British nuclear test participants—has been addressed.

What is funny about it is speakers from the opposition saying ‘this has taken too long’, ‘it hasn’t gone far enough’, ‘some of these recommendations shouldn’t have been acted upon’ or whatever—take your pick. But let us remember what this means. This is an opposition complaining about the fact that this government is taking too long to address issues that they refused to address when in office. These recommendations were rejected by the previous government. It is great to see speakers like the member for Fadden and the member for Greenway standing up and endorsing, to a large extent, what is in the legislation and saying these are positive moves forward, even though the member for Greenway is a member of the party that rejected those recommendations—not so much the member for Fadden, seeing as he is a new member. I agree with him that action is long overdue in relation to submarine service, but, frankly, it was reviewed by the Howard government and it was rejected. I agree that action is long overdue on the question of Clarke’s recommendation about British nuclear test participants, but, frankly, the previous government refused to go any further than they did with their response in 2006, which provided white card coverage for cancer treatment.

Every single dollar under this legislation is a dollar that goes to members of the veterans community. It is money that they did not get, would not have got and were refused by the previous government. So it is funny to have the opposition stand in here today and talk about how long it has taken. It took them a long time to consider the issues in the first place, but then they were very clear: the answer was no. I am very proud of being part of a government where today the answer is yes on some of these issues. I am very proud to be part of a government that is moving forward in dealing with some of those outstanding concerns.

There are other issues that have been raised today which again I would like to comment on and which I think also tell part of that story. The member for Blair made much of the F111 deseal-reseal program, and I know in comments if not today then certainly in the appropriations debate that the shadow minister, the member for Greenway, raised issues in relation to that. The member for Blair made the point that this was a positive $55 million commitment in the forward estimates to deal with issues around the deseal-reseal program—that it expanded significantly the number of people who were covered and gave people access to opportunities to receive compensation and health care for conditions they had developed. The shadow minister said of the F111 Deseal-Reseal Support Group:

They feel incredibly let down by the response to the review.

Maybe she should go back and check with them now, because I met with them in Brisbane subsequent to the budget announcement to discuss the issues around the response and what it means for the people that they have concerns about—and it is fair to say that there are concerns that remain. But one of the key people in that group, who has had a long involvement in this issue, Kathleen Henry, said in an open meeting, ‘I think you’ve got this 90 per cent right.’

I will tell you what else: this was the result of a parliamentary inquiry conducted under the chairmanship of the member for Brisbane, Arch Bevis. It was a parliamentary inquiry that was a commitment I made as the shadow minister, in opposition, out at Amberley at a meeting of the deseal-reseal support group. I remember it very clearly because at the time I was not sure what the answer was, I was not sure what needed to be done here, but I was concerned about the level and degree of concern being expressed by those people about their circumstances. I could not commit, and it would not have been sensible to commit, to firm action at that time in terms of a monetary sum or a system, but I committed to having the parliamentary inquiry. ‘Let’s have a look at it,’ I said, and that is what they wanted us to do.

The next speaker after me that day was the then minister, the member for Dunkley. I have a lot of time for the member for Dunkley and, as I have said on the public record, I think he was a good Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. In his time as minister I think he addressed some issues where action was long overdue on a number of fronts. But on this one he dropped the ball, because he was asked for the same commitment that day and he refused to give it. We have the shadow minister complaining about a response to an inquiry that, when they were in government, they refused to have. They refused to conduct it; they refused to allow it.

As I said, there is some $55 million, according to estimates from the department, in health care and compensatory support, potentially going to up to another 2,700 or so members who were actively involved in the deseal-reseal area, and every single dollar of that exceeds the requirement and the allowance of the previous government in terms of what they were prepared to do. The opposition are saying: ‘Oh, it took too long,’ and, ‘Oh, it doesn’t go far enough.’ Well, it goes a bloody sight further than what the previous government did over a decade. I might add that the general response within the ex-service community on that issue, on most occasions—certainly from those who have actually read it—has been positive.

The shadow minister also mentioned the review of ESO advocacy and welfare services, commonly known as the BEST review. It has been put, as I understand it, that this has been sitting on my desk. It started sitting on my desk today—today; not a month ago, not six months ago. I received it today, and what I received is what we said and what I have said publicly it would be: a key issues paper for circulation. I have made that very clear to the ex-service community.

There are concerns about this review and there is good reason to be concerned, because it is a complex area. It is a complex area in terms of providing support where the ex-service organisations need it and where the people that they service need it. It is a complex area in which to make sure things are done properly, transparently and fairly. There have been issues, and the ESOs know that. It is one of the reasons why, despite their concerns about what the result might be, they have overwhelmingly supported the review. It has been embraced because people know there are issues that need to be looked at. I might add that there were probably more issues under the previous government, the reason being that there was less funding provided in their forward estimates for this program compared to what we have provided. So, if there are problems now, goodness knows what the problems would have been if the previous government had been returned. We are going to work through the issues in that review because it is important, but we are going to work through them with the ex-service community to ensure that we get a good outcome to deal with some of the issues in the future.

My understanding is that it was also said, if not in the appropriations debate then today, that there were concerns about the MRCA review. I think it was said that I verballed the opposition so they would not support it. No. What I said was: when they were in government and they established the system in terms of the MRC Act, it was said by all and sundry, frankly, that there ought to be a review of it once it had been in operation for several years. I said that when we committed to that in opposition the then government did not.

This is another example of today’s opposition all of a sudden on the road to Damascus having an epiphany and deciding that they will now support something. It was not that long ago that they were in government and had an opportunity to deal with these issues but did not. It was not that long ago that they just sat on their hands.

Concerns have been raised about the pharmaceutical costs review—it is long-awaited but still has not quite been delivered. Many ex-service organisations regularly raised the very important issue of the cost of medications to deal with war caused disabilities. The commitment from the opposition at that time—the Labor Party—was to review that area to achieve a fair outcome for those who have war caused disabilities. It was always made very clear that this commitment would be acted on very late in the term, and the bottom line is that is what is happening. Once again this issue was raised repeatedly with the then government and they refused to take any action. Again this government is being criticised by the opposition for taking too long to consider an issue that they refused to consider. Frankly, it smacks of hypocrisy.

There has been quite a bit of debate on military superannuation matters, which are also relevant to this. There was some debate yesterday on the legislation relating to the governance of superannuation schemes in the government sector. It has been suggested by members of the opposition that I made commitments prior to the last election to remove the confusion and ensure there was certainty.

Once again they were sitting on a report—they had information and they would not release it. Once again they had the ability to ensure people understood what was being considered, but they refused to do anything about it. It has been suggested that it has taken too long to consider Clarke. Yet they sat on that review for three months. They sat on that review for only three months because the election was called. I suspect that, if we had had another 12 months to wait, they would have sat on it for another 12 months because there was absolutely no sign of it coming out before the election.

We have the opposition intimating they may take action around issues like indexation in the longer term when they are back in government and when the budget is in surplus, yet they were in government for over a decade and overwhelmingly in that time the budget was in surplus and they did not do it. In fact, the opposition sat on the report. When we released that report, it was roundly turned on by the ex-service and defence community as being not the way they thought the government should be going. The Rudd government publicly released a report produced under the previous government, as we committed to do. Having released it, we sought to have it discussed and commented on. We had a process for that. The response from that process was, ‘We don’t want this,’ and we have been looking at the issue since.

I am happy to admit that it is taking a long time and it is taking too long. I am hoping to make some announcements in the next few weeks about where we will go with that issue. I think the opposition need to make clear whether they are supporting the Podger recommendations, the recommendations that were taken out of a review conducted under their stewardship. Are they saying they think that should be the military superannuation scheme for this country?

The opposition also should have a think about what they are doing with the superannuation governance bills that are heading towards the Senate. The improvements and efficiencies that will be made by that new system will mean real dollars in the hands of military superannuants in the years to come, as they retire. Depending on the circumstances of the individual—their rank and their length of service—the lump sum under the MSBS that they will receive towards the end of their career will be between an additional $20,000 and $50,000. When this parliament has the opportunity to provide people with those sorts of benefits I do not think we should be playing politics with issues of symbolism—and that is what it is. I think that, when serving personnel on the bases around this country understand what the implications of the action being taken by the opposition are for their final payments, they are not going to be real happy. I do not think they are going to think that is a good or fair way to go.

On the question of British nuclear test participants—one of the key issues covered by this bill—I want to put on the public record that we are talking about compensation, pensions et cetera being in the region of $24 million over the next four years. I also need to put on the record what that means in the longer term. We estimate on the basis of the age profiles of the people involved and their expected longevity that, although it is $24 million over the first four years, it will be some $71 million over the first 10 years. Beyond that, over 20 years, it will be in the region of $135 million. There is significant compensatory support to be paid out over time, as is the system under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act.

I commend the bill to the House. I urge the opposition to concentrate on criticising what we actually have done rather than what they say we promised to do when we never, ever did so.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.


No comments