House debates

Tuesday, 21 August 2012


Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012; Second Reading

7:20 pm

Photo of Ewen JonesEwen Jones (Herbert, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012. This bill makes a number of minor changes to legislation that affects veterans. These changes will allow how expenses are paid for veterans who are travelling for medical treatment; introduce a formal legislative mechanism to provide special assistance in a more timely way; replace old references to the pharmaceutical and telephone allowances, with the MRCA supplement; and exempt bereavement payments from being classed as income in the social security income test; among several other small changes. All these are worthy changes. These are, however, minor technical amendments and, for the most part, we in the coalition have very little issue with them. I do, however, throw my support behind the two amendments that the coalition will be moving.

In speaking about issues affecting veterans, the elephant in the room is always this government's complete ignorance of what the ex-servicemen of this country are really crying out for: fair indexation of the Defence Force Retirement Benefits and Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Scheme—DFRB and DFRDB. The coalition will be proposing two amendments to this bill. The first of this is to delay further debate until this government brings legislation to fairly index DFRDB pensions into this parliament.

That is the issue that veterans are talking about. That is the issue that they are talking to me about. That is the issue that they want to see action taken on. It is about time this Labor government took some notice.

The DFRDB is indexed differently to other pensions, like the age and service pensions. DFRDB is simply tied to the CPI, while other pensions from the government are connected to the CPI, male average weekly earnings or the cost-of-living index, whichever one is the largest. That means, every year since the Whitlam government brought about these changes, DFRDB recipients fell a little bit further behind. After 40 years that has left a big gap between what the government thinks is good enough for veterans and what is good enough for the recipients of other pensions. I do not specifically blame this government over the nonaction on this matter. I blame the Howard government. I blame the Keating government. I blame the Hawke government. I blame the Fraser government. I blame the Whitlam government. Everyone has had a chance to do the right thing here, and none has. This government has the chance to do the right thing. This government is the one that took the policy to the 2007 election that it would do something about it. This government stood up there and told the veterans they would do it, and they have done nothing.

Once you add in the world's biggest carbon tax, even without any direct compensation, veterans have been hung out to dry as they struggle to cope with rising living costs. There are 57,000 recipients of DFRDB and DFRB pensions. These are people who have dedicated their lives to selfless service. For the record, to qualify for DFRDB you must have a minimum of 20 years' service to your country in one of the services. That means packing up your family and moving every two years around the country to places you probably do not want to go—of course everyone does want to go when they come to Townsville. We have the opportunity to reward that service with a little bit more financial security and support in their retirement. You simply cannot overstate the impact that correcting this injustice will have on those recipients and on their families.

As well as having the largest Defence base in the country, Townsville has a strong community of veterans. On the weekend we had Vietnam Veterans Day. I was talking to an ex-RAAF member. His first tour of duty to Townsville was in 1959. He brought his wife up in 1962. They made the decision then that no matter where they finished their career in the RAAF—and he went to Vietnam; he went all the way around the world—they would retire in Townsville. They are now tried and true grey nomads based in Townsville. Townsville has a strong community of veterans, and they have been fighting for this change for years. And they are only asking for what is fair. It is important to remember that they are not asking for anything extra. All they are asking is for what is right and fair and to be treated equally. They are not even looking for compensation to account for the 40 years that their pensions have been falling behind. They just want their pensions finally indexed against the same measures as everyone else's.

In June last year I tabled a petition in this House calling for fair indexation. We had 12,620 signatures. Support very quickly came from all over Townsville and the entire country, and from overseas. The veterans community are united in their fight for this. We on this side understand that. We are determined to see the process of military superannuation reform begun. That is what we went to the last election saying we would do. Two years ago I was elected and said to the people of Townsville that, if we made government, we would bring this about. That is what we have continued to fight for, with Tony Abbott restating in March the coalition's commitment to fix this problem if we are successful at the next election. He has signed the pledge.

In 2007, the Labor Party were apparently on board with this issue as well. It made their list of policies leading up to the election, only to make their list of broken promises afterwards—surprise, surprise. But then they vowed to prevent further erosion of veterans pensions due to unfair indexation. Veterans have now had to watch their pension levels eroded for another five years since that phoney promise was made. We on this side have already put forward the alternative. In 2010 we introduced the bill that would solve this problem once and for all. With help from their Greens alliance partners and Senator Xenophon, the Labor Party shot the bill down and they have spent more time trying to criticise than they have listening to the veterans community or coming up with their own policy.

I would like to refer to the member for Fadden's speech. He said that now is the time for the members of the government to stand up and consider the veterans in their electorate. The member for Blair knows how unfair the current indexation arrangement is. He described the last paltry 0.1 per cent DFRDB increase as:

… unviable, given the cost of living. It is too meagre and it needs to change.

It is amazing what you will say out in public that you will not say in here. The member for Eden-Monaro and Parliamentary Secretary for Defence has acknowledged in a letter to the former finance minister signed by himself and Kate Lundy:

… many people genuinely believe that prior to the 2007 election, the ALP had committed to determining a "fairer" method of indexation, and a 'review' would provide the direction …

It is entirely appropriate, fair and consistent with our election commitment that the introduction of this improved indexation arrangement should coincide with that for pensions and benefits as announced by Minister Macklin.

What happened to that? That is right: nothing. Nothing happened with that. It went by the wayside.

And in his effort tonight the member for Eden-Monaro stated in his speech that Labor had established the Vietnam Veterans' Family Study. This is just plain and simply wrong. He cannot be more wrong. The Howard government established the study in 2006, and it was originally supposed to be that detailed that they were given 10 years to do the study and then come back and report in 2016. But such was the urgency, such was the dedication that they brought in, it was so far ahead of schedule that it was due to be completed this year. Labor budget cuts will, however, delay the finalisation until after 2014, all because they are chasing a phantom surplus. Shame on you.

And then we have the Greens and Independents who are propping up this government and stopping this reform going through. To quote from the Greens' policy in 2010:

We strongly believe that the Government should now act to provide wage-based indexation on the same terms as the Aged Pension for all … defence force superannuation pensions.

What happened to that? That is right: they voted against it. The member for Denison, in highlighting this problem in this House less than 12 months ago, said:

The ALP should be condemned for not doing something about it since its election in 2007.

He will have his chance on this amendment. The member for Lyne has moved two motions, both with full coalition support, calling for fair indexation. These were also supported by the member for New England, who has even raised this issue in the past in a question to the former finance minister.

This is where I have a problem, because the member for Lyne and the member for New England, who seconded both these motions, can get the government to bring in a carbon tax, but they did not take it to an election. When it comes to fairness on DFRDB and DFRB, all they can offer is hollow words in parliamentary motions. Where are they on this? Come on! What are they actually saying on this and where are they? They are as hollow as the words they say.

Lastly, the member for Dobell, who found his support for this campaign around the same time he found his independence in this House, is on the record saying—once again, what he says to people in public is different to what he says in parliament—at a fair indexation protest:

I am the only MP of the Central Coast who is prepared to support them—there are two others who won't.

That all of you can say time after time that you support the veterans cause and then turn around and support a government that has reneged on its promise to do just that is shameful. Now is your opportunity to follow your words through with a vote.

Once again, I do not excuse any government for not doing this. This government is in power and has the opportunity to do the right thing. This is about delivering fairness and respecting the service of these men and their families to the defence forces over the decades. Once again, I call on this government to do the right thing and get on board with this change. There are enough people in this parliament who get why this has to happen. Instead, we have so far only seen them reject outright the changes necessary to right this wrong.

I recently had the shadow minister for veterans affairs, Senator Michael Ronaldson, in town to sign the coalition's pledge to commit to DFRDB reform. This was also an important opportunity to discuss with Townsville's veterans community the issues that were affecting them. We were welcomed by the Thuringowa RSL branch, the Vietnam Veterans Federation Townsville, and the TPI, or Totally and Permanently Disabled Ex Servicepersons Association. It was a great opportunity to sign the DFRDB pledge in front of them and show them just how seriously the coalition are taking this issue. I say to them again: a coalition government, and only a coalition government, will take responsibility for our commitments, and we will deliver on this vital promise. You have the signed pledges; now to prove it. You have Tony Abbott's word on this, you have Michael Ronaldson's word on it and you have my word on it.

I will just raise one other issue while I have the time. I often have veterans coming to me to discuss the different problems they have in dealing with the Department of Veterans' Affairs. I understand that there will always be some problems in government departments and I respect the job done by those working for them, especially the staff in Townsville, who do an absolutely tremendous job. But last week we again saw in Townsville a problem come up that defies all common sense. As reported in the Townsville Bulletin, a former RAAF pilot was being chased up by the Department of Veterans' Affairs regarding an overpayment on his pension of the grand sum of one cent. Even putting aside the issue of how you can overpay someone's pension by one cent, where is the logic in spending far more money hounding someone over an overpayment than the payment is actually worth? He got a letter and he got phone calls chasing one cent. By the time you consider the stamp, the stationery, the wages, the time and the calls to discuss the matter, this incredible debacle will have cost both the department and the veteran involved a lot more than that one cent. If I were them, I would send them 10c and ask for the 9c in change. This situation sums up perfectly the bureaucracy problems that we have, not just in the DVA but with this government. It is wasting money and it is wasting time, and it is wearing thin with all Australians. What we need is a government that is prepared to stop public sector waste. With this government's record, I think we will be waiting until they are out of office for that to happen.

The second amendment to this bill that the coalition is proposing is to bring a new schedule to this legislation that will allow veterans who are receiving the special rate TPI pension access to the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme. This will give eligibility for this scheme to the roughly 1,500 people on special pensions with qualifying service. Once again, this is about providing fairness and assistance to those who have served our country. The overall cost of the DFRDB is between $100 million and $150 million gross, and I must say that that is also taxable, so that is not the net amount.

In the coalition, we hear the voices of those who have served our country. We understand not just what they want but why it is entirely reasonable. Our policy for veterans is to give them fair indexation of their pensions. That is what we took to the last election, that is what we have fought for since then, and that is what we will do if successful at the next election. It is about time this government started to listen as well.


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