Tuesday, 21 August 2012
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012; Second Reading
It is with great pleasure that I rise tonight to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 and the coalition's amendments. I will start by sharing a few thoughts and reflections about a recent trip I had the pleasure of taking with members of our Defence Force as part of the ADF parliamentary program. I spent five or six days with members and with the ship's company on HMAS Anzac. When we talk about veterans we are talking about people such as the crew of HMAS Anzacwho are going to spend the next 6½ months separated from their families. These are people who are dedicated to their job of protecting our interests in the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea against piracy, drug smuggling and people smuggling. These people are on board the ship 24/7, working to protect our nation, and many others, from pirates and others. My trip was a tremendous experience and, I think, very relevant given the topic that we are speaking about tonight.
This bill seeks to amend the Veterans' Entitlements Act and other legislation to give effect to a few minor measures. These measures will clarify arrangements in terms of travel payments, provide for the more timely provision of special assistance and ensure that the debt recovery provisions and regulations within the Veterans' Entitlements Act are tidied up. They will make some technical amendments to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act and rationalise maintenance income provisions. They will exempt bereavement payments from income for the purposes of the social security income test. They will exempt reimbursements made under the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme from income tax. In addition we have moved some amendments to defer the debate on this until DFRDB and DFRB indexation is included. It is in these key areas that the legislation can be made better, and we as a coalition seek to do so.
To start with, it is worth noting that the changes in the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme have not been widely welcomed by the veteran and ex-service community. It is instructive to note that it was initially promised during the 2007 campaign but then it was delayed and reintroduced in the 2010 campaign. We believe this scheme is unfair as some 1,500 of our most disabled ex-service people who are in receipt of a disability pension but do not have qualifying service are excluded from this scheme. Our feedback is that the veteran community does not support a divide being drawn between those with qualifying service and those without. By contrast, the coalition's proposal at the last election included all special rate, or TPI, veterans in the scheme and was tailored to ensure that all veterans and ex-service people in receipt of a disability pension at or above 50 per cent of the general rate qualified for the scheme.
The RSL stands for the abolition of out-of-pocket pharmaceutical expenses for all veterans. The same position is held by Legacy, the Vietnam Veterans' Association of Australia and the Vietnam Veterans' Federation of Australia. This is therefore an important opportunity for parliament to extend the coverage of this scheme within this legislative amendment.
The member for Fadden has moved an amendment to prevent further debate on the legislation until such a time as the government introduces legislation, or amends this legislation, to include fair indexation of DFRB and DFRDB military superannuation pensions in line with the coalition's commitment in this area.
The coalition announced on 27 June 2010 our commitment to extend fair indexation to superannuants aged 55 years and over to DFRB and DFRDB scheme members. This would result in their pensions being indexed in the very same manner as age and service pensions. Our proposal for fair indexation has had the support of more than half a dozen inquiries, as well as the full support of the veterans living in my electorate. I have met with members of our veteran community, including the pension officers at the Beenleigh RSL, and they have stressed the importance of fair indexation, in addition to a number of other concerns.
In May this year, RSL Australia made a submission to the government in relation to the 2011-12 Veterans' Affairs budget. Indexation was listed as their main priority, followed by free pharmaceuticals for accepted disabilities; the development of a national mental health rehabilitation scheme for veterans suffering with chronic mental health problems; and appropriate residential accommodation for disabled veterans who require 24-hour support but are too young to be in aged care.
It also went on to talk about to removing the barriers to veterans' widows accessing higher levels of community aged care; to adequately resource the provision of the yearly allocation of eight days of in-home respite care under the Veteran's Home Care program; and adjust the rates for veterans' disability pensions by the same increment that was granted at the time for a single rate of service pension in the 2009-10 budget.
Despite losing the last election, we introduced legislation in the Senate in November 2010 to provide fair, just and equitable indexation for DFRB and DFRDB military superannuants. This was followed by the Greens and Labor using the Senate inquiry to oppose fair indexation. This was the first time ever that the parliament had opposed fair indexation and, in a day of shame for the Senate on 16 June 2011, the coalition's fair indexation legislation was defeated. Since then we have remained committed to the introduction of fair indexation and the coalition has a clear commitment to give Australian veterans and their families a fair go.
In addition to the request for fair indexation we are also moving amendments to extend eligibility for the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme to include all special rate or TPI and ex-service persons. This will bring fairness and justice to Labor's flawed and unfair scheme. It is instructive to note that the government's scheme is budgeted to cost $30 million over the next four years, making this extension a modest additional cost to provide the fairness disabled veterans deserve.
Our government recently was quite happy to hand some $12 million to the makers of the Wolverine franchise. There is no requirement to repay those funds yet this is a movie franchise that makes many millions of dollars. I would suggest this $12 million could have been far better invested on behalf of our veterans. By comparison, our amendments will cost up to $234,000 a year based on the government's advice about the average cost of the reimbursement in the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and the approximate number of 1,500 special rate pensioners without qualifying service. This is a small price to pay to ensure our disabled service personnel are not further disadvantaged by Labor's unfair pharmaceutical reimbursement scheme.
As an example of the frustrations being felt in the veteran community, I would like to share an email with you from a constituent to highlight the outrage over the current indexation rate of 0.1 per cent. The email said:
I should like to discuss with you your opinion of the 0.1 per cent increase retired servicemen got last week. This has provided me with a $0.72 increase per fortnight. On top of this we now also incur the carbon tax for which we receive no compensation. What can be done about the injustice being done to ex-servicemen or don't you care?
I have said to this constituent and I will say to this House: I do care, and that is why I am speaking on this bill and why I support the amendments put forward by the member for Fadden.
As I mentioned earlier, it would cost only $234,000 a year to have a fairer Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme for our disabled service personnel. Given this government's unrivalled ability to waste money on all variety of schemes, $234,000 is a small price to pay for taking care of the veterans who have served this country so magnificently. Earlier this year the government could have already paid for two years at this rate but instead spent $500,000 on consultants to make Anzac Day more politically correct in a report on the centenary of Gallipoli.
When the government started its carbon tax advertising blitz it was costing more than $270,000 a day. The government's total carbon tax advertising is predicted to cost close to $70 million. Surely this is excessive and unjust when we have veterans who are struggling to make ends meet, who are fighting for fair indexation yet the government spends $70 million advertising a tax that it promised six days before an election it would not introduce. As I touched on earlier, the government can happily give $12 million to Hugh Jackman and the makers of the Wolverine franchise, which is a multi-million dollar profit-making venture, yet at the same time it continues to actively resist fair indexation and pharmaceutical benefits for our veterans.
Our veterans that have served our country allow us to enjoy the life we enjoy today. It is not only the veterans that have served in the past but also those who are serving us today in Afghanistan, the Middle East, East Timor, Bougainville and many other places around the world that deserve our support, our consideration and the knowledge that for their efforts, when they return to this great country that they have fought for, they will be well and truly looked after.