Tuesday, 21 August 2012
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012; Second Reading
I rise to add my voice to the list of coalition members expressing their concerns in the House about the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012. This is an excellent opportunity for this House to act on what is the intention of the majority in this place: to fairly index the DFRDB and DFRB schemes for veterans in this bill. I commend the member for Fadden and the shadow minister, who put this amendment forward, for this initiative because it is a worthwhile initiative for us to be pursuing finally in 2012.
You can still find on the Labor Party's website, funnily enough, that defence of the nation is the top priority of the federal government. In the context of $5 billion worth of cuts to Defence and the lowest level of expenditure on Defence as a proportion of GDP since World War II, some would consider it to be laughable.
Is it the first priority for this government to look after our veterans? You would have been forgiven for thinking so in 2007 when the then shadow minister for veterans' affairs, the member for Bruce, Alan Griffin, made these commitments so vehemently to veterans all around Australia—and then, of course, this government reneged on those promises when it came to office.
I heard from the member for Moreton earlier tonight on Twitter. He was wondering where coalition members were because there were no coalition members at the World Wide Fund for Nature function in Parliament House. I responded to him on Twitter that I was in this chamber preparing to speak on this very important veterans matter, as are many other coalition speakers, because we regard veterans as important and fundamental to this nation. Looking after the indexation of their pensions is fair and proper. It is raising the ire of members opposite that we are not at the World Wide Fund for Nature event. It reminds me of a Ronald Reagan quote. He said that the only species that the environmental movement does not care about is the human species. Perhaps the member for Robertson could reflect on that great quote from a very great man. We do care about our veterans.
In the context of this bill, our second reading amendment is designed to see fair indexation. It is the government's policy. The member for Robertson can raise her voice in support of what has been the government's own policy over many years—to deliver fair indexation and benefits for veterans. That is why this amendment is so pivotal. There is no greater evidence that Labor has lost its way and abandoned its core support base than when it does not move to implement its core promises to veterans, to workers and to those people who have formed its constituency since it formed in 1900. In 2012 we see Labor refusing to commit to what is a modest amount of money in the context of the federal budget—we estimate it is around $100 million. Sometimes the government says that it would be more over the forward costs of the scheme being fairly indexed, but it is a modest amount of money today, when a lot of money is thrown around for other purposes.
We are concerned about some of the poorly drafted parts of this bill, particularly in relation to pharmaceutical benefits. I am very happy to support the idea that there will be an amendment in the Senate to extend the eligibility for the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme to include all special rate or TPI ex-service pensioners. Perhaps the government are unaware that they have drafted this bill poorly, because I cannot understand why you would create two categories of TPI veterans accessing pharmaceutical benefits schemes. Some of the most disabled veterans who receive the special rate or TPI pension do not have qualifying service as defined by the Veterans' Entitlement Act. We do not need to create two classes here. Again, the cost is insignificant and really the government ought to consider its response to this amendment most carefully. We would not seek to embarrass the government if they sought to adopt it, given that it would only be a few hundred thousand dollars a year to see all severely disabled veterans covered equally.
I have been lobbied relentlessly by the veteran community in my electorate. They are a very hardworking bunch of people who have an extraordinary record of service in our armed forces over many years. I would like to mention a few of them, in particular Colonel Don Tait OAM, who is now the president of the Castle Hill RSL subbranch—a very big and effective subbranch in Sydney. They have lobbied for fair indexation of DFRDB and DFRB pensions for many years. The other members of the executive of the Castle Hill RSL are David Cronin, Phil Everden, John King, Mike Lee, Ron Smith, Brian Walters and all the members who form this nucleus of key veterans that do such a great job in representing veterans' interests.
The member for Werriwa raises the Howard government—and I was not fortunate enough to have been a member of that government—and he is correct that no government has got to the point where the indexation of DFRDB or DFRB pensions has been achieved. As more and more members fill this place, I know he will be concerned to put pressure on his government, which has been in office almost five years—even though we ignore the first three years under Prime Minister Rudd occasionally—to make a commitment to these veterans to deliver this outcome. It is time for him to stop looking back into the past. As he said of the Prime Minister's current problems: 'Don't look into the past; look to the future.' I know the member for Werriwa will be happy to hear that the future is this amendment.
I heard the contribution of the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, the member for Eden-Monaro, earlier. The member for Eden-Monaro has a strong record in relation to Defence, and his contribution to this debate was particularly extraordinary. He said: 'We can never do enough and we should always do more.' This amendment provides the opportunity for the member for Eden-Monaro to do more. As soon as he finished saying that, he went off on a tangent attacking the opposition candidate who has been preselected for the seat of Eden-Monaro, Peter Hendy. I know Peter Hendy well and, if Peter Hendy were here and able to speak in this House, he would tell you that he would support this amendment for veterans. He is a supporter of the coalition's amendment to fairly index DFRDB and DFRB pensions. He would stand up for those veterans in his community of Eden-Monaro. It is time for the member for Eden-Monaro to do the same. He has the opportunity to do just that, afforded by the coalition's amendment here today. I believe he should come back into this chamber and commit himself to that, because in the past he and many other members of this government have written to their own ministers, including Lindsay Tanner when he was the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, calling on the government to do it. The letter to Lindsay Tanner has been quoted many times, but it is worth quoting again:
It is entirely appropriate, fair and consistent with our—
Being the Labor Party's—
election commitment that the introduction of this improved indexation arrangement should coincide with that for pensions and benefits as announced by Minister Macklin.
We are all in support of that, and this is a good opportunity for the government to do just that.
I want to praise the contributions of the member for Lyne and the member for New England in relation to this matter. They have already supported legislation introduced into the federal parliament by the coalition in 2010, just after the election, to deliver fair, just and equitable indexation for 57,000 ex-service men and women.
Unfortunately, of course, the government and the Greens—the Labor-Greens alliance—used their numbers in the Senate to defeat the coalition's amendment. It was the first time this had faced a legislative defeat in the Parliament of Australia. It was a pretty ugly situation.
We are faced with another such situation today. I encourage all members, including the Independents—among whom is the member for Dobell, Craig Thomson, who has put himself on the record in relation to this matter—to support fair indexation. This will be yet another acid test of his claims of independence when he is called on to support fair indexation for our veterans. If all the Independents support the measure, it will head off to the Senate. Once again, the Australian Greens and the Labor Party will have to face the fire of public life; they will have to stick to their commitments or yet again break a commitment to this very important community in Australia. It is a community to which all members of this House pay tribute regularly.
It is very concerning that Mr Snowdon, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, does not seem to grasp the significance of these measures. I think that was particularly highlighted in the exchange when Minister Snowdon argued that a superannuant on $58,000 per year did not need fair indexation, that they were already well off. I have spoken in this House on many occasions about Labor's continual class warfare and politics of envy. According to Labor, if you have a pension of $60,000 or if you are a family earning $100,000 in Sydney you are considered to be rich. I have said many times that if you have a dual income of $100,000 with a mortgage in Sydney you are not rich. I do not think a pension of $60,000 means that you are rich. But let us look at the facts. Minister Snowdon failed to acknowledge that the average DFRDB pension is about $24,386—less than half what the minister quoted.
We know that many veterans—I have heard from some myself—received letters earlier this year offering them a $1 increase in their pension. These are people who have served our nation and they are being offered an extra dollar in their pension. Given the real cost-of-living increases and the ongoing expenses they have to face, that is not a just and equitable outcome. I know there are members of the Labor Party opposite who do not believe that is a fair, just and equitable outcome. Given the modest amount of money that this will cost, it is difficult to understand where the government is at on this. Even though there are $5 billion of cuts in Defence, there is $4.7 billion out the door in relation to border protection, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars for a carbon tax advertising and all the other things that are going on, such as money for car-manufacturing workers, we do not have $100 million for our veterans to ensure that they get fair indexation. It is very difficult to understand the government's position, but it is more difficult to understand the position of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, who is claiming that somehow these people already have it pretty good in relation to their pensions. That is not really a valid argument when veterans are being offered $1 or, in some cases, a few cents extra in their superannuation pension.
This is a very serious issue. I welcome the opportunity to speak on it again. I have raised this matter before on behalf of my veterans and of veterans in western Sydney and Sydney in particular. I believe the coalition has made an excellent decision in putting forward this amendment. The Leader of the Opposition has also made an excellent decision in committing the opposition to this policy in government. I have taken the pledge in front of my veteran community. I am happy to stand in front of the Castle Hill subbranch and the Blacktown subbranch and tell them that is our commitment. I will stand in front of them in opposition and I will stand in front of them in government and tell them that we will deliver it. And we will deliver it in government, because it is the right thing to do.
I believe that the coalition generally believes that defence is the top priority of government. It says that on the Labor Party website still—even today—even though it is fairly embarrassing today, given the context of defence cuts and the passage of this particular bill without proper consideration of indexation. It is pretty embarrassing for the Labor Party to say on its website that defence is the first priority of a national government, but it is there. It is an ode to a past era of Labor, when it did represent veterans, when it did represent the worker, when it did stand up in this place for those people who should be stood up for—that is, our military and service personnel who have done so much for our country and who deserve fair indexation treatment from the federal government.