Tuesday, 21 August 2012
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012; Second Reading
I rise today to talk about the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 and the coalition's efforts to see fair indexation for Defence Force Retirement Benefits and Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits superannuants aged 55 and over. At the heart of these amendments is the idea that our military veterans need to be looked after in retirement. Unlike some in the Labor Party and the Greens, the coalition believes in the unique nature of military service. I hope the Independents will stand and be counted when the time comes to vote on this issue. Australia's service personnel, past and present, after giving so much to their nation, deserve to live out their lives in the knowledge that they have financial security. I have many former service personnel living in my electorate and I want to see them given a fair go.
The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 contains a number of minor technical amendments to veterans legislation. There are nine in total; however, the No. 1 issue of concern, which the parliament must immediately deal with, is the unfair, unjust and inequitable situation facing our military superannuants. It is no longer acceptable that this Labor government continues to fiddle about the edges of policy while at the same time wholly dismissing the everyday concerns of veterans and ex-service personnel and their families.
Just six weeks ago, when many on the other side of this place rose to enjoy the winter break, military superannuants in my electorate received letters from the Gillard government, explaining that they would be receiving just a few cents more in their pensions—a 0.1 per cent increase—each fortnight. Compare that to the rise in age and service pensions of 0.9 per cent. The paltry rise of 0.1 per cent comes at a time when the carbon tax will push many prices up by 10 per cent, according to the Treasury's modelling.
Also, contrast this with the increase these people would have received from the coalition had our 2011 legislation passed in the Senate. We proposed a ninefold increase in military superannuants' pensions. I would like to briefly detail the nine alterations put forward by the coalition. I realise that others have done this before me and have said the same, but this is so important that the government must hear it over and over until it introduces fair indexation legislation. The time has come for those who truly value our retired Defence Force personnel to take a stand.
Firstly, the coalition wants to clarify payment expenses for treatment of those impacted by the nuclear testing in the past. Secondly, we want to provide more timely provisions of special assistance by way of a legislative instrument in place of current arrangements requiring a regulation. Thirdly, we want to ensure that the debt recovery provisions will be applicable to all relevant provisions of the Veterans' Entitlements Act. Fourthly, we want to make technical amendments to provisions in the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act that refer to legislative instruments. Fifthly, we want to amend the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act to replace obsolete references to pharmaceutical and telephone allowances under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act supplement. Sixthly, we want an amendment to rationalise the maintenance income provisions of the Veterans' Entitlements Act by repealing redundant definitions used in the Social Security Act. Seventhly, we want to see bereavement payments in respect of indigent veterans or members made exempt as income under a social security test. Eighthly, an amendment will make reimbursements under the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme exempt from income tax. Ninthly, a change would be to make minor technical amendments to the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme.
These amendments are not particularly controversial. They are common-sense alterations to existing legislation. However, they still need to be made. It is a travesty that under the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme, a 2007 Labor commitment which was delayed until the 2010 election campaign, only veterans with qualifying service and in receipt of a disability pension are eligible to have their out-of-pocket expenses reimbursed. This means that approximately 1,500 of Australia's most disabled ex-service personnel who receive a disability pension but do not have qualified service are excluded from the scheme. This is blatantly unfair. The coalition's proposal suggests all special rate or totally and permanently incapacitated veterans in receipt of a disability pension paid at or above 50 per cent of the general rate would automatically qualify.
It is often said that the most important role of the federal government is to ensure that it is defended adequately from all foes—domestic and foreign. I would like to take that concept a step further on two fronts. Firstly, it is the government's duty to ensure that the people who are prepared to stand and be counted when their country needs them or voluntarily serve in our armed forces are looked after properly on their return and in their later years. Also, how are we supposed to attract quality people to serve in our armed forces when they face myriad discrepancies in their retirement compared to those who have not served their country in this way? As I said earlier, the coalition recognises the unique nature of military service. It is as fundamental a responsibility to protect this nation as it is to look after those who put themselves on the line to do it—the Anzacs of the past, present and future.
It is timely that this debate is being held now given Vietnam Veterans Day 2012 and the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Australian troops in Vietnam. Some 521 men died on active duty in Vietnam between 1962 and 1972. This was a huge loss of life and the impact of this is still felt today. By the end of the war, more than 58,000 Australian sons and daughters had taken part in the conflict that shaped a generation. When recognising Australia's contribution in Vietnam, we can never look past the Battle of Long Tan, which took place on 18 August 1966. For those brave 108 men of D Company 6RAR to fight and win the day against a vastly numerically superior enemy was truly an incredible feat. It is against this backdrop that we must reflect on this legislation and view the treatment of our Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Scheme and Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Scheme military superannuants.
I am lucky enough to enjoy a strong relationship with the RSLs in my electorate. In the north of Hasluck, the Bellevue RSL has a strong membership. In the hills, the Darling Range RSL continues to enjoy strong community support and, in the south, the Gosnells RSL goes from strength to strength every year. These are amazing people who have formed strong bonds with those they served with and recognise that camaraderie is as important now as it was on the battlefield.
I try to be nonpartisan when talking about issues such as this. Our ADF must know that they enjoy the full support of our parliament. They must know that their contribution to the nation is valued and that they are not put in harm's way lightly. They must know that we as parliamentarians will do whatever we can to honour their service and sacrifice. Earlier this year, the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, along with the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Senator Michael Ronaldson, signed a written pledge to affirm the coalition's commitment to veterans on this occasion.
The coalition's commitment will see Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Scheme and Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Scheme military superannuation pensions being indexed in the same manner as the age and service pensions. Contrast this with the actions of Treasurer Wayne Swan. On the same day the Leader of the Opposition recommitted to providing veterans with fair indexation, the Treasurer rejected outright any such changes.
Labor's commitment at the 2007 election to fix military superannuation is one of its many broken promises. The Gillard Labor government promised much to those in the veteran community but has repeatedly failed to deliver, due to its own self-interest and poll-driven policy paralysis. Unlike Labor, the coalition has consulted widely and listened carefully to the views put forward by veterans, ex-service men and women, ex-service organisations and current ADF personnel. Labor has failed veterans when it comes to military superannuation reform. Labor has failed to respond to the review into military superannuation arrangements, or the Podger review, which it has had for over four years.
Labor's wasteful and reckless spending in so many other areas has left them unable to meet their commitment of 2007 to prevent further erosion of veterans pensions due to unfair indexation. Labor had no military superannuation policy at the last election and it continues to have no policy on military superannuation reform. Labor used more paper in criticising the coalition's plan to tackle an important and pressing issue in the veteran community than in actually setting out a plan to tackle it themselves.
Times are tough in the community for many, many people. A government should do all it can to make things easier, not harder, for its citizens. Let me quote a small paragraph from an email that was sent to me about this very issue. It is poignant and a reminder that there are multiple sides to this tale. The government has a moral obligation to give our veterans a fair go, not just a financial one. The email speaks to the entire veteran community, not just those doing it tough. The author believes it is not the Australian way to ignore our comrades just because some of them might not be as impacted as others. So please indulge me while I quote from this email:
… whether or not you are a Defence Force Retirement Benefits and Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits superannuant, you should be concerned about the Senate's latest decision to negate the Fairer Indexation Bill on 16 June. We have always been a team, we have stood by each other, we have defended our mates, especially those who are in difficult situations. We need your help now.
Those last words resonate strongly with me and those who have contacted my office about this issue. Looking after your mates does not stop just because you have stopped serving.
The financial distress experienced by our veteran community is unacceptable. Sadly, Labor and the Greens are too caught up in ideological policies and not in alleviating some of this distress. How does wasting billions of hard-earned dollars on pie-in-the-sky schemes help our veterans or the wider community? When examining the track record, it is of concern that we have a section of our community who have fought, who have stood and faced the anger and the fire in the battlefield, and we have seen the neglect of their contribution to the freedoms and the moments that we enjoy on a daily basis in the way that we live within this community. Yet those who have sacrificed their time and their efforts in defending us against the foes that are common to our allies and ourselves are being overlooked. I cannot understand why it is that those who give so much are given so little.
It is important that we look after the service personnel who served this country to give us the freedoms that we enjoy. I find it fascinating that Minister Snowdon, who has been around to a number of veterans, veterans organisations and RSLs, makes commitments but does not deliver. Many of the service men and women whom I have met in my electorate and in the broader community are absolutely angry at the fact that they have been ignored.
I had the privilege of spending seven days on the HMAS Melbourne and I saw firsthand the way in which our service men and women gladly dedicate themselves to defending this country. They are at the forefront of conflict. They are there in times of both peace and war, working to make sure that we enjoy the freedoms that each and every one of us in this country has. So it is time for us to seriously give back to them, give them the financial peace that they deserve, give them the opportunity, in their later years after serving their country, to have financial security so they do not have to worry about the next meal on the table, so they do not have to struggle to live each day as it evolves. I want to acknowledge every veteran within my community, because I think that I and all of us owe them so much for the contribution that they have made in making our society the way we enjoy it—so rich, so free. We owe them for the liberties that they have given us.