Tuesday, 21 August 2012
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012. This amendment has been introduced by the member for Fadden and, as he said in his speech, he did not move the amendment lightly. I have spoken in this place a number of times about the immense respect I have for our Defence forces and those that serve and have served in its ranks. They have made important contributions to Australia throughout our short history, for which we today enjoying lasting benefit.
This contribution stretches back to our founding. In our early history, Australia's fundamental institutions, the parliament, the law, and many of our customs, were derived from our British heritage, much of which, including this parliament, remains with us today. From this beginning, a range of factors, but more importantly the actions of our troops during World War I, and Gallipoli in particular, helped us form a national identity that was uniquely ours, uniquely Australian.
I, as do many of my colleagues, take a great deal of pride in participating in Anzac Day each year in my electorate of Swan. It is great to see the many that turn out each year at these ceremonies, the young and the old, to pay their respects to the Anzacs. I know many make the pilgrimage to Gallipoli or the Western Front each year to pay homage to those who give their lives for their country. Furthermore, no country can thrive and prosper without security. You cannot develop a strong economy and you cannot look to the future with confidence if you are a country under fear of threat.
Australia's continued success relies in great part on the ability of our people to look to the future with hope and a hunger for opportunity. Stability and security is a key to producing that environment.
When I express my respect I believe that we need to do more than attend ceremonies. We have a duty also to look after our veterans, and I know many Australians—many on both sides of the House—share this desire. The legislation proposed by the government makes a series of minor technical amendments to various pieces of legislation which affect veterans. As outlined by my colleagues, the coalition support these measures but we believe this legislation can be made better.
It is hard to measure the sacrifices made by those who serve in the Defence Force, or their families. To serve in the Australian military is to serve and protect every single Australian. The very nature of this service deserves recognition in the form of financial security that is fair and reasonable in meeting living standards now and in the future. Fair indexation, as proposed by the coalition, should be part of this bill. Additionally, we will move in the Senate to ensure the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme is made fairer.
When I attend Anzac services each year, and as I interact with veterans in my day to day duties in my electorate of Swan, many servicemen speak to me about the unfairness of the DFRDB and DFRB schemes. They deserve financial security for their contributions to Australia and I and many of my constituents consider it truly shameful for the government to have raised expectations in 2007 only to ignore these veterans after the election. This broken commitment from the government to provide a better policy joins the long list of broken commitments this government has made since taking office, and it is amongst their most shameful. Not only are our veterans facing unfair indexation, but they are facing the double whammy of the carbon tax, with no direct compensation to assist with the increased costs associated, including the huge jumps in electricity and gas prices that come with that carbon tax.
As I said before, the coalition do not move this amendment lightly. Fair, just and equitable arrangements for military superannuants are overdue for introduction by this government. That is why we will be preventing passage of this current bill through the House until fair indexation legislation is introduced. I stand with my colleagues to draw a line in the sand. The time has come for fair indexation and it is time for the government and the parliament to get behind it.
The coalition have demonstrated consistent support for these changes. The coalition announced our fair indexation commitment on 27 June 2010. Our commitment extended fair indexation from superannuants aged 55 and over to DFRB and DFRDB scheme members. Under a coalition government, their pensions will be indexed in the same way as the age and service pensions. The reform proposed by the coalition on 27 June 2010 was a firm commitment brought to the 2010 election, and despite our loss we introduced legislation to the Senate on 18 November 2010. We remain committed to fair, just and equitable indexation for DFRB and DFRDB military superannuants.
Despite more than half a dozen enquiries into the proposal, all of which supported fair indexation, the Greens and Labor sought to further delay progress on 24 March 2011 by calling for yet another inquiry into the proposal. Unfortunately for the many veterans in my electorate of Swan, who get a raw deal under the current arrangements, the Greens and Labor used the inquiry to attack fair indexation. It was the first time the parliament has ever opposed fair indexation. On a day of shame for both the Greens and the Labor Party they used their Senate majority to reject the proposal on 16 June 2011. Fair indexation was defeated.
Despite the government choosing to ignore veterans, the coalition remains committed to this policy, and in Bendigo on 5 March this year, the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow minister, Senator Michael Ronaldson, signed the coalition's pledge to deliver fair indexation to veterans. It is worth me reading part of this pledge to the House. The pledge states:
A Coalition Government will deliver fair indexation to 57,000 military superannuants and their families.
The Coalition will ensure DFRB and DFRDB military superannuation pensions are indexed in the same way as aged and service pensions. All DFRB and DFRDB superannuants aged 55 and over will benefit.
I am pleased to say I support this pledge and my constituents in Swan know I offer my full support for fair indexation. If elected, the Leader of the Opposition will deliver this reform in our first budget. The coalition commitment to fix indexation is locked in and we will not rest until things are put right.
The government has resisted fixing indexation on the basis that the cost is too high, despite continual rises in the cost of living putting increased pressure on veterans. Labor is being deliberately misleading to the public. In June, veterans were sent letters offering them a few extra cents per fortnight in their pensions. Many residents in my electorate of Swan saw this barest of increases as a slap in the face from a government refusing to listen to their concerns. Many veterans received less than $1 per fortnight. The government has continued to claim that fair indexation is too expensive, with Senator Penny Wong claiming, for example, that the scheme will cost not $100 million, as the coalition has indicated, but $4.7 billion to implement.
The senator is being misleading. This point has been reinforced by the Commonwealth Actuary who, in advice to Senator Wong, blew a hole in Labor's claim that the cost of fair indexation is too high. To any superannuants out there, I know that Senator Wong will be in my electorate early in September—on about the 4th—to open a Leisureplex centre in Canning. So if you have something you want to let the senator know about, that is the time to come down and make sure that Senator Wong knows about your thoughts on the indexation. The cost to the Commonwealth is not the inflated $1.7 billion claimed by the minister. I endorse the Leader of the Opposition's statement when he said:
You can turn this into a huge figure. In any one year, it is bearable and we should bear it.
When making this promise at the last election we identified over $50 billion in savings to cover the specific costs of the commitment. The coalition will find the funds necessary to make this change without hurting the budget.
Of course, if the government had not blown billions of dollars on numerous wasteful programs since 2007, they could have funded this index correction many times over. Whether it is pink batts, school halls or giving cash hand-outs to dead people, this government have spent like a drunken sailor since 2007 and now, in order to achieve their political surplus, are sacrificing good initiatives such as this one. If they had been competent fiscal managers as they promised in 2007, I dare say that if they were not obsessed with their political survival they would have supported these initiatives from the start.
As a further example of how off track this government is, the cost of fair indexation in the first year is estimated at $4 million, yet this year alone the government will spend over nine times that amount on carbon tax ads to try and convince people that the most unpopular policy a Labor government has introduced for over a decade is good. The priorities of this government focus on politics and not on producing good outcomes for the Australian people.
I note the support from government members for fair indexing. The member for Blair has written to Finance Minister Senator Wong to express concern. He stated that it was 'ridiculous to expect people to accept a 0.1 per cent increase' and went on to state that 0.1 per cent was 'too meagre and it needs change'. Again, I remind the House that these same pensioners who are receiving indexation have also been hit hard by the carbon tax cost-of-living increases, which will go up and up. Senator Kate Lundy and the member for Eden-Monaro wrote to the former finance minister, Lindsay Tanner, in 2009 urging him to keep their 2007 election commitment, stating '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'. The member for Dobell, expressed his support for these changes as recently as July this year.
Despite the government's attempts to shut down the push for fair indexing with false claims of billion-dollar price tags, the coalition will continue with our push for fair indexing. Our veterans deserve the respect and recognition that the government has so far denied them, and I hope the Independent members of this place will also support the coalition's amendment to legislate fair indexation as a requirement for the passing of this legislation.
Once this legislation passes the House of Representatives the coalition will seek to further amend the legislation to deliver fairness for disabled veterans with high pharmaceutical costs. The government's scheme is deeply unfair. It has created two classes of disabled veterans: those with qualifying service and those without. Up to 1,500 of our most disabled veterans get no assistance from the scheme. They do not have 'qualifying service' as defined by the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. These are our most disabled veterans who receive a special rate, or TPI, pension but miss out on the scheme's assistance due to the structure of the act. This is why the coalition will act to fix this to create a fairer system for veterans' pharmaceutical costs. Our commitment at the last election proposed comprehensive reimbursement which would have delivered financial relief to more than 80,000 disabled veterans. Importantly, it did not create two classes of veterans; it ensured out-of-pocket expenses were removed for all of our most disabled veterans. The coalition's scheme meant immediate financial relief for veterans. There are no cumbersome reimbursements—unlike Labor's policy our scheme does not leave veterans waiting until a new financial year to start to receive relief.
In the Senate the coalition's amendments will extend eligibility to include all special rate, or TPI, ex-service persons. Our amendments will extend beyond those disability pensioners with qualifying service to also include all special rate pensions as well. The amendment will bring fairness and justice back to Labor's unfair scheme. The government will struggle to use the cost argument against this proposal given that it will cost less than $234,000 based on the government's advice about the average cost of the reimbursement and the estimated 1,500 special rate pensioners without qualifying service.
These amendments put into the House and the amendments to be put into the Senate deserve to be passed by the parliament. Our veterans, who have served our nation with dignity and honour, deserve recognition and they deserve to be unbound from an unfair system that leaves them struggling with cost-of-living increases which have been made worse by the carbon tax.
The government's legislation does make some good minor changes, but it does not go far enough in addressing the unfair design of the scheme. The fair indexation changes and proposed Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme improvements are long overdue. I urge crossbench and government members to join with the coalition in making these changes for the good of Australia's veteran community.