Tuesday, 30 November 2021
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Exempting Disability Payments from Income Testing and Other Measures) Bill 2021; Second Reading
I'm pleased to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Exempting Disability Payments from Income Testing and Other Measures) Bill 2021, and I move:
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House criticises the Government for:
(1) failing to increase the Totally and Permanently Incapacitated (TPI) Payment for disabled veterans and ignoring the concerns of Australia's 27,000 TPI veterans; and
(2) ignoring the recommendation of a Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee Inquiry into the TPI Payment (Special Rate of Disability Pension) that recommended that the Government consider an increase in the TPI payment".
At the outset, I say that Labor is on the side of Australian veterans and their families. We will be supporting the legislation, as it will simplify and streamline assistance to veterans and improve their wellbeing. The bill addresses recommendations made by Mr David Tune in his 2019 Independent Review of the Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Payment—the Tune review as it's now known—and the Productivity Commission's 2019 report entitled A better way to support veterans. I note that the Morrison government first announced these measures in the 2020-21 budget, and it announced its intention to bring forward these important changes from 20 September to 1 January 2022 in this year's budget following pressure from Labor and the TPI veterans.
These reforms will simplify the administration of some payments for veterans and their dependants. This will be done by exempting disability payments from income testing under the Social Security Act 1991, simplifying payment arrangements for approximately 14,000 veterans and their dependants. The government will also increase access to rent assistance for most of our veterans with disabilities. This will benefit approximately 6,900 veterans and their dependants. Specifically, the first schedule will implement the government's commitment to exempt the adjusted disability pension defined in the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 from the income test under the Social Security Act. This will remove the need for the Defence Force income support allowance, known as DFISA. Introduced in 2004, DFISA was paid as a top-up to ensure that veterans who received an age pension under the Social Security Act were not financially disadvantaged. Changes in this schedule will ensure that veterans will receive the same payment as before, but the administrative process will be much simpler.
The second schedule will remove the disability income rent test from the Veterans' Entitlements Act. This will mean that veterans with disabilities will now have access to the same rent assistance as those who receive it from Centrelink. It will increase rent assistance payable to veterans or enable some veterans with disabilities to receive rent assistance for the very first time. The disability income rent test results in severely disabled veterans receiving less rent assistance than those with a lower level of disability. In particular, this measure will benefit totally and permanently incapacitated veterans who presently do not receive any rent assistance due to the amount of compensation they receive.
The third schedule will remove reference to the term 'disability pension' in the Veterans' Entitlements Act. In future, this payment will be referred to as the 'disability compensation payment'. This change will clarify that these payments are compensation and will reduce the potential for the payment to be confused with the Department of Social Services disability support pensions. The measures contained in these first three schedules will commence on 1 January next year.
The bill's fourth schedule will streamline indexation of disability pension compensation. Currently, the extreme disablement adjustment intermediate rate and special rates pension, colloquially known as the TPI payment, is split into two components for indexation purposes. Each is indexed separately. The fourth schedule will remove this anomaly so that the whole amount is indexed as one. This measure will commence on 20 September 2022. This will simplify the Department of Veterans' Affairs legislation, policy and procedures. It will also help avoid confusion for veterans about the purpose and structure of the extreme disablement adjustment intermediate and special rates of disability pension.
The fifth schedule in the bill introduces a pilot program for earlier access to rehabilitation. Labor supports this legislation, as it will improve and streamline assistance to veterans and improve their wellbeing. While those measures that I've just referred to in this bill are beneficial, we know it's actually not what most TPI veterans want. The reality is that most actually want an increase in the TPI payment.
I moved a second reading amendment on behalf of my colleague Shayne Neumann, who is in a position to speak to this bill but not in a position to procedurally move an amendment to this bill.
On behalf of Labor and, indeed, my shadow ministerial colleague, we moved that amendment because we are concerned that the commitments that were made, the undertakings that were given by the Prime Minister to this very important constituency, have gone without proper realisation of what was undertaken by the government. There was a very, very strong impression left on veterans and their families that this government, prior to the last election, was making an undertaking to increase the TPI payment, but we've seen no such increase to that payment. For that reason, the government should hang their heads in shame because that was the impression that the Prime Minister left them—that they would be providing an increase to the TPI payment—and that's not forthcoming.
Whilst of course we support the provisions because they will provide some support to some veterans with disabilities, particularly in relation to rent support, we believe they are too little. More should be done to provide support to this very important constituency, who have been advocating now for years to see increases to their TPI payment. While measures in this bill, as I say, are beneficial, we know it wasn't what they actually expected or wanted. I am moving this second reading amendment to call out the Morrison-Joyce government for its appalling treatment of Australia's 27,000 TPI veterans.
The Australian Federation of Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Ex Servicemen and Women, known as the TPI Federation, has raised the issue of the TPI payment for several years now, but the government has ignored their concerns. This is why Labor referred the issue of the adequacy of the TPI payment to a Senate inquiry earlier this year: so that TPI veterans could have their say. The Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee inquiry into the TPI payment reported on 1 July this year and recommended that the government consider an increase in the payment. At the time, Labor called on the government to respond to the committee's unanimous recommendation, which would ensure that those veterans who have severe disabilities, in particular, would not be left behind. However, in its response to the inquiry tabled on 7 October, all the Morrison government could say was that it notes the recommendation and will take it into account when considering future policy options for support to TPI veterans. This was a grave disappointment to TPI veterans and their families, and it underlines that this government does like to make announcements and does like to give the impression of providing support to particular constituencies in the country, but doesn't follow through and doesn't always deliver, despite its undertakings earlier. It was just another blow for these long-suffering ex-service men and women.
As I say, before the 2019 election the Prime Minister raised the hopes of the TPI Federation that he would increase the payment by commissioning the review, only to dash them after the election with his flawed response to the review. After sitting on the report for more than a year, the Prime Minister announced in last year's delayed October budget that he'd provide only rent assistance to a small proportion of TPI veterans—about 10 per cent of all TPI veterans—leaving most very dismayed that they will miss out. In response to Labor's questions in Senate estimates last year, it was revealed these benefits would not start to flow until September next year, while the government made changes to legislation and IT systems. Following pressure from Labor and the TPI veterans, the government did bring forward the measures in this bill to January next year, but given that they have left it to the very last sitting week this year to introduce and pass legislation it's probably fair to say that they're cutting it very fine.
Given that this is now time critical, Labor will not stand in the way of these measures and want to see some assistance, however modest, for these most deserving former Defence personnel. We do censure the government for ignoring the recommendation of the Senate inquiry to boost the TPI payment and for its appalling treatment of TPI veterans over eight long years. The Prime Minister should listen to his colleagues, including Senator and former Major General Jim Molan, who said that this is the most deserving issue in the veteran community. I don't always agree with Senator Molan, but the fact is he is absolutely right when he says that this is one of the most deserving issues for the veterans community.
On top of this, we know that the Department of Veterans' Affairs is struggling to deal with a huge backlog of veterans with disability pension claims, with 68 per cent of claims yet to be finalised as of April this year. This, along with long waiting times for most veterans' claims, has prompted the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel to commission a fresh review of the DVA claims processing system by one of the government's favoured consultants, McKinsey. Meanwhile the government refuses to address the real reason behind these dangerously long delays with assistance, which are having a terrible impact on veterans' mental health—that is, chronic staff shortages and record levels of labour hire workers, many of whom are not skilled to deal with this constituency, with the people who are in need of help. We say to the government that they need to do better in providing proper support and advice to the veteran community. It is just not good enough. Our veterans and their families deserve so much better. Notwithstanding this, the bill currently before the House is better than nothing. It will go some way towards supporting some veterans with disabilities and their families and former Defence personnel more broadly. To that extent, Labor supports this bill.