Tuesday, 30 November 2021
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Exempting Disability Payments from Income Testing and Other Measures) Bill 2021; Second Reading
[by video link] I'm pleased to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Exempting Disability Payments from Income Testing and Other Measures) Bill 2021. I speak in support of the amendments moved by the member for Gorton. This government has ignored the concerns of 27,000 TPI veterans. The government has ignored the recommendations of a vital Senate committee, which recommended an increase in the TPI payment. This bill is better than nothing. As the member for Gordon has indicated in his speech, there are 6,900 veterans and independents who will benefit from this bill, so Labor won't stand in the way of them receiving some additional assistance.
The bill removes the disability income rent test under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. It's one of three acts that apply in the area of veterans' affairs: MRCA, DRCA and VEA, and VEA applies to TPI recipients. This change will operate from 1 January 2022, so the government's left it very late to assist a small cohort of veterans who need help. These are veterans on low incomes in private rental accommodation who would be eligible for Commonwealth Rental Assistance, who'd receive a high rate of rent assistance, and they'll get a bit of help.
The bill also exempts their disability pension from social security income tests from 1 January 2022, which means that what is commonly called the DFISA, a top-up payment, will be abolished as it's simply not necessary. There's some renaming of the disability pension to the disability compensation payment to clarify that the disability pension is not an income support pension or welfare but a compensation payment. There's an adjustment in terms of combining some separate indexation components and also the establishment of that two-year non-liability rehabilitation pilot program in response to the Productivity Commission review recommendation in relation to cultural change and encouraging early voluntary participation in rehabilitation. I might add that the government's not responded to even half of the Productivity Commission's recommendations in the report that was released on 2 July 2019.
The government advises that the changes to the bill are beneficial and no veterans receiving disability compensation claims will be worse off. I note that the government first announced these changes in the October 2020 budget. Perhaps the government should consider backdating the measure to provide rent assistance to some TPI veterans to October 2020, when the government accepted the recommendations of the Tune review. After all, the government knew it was underpaying TPI veterans, but it's not prepared to compensate them for the long time it took for this legislation to be drafted and eventually passed. It must be said that Labor is supporting this bill because, frankly, it's better than nothing. It's better than anything the government's delivered for disabled veterans to date.
We can't let this legislation go through without mentioning the government's abysmal treatment of TPI veterans over the last eight years. This is what our second reading amendment is all about. The fact is that the TPI Federation has been raising the issue of a TPI payment for several years, and the government's ignored their concerns. They've been the victims of grossly bad acts of faith on behalf of this government.
Before the 2019 federal election, Prime Minister Scott Morrison effectively promised to increase the payment by announcing a review of the TPI pension to be conducted by Mr David Tune, and that would report after the election. The TPI review was really a cynical marketing exercise by a prime minister desperate to win an election, to placate veterans and to ask for their votes before the election. It was a pretend move. In a letter to the TPI Federation in April 2019, on the eve of the 2019 election, the Prime Minister committed the government to the review. He stated in that letter: 'The TPI Federation makes a compelling case in relation to the relative value of the above general rate component of the special rate of disability pension. The fact that TPI veterans are not able to earn an income as a result of their service to our nation means their loss of income during what would have been their working life should be appropriately recognised and replaced.' The Prime Minister said TPI veterans have a 'compelling case'. If ever there was a case of raising expectations, this is it. In fact, in a Senate estimates hearing in October last year, the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Liz Cosson, conceded that the Prime Minister's letter had raised expectations that the government would increase the TPI payment and the TPI Federation had made a strong argument for an increase. Ms Cosson admitted that she thought the TPI Federation had made a strong argument for an increase in the TPI pension, but this is not what the government's doing and it's not what this legislation does today.
Following the election, the TPI Federation revealed there was very limited consultation with TPI veterans as a result of the review undertaken by David Tune. Mr Tune met with the TPI Federation only once so they could put their case to him. However, shockingly, the review completely dismisses the group's submissions. They were not even given a copy of the report. The review was then completed in August 2019 but was buried under the cloak of cabinet in confidence until the delayed October 2020 budget. Then, after sitting on the report for more than a year, the government finally announced the response in the budget. Far from increasing the TPI payment, all the government offered was some modest rent assistance to about 10 per cent of TPI veterans. That's what they said at the time: about 2,700 people living in private rental accommodation, leaving most TPI veterans disgusted that they were missing out.
After raising the TPI Federation's hopes before the election, the government went on to dash them after the election. This was a huge disappointment to TPI veterans and shows that veterans who are TPI and other veterans can't trust the Prime Minister or this government. To add insult to injury, in response to Labor's questions in Senate estimates last year it was revealed that these benefits were not due to start flowing until September 2022 while the government made changes to legislation and IT systems. In other words, it would have been many years before even these people, who are acknowledged by the Tune review as being in desperate need of support, would receive any assistance.
When asked by Labor in the hearing what these people should do in the meantime, DVA secretary Liz Cosson said, 'Good question.' It was only after pressure from Labor and TPI veterans that the government brought forward the start date to January 2022. They left it until the very last sitting of this year, 2021, to pass the enabling legislation. They were in very real danger of running out of time to deliver the budget measure from October 2020. It goes to show this government's priorities and the lack of urgency concerning support for TPI veterans. Given TPI pensioners have had to wait for answers since April 2019, when the Prime Minister commissioned the review on the eve of the election, these delays only created more anxiety and frustration amongst TPI veteran communities.
That is why Labor listened to TPI veterans and referred the matter to an independent Senate inquiry earlier this year so that TPI veterans could have their say. The Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee inquiry was established by Labor on 18 March 2021 to examine the adequacy of the TPI payment special rate of disability pension and the case for an increase in the payment. The committee included government and Labor senators as well as independent Senator Jacqui Lambie and allowed for an open and transparent examination of the issues and establishment of the facts. The report was adopted unanimously, though I must say the government members played little role in the inquiry.
In this deliberation, the inquiry noted that a number of reviews of TPI payments in recent years, including the Tune review, concluded an increase in TPI payment was not warranted and recommended more targeted assistance instead. However—and this is really critical—the inquiry recognised that these reviews wrongly factored in other benefits, such as service pension and other payments, when considering the adequacy of support provided to TPI pensioners. The committee found that submitters made a persuasive case for a fair and just structural adjustment of the above general rate component of the TPI payment to restore the relative value of the payment and recognise and replace TPI veterans' loss of income. Further, in evidence before the committee DVA officials did not even attempt to defend the government's position and response to the Tune review. DVA officials agreed that the level of compensation for TPI veterans was inadequate.
Based on all these submissions and evidence provided at the public hearings, the committee recommended that the government consider an increase in the TPI payment and consider the next exact level of the increase, yet the government has failed to do so. Labor welcomes the report. We have called on the government to do better and more. The government has failed to respond to the unanimous recommendation in a way that satisfies TPI veterans. The government has given platitudes in relation to the issue. There's an election coming up. There's a budget in March next year. If the government wants to take action, as it should, it should listen to the voices of TPI pensioners and give them the increase they need and deserve. As this amendment sets out, Labor condemns the government for its failure to accept the recommendations of the Senate inquiry and to listen to the voices, the cries and the pleas of TPI veterans.
On behalf of the Labor opposition, I call on the government to do the right thing. We'll support this legislation today, but—