House debates

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Disability, War Widow and War Widower Pensions) Bill 2007

Second Reading

Debate resumed.

12:18 pm

Photo of Bruce BillsonBruce Billson (Dunkley, Liberal Party, Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the resolution of the House agreed to at this sitting making the second reading of the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Disability, War Widow and War Widower Pensions) Bill 2007 an order of the day for the next sitting, be rescinded and that the second reading of the bill be made an order of the day for this sitting.

Question agreed to.

12:19 pm

Photo of Alan GriffinAlan Griffin (Bruce, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very pleased today to speak to the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Disability, War Widow and War Widower Pensions) Bill 2007. I want to begin by pointing out that this will be a short debate, by agreement, to ensure that the legislation goes through the parliament. I want to sincerely thank the minister for his efforts in bringing this matter to fruition before we break for the coming election. I will say a bit more about the minister with respect to the bill later on, but I want to put that point on the record at this stage. There is no doubt that the veterans community is keen to see this matter enshrined in legislation. This will ensure that the agreement is not only understood but that it is also enshrined in legislation. On that basis, I think this legislation is a very good thing.

I would like to acknowledge representatives of the TPI Federation who are in the gallery. They have had an abiding interest in this issue over many years, and I am very pleased to see them here. I would also like to acknowledge a number of other people a little later on with respect to this matter. I would also like to make it clear to those who are interested in this debate that it is going to be short to ensure that we get this matter to the Senate—the other place—and passed before the parliament rises. Members who are speaking on this debate will not be using the entire time that they could have used and there will be many members on both sides of the House who would have wished to contribute to this debate but will not have the opportunity to do so. The fact that the debate will be short—and I hope largely sweet—is more to do with our need to see this legislation go ahead than with making points that we could do at some other time or that we have already made in other places.

Having said that, I think this is good news for the veterans community, and I congratulate the government for taking these actions. I particularly congratulate Minister Billson. It is a tough job being the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. It is a demanding constituency. Although we have our problems and our fights, and we will continue to do so, I want to stress that I still have a fair bit of time, most of the time, for this minister. I generally think that he does the best he can, given what he has got to work with and the circumstances he has inherited.

Having said that, there are a couple of points that I want to make about this issue at this time. The main point that is addressed by this legislation is the question of the indexation system that is employed with respect to above general rate pensions and disability pensions. I will not go through the history of that other than to say that this matter has been outstanding for a long time—it goes back the best part of 10 years. We can argue the toss about whether the erosion has occurred over this time or that time, but this has certainly been a real and abiding running sore for the veteran community. To have it addressed today means that is a very good day for this parliament. I know people out there in the community will be very pleased to see this now finally taking place.

I could make a whole range of points regarding this, but on this occasion I am not going to. I am going to stay positive and constructive because this is good news. It is good news for disability pensioners and war widow pensioners out there. It is a significant amount of money and it goes to the heart of dealing with some long-term grievances.

I want to say to the ex-service community: congratulations and well done. Many have fought for a long time to have governments recognise the injustice with respect to this issue. They can rightly be proud of what they have done. They have certainly made sure that I have understood this issue. I am sure they have also made sure that the minister understands the issue. That has helped us in our endeavours to address issues within our own organisations in order to have this matter come before the parliament today.

I particularly want to mention a couple of people who, to my mind—I can only speak with respect to the contact that I have had—have particularly assisted me to understand these issues. Those people are Blue Ryan, the National President of the TPI Federation, and Graham Walker and Tim McCombe from the Vietnam Veterans Federation. I do not for one minute want anyone to think that these are the only people who have raised these issues, but I can say that they have been the most committed with respect to dealings with me on these issues. I want to thank them for that.

I also want to thank the member for Cowan, who is also present today and will contribute to the debate a bit later on. The member for Cowan, Graham Edwards, has been a great source of information and understanding for me over the last couple of years in an area where, I am the first to admit—and the minister would confirm this for me—I have a lot to learn. The member for Cowan has helped me to a great extent. I am going to miss him terribly after the election. I wish him all the very best. I am pretty sure I will not get rid of him; I am sure he will be hanging around. I am sure he will still be there when I need him. He had better be, because I will need him. Graham has really helped to get an understanding of these issues within the Labor Party, and has progressed them within the confines of our party. I want to thank him for that.

Beyond that, I would like to say that I think this is an important occasion for the parliament because it addresses a long-term concern. We are in the lead-up to an election and there is a lot of money flowing around, but I have to say that on this occasion these are reforms which are deserving and overdue. This minister can be proud that they have been resolved on his watch. I want to acknowledge that, in speaking today. I have to say, though, that it has taken longer than it should. This is a matter that should have been addressed some years ago. With regard to issues concerning veterans affairs it often takes too long for the parliament to come to grips with longstanding concerns. I think that is a shame, but I hope in the future we will be in a situation where it will happen to a much lesser extent than it has over the last decade.

The legislation is good and it is something that we can all be very proud of. I am keen to see this legislation go through. I am also keen to get back to a meeting with the department head, who is upstairs. I need to be at that meeting because I am the only one who is allowed to talk to him at the moment. I want to assure you that the fact that I will be leaving the chamber as soon as I sit down is not in any respect a comment on the debate or the importance of the legislation. I intend to come back down if I can for the minister’s summation, to ensure that this goes ahead as he has planned, as I have been very pleased to support it. I want to thank all those who have been involved in this issue over the years for their work. I look forward to seeing this legislation off to another place very soon.

12:22 pm

Photo of Joanna GashJoanna Gash (Gilmore, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I start, I would like to wish the member for Cowan all the best. He has been a great friend and a great confidant. He has taught me a great deal about veterans affairs. He has been into my electorate a number of times. I know that the member for Cowan—I can say this; he cannot—should have been the shadow minister.

If nothing else, this government listens and delivers—and in no area more than in the area of veterans entitlements. This government has a long and illustrious record of looking after veterans and their needs and this bill is yet another initiative that can be added to the long list of benefits that have been delivered. The coalition government has substantially increased spending on income support, compensation and health care for veterans and their families, and has actively supported the commemoration of Australia’s unique military heritage.

When the coalition came to government in 1996, spending on veterans affairs was $6.2 billion per annum; now, in 2007-08, it is over $11 billion per annum. This increase is at a time when, sadly, the number of veterans is decreasing. The coalition has enhanced and will continue to enhance Australia’s world-class repatriation system. There is no other country in the world that looks after its veterans to the extent that Australia does. The coalition has continued to ensure that this system evolves and improves as the needs of the veteran community evolve and change.

I will turn now to what we have done to date. In 1999 we extended the gold card eligibility to Australian veterans aged 70 or over with World War II qualifying service. In 2006 we announced more than $600 million to ensure that veterans with gold or white cards continued to enjoy access to free, high-quality health care. We provided cancer related health care to all Australians who took part in the British nuclear testing program in Australia from 1952 to 1963. We reinstated the war widows pension for those widows from whom the previous Labor government took it away. We introduced veteran partnering arrangements with private hospitals. We expanded the booked car with driver service to eligible veterans and war widows who are 80 years or over, legally blind or suffering from dementia for travel to all Department of Veterans’ Affairs approved treatment. We provided free treatment for post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depressive disorders, whether they are service related or not.

We introduced a range of health programs, such as the Right Mix and Heart Health. We established Veterans’ Home Care, providing community based care services to more than 120,000 veterans and war widows. We provided transition management assistance to full-time Australian Defence Force members who are being discharged on medical grounds. We introduced the Building Excellence in Support and Training, BEST, program and the Training and Information Program, TIP. BEST provides funding to ex-service organisations for staffing and equipment, while TIP provides pensions and welfare training to ESO nominated practitioners throughout Australia.

We extended eligibility for the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to British, Commonwealth and allied veterans aged 70 or over with qualifying service from World War II who have lived in Australia for 10 years or more. We expanded the Long Tan Bursary from 30 $6,000 bursaries over one or two years to 50 $9,000 bursaries over three years. We provided a $29.5 million package of support for Vietnam veterans and their families to address the findings of the Vietnam Veterans Health Study. This was in addition to the extensive range of benefits, treatment and counselling services already available to veterans and their dependants through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service.

We established the HomeFront program to prevent falls and accidents in the home, to assist the veteran community to remain living independently in their homes for as long as possible. We assumed responsibility for the daily care fees of former prisoners of war in low-level aged care, saving each $250 a fortnight, and now pay aged-care fees for all former prisoners of war. And of course we initiated a full and comprehensive review of entitlements contained in the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, commonly referred to as the Clarke report.

Those are all real achievements, but they do not stop there. There are still many more items that I could mention that have been delivered—too many to mention in the time available to me. This bill adds yet more benefits for our veterans. It ensures that disability pensions maintain their value relative to wages and other payments. The veterans have called for this and we have delivered. From March next year the EDA will be increased by $15 a fortnight. Labor, on the other hand, said nothing until we made the announcement on 11 September. We are also going to increase the general rate of disability pensions by five per cent, and we can do this because of the way we have managed the economy. What better way to thank our veterans than by giving more benefits as we can afford them. We have made these increases affordable—something the other side cannot guarantee, if the state Labor governments are any guide to the way that Labor run things.

But that is not all. We have also looked after the war widows. We will be increasing the non-indexed component, formerly called the domestic allowance, by an additional $10 per fortnight to $35 per fortnight starting in March next year. That payment, from that time on, will be fully indexed with reference to the CPI and MTAWE. We want to look after our veterans and the families that look after them. That is why we have committed to the $330 million package announced earlier, and that is more than $1.6 billion in new funding in the past 18 months. We listen and we act.

As Chair of the government’s Defence and Veterans Affairs Committee, I am proud to have played a small role in delivering these benefits to our very deserving veterans and their widows. I commend my colleague the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs for his hard work in his portfolio. I know it has not been easy at times. It has been a real pleasure to work with him and the rest of the team, and that is the way it should always be.

I can only reiterate to the veterans community that these benefits have only been made affordable by virtue of the strong economy we have built in our term—something that cannot be guaranteed under another regime if the history of past and present Labor regimes means anything. I particularly want to thank all of our veterans, especially those that I represent in Gilmore. Their patience, loyalty and understanding of the issues have been a great support and encouragement, allowing me to continue to be strong in lobbying for further changes. I recognise that there is always more to be done, and, with their continued support, we will continue to deliver. I commend the bill to the House.

12:34 pm

Photo of Graham EdwardsGraham Edwards (Cowan, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary (Defence and Veterans' Affairs)) Share this | | Hansard source

I appreciate the opportunity to speak on the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Disability, War Widow and War Widower Pensions) Bill 2007. I thought I had finished speaking in the House as I already made my valedictory speech some weeks ago. But I am very pleased to be able to come into the House today and speak in support of this bill introduced by the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. I congratulate the government on their recent efforts in relation to catching up with the demands and needs of the veteran community. I want to compliment the previous speaker, the member for Gilmore, on her contribution and on the work that she has done for veterans. Jo and I have had a couple of blues about things but generally we have had a fair amount of respect for each other. I know that she has been a great champion of veterans issues within her party room. Having spoken to a number of veterans from within her electorate, I know that they have a great deal of respect for her and for the work that she has done, and that really is the way it ought to be in veterans issues. She said that I should have been the shadow minister. I think that would have been dreaming. Perhaps, however, she could have been the minister. Perhaps if she had been, a number of these issues would have been resolved before today. I take the opportunity to return the compliment and wish her all the best for the future. Jo, you have done a good job in terms of veterans.

I also want to say what a delight it has been from my point of view to have the opportunity to work with the shadow minister over the past 18 months or so. He had a lot of ground to make up in terms of the opposition and he did that by getting out into the veteran community, listening to them, getting an understanding of the issues and the problems, and responding to them by way of putting forward good, solid policies. I could say that with this bill the government is playing catch-up, because Alan Griffin has really set the scene and has forced the government, in my view, to respond to his policy initiatives and the real needs of the veteran community.

But I do not want to get into tit-for-tat politics. I agree with the Vietnam Veterans Federation on what they had to say in their document of 16 September this year, a document entitled The great achievement, which I tabled with the support of the government in parliament yesterday. In it they give a history of how the falling value of our disability pensions was halted and they tell in a number of pages the whole story. They say:

You will no doubt know by now that both political parties are committed to indexing the TPI, Intermediate, EDA and General Rate pensions so that they increase in line with increases in the average wage as well as the cost of living.

…     …         …

This will ensure that these pensions cease losing value compared with other government pensions and that they keep pace with increases in Australia’s rising standard of living.

That is what the veteran community have been fighting for over these past 11 years. They have waged a reasonable, balanced and appropriate war on the government over that period.

I well remember when, a few years ago, there was a protest out the front of Parliament House by TPI veterans, their wives, their supporters and members of the PVA. It was a protest strongly supported by local veterans from Canberra, who supplied tucker to the people who were out there for a couple of days; they did a great job in supporting them. I think we have come a long way, in terms of comparing today with that time. I know that the then Minister for Veterans’ Affairs refused to go out and speak to those protesting veterans. I know that the Prime Minister refused to go out and speak to those veterans. I know, too, that those protesting veterans were not supported by all ex-service organisations. Perhaps if they had been better supported, these issues would have been resolved some time ago.

This is a good day for the veteran community. They have worked hard to get here. They have brought both political parties to the table and they have done so because their demands were just; their demands were fair. You cannot continue to deny fair and just demands, particularly on the eve of an election and particularly from the government’s point of view, when it has read the winds and come to terms with the anger and the dissatisfaction of the veteran community.

I do not want to delay this legislation by speaking any longer. I know that the member for Ballarat is going to speak on this bill. I know, too, that she is a passionate, committed supporter of the veteran community not just in her electorate of Ballarat but across the board. I will listen intently to the contribution that she will make.

I congratulate the government again on the introduction of this bill. We certainly changed our attitude in the past few weeks, because I remember the debate that took place in here just a while ago when Kevin Rudd moved a motion in the House which went a long way towards seeing this bill here today. I look forward to a time in Australia when we can get back to a bipartisan approach to veterans’ issues. They deserve no less. People who say that we have a world-class service for veterans in this country ought to be reminded that the service the veteran community gave to Australia through many wars and many conflicts has itself been first-class. Veterans deserve no less than the same sort of treatment from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, from governments and from oppositions. I support the legislation.

12:42 pm

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (Wakefield, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Disability, War Widow and War Widower Pensions) Bill 2007. I wish to talk very briefly about the content of the bill, but I would like to talk a little bit more about the context of the bill and also the future. I will not go into the content in great detail, because I believe most people who are affected by this would by now be aware of the announcements that have been made and the changes to be made. I believe that these are welcomed by the broader ex-service community.

However, one comment I will make about the announcements around the indexation of pensions is that these have overshadowed another announcement that has been made this last week and that I believe is very important. That was the announcement about Operation Life, the program which is looking at increasing and consolidating efforts to work together to improve mental health and reduce the incidence of suicide in the veteran community. I think it is a very important area that we need to continue to invest in. We need to continue to make sure that veterans, their families and those who work with them are aware of programs such as Operation Life that seek to enhance the resilience and health of veterans, increase their understanding of their health issues and, most importantly, ensure their timely access to services. I mention that today because I believe it is something that has been overshadowed but is very important as we continue the fight to support those who have supported us and served their nation in the past.

In terms of context, I want to start by saying that I firmly believe in the obligation that we have as a nation, as a government, to support those people who have put their lives on the line to serve their country. We have encouraged them to join the armed forces; we have chosen to send them into harm’s way. We therefore have an obligation not only to look after their interests and the interests of their families while they are in service but also to help their transition back into civilian life and to support them in the ways that are required throughout the rest of their lives. I think that is an underlying obligation that this nation has.

The member for Cowan mentioned the wish for a more bipartisan approach and I agree with that. I am disappointed that both sides of politics, in terms of the main parties, have taken far too long to reach this point of actually making announcements and deciding to act on behalf of the veterans. It has taken a long time, and I do not resile from that statement.

There are a number of people who I believe do deserve recognition. Blue Ryan and the TPI Federation have certainly been highlighted. I have to say that, even in the three years that I have served in this parliament, I have been impressed by the tenacity and the willingness of a range of veterans groups to engage and to put before members of the government and members of the parliament the issues that are affecting them—the Vietnam Veterans Association, the RSL, Legacy, the National Servicemen’s Association, the RAAF Association and, particularly in Wakefield, the ex-military rehabilitation centre, the Peter Badcoe VC centre. People like Ron Coxon, Moose Dunlop, Denis Burge, Patch Campbell, Ian Jameson, Tony Flaherty, Rob Sandercock, Kerry Lampard and Greg Blyth, just to name a few, have engaged with me to highlight the ongoing needs and issues of the veterans community. If thanks is due for the outcome today it is due in large part to the range of ex-service organisations and their members who have not given up the fight, who have not been prepared to sit back but who have continued to raise the issues, the concerns and the very real needs of veterans.

This is a bit of a pause, a prop, in that activity, as we celebrate the announcement today, but I recognise the fact that the fight is not over and that there are still issues coming back to our obligations that we need to look at. I am aware that the veterans community continue to talk and be concerned about issues such as pharmaceuticals, DFRDB, recognition for people at Long Tan and Ubon and, importantly, the transition issues for people who are moving out of service into civilian life as they transition through the various stages of life beyond service in the military. I welcome some of the recent announcements by the minister towards boosting the whole-of-life approach to our defence service personnel. I welcome the fact that one of those announcements related to Wakefield. I have pushed very hard to make sure that we do put in place some infrastructure to assist that transition so that we really do help people as they move out of the service—and thank you, Minister, for your response.

In terms of the future, I would encourage the ESOs and veterans to continue to lobby members of parliament on both sides, because it is only through that lobbying that we get the information we need, and that we as backbenchers get the push that we need, to be able to work with our respective administrations to get outcomes.

I want to take this opportunity to recognise the work of the member for Cowan, Graham Edwards, not only in this place but for his service with the 7th Battalion during Vietnam. It is good that he has been able to come to South Australia for a couple of recent commemorations. It is also good that one of the new units that is being set up in South Australia will be the 7th battalion moving down from Darwin to South Australia. So there is a good ongoing link there, and I want to thank Graham for his work—as I do Jo Gash, on this side, for the work that she has done. As Graham indicated, she has worked hard to make sure that these things stay on the agenda.

As I talk about the future, though, one of the things that I have learnt as I have left the military and come into this place is that this is a democracy—and, after all, that is what people have served and in some cases fought to preserve—and that a democracy is about meeting a range of competing needs. I have had my eyes opened coming into this place at the needs that are in our community and the passionate way in which people bring those needs before the government. Despite the work of people such as Jo and Graham in advocating for the needs of the veterans community, they are working in an environment where we also have to take into account a range of other things such as health, education, the current defence of the nation, water. They have to be able to put that case forward passionately and convincingly, so there is that tension. We need the ongoing support of the ESOs to provide us with the information and with the evidence base to go forward and put the case convincingly that this is a priority—that, in view of the obligation I mentioned earlier, this is a priority for governments of whichever persuasion to make quicker decisions to support our veterans community. I thank again the ESOs, Blue Ryan in particular, for their support. I thank the minister and I commend the bill to the House.

12:49 pm

Photo of Ms Catherine KingMs Catherine King (Ballarat, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Treasury) Share this | | Hansard source

This is a good day for veterans. I say to those veterans listening to this broadcast and to those who are in the gallery today: well done. Well done on a hard fight. Well done on your tenacity. This issue was a just cause and you did not waver in your support for making sure that veterans got what they were entitled to and that they got justice on this issue.

In speaking on the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Disability, War Widow and War Widower Pensions) Bill 2007 I want to acknowledge the incredible work of the shadow minister, Alan Griffin, who made a contribution here today as well. Veterans issues are something that are passionate to my heart, something that I have learnt a great deal about since becoming the member for Ballarat, and I really do want to congratulate Alan for listening.

This bill allows for the indexation of the general rate, the five per cent increase on the base of the general rate, the $15 payment for the EDAs and a much-needed adjustment to the war widows pension. I am pleased that the government has taken the decision to introduce the legislation before this parliament concludes. This issue is too important for us to continue to play politics with. And it is essential that veterans have certainty on the issue of indexation of their pensions prior to the election.

In my contribution I also want to acknowledge again the hard work of the veterans community on this issue. The veterans community have been absolutely tireless in their advocacy on this issue. I again acknowledge the presence of representatives of the TPI Association in the gallery today and the many veterans who are listening via broadcast.

The shadow minister has recognised those veterans such as Blue Ryan, Graham Walker and the many others who have been tireless on this issue. I would like to pay particular recognition to the contribution of the many veterans in my electorate who have carried the fight, particularly via email, to the government and the opposition—from their attendance at the rally here in Canberra in 2003 to their constant messages to me about this issue. Ballarat veterans like Bill Dobell, John Hevey, Ray Mende, Charlie Mackenzie and the many at the Ballarat Vietnam Veterans Association have been committed and passionate advocates for this cause. I see from the minister’s face that he knows these names well!

After I was elected, Bill Dobell was one of the first of my constituents to come knocking on my door to take up the issue of pensions indexation with me. Since that time I have spent many hours down at the Vietnam veterans drop in centre in Sebastopol with Bill and other veterans learning about and discussing these issues. When Alan Griffin was made shadow minister for veterans’ affairs, one of the first things I did was take him down to the Sebastopol drop in centre to meet local veterans. The discussions were candid and wide ranging and, while we did not always see eye to eye on some issues, everyone was impressed with the fact that Alan was prepared to listen to them.

It is important to acknowledge the part that Labor’s shadow minister has played in today’s announcement. In my view, we would not be here debating this legislation if Labor had not taken the first step. I congratulate him and I also congratulate the member for Cowan for listening to and acting on veterans’ and community concerns. I also thank the member for Cowan for the support he has given me and the lessons he has taught me since I became a member of parliament. This place is going to be much poorer for his absence. But I know that he will continue to advocate on these issues long after he leaves this place. I also want to congratulate the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Bruce Billson, for working through this issue and convincing his party that it had to be addressed. I know that it has not been an easy task. Many of us have seen the sorts of emails and comments that go around on this issue and I know that it has been a very difficult issue for Minister Billson to address. I thank him for listening to the veteran community and for his contribution towards ensuring that this legislation became reality. I know that it has not been an easy task.

The Vietnam veterans community have put out a very good letter—I think Graham Edwards referred to it in his contribution—about the history of this issue. There will probably be some debate about that as well. I think that it particularly distils the issues and history around indexation. There will be different views but I think it will be a useful document for anyone who is studying this debate in years to come.

Veterans in our community have seen the cost of living skyrocket while their pensions have lagged behind. Some of the veterans still have to support young families and deal with significant medical costs. There is no doubt that these measures will be warmly welcomed by veterans and their families. They are very much needed.

I welcome this legislation but I acknowledge that there are some outstanding issues. I have no doubt that veterans in my electorate will constantly remind me about them. People such as Sue and Geoff Parker, who have fought long and hard for the establishment of the Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Study Inc., should be congratulated for their work. We want to ensure that the study engages with the issues that are necessary for understanding the very real health concerns that Vietnam veterans have about their children, particularly mental health issues. I know that the minister has had many discussions about the COVVH study and I encourage him to ensure that there is thorough and proper consultation with the many people who have worked so hard on the issue. I also want to acknowledge the outstanding issue of medals for those who participated in the battle of Long Tan. It is an issue of concern to veterans in my community.

This week as part of the activities of the Eureka Probus Club, Bill Akell was here in Canberra, in Parliament House, and I had lunch with him yesterday. He again took the opportunity to raise this issue with me. I understand that Harry Smith is not as well as we would like him to be and I would love to see this issue resolved for him soon.

I conclude by reiterating what I said at the start: this is a good day for veterans. We want this debate to be as short as possible. We want this legislation to get through this House and the Senate before we rise, perhaps for the last time in the life of this parliament. That is not in my hands. We want to conclude this debate so that there is absolutely no doubt that the just cause of indexation of veterans’ pensions is well and truly settled, leaving no uncertainty about it as we head into the election.

Congratulations to all of those veterans involved in what has been a long, hard fight—but it was a fight that was absolutely worth having. I congratulate the minister and the shadow minister for their work on this issue.

12:57 pm

Photo of Paul NevillePaul Neville (Hinkler, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The amendments contained in the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Disability, War Widow and War Widower Pensions) Bill 2007 will ensure that the value of a range of veterans entitlements will retain their value over time. It has been of great concern to veterans and I am happy to support them in this issue. Our gestures can, of course, never fully compensate veterans for their experiences and the sacrifices they have made at war and the service they have given to the Australian military. But I hope that these changes will go some way towards bridging that gap, as some veterans felt that they had been ignored. That was never the case where I was concerned. This will fill a very important hole in their entitlements.

The changes will increase the extreme disability adjustment and the general rate for disability pensions, change the indexation arrangements for the general rate disability pension and make changes to war widows’ pensions. They will benefit more than 140,000 disabled pensioners—1,400 of whom live in my electorate—and approximately 114,000 war widows and widowers. It will ensure that their pensions retain their relative values.

I am an unapologetic advocate for veterans. I am proud of the commitment made by the Prime Minister at the recent RSL national congress in Melbourne, where he announced a comprehensive $330 million package to assist veterans. The package is far superior to that proposed by the opposition, let me say. The package has been reinforced by the government’s decision to increase pension payments for Australian war widows and widowers, along with the introduction of a new indexation arrangement. It will bring the combined packages to a total of $470 million.

Under the coalition, from March next year all Veterans’ Affairs disability pensions will be tied to both CPI and MTAWE, in the same manner that the service pension is currently indexed. It means that these pensions will maintain their value relative to wages and other payments made under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986. It will come into effect—please note this, Mr Deputy Speaker—a full six months before Labor’s proposed indexation. As well, the general rate—the compensation that is paid for pain and suffering and loss of function—will be increased by five per cent, bringing it into line with other payments under the Veterans’ Entitlement Act 1986 and benefiting around 140,000 disability pensioners. And guess what—the Labor Party proposed no increase in the general rate disability pension rate until after the Prime Minister announced the coalition’s package. In other words, they were not going to do anything unless we set the bar. Veterans can make their own judgement on that, but it would seem to me that the Labor Party were going to try to get away with as little as possible.

What is more, the 13,000 veterans who receive the extreme disablement adjustment payment, which is for people with profound lifestyle impacts from their service related injuries and conditions, will get a fortnightly increase of $15 from March 2008. This will restore the value of the above general rate component of the EDA relative to those of the intermediate and special rates of disability pension. I point out that the opposition again had no such plans until after the Prime Minister’s recent announcement.

In total the government has committed around $470 million to these changes—a significant amount which is only available because of the coalition’s responsible economic management. I think this point is lost so often. You cannot do these things if you do not manage the economy. If you do not manage the economy properly, you do not have surpluses. If you do not have surpluses, you cannot make these sorts of additional emoluments available. These particular emoluments are real, tangible and substantial benefits for the veterans’ community, and I applaud them.

The Leader of the Opposition thought he was on a winner when he raised veterans’ entitlements in an MPI last month. The opposition stirred up sections of the veterans community and sat back while an orchestrated campaign swung into action. I think most government members would have been on the receiving end of that email campaign by disenchanted veterans. I certainly was, but I think my focus on veterans’ matters probably softened the blow for me. But that has died down, as has the opposition’s cockiness, after the coalition’s announcement, which you really have to say is a far superior package. In fact, while the Prime Minister was announcing this $330 million commitment, the opposition were cutting sections of their leader’s speech, and they then had the gall to approach the government for the workings and costings of our policy. Hello! ‘What have you done about it?’ is the question that one might ask.

We should not be surprised; the opposition has flip-flopped on veterans’ entitlements and has now dumped its own policy in favour of the coalition’s. We in the coalition are becoming accustomed to the faint cry of ‘Me too, me too!’ echoing around the nation after government announcements. ‘Me too!’ is simply not good enough when it comes to supporting those who have served this nation in wars and conflicts. Our veterans deserve more respect and more commitment from the opposition. The acid test for veterans is just how well they were treated under the previous Labor government. It angers me that Labor seeks to use veterans as a quick headline by peddling dud policies and telling untruths about the government’s record of indexation for veterans’ payments. I point out there were no MTAWE payments at all under the Labor government.

No government in the world takes its responsibilities towards veterans more seriously than this one. The coalition’s commitment to the care, compensation and commemoration of our veterans and war widows is rock solid. I know this because I have contact with a lot of people in the veterans community. I am very close to the two major RSLs in my electorate and some of the smaller ones in the country towns, and I am patron of the Vietnam Veterans Association in Bundaberg. I take my duties with those organisations very seriously, as I did the other night at a particularly fine Legacy charity dinner that we hold every year in Bundaberg to raise money for the children and widows of those who have passed on. This bill will shape an even better payment system for our veterans. I am proud to be associated with it and I commend it to the House.

1:05 pm

Photo of Bruce BillsonBruce Billson (Dunkley, Liberal Party, Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

in reply—I start by commending all the contributors to today’s debate: the member for Gilmore, with her passion for the veterans community; the member for Wakefield, with his very direct experience of being in the military; the member for Hinkler—an excellent speech, sir, encapsulating the issues; my colleague, sparring partner and, it seems, travelling companion much of the time, the member for Bruce; the member for Cowan, who has been tireless in his advocacy for the veterans community; and, of course, the member for Ballarat. Yes, I did smile when some of those email sources were mentioned. I know the member for Ballarat is very supportive of her veterans community.

This is a good news day. It has been put to me that the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Disability, War Widow and War Widower Pensions) Bill 2007 is one of the most substantial reforms to the compensation system for our veterans community in living memory. Some people’s memories are longer than mine, but this is a remarkable day. It is a very important day. The Howard government and its predecessors have, over many generations, developed a very positive, beneficial, world-class and comprehensive repatriation system that recognises the very special standing and needs of a very special group within the Australian community, and that is our veterans community.

We as a nation have a profound and special duty to those that have served our nation. I often refer to the fact that the peace, prosperity and pluralism we enjoy today did not just happen; there was great courage and sacrifice and for too many there was long suffering as a result of their service that secured this blessing that we have: to live in this country. Today that work continues as we share our good fortune. It is almost as a demonstration of thanksgiving that our men and women of today’s military continue to work in many theatres around the world in partnership with other nations seeking to achieve what we enjoy here, where decisions about the direction of the nation are determined by the weight of argument, not by the weight of oppression, and where the calibre of leaders and of their ideas, not the calibre of a firearm, shape the direction of the country. We in this country are indeed blessed and our serving men and women carry forward that work and defend the heritage of the service that is encapsulated in our veterans’ support system.

This bill is further evidence of the Australian government’s recognition of the sacrifice of and service by veterans and their families. The pain and suffering caused by war, defence-caused disabilities and the loss of opportunity caused by ill health resulting from that service deserve fair and beneficial compensation and the optimum support that we as a nation can provide. The loss of a spouse or a partner—perhaps a lifelong companion—calls for fair compensation and support. This is understood by all sides of this parliament. This has been understood by successive governments. This has been demonstrated by positive action by the Howard government not just with this package, as significant as it is, but also through a constant process of reform and enhancement that has been ongoing for many years.

The changes made by this bill will, from March 2008, increase disability pensions by five per cent resulting in an increase of up to $20 per fortnight for all disability pensioners at or above the general rate and a proportionate benefit for those receiving compensation payments from within the general rate table. The bill will also change the way the general rate is indexed, so from March 2008 the general rate disability pension will be increased twice annually with reference to both the consumer price index and the male total average weekly earnings index. This method of adjustment currently applies to service pensions and the above general rate disability pension. It does apply and it has applied to those elements of veterans’ payments because they take account of income support and the economic loss of missed opportunity; therefore, the connection between an economic loss and the wage related index is absolutely right and correct.

But, in keeping with our ambition to have a best practice injury compensation system, we are extending that new methodology to the general rate—that is, the non-economic loss element for pain and suffering. Today the major injury compensation systems in Australia still revert to the CPI to maintain the purchasing power of those payments. But we have recognised that there are some jurisdictions where, even for the non-economic loss payment and the compensation for pain and suffering and loss of function, there are to be found some examples where a wage related index is used. It is always our ambition to have a best practice system, the most beneficial system, for those that have served our country. It is right, proper and principled to embrace that method of indexation for all of the payments, the economic loss payment and the non-economic loss payment, to take account of not only the maintenance of purchasing power—that is, the inflationary impact on those payments—but also the present economic environment of strong wages growth and low inflation and to help maintain the relative value of all disability pensions as they relate to the broader good fortune within the Australian community. So those economic and non-economic loss components will now be indexed through that more beneficial arrangement.

The bill also provides for a further one-off increase of $15 per fortnight to the above general rate component of the extreme disablement adjustment disability pension with effect from March 2008. The EDA beneficiaries are receiving additional compensation because of the profound lifestyle effect of their service related injuries, illnesses and impairments after their working life. This is distinctly different from the intermediate and special rates, for which an additional payment is made to recognise that the recipients’ service related conditions have impeded their opportunity to work and that they have missed out on the opportunity and the benefits that are available from engagement in the labour market. This is why the concept of compensation and the way in which we make these payments and index them are very important: it is so that all of us in this parliament can look to the 21 million Australians and say, ‘There are sound and principled reasons why we as a nation invest $11 billion a year in the care and support of the 460,000 members of our veterans community.’ This increase to the EDA rate will be in line with the increases to the special and intermediate rates of disability pension introduced in the 2007 budget. That $160 million package saw the intermediate rate increase by $25 a fortnight and the special rate increase by $50 a fortnight. The recipients well deserved that pay rise, in my view, and the economic circumstances made it achievable and sustainable.

In relation to the war widow and war widower pension, the bill will increase what was formerly called the domestic allowance component by $10 to a $35 per week fortnightly payment. This rate has traditionally been frozen. My research suggests that it has been adjusted twice since 1974—once in 1974, to take account of the inflationary impact of the then Whitlam government, as I understand it, and then more recently when the tax reform package was introduced. That rate has been traditionally frozen save for those two examples. The component will now be indexed twice annually with regard to both the consumer price index and male total average weekly earnings. Although these measures make a significant change to the indexation methodology of the disability pension payment system, the bill also provides significant direct increases to certain disability pensions and war widow and war widower pensions in recognition of the government’s commitment to and appreciation of those who have served and those who have suffered as a result of their service. Finally, it should be noted that these changes come into effect from the earliest possible date, which is March 2008.

I will just touch on the issues raised by some of the other speakers. This package is good news. The shadow spokesman mentioned that some of the discussion and feeling about this matter dates back about a decade. From the emails I receive, it dates back much further than that. It even dates back to the Whitlam era when, at that time, the inflationary impact of economic policies was cited as a reason why disability payments and pensions for veterans were not adequate. As I understand it, the ex-service community has been raising these issues for all of my adult life.

There is also an issue related to protests that the member for Cowan drew attention to. Indexation is one of a range of issues which a nation needs to address. We have a changing veterans community. It is beholden on us to ensure that the system which supports them changes, adapts, evolves and is enhanced to make that system as comprehensive and supportive as it can be for those changing circumstances.

There has been some talk about politicising the matter. I always find that rather amusing, as those who call for bipartisanship usually bookend such a comment with a few gratuitous slaps at their political opponents. Much of the commentary is partisan.

Photo of Alan GriffinAlan Griffin (Bruce, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Griffin interjecting

Photo of Bruce BillsonBruce Billson (Dunkley, Liberal Party, Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

Much of the commentary, as my colleague opposite says, involves robust engagement. Much of it is politicised. That is the nature of politics, where the battle of ideas is what we are on about. I think it is appropriate that people put forward their respective ideas and let the electorate judge how sound or otherwise they are.

Others have characterised the debate. I recall with glee the opposition introducing the VVF’s account of history. It is at best a characterisation. It is more likely sourced from ALP press releases because it is a very one-sided and partisan commentary. But such is the prerogative of those who put that material out. The member for Wakefield highlighted that the work continues in support of our veterans community, and I recognise that and, like all of us, guarantee him my ongoing positive, passionate and persistent approach to addressing these issues. The member for Ballarat touched on a number of issues. The Vietnam Veteran Family Study, as she would know, is a very high priority for me. Embracing the veterans community is a part of that work, which will see benefits available for the veterans community—insights gained well in advance of the other pathways that were being advocated.

I also want to draw attention to the member for Gilmore’s contribution. Joanna Gash is a tireless advocate for the veterans community, and I value greatly her wise counsel and respect her advocacy. The member for Wakefield, with his military service, is also a source of great insight, and I value and appreciate his advice. The member for Hinkler encapsulated many of the key issues. He has been long held as an advocate of the veterans community, and he works tirelessly in that goal.

I also pay tribute to the ex-service communities generally. I mentioned a number of them when introducing the bill and also in response to a question earlier in the week. Blue Ryan and the TPI Association have been working tirelessly on this issue. But it is also an issue for all in the veterans community and that sentiment is embodied in the government’s response. The package which we are discussing here is just short of half a billion dollars. It is on the back of a $160 million increase in disability pension payments introduced through the budget. So $650 million of change has occurred since May. It is not a small package; it is comprehensive. Labor, to its credit, has been making some calls, but its $116 million package is not $650 million. Some have been saying that it is the same. Again, that is an unfortunate and inaccurate characterisation. The maths alone illustrate how that is misguided. The package that is being embraced today, unlike what has been advocated by those opposite, provides up-front payments, as the budget did. It is a proposition not advanced by the opposition but one embraced, funded and implemented by the government. This package, I think, introduces a much-deserved increase in the general rate table—again, a proposition developed, introduced, resourced and now being enacted by the Howard government. It has not been mentioned by the opposition. It also introduces these changes from March 2008. The opposition was advocating an introduction in September 2008, and that has caused much anxiety within the veterans community. Why was the opposition proposing to delay the introduction of its measures until late 2008? That created some uncertainty.

The government has acted decisively to transform an announcement of a little over a week ago, and a second instalment yesterday, into legislation that is before the parliament today, being debated with the support of the opposition—and I thank them for that—so that it may find its way into the other house and be embraced.

Finally, I wish to thank the ex-service organisations in my own electorate. Some question my judgement for seeking the role of Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. It is a character-building role. The constituency is not shy in putting forward its views. I occasionally joke that a good week for me is only one effigy of me being burnt! It is a challenging role, but it is a role which is a great honour for me to carry forward. Working in collaboration and partnership with the ex-service community, the ex-service organisations and veterans in the greater Frankston and Mornington Peninsula area gave me a fine training. I had been well prepped on all the issues that I have had to address since February last year by the veterans in the Dunkley electorate, and I thank them for their forbearance, their wise counsel and their encouragement. I commend the bill to the House and thank all participants for facilitating its passage.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.