Thursday, 3 June 2010
Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010
Debate resumed from 26 May, on motion by Mr Griffin:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I rise to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010. I am particularly pleased to have this opportunity to place on the record the coalition’s views about the measures announced by the Rudd Labor government in this year’s federal budget. Beyond being a budget built on a house of cards, this budget has not met tests for all of Labor’s pre-election promises. Before addressing the key provisions of this bill, which the coalition will not oppose, I would like to talk about some of the areas where the veteran community is still waiting for answers and action.
Labor’s budget does not deliver on commitments made to deal with the cost of pharmaceuticals for war caused disabilities. Page 12 of Labor’s plan for Veterans’ Affairs from the last election reads:
Labor commits to reviewing this matter in the first term of Government and to establishing, in consultation with the ex-service community, a fair solution that relieves the burden on veterans of the cost of medications to treat their war caused disabilities.
So far Labor has released a discussion paper following a $500,000 in-house review, a review which took 30 months to materialise, but there is no detail to the two options in the paper. Both options potentially exclude some ex-service personnel who are severely injured but who do not have qualifying service. More will be said between now and the election on this issue.
I will continue to consult with the ex-service community on this important issue, an area where Labor has dropped the ball and will not meet its full commitment ahead of the election. Also outstanding is Labor’s delayed review of advocacy funding for ex-service organisations due for release in the first quarter of this year. The largely volunteer ex-service community does not know the fate of the key review into funding for their organisations. Many ESOs have been anxious about the findings. This year’s funding round, including a delayed application date, has created considerable angst among the veteran community.
Early analysis shows that Victoria’s veteran and ex-service community value-adds almost $23 million in volunteer hours to the repatriation system throughout the network of veterans’ advocates and welfare and pensions officers. This cannot be overlooked. I call on the minister to immediately release the findings of the ESO funding review to enable the ex-service community and the coalition an opportunity to chart the best course forward in the area of advocacy funding.
The minister cannot criticise the former government for keeping reports hidden when he does the same thing. Yesterday in another debate the minister criticised the former coalition government for not releasing a report into military superannuation when it was received by the then minister. The Podger review arrived on the former minister’s desk in July 2007. The election was held in November of that same year and the government changed. The new government released the Podger review on Christmas Eve, 24 December 2007. For no more than six months was the report held from public view. Yet this minister forgets that until only recently he sat on the re-review of the Clarke review for 15 months and continues to sit on the findings of the review of advocacy funding.
There is a re-review of the re-review of the Clarke review into the BCOF veterans’ service, with no timetable for delivery. The Rudd Labor government took some 11 months to respond to the parliamentary inquiry into the F111 reseal-deseal issue. It is indeed odd that the minister criticises actions that he condones through his own behaviour.
Also ongoing is the review of the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004. A couple of weeks ago at the RSL state congress the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel, in a particularly partisan attack, criticised the coalition for not supporting this review. This is not correct. Since becoming shadow minister in September 2008, I have supported this review. It is an important review into a key piece of legislation introduced by the previous coalition government. This review is critical to ensuring the act continues to meet the needs of the people it is designed to assist, veterans and their families. However, our support for the review is reliant on the minister being upfront about the timeline for the review. I was happy to support the review carrying on beyond the 31 March 2010 deadline. Nevertheless, the ex-service community and the coalition hope to have some indication from the minister or the government that this review will be concluded either before or after the election.
Veterans’ affairs legislation has been a largely bipartisan area of policy in this country for nearly 100 years. I hope that the minister and the government will not use this review to partisan politics in the lead-up to the election. The review needs to be on the table for both sides of politics and indeed the ex-service community to scrutinise ahead of an election.
This legislation enacts five measures by the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and the Minister for Defence Personnel in the budget. The measures relate to the government’s long-awaited re-review of the Clarke review of veterans’ entitlements commissioned by the previous coalition government. The re-review, focusing on 45 unimplemented recommendations of the report, will accept only an additional four recommendations, with three being re-reviewed for a second time.
Schedule 1 of this bill creates a new classification of service in the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986. The new classification, to be known as British nuclear test defence service, will provide additional benefits to former Defence personnel associated with the British nuclear testing in Western Australia and South Australia during the 1950s and 1960s. The new classification will provide eligible ex-service personnel with access to disability pensions and their spouse access to a war widow or widowers pension and, in some cases, access to the repatriation health card for all conditions—the gold card. Approximately 2,300 ex-service personnel will benefit from this new classification, at a cost of $24 million over the forward estimates.
Earlier this year, I met with some individuals who were involved in the nuclear testing here in Australia. Their stories were truly shocking. Moreover, the impact of this testing on their lives and that of their families is something that many would find hard to believe. I heard stories of personnel entering the fallout zone within hours of the detonation taking place. I heard of Navy divers scouring the floor of the ocean off Western Australia in similar circumstances. Quite often, personnel working in the dry and dusty Outback had little protective equipment or clothing to protect them from the effects of the radiation on their bodies.
The previous coalition government undertook in the wake of the recommendations of the Clarke review to conduct a cancer and mortality study. In spite of the recommendations of this study, which continue to be disputed by veterans, their families and some experts in this area, the previous government introduced the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Testing Treatment Bill 2006. The bill provided a repatriation health card for specific conditions and the white card for all cancer treatments for all former military personnel and civilians involved in the testing. The card was provided without the need for a person involved in the testing to prove that their cancer was caused by their service. More than 9,000 people benefited from this scheme.
This new schedule extends further entitlements to former Defence personnel in line with a recommendation of the Clarke review. Although I am disappointed that it has taken until the 11th hour of the life of this parliament for the government to deliver on its commitment, I know that it will be welcome by the ex-service personnel involved in nuclear testing and their families. Importantly, the legislation enacted by the previous coalition government will still enable civilians involved in the testing to access cancer treatment at no cost to them.
Schedule 2 of the bill will alter the classification of submarine special operations at operational and qualifying service under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986. Between 1978 and 1992, Australian submariners participated in special operations. Little is known of the specifics of these missions. Their covert nature means that the specifics cannot be discussed. Nevertheless, these submariners were potentially placed in dangerous conditions. As a result, the government has decided to reclassify their service and provide additional entitlements to the veterans involved and their families.
Under the change, up to 890 personnel will benefit from access to the service pension, disability pensions, war widower pensions and the gold card once they reach 70 years of age. With ‘qualifying’ and ‘operational’ service, these individuals will be entitled to veteran status under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. I recently spoke to the President of the Naval Association of Australia, Les Dwyer. Les, I may say, is a great bloke. He warmly welcomes the extension of entitlements to the men who served in these missions. Les has written a very detailed article for the next issue of the White Ensign magazine in which he welcomes the government’s announcement.
At this point I would like to remind the House of a motion moved by my colleague, the honourable member for Fairfax and the Chief Opposition Whip, in February last year, which called on the reclassification of this service. Alex Somlyay’s commitment to the reclassification of special operations service was widely welcomed in the veteran community. Together with a former minister for defence, Dr Brendan Nelson, a former minister for veterans’ affairs, the member for Maranoa, Bruce Scott MP, and a former parliamentary secretary for defence, the member for Herbert, Peter Lindsay MP, the coalition moved and supported the call to reclassify this service. I am pleased with this amendment, and I pay tribute to my colleagues who pursued this issue in the parliament.
The third schedule in this bill deals with service at Ubon in north-east Thailand between 31 May 1962 and 27 July 1962 inclusive. This change is brought about by a ‘nature of service’ review by the Department of Defence, which considers that there is sufficient new evidence to upgrade the status of service at Ubon at the beginning of the RAAF deployment there in 1962.
The history of Australia’s involvement in the stability of South-East Asia during the 1950s and 1960s is perhaps not well understood by many Australians. Following the involvement of Australian defence personnel in the Malayan Emergency, and the Indonesian Confrontation, RAAF personnel were deployed to the Ubon region of north-east Thailand to protect the territorial integrity of Thailand.
Ubon, located close to the Thai-Laotian border, was seen as a strategically important location in the protection of Thailand and other South-East Asian nations from the threat of communism. At the time, the domino theory—of communism sweeping southwards through Asia, one country at a time—prompted the Australian government to be involved in the protection of stable democracies and governments throughout the region. This deployment was sanctioned by the South East Asian Treaty Organisation, SEATO.
In May 1962, the Australian government authorised the deployment of 79 Squadron to the Ubon region. According to a recollection by retired Air Vic Marshall Ray Trebilco, at Ubon:
There was a 5,000 foot strip, a small American radar unit called Lion which was training the Royal Thai Air Force personnel, a non-directional beacon, jet fuel facilities and a control tower of sorts, but that was all.
He goes on:
We understood that the governor of the province and some of the local dignitaries would be flying in from Korat together with the Australian Ambassador and the press to meet our Sabres on arrival. We were also told there would be little crowd control at the air field and that … interested locals and even cattle could all present problems in having a clear runway to land on.
The modest nature of the facilities during the early deployment could have put personnel deployed there at risk. The explanatory memorandum states:
Service in Ubon … is to be re-classified as ‘qualifying service’ due to the potential risk from the activities of hostile forces and dissident elements.
Activities at Ubon continued until 1970. From 1965, personnel at Ubon had their service classified as ‘warlike’ given the increased activity in the area due to the Vietnam War. However, service between 28 July 1962 and 1965 will continue to be considered ‘operational service’ under the VE Act. Principally, personnel who worked at Ubon during the period specified by this amendment will have access to a service pension and, when they turn 70 years of age, the gold card, over and above what they can already access by way of disability pensions and the war widow/widower pension for their spouse upon death resulting from their war-caused disability.
Schedule 4 of the bill corrects an anomaly in the VE Act regarding domiciled status for 18- to 21-year-old Commonwealth or allied veterans with eligible service under the VE Act. Under the VE Act, British Commonwealth and allied veterans may be eligible for pensions and other benefits if they have eligible service with a Commonwealth or allied defence force and if they had Australian domicile immediately prior to their enlistment in that defence force. This policy was intended to cover those Australians who were travelling or studying overseas at the time World War II broke out and who could not return to Australia to enlist in the Australian Defence Force.
In the absence of the legal concept of Australian citizenship until 1949, the domicile concept was adopted as a means of determining whether a British, Commonwealth or allied veteran could be regarded as an Australian at the time of enlistment. However, persons under 21 at the time of their enlistment in a Commonwealth or allied defence force could not establish a domicile of choice, as the common law rules that applied at that time meant that a person could not assume a domicile of choice before the age of 21.
The Domicile Act 1982 has since lowered the age at which a person can claim independent domicile from 21 to 18 years of age. However this act does not apply to circumstances that occurred before the commencement of the act, and thus the common-law rules continue to apply in those circumstances. This amendment, a recommendation of the Clarke review, which was not implemented in 2004, will enable those veterans who were between 18 and 20 and unable to nominate Australia as their domicile of choice to gain eligibility under the VE Act for their service as Australian veterans providing they meet the other domicile and service eligibility requirements.
The final schedule of the act relates to a loophole affecting war widows and widowers. This provision will close a loophole in the act which enables a war widower or widow living in a de facto relationship to claim a war widows or widowers pension after they enter the relationship. This is not consistent with the law relating to married or re-married war widow or widowers, who cannot claim the pension after marrying or re-marrying.
I have a particular interest in this measure. As the daughter and grand-daughter of war widows, I am determined to ensure future war widows and widowers do not come up against the same challenges that my mother, in particular, did. It took my mother more than 30 years to access a war widows pension, because her first application was refused and it took an advocate, 30 years later, to convince my mother that she was indeed eligible for a war widows pension and to re-apply.
People do not live neat, tidy lives. This measure, which is prospective and will not affect, we are told, any war widow or widowers living in a marriage-like relationship who claim their pension before 30 September 2010, risks disenfranchising future war widows or widowers. At a time of grief and bereavement, the last thing anyone wants to be doing is filling in a form. Some widows may not be aware that they are indeed entitled to such a pension. Equally, people’s circumstances change; they may enter more difficult times or unwittingly enter a relationship, denying themselves access to a pension in future years. I am concerned about this measure. Whilst I understand it closes a loophole in the existing legislation, I am concerned about the impact this will have on future war widows and widowers. I again make the point that people’s lives do not necessarily reflect an ideal, or perfect, image. Community standards have changed.
Of course, in 2001, the previous coalition government widened an earlier change to the legislation regarding war widows and widowers. Under the 2001 changes, war widows or widowers who remarried after claiming their war widow or widower pension and who lost their pension upon remarriage had their pension reinstated. However, this only applied to those widows or widowers who lost their pension after remarrying; it did not extend to people who had not claimed their pension before remarriage.
My office has been contacted by one woman from Queensland who is in this situation. This individual remarried after the death of her veteran husband because of an economic need and the cultural and social norms of the time. She was not aware that the war widow pension existed—let alone that she was entitled to access it. When she discovered, after the death of her second husband, that she might be eligible for a pension, she was denied it because she had not applied for the pension before she remarried. What we need to aim for, ideally, is to ensure that war widows and widowers in the generations ahead are not in any way disadvantaged because they did not fill out a form upon the death of their veteran spouse.
In conclusion, the coalition will not oppose the measures in this bill. While I do have concerns about the provisions of schedule 5, the other four measures of this bill are of benefit to the affected individuals and their families.
I rise to lend my support to the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010, which will go some way to improving the wellbeing of Australia’s veterans and the wider ex-services community. It was only last week that I, together with many, rose in this place to speak on another bill that was introduced. This one actually made minor technical amendments to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986. Nevertheless, they were amendments that were designed to further align the veterans law with social security law and were another step in making improvements to conditions for our ex-service personnel, our veterans. During my contribution I spoke about what the veterans community can expect under this government and how our efforts will address a range of veterans issues, particularly around entitlements, services, wellbeing and recognition. This bill is another step in building better services for the Australian veterans community.
I have on many occasions had the opportunity to acknowledge the veterans community organisations that operate tirelessly in my area, the south-west of Sydney, such as the Macarthur veterans recreational centre, the Vietnam Veterans Association, the Ingleburn, Campbelltown and Liverpool RSL clubs and the Cabra-Vale Diggers. I should mention Mr Ron Brown of the National Servicemen’s Association. Last time I mentioned him, a number of members of the opposition approached me to tell me how active he was in organisations in their electorates in pursuing the very just causes of national servicemen.
Their hard work and devotion to improving the wellbeing of Australian veterans and the wider ex-services community particularly impresses me. On behalf of a very grateful community, I give thanks for their efforts. I know much of their effort goes unrecognised, but, without that assistance, the veterans community would not have the voice that it has today. Despite all the well-meaning commitment of others to their cause, we need those veterans associations to ensure that veterans have a proper and unfettered voice in determining their needs.
I have also had the opportunity on a couple of occasions to take Minister Alan Griffin out to my electorate. As I said, we have a very active veterans community there. Formerly, the Ingleburn Army Camp was plumb in the middle of my electorate, and a lot of people, after they demobbed from the service, stayed in the area. It is easy to understand why Werriwa is home to a lot of ex-servicemen. The minister has been very good with his time, coming out and addressing those issues with the local veterans community. I think he has a very clear understanding of the issues of the veterans community, certainly as it applies to my region, and I genuinely thank him for spending time with our local veterans.
Veterans can be assured that, under this government, their interests will always be a priority. One of the things the previous speaker, my colleague from Greenway, had to leave out of her contribution to the House, for obvious reasons, was that in their 11 years they were very slow to act on improvements for veterans. I do welcome a degree of bipartisanship when it comes to these bills, however, to improve clearly and decisively the conditions of veterans across the nation. I am confident that working more closely with our ex-services community will allow us to be more responsive to the needs of veterans and be prepared to meet the future challenges of our ex-services personnel and, importantly, their families. The introduction of this bill I think is an example of that.
Only this week I had the opportunity of welcoming to Parliament House Greg Brassil and Ian Fulton from the local army cadets operating in my region. They spent time with the office of the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support, Mike Kelly, because of some concerns they had. They also spent some time talking with the Deputy Prime Minister. I should indicate what these people are doing in an area of great need. They have a base operating in Rosemeadow in south-west Sydney. You may recall, Mr Deputy Speaker, that was the location of considerable social upheaval last year with riots in the 3M estate. The area very clearly is social disadvantaged and many of the families within that community do not have positive role models. What these two gentlemen have done is set up an army cadet base where they are actively providing very positive role models for younger people in the community. I know the juvenile justice services are working very closely with them now by referring young people to the army cadets.
On a very positive note, over the last five years this one unit in the south-west of Sydney has been getting between 10 and 12 recruits into the ADF per year. Young people have decided to stay with the army cadets, finish high school and then apply to our military forces as a consequence. So I am certainly unashamed in introducing both these gentlemen to Colonel Mike Kelly’s office and to the Deputy Prime Minister and in telling people what they do. They are without doubt doing a very good job in the community. But what I see them doing through their local cadet unit, in assisting recruitment of personnel into the ADF, I think is extraordinary.
This bill will give effect to a number of veterans’ affairs budget measures that I would like to take just a little time to go through. First, the bill will create a new category of service of eligibility under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, to be known as defence service. It will importantly provide participants of that program in Australia with access to compensation and healthcare benefits for conditions accepted as related to the British nuclear test service. Currently, former personnel who participated in the British nuclear tests program have access to the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 for any related period of their service. However, the Clarke review, in 2003, recommended—but it was not acted upon—that these people be considered for acceptance into the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986. It was recommended that participation by defence personnel in the British nuclear test program in Australia be deemed non-warlike hazardous service and, therefore, the legislation be amended to ensure that the declaration can have effect in extending Veterans’ Entitlements Act coverage. While the recommendation was not acted upon by the Howard government, I do appreciate that on this occasion it is now being supported by members in opposition. When this comes into law, it will have an effect for 2,700 former defence personnel, which is quite significant.
The second element of the bill is the reclassification of certain submarine operations between 1978 and 1992 as operationally and qualifying service. At present, this service is classified as peacetime service. In the 2003 review of veterans’ entitlements, conducted by Justice John Clarke, it was recommended that service on submarine special operations during this time be classified as non-warlike hazardous under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. As I understand it, over this period our submarines were equipped with special intelligence-gathering equipment and were deployed in covert operations. It was only fitting in that instance to accept the recommendation of Justice John Clarke that this be regarded as non-warlike, but nevertheless hazardous, for persons qualifying under the Veterans’ Entitlements ct. In 2009, Defence recommended that service on these operations and deployment on those submarines did meet the criteria for allotment of duty, the qualifying service requirement that applied at the time of those operations. Consequently, this measure will provide relevant members of the Australian Defence Force with qualifying service under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, which will provide a service pension at age 60 and, importantly, an automatic gold card at age 70. I understand that, whilst this is long overdue, it is nevertheless very welcomed by the ADF and will affect 890 members as a consequence.
The third measure in this bill I wish to discuss relates to RAAF service in Ubon, Thailand as qualifying service for the purposes of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. After a review was undertaken by Defence, it was determined that the initial deployment between 31 May 1962 and 27 July 1962 mirrored the readiness of the RAAF presence in Ubon between June 1965 and August 1968. By the way, that later service is already deemed to qualify for the purposes of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986.
This bill seeks to recognise that those RAAF air crews and ground crews, from which there were some 60 members on base in Ubon, were exposed to the potential risk of hostile activities and that as a consequence they should be treated as falling within the definitions in the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. It is the right thing to do. It recognises that the outbreak of fighting against the Pathet Lao forces along the Thai border with Laos and Cambodia was considered—and is still considered, when the history is looked at—a very real and imminent possibility which would have impacted on our forces. As a consequence, the period between May 1962 and July 1962 will be treated in the same way as the later occasion in 1968 in that the earlier of the two periods of service will qualify and be recognised under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act.
Another measure in the bill will lower the age of domicile of choice from 21 to 18 for the purposes of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. I know a small number of British, Commonwealth and allied forces veterans have not been able to access the compensatory benefits under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act because they were between the ages of 18 and 21 when they enrolled in the forces and, because of their age, were automatically determined to be domiciled in the same country as their father or, if their father was not alive, that of their mother. This was an automatic default position, and men who enlisted between the ages of 18 and 21 are directly impacted by it as a consequence. I doubt whether this affects many, but it is certainly an injustice to many of those who fought alongside Australian servicemen, who were part of the British, Commonwealth and allied forces at that time. It is almost anachronistic to us these days that an 18 year-old person could go to war and vote in this country but not have his place of residence acknowledged as valid when making an application to join the services.
This bill corrects an anomaly that has long been a bugbear for a number of people, though I know that it does not affect many. One person it has affected, albeit in a slightly different way, is my father-in-law. He was 20 when he disembarked from a British Navy ship in Sydney, so he had his discharge papers signed here. He went through his whole working life, and it was not until sometime well into the future that issues were discovered, because his point of engagement on the British ship was in Scotland. We had to work a number of things through for him, but the measures in this bill will help a number of people in the same age group as my father-in-law who joined the services outside Australia.
It should be known that under this bill all other aspects of the domicile rules still need to be met. The condition of residency in Australia—including the intention to reside, the length of the period of residency et cetera—still needs to be met. So it is not just a matter of the point in time that the individual in question made application to join the service.
I turn to the final aspect of this bill that I wish to mention. An amendment in this bill will end the eligibility for the war widows pension and the war widowers pension of war widows and widowers who enter into a de facto relationship prior to claiming the war widows pension or the war widowers pension. This seeks to provide equal treatment for partners who enter into a de facto relationship and those who enter into a marriage or a form of marriage-like arrangement which is registered. The amendment will apply only to claims made from 1 October 2010 or where there is an automatic grant of a widows pension or a widowers pension in relation to a death that occurs on or after 1 October 2010. So importantly, no existing widow’s or widower’s pension will be affected by this measure.
In conclusion, this government will ensure that the ex-servicemen’s community and our veterans get a fair go. I think this bill goes some way to improving the existing arrangements for veterans. Australians are justifiably proud of their veterans and their ex-service community. This government believes that the provision of robust services and support for our ex-service community is a sincere way to show our gratitude in recognition of the bravery and sacrifice of these Australian men and women in a time of need in this country. As the Prime Minister said on 13 August 2007:
There is perhaps no greater duty that we as a nation and as a parliament have than to honour, remember and express our gratitude to those Australians who have served in the defence of our nation in times of war, because our security and liberty have not come without a price.
I commend the bill to the House.
I rise today to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010. In essence, this bill will address a number of election commitments made by Labor during the 2007 election campaign. It is no surprise that these changes are only now being introduced, three years later, in the run-up to the 2010 election. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs regularly stands up in this House and says, ‘You had 12 years to do something,’ and I accept that, but this government has been in place for nearly three years and only now are we finally seeing action. So let there be no doubt that the only thing that spurs this government into action is bad press or bad polls.
The first measure contained within this bill concerns ex-defence personnel who have service relating to the British nuclear tests and is in line with the recommendation of the Clarke review. This measure seeks to insert a new classification within the Veterans’ Entitlement Act titled ‘British nuclear test defence service’ and will provide ex-defence personnel with additional entitlements. These entitlements will be equivalent to the existing entitlements contained within the Veterans’ Entitlements Act for hazardous or non-warlike service. Those persons who qualify under this definition will be eligible to access disability pensions, war widow/widower pensions and, in some cases, the gold card. Importantly, the reverse criminal standard of proof will be used to asses a person’s eligibility to claim benefits under this measure.
The next measure contained within this bill relates to service undertaken while on submarine special operations. This measure will reclassify service as operational and qualifying under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. This change applies only to service undertaken on submarine special operations between 1 January 1978 and 31 December 1992, whereby some Royal Australian Navy submarines were engaged in special operations and intelligence operations to the north and west of Australia. The benefits available to qualifying and eligible persons are the service pension, the disability pension, the war widow/widower pension and a gold card from age 70. Eligibility for this entitlement will again be determined by applying the reverse criminal standard of proof and will be determined on service during the periods I previously specified, as well as on the basis that a member is entitled to be awarded with the Australian Service Medal with a ‘Special Ops’ clasp.
The next measure contained within this bill concerns service rendered by ADF personnel in Thailand—specifically service rendered at Ubon between 21 May 1962 and 27 July 1962. Currently, service at Ubon during this time is classified as operational; however, this amendment seeks to reclassify that service as qualifying service in light of the fact that those deployed at Ubon during the aforementioned period were exposed to potential risks arising from the activities of hostile forces and dissident elements. However, it is important to note that this amendment does not affect the classification of service rendered throughout the rest of the north-east of Thailand during this period and, as such, this service will remain classified as operational service. This amendment will grant eligible persons access to the service pension, the disability pension, the war widow/widower pension and the gold card from age 70.
The fourth amendment put forward under this legislation relates to the legal concept of a domicile of choice. By way of a short historical explanation, in the absence of the legal concept of Australian citizenship until 1949, the domicile of choice concept was used to determine whether a British, Commonwealth or allied veteran could be regarded as an Australian at the time of enlistment. That is, if a person was deemed, under common-law rules that applied at the time, as living in a residence located in Australia, they were regarded as a resident at the time of enlistment. However, a problem arose with this construct as a person aged under 21 years at the time of their enlistment could not establish a domicile of choice due to the common-law rules as they applied at the time. To correct this situation, the Domicile Act 1982 lowered the age at which a person could be legally regarded as establishing a domicile of choice from 21 to 18 years. However, the legislation did not apply to those cases arising before the commencement of that act. This amendment seeks to enable those British, Commonwealth or allied veterans aged between 18 and 21 at the time of enlistment to access Australian pensions and other benefits, provided that other common-law tests used in determining the domicile of choice are met.
The final amendment contained within this bill seeks to remove a so-called loophole which allows a widow/widower to claim a war widow/widower pension even if they enter into a de facto relationship prior to claiming the war widow/widower pension. By way of contrast, a widow/widower who marries or remarries before claiming the war widow/widower pension is not eligible for that pension. This legislation effectively means that the provisions for claiming a war widow/widower pension will now apply equally to those who are married or in a de facto relationship. Importantly, this amendment is prospective and will not affect any claim for a pension made before 30 September 2010.
While the measures contained within this bill meet with the recommendations contained within the Clarke review, and I note they also have the broad support of the veterans community, it is important to note the timing of the introduction of this legislation. It is quite obvious that the Rudd Labor government has chosen to introduce this legislation during the time immediately preceding the election campaign proper. This point has not been lost on the veterans community. While they may be supportive of the changes I have just outlined, I am confident that they will also be cognisant of the fact that the timing of this bill is, to put it nicely, suspect. Take, for instance, the recommendations of the review of the Clarke report. These recommendations were delivered to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Mr Griffin, in February 2009. It has taken Minister Griffin 15 months from the time he received the report for any action—at all—to occur on the recommendations of the review of the Clarke review. Yet only today in this House, Mr Griffin had the audacity to criticise the former coalition government for a three-month turnaround time on the Podger review.
I put it to you, Minister Griffin: what are you going to do with the Podger review? You have had it for 2½ years and you have done nothing with it. Committing to release it says nothing about what you intend to do with its recommendations. It is just more talk, no action. The veterans community simply does not buy the line that because you said you would release it, and did, that you have discharged your responsibility on this matter. And I am here to remind you that you have a long way to go before anyone would consider that you have even come close to doing so.
This is just more spin from a government trying to deflect attention away from its own failings—and there are lots of them. For the minister to stand in this House and claim that three months was far too long a time for the release of the Podger review, only to take over 15 months to act on the Clarke review illustrates the utter hypocrisy of this minister. And let us not forget that for all the fanfare made by the Rudd Labor government about ‘correcting’ the service of BCOF veterans, some 30 months later it has decided to have the three recommendations reviewed again. So they are re-reviewing the re-reviewed recommendations! But that is the modus operandi of the Rudd Labor government: if it is too hard they will delay it, bury it or re-review it. Therefore, 2,700 aged veterans and their families are still waiting on the Rudd Labor government to fulfil their 2007 election commitments.
I note that the measures contained within this bill will be widely welcomed by the veterans community. But I also note that the Rudd Labor government, through the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Mr Griffin, has waited until the last possible moment to introduce this legislation, all so he can maximise the political impact of these new measures. This is the action of a desperate government, a government trying to regain momentum. This is an act of a government that puts its self-interest before the interests of those in the veterans community.
To conclude, veterans deserve a government that is upfront and honest with regard to its policies and promises, something that the current government has failed on both accounts. Veterans deserve a minister that will take action based on the interests of veterans, not the political interests of the Rudd Labor government. And finally, our service personnel, past and present, deserve to live out their lives in dignity and peace after giving so much to their nation. They deserve a government that will make the tough decisions and give veterans a sense of what is to come, instead of leaving them in limbo, waiting for answers on the important matter of their future financial and social security.
I rise to make my contribution to the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010. It was an election commitment to look at the five areas that are in this bill. It is disappointing, to say the least, that the member for Paterson’s contribution was overshadowed by having a swipe at the government. The point was made by the minister earlier today, when introducing the bill, that the former government had ample opportunity to address these matters and failed to do so. We are addressing them now. But we have come to expect that from those opposite, that even when they do support a bill, they still find it very difficult to speak in a proper manner of support.
The bill will give effect to a number of Veterans’ Affairs budget measures. Firstly, it will create a new category of service eligibility under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 to be known as the British nuclear test defence service; secondly, reclassify certain submarine special operations between 1978 and 1992 as operational and qualifying service; thirdly, reclassify certain service in Ubon in Thailand as qualifying service; fourthly, lower the age of domicile of choice from 21 to 18 for the purpose of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986; and, finally, cease eligibility for war widow and war widower pensions for widows or widowers who enter into a de facto relationship prior to claiming the war widow or war widower pension. I will look at each of these in some more detail.
The compensation for military participants in British nuclear testing is important because the British government conducted a series of nuclear weapons tests at Maralinga, Emu Field and Montebello Islands in the 1950s and 1960s and participants have long sought recognition and compensation under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 for conditions arising from their service. In reviewing recommendations of the 2003 Clarke review, the government has decided that former Defence Force personnel who participated in the British nuclear tests program will be provided with access to compensation and benefits under the VEA, as intended by the Clarke review. This will provide disability pensions and healthcare benefits to former Defence Force personnel who suffer from conditions accepted as related to the BNT service. It will also provide the war widow/war widower pension and gold card to the widows and widowers where the participant’s death is accepted as related to the BNT service. People who will benefit from this will be former Defence Force personnel who participated in the BNT program. It is estimated 2,700 surviving personnel will potentially benefit, at a cost of $24.2 million over five years.
The second item we have looked at is the domicile of choice. It is important that veterans who served with the British, Commonwealth and allied forces during the Second World War are able to access benefits under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 if they have served during the war and were domiciled in Australia prior to the war. A small number of these veterans, the BCAL veterans, have been able to access VEA compensation benefits because they were between 18 and 21, thus automatically determined to be domiciled in the same country as their father or their mother if their father was deceased. The Clarke review of veterans entitlements recommended that this discretionary treatment be removed by lowering the age of domicile of choice to 18 years, but this was not implemented. The government committed to reviewing the unimplemented recommendations of the Clarke review and is now implementing these recommendations.
The other aspects of the domicile rules still need to be met, such as integration into Australian society and residency in Australia including intention to reside and length of such residency. The BCAL veterans who enlisted aged between 18 and 21 and would have had Australia as their domicile had they been legally able to choose will benefit from this measure. It is estimated to affect only a handful of veterans and war widows but is an important point of principle. The cost of this amendment will be $700,000 over four years on the forward estimates.
As to the reclassification of certain submarine operations, the Clarke review of veterans entitlements recommended that certain submarine special operations between 1978 and 1992 be deemed non-warlike hazardous for the purposes of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986. This recommendation was not accepted by the previous government. The government committed to reviewing the unimplemented recommendations of the Clarke review, and in 2009 the Vice Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Navy concluded that the special operations met the special criteria for qualifying service and operational service that applied at the time. The reclassification of the service to qualifying service and operational service will provide access to benefits under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986, including access to disability pensions, the service pension at age 60 and automatic entitlement to the gold card at age 70 to all submariners who served on certain special operations between 1978 and 1992 and who are eligible for the award of Australian Service Medal with Special Operations Clasp for that service.
The beneficiaries of this amendment are some 890 former submariners and others who are eligible for the award of the Australian Service Medal with Special Operations Clasp for certain special submarine operations between 1978 and 1990. The government has committed $11.1 million over four years to fund this amendment.
The fourth part of the bill concerns the Defence-initiated nature of service review and the reclassification of service at RAAF Base Ubon in Thailand. The Clarke review of veterans entitlements recommended that the classification of service at RAAF Base Ubon in Thailand between 31 May 1962 and 24 June 1965 not be changed. This recommendation was accepted by the previous government. Although not part of the revisitation of the Clarke review recommendations, a recent separate Defence nature of service review recommended the classification of service between 31 May 1962 and 27 July 1962 as qualifying service. This reclassification will allow veterans to access further benefits under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 for this service, including a service pension at age 60 and automatic entitlement to the gold card at age 70.
Personnel who served at RAAF Base Ubon in Thailand between 31 May and 27 July 1962 will be the beneficiaries of this. About 60 of the estimated 215 surviving veterans with this service currently do not have access to these benefits. This will be funded by the government at a cost of $2.7 million over the next four years.
The Clarke review also recommended the removal of inequities in treatment of widows or widowers who marry or remarry as opposed to those who enter into a de facto relationship. Under this proposal, if a deceased veteran’s partner enters into a marriage-like relationship, they will no longer be eligible to claim the war widow or widowers pension, in the same way as those who marry or remarry are not eligible. This ineligibility will be permanent. Eligibility will not be reinstated if the de facto relationship ends. This removes the inequity in treatment of widows and widowers who marry or remarry as opposed to those who enter into a de facto relationship. This measure will ensure equal treatment of partners who marry or remarry and those who enter into a de facto relationship. This only applies to new claims. No current pensions are affected. There will be a saving to the government over four years of $1.4 million.
There is always a lot of passion in this House when we talk about our veterans. Our war veterans are often left behind, and I know the member for Dobell has many veterans in his community who have served their country. I look forward to being able to inform the veterans in my community of the amendments that have been made to this bill.
The 2010-11 budget delivers on key election commitments that the Rudd Labor government made to the veterans community—some $246 million worth of new initiatives, greater access to compensation and income support, preventing unnecessary hospital admissions from members of the veterans community, action on further recommendations of the Clarke review, better access to health care and compensation for the F111 workers. I have often spoken in this House about the F111 workers and how moving and gut wrenching that inquiry was. I was very happy to see that there was compensation for those people affected all those years ago. Some $55 million will be invested to give an additional 2,400 F111 aircraft fuel tank maintenance workers access to better health care and compensation. These workers include those known as pick and patch personnel, who were not deemed eligible under the previous scheme. This means that more than 3,000 F111 workers will now have access to benefits should they need them. That is very important, and I was glad to see that that compensation will be paid to those people who so thoroughly deserve it.
I know that people are now turning up in the chamber, but not to listen to me talk about this bill. That is being a bit harsh on myself, but I would like to add my congratulations to the member for Kooyong. As a new member here, he is somebody I have looked up to and respected. He took many different positions on issues within the former government. I certainly congratulate him on his contribution to this place, and I look forward to his valedictory speech.
In conclusion, David Hardy has worked for me for three years. He is going back to work in his previous job. David Hardy is a lifelong friend of mine. During the election campaign he took 13 weeks annual leave to help me campaign and then he took a $5,000 pay cut and lost his airfares to come to work for me. He has finally seen the light and is going back to the Northern Territory government. So, to David Hardy: thanks a lot. And, to Petro: congratulations, and I look forward to your speech. I commend the bill to the House.
I was in the chamber to hear Kim Beazley’s brilliant valedictory speech. One of the distinctive things he did was to thank people at the beginning rather than at the end of the speech. Expressions of gratitude are too often truncated by time constraints, so I will emulate Kim’s example.
One of the nice things in my case about getting older is that the black list shrinks while the white list, the debts that cannot be repaid, grow. I thank my mother, Anastasia, and my late father, Costandino Georgiou, for their enormous affection and commitment to their children despite the pressures and anxieties of migration. I thank my children, Costandino and Alexia, who, while still very young, felt the impact of my involvement in politics. Dino is in the gallery today; Alexia has unfortunately been caught in the fog in Melbourne. They are admirable young people. I thank Roxanne, who is everything.
I thank my friends who have held me to my true compass through their support and by administering frequent and systematic beatings. I am grateful to have too many friends to thank them all individually, but they include Jo Szwarc, whose towering intellect has been totally committed to defending the vulnerable; Michael Kapel, a truly remarkable political talent; Ted Baillieu, whose devotion to the public good is unsurpassed. I also thank Alister Drysdale, Peter Wilkinson, Tony Staley, Giancarlo Martini-Piovano, Colin Rubenstein, Bret Walker, Brian Burdekin and Anna Cronin.
Friends embrace staff: Andrew Manton, whose enormous capacities helped me to survive my first years in parliament; Helen Morris, my long-suffering secretary, for whom I worked for 21 years; Eleanor McKinna; Kelly Sexton; and Tony Conheady. These people and all my other staff over the years have enabled me to perform far beyond my capacities.
I thank my colleagues in the coalition, the Independents, third parties and those on the other side of the House. I thank Russell Broadbent, Judi Moylan, Judith Troeth and Bruce Baird. We have lived through some interesting times together. I will miss seeing them regularly. They embody the Liberal Party’s traditions of strength, independent thinking and compassion.
There is a special portal in the parliament. It makes people patient, sensitive, trustworthy, objective advisers and true defenders of the parliament. Unfortunately, passage through that portal is restricted to the clerks of the House of Representatives. I thank all the clerks I have known over 35 years. I thank the Parliamentary Library, Parliament House staff and Comcar drivers. I thank them for their indefatigable efforts to make an unruly parliament work.
I thank the Liberal Party and the electorate of Kooyong. Kooyong is the birthplace of the Liberal Party. I have worked for the Liberal Party for most of my working life. As state director, as policy adviser and as a member of parliament, I have worked in pursuit of the Liberal Party values of enterprise, opportunity, incentive and social justice. I am grateful to the party in Kooyong for their support, and I thank Haddon Storey, Bill Clancy and Paula Davey for their work as my electorate chairs. The party in Kooyong is one of the powerhouses of liberalism and I wish it well.
I have been genuinely humbled by the support I have received from the Kooyong electorate. Occasionally, some try to dismiss Kooyong as one of the ‘leafy suburbs’, populated by doctors’ wives. I note in passing that leafy suburbs have been the backbone of the Liberal Party and that ‘doctors’ wives’ have always been at the heart of Australia’s rural and urban communities. Not to recognise this is to disregard our historic traditions and our current realities. Kooyong is an open-minded and forward-looking electorate. Our people are active and socially responsible, with real insights on local and national issues. They are forthcoming in expressing their views, needs and values. It has been a great honour and a great privilege to have been able to serve them as their parliamentary representative.
I would like to thank the press gallery. In the interests of transparency, I wish to disclose the following: my first media interview was with Laurie Oakes in, I think, 1975, for the Australian Playboy. I was a total novice. He was very fair to me. But I can truly say that I only bought Playboy for the articles.
Journos, like politicians, can be good, bad or indifferent. They face imperative challenges, deadlines, the complexity of material and occasional misbriefing by interested parties. The good ones are full of insight and have a capacity to communicate with Australians and make politicians accountable.
This is my 16th year in the parliament as the member for Kooyong and it is my 35th year in politics. I first sat on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1975 as an adviser to Malcolm Fraser, having brought some of the Khemlani telexes to Canberra as the coalition was blocking supply. Gough Whitlam’s brilliant parliamentary skills defending a government that was weakened was mesmerising, as was the remorselessness of Malcolm Fraser’s attacks. The fact that the supply crisis did not harm Australian democracy attests to the resilience of our political system. The fact that Gough and Malcolm reconciled years ago is a tribute to their stature as national leaders. To those who have sought to denigrate Malcolm Fraser, I just want to say one thing: Malcolm’s fusion of political toughness with compassion and social conscience is simply beyond their comprehension.
I have been enormously privileged to have worked personally for Liberal parliamentary leaders over the last 30 years: Malcolm Fraser, Andrew Peacock, Jeffrey Kennett and John Hewson. Some have broken through; others have not. My respect for their commitment to creating a better Australia is boundless. Nobody forces people to be leaders but, nonetheless, the responsibilities they volunteer to shoulder and the pressures they are subjected to are almost inconceivable. It is unfortunate that our political culture takes partisanship to the point of corrosiveness. I think our political leaders deserve more respect than we give them, regardless of which party they belong to.
I came into the parliament at the age of 47, having been at the sharp end of partisan politics and also having contributed to public policy through the establishment of SBS Television and the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs. I was strong in my view of what the Liberal Party stood for and confident in the common sense and fair-mindedness of the Australian people. I believed that politics was a tough business. There were two dominant parties, they were in conflict, they had power and they had resources. They were strong and evenly matched. They punched and they counterpunched, and sometimes low blows were landed. In my view, however, scapegoating the vulnerable was never part of the political game. I still believe this.
Not all politics is confrontation. Main force clashes, negative advertising and attempts to score lethal blows at question time—all too often unlethal—do dominate. But there are some less confrontational arenas. In parliamentary committees, the focus is on working cooperatively to inquire into issues of national significance and to scrutinise the executive. In my time on the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, for instance, the committee, which included Senator Robert Ray, whose knowledge of the electoral system is as legendary as his lack of political tender-mindedness, managed to bring down three unanimous reports on the electoral system. This sort of cooperation provides some relief from a political landscape that is, generally, bleakly partisan. It should be highlighted more often.
Eleven years of my term was as a member of the government under John Howard. With Peter Costello as Treasurer, its economic achievements were remarkable. We enjoyed strong economic prosperity and record low levels of unemployment, and Australia was left with an enormously strong economy. These achievements should not be belittled and I do not think that they can be denied.
During my time in parliament, a number of developments caused me grave concern. The emergence of the pernicious influence of Hansonism stirred up racial prejudice; multiculturalism, one of Australia’s unique accomplishments, was denigrated; asylum seekers were subjected to increasingly harsh measures; our civil liberties came under challenge after September 11; and the proud Australian tradition of inclusive citizenship was, without sound justification, reversed.
My experience in politics leads me to value party discipline highly. On some issues, however, I was unable to support the position of the party majority. A Liberal member of parliament has the right to do this. The Liberal Party has changed over the decades, but the right of Liberal parliamentarians to differ from the majority of their colleagues on matters of individual principle and conscience has endured. The belief that party discipline does not override individual principle is built into the very foundation of, and is the very reason for, our party’s existence. In recent months there has been efflorescence within the party of the right to dissent—dissent over climate change and alcopops spring to mind. I may have differed with my colleagues on their position, but I unequivocally endorse their right to dissent. Hopefully, we will never again hear a member of the federal parliamentary Liberal Party brand colleagues ‘political terrorists’ because they took a stand on principle.
I have not differed from the majority without considerable reflection and deliberation or without speaking with my colleagues and my party leader—and I have always known the consequences of my actions. Ultimately, however, being a member of parliament, especially a member of the federal parliamentary Liberal Party brings the responsibility of speaking with one’s own voice on matters of principle. I am grateful to the many members of the public, and in particular Liberal Party supporters, who have expressed their respect for my actions, even when they have disagreed.
It is my conviction that public policy is served when members of parliament feel able to speak publicly about deeply felt concerns, even when their views do not conform with those of the majority of their colleagues. I believe that the public good was promoted by the attempt by myself and others to have the Commonwealth intervene to override the Northern Territory laws which jailed children for minor infractions such as stealing a bottle of spring water—laws which fell particularly harshly on Indigenous children. We did not succeed in getting the laws overridden; we did achieve the establishment of diversionary programs which effectively displaced jail.
I believe that Australia benefited from the reforms that flowed from the attempt of a number of us to introduce private member’s bills reforming the treatment of asylum seekers. Children and families were taken out from behind razor wire. The Ombudsman was made responsible for publicly reporting on people being detained for prolonged periods. Thousands of people on temporary protection visas were given permanent protection.
I believe that the resistance to draconian aspects of the anti-terrorist laws and the introduction of a private member’s bill to establish an independent reviewer of terrorist laws—which was in essence taken up by the Labor government, with much reluctance—served liberal principles well. I do not pretend that our efforts had anything like total success. The Northern Territory laws were not struck down. The policy of mandatory detention was not abolished by either the Howard or the Rudd government. What happened, however, was that the compromises achieved made a significant difference to the lives of thousands of vulnerable men, women and children.
For most of my life I have believed in the inevitability of progress. The reality is that many of the things that I believed were embedded parts of our polity—multiculturalism, the inclusiveness of Australian citizenship and the protection of civil rights—have been rolled back. Also rolled back has been a more decent treatment of asylum seekers. Until a few months ago I believed that the reforms made by the Howard and the Rudd governments meant that we had irreversibly turned the corner. I wrote that we were closing a dark chapter in our history. This chapter had seen men and women who were seeking refuge in our country incarcerated. It had seen innocent people imprisoned for longer than convicted rapists, robbers and kidnappers. Escapees from persecution were demonised and detention centres traumatised—not just the detainees, but their guards.
This chapter, I am afraid, has been reopened. Regression has become the order of the day. With an increase in boat arrivals, asylum seekers are being subjected to increasingly virulent attacks. The Labor government has frozen the processing of Afghani and Sri Lankan asylum seekers and is reopening the Curtin detention centre. Historically, Curtin is the most notorious of the detention centres, which have all been places of despair and self-harm. Opposition policies would turn back boats, process asylum seekers in undisclosed third countries and restore the destructive temporary protection visas. These policies are cruel. They do not have my support.
This regression does not reflect credit on either side of federal politics. Vulnerable people are again being made into a football to be kicked around in the interests of partisan politics. This is despite the facts and the best values of our society. The fact is that Australia’s punitive approach did not deter people coming to Australia. Mandatory detention, the charging of asylum seekers for the costs of their detention, the introduction of temporary protection visas and the Pacific Solution did not deter them. After mandatory detention was introduced, boat arrivals increased. After temporary protection visas were introduced, boat arrivals increased. Most of the people subjected to the Pacific Solution were found to be genuine refugees and resettled in Australia and New Zealand.
I do not believe that we have lost control of our borders. I do not believe that people smugglers determine who comes into Australia and who does not. We can support orderly processes, we can warn people against people smugglers and we can warn them not to risk their lives on unseaworthy boats. We have to realise, however, that escaping from persecution is not an orderly process. Desperate people do take desperate measures. But beyond the arguments about deterrence, and what causes what, is a more fundamental point. It goes to our obligations. I believe that we have a fundamental obligation as a nation to, at the very least, not further harm those who bring themselves into our orbit of responsibility by seeking a safe haven. We should not, as Australians, compound the persecution of genuine refugees by delaying their processing, locking them up in unnamed third countries or keeping them in insecurity on temporary protection visas.
I once said to journalist Michael Gordon:
In life there are many things that you’d like to walk past and not notice. Lots. But sometimes you do notice and when you notice, you have to do something.
I have noticed some things, and I have tried not to walk past.
Progress is not inevitable. It requires commitment, and it requires effort. There are setbacks and there are regressions. But I leave this place still optimistic that Australians will seek and find in their representatives, declarations and deeds that elevate hope above fear, and tolerance above prejudice. I am optimistic that they may be proud of the laws made by their parliamentarians and the contribution they make to help build a fair, decent and civil society for quickly coming generations. We here each bear a responsibility for our nation’s calling and our nation’s standing.
It has been a profound honour to serve the nation as a member of the Australian Parliament. I am proud to have been part of this place during this time. Thank you.
The Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010 addresses five parts of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act that require amendment and it includes service relating to British nuclear tests, service on submarine special operations, service in Thailand, domicile and effect of widows and widowers entering into de facto relationships, and requires further interpretation of the eligibility criteria. The Veterans’ Entitlements Act provides eligibility for pensions, treatment and other benefits on the basis of the type of service that the veteran or Defence Force member has rendered. The three main types of service are operational service, which includes non-warlike service, qualifying service and defence service. Service regarded as operational service provides eligibility for disability and war widow and war widower pensions, treatment and other benefits, and the more generous reverse criminal standard of proof is used to determine pension claims. Operational service is overseas service within defined areas and dates in a time of war or during warlike or non-warlike operations. Operational service also grants veteran status under the Veterans’ Entitlement Act.
Qualifying service provides eligibility for service pension and associated benefits. Post Second World War qualifying service generally requires a person to have been allotted for duty and to have served in an operational area listed in schedule 2 of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act or to have rendered warlike service. The other main category of defence—defence service—provides eligibility for disability and war widow and war widower pensions, treatment and other benefits. Broadly, defence service is peacetime service of three years or more in the Defence Force between 7 December 1972 and the commencement of the Military Compensation Act 1994 on 7 April 1994 and any period of hazardous service. Pension claims relating to defence service only are determined on the balance of probabilities, unless the member has peacekeeping service or hazard service, in which case the generous reverse criminal standard of proof is applicable.
Then we have to look at those who were in defence forces during the series of British nuclear weapons tests which were conducted in Australia at the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia and at Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia between October 1952 and October 1957. Minor trials were also conducted at Emu Field and Maralinga between 1953 and 1963. Both Australian and British personnel were involved in the tests and those involved included military and civilian participants but have yet to be included under this legislation.
Workers compensation coverage for participants who were at the time members of the Australian Defence Force or the Australian Public Service is provided under the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act and its predecessors. In 1986 the government created a like safety, rehabilitation and compensation act administrative scheme to provide compensation coverage for civilians, including pastoralists and Indigenous persons, who were at the test sites. This scheme is still open to claimants. The test participants also had access to a special administrative scheme and an act of grace scheme, both administered by the then Department of Science, Education and Training.
In 2006 the government enacted the British Nuclear Test (Treatment) Act to provide free testing and treatment for cancer for both military and non-military personnel who participated in the tests and related activities. The changes allowed a group of veterans who had been left out before to be included. As part of the 2010 budget, a new category of eligible service is to be created under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act to provide former Australian Defence Force members who participated in the British nuclear tests and related activities with eligibility for benefits equivalent to those that are available to members with non-warlike or hazardous service. In addition, pension claims relating to British nuclear test defence service are to be determined under the more generous standard of proof of the reasonable hypothesis test under sections 120 and 120A of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. British nuclear test defence service is a distinct new category of service and is not non-warlike or hazardous service, although the benefits it will attract are equivalent to those for non-warlike or hazardous service or defence service.
To achieve this, the British nuclear test Defence service will be incorporated into part 4 of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. The amendments will be made to sections 120 and 120A to ensure that pensions claimed relate to British nuclear test Defence service and are determined on the more generous reverse criminal standard of proof and reasonable hypothesis test. British nuclear test Defence service will be incorporated into part IV of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act by including British nuclear test Defence service in the definition of Defence service in part 4 item 4 of this schedule, including members of the British nuclear test Defence service in the definition of member of the forces in part IV item 5 of this schedule and applying part IV of the VEA to members with British nuclear test Defence service. This requires a new subsection, 69B, at item 6 of this schedule. It will also define the criteria a member must meet to have rendered British nuclear test Defence service.
Because of the incorporation of British nuclear test Defence service into part IV of the VEA, members will become eligible for disability and war widow and war widower pensions under part IV; treatment under part V by virtue of section 81 of part V; allowance and other benefits under part VI by virtue of section 96 of part VI; rehabilitation under part VIA; the Veterans’ Children Education Scheme under part VII; and the veterans’ supplement under part VIIA.
The second part of this legislation applies to certain submarine special operations, which will be reclassified as operational and qualifying service under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. This will provide eligibility for all pensions and associated benefits under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act and will mean that disability and war widow and war widower pension claims relating to this service will be determined on the more generous reverse criminal standard of proof.
The amendments made by schedule 2 reclassify certain submarine special operations that were undertaken in the period between 1978 and 1992 as operational and qualifying service. Service regarded as operational service provides eligibility for disability and war widow and war widower pensions, treatment and other benefits and the more generous reverse criminal standard of proof is used to determine pension claims. Operational service is overseas service within defined areas and dates in a time of war or during warlike or non-warlike operations. Operational service also grants veteran status under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. Qualifying service provides eligibility for service pension and associated benefits. Post Second World War qualifying service generally requires the person to have been allotted for duty and have served in an operational area listed in schedule 2 of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act or to have rendered warlike service.
Persons with Defence service will generally have the same access to disability and war widow and war widower pensions, treatment and other benefits as those with operational service, except that pension claims will be subject to the civil standard of proof. On that basis a pension will only be granted if the Repatriation Commission, in deciding the claim, is able do so to its reasonable satisfaction. Persons with operational service under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act are also eligible for subsidised home loan advances under the Defence Service Homes Act.
Relevant submarine special operations service between 1978 and 1992 currently attracts dual eligibility under both the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act and under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act as Defence service. As such, under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act claims for pension relating to this service are currently determined on the civil standard of proof and not the more generous reverse criminal standard of proof. All persons who served on the relevant submarine special operations were awarded, or were eligible to be awarded, the Australian Service Medal with Clasp SPECIALOPS.
As a consequence of the inclusion of the certain submarine special operations as operational and qualifying service under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act there is a need for consequential amendments to both the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act and the Defence Service Homes Act. Eligibility under the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act will be retained for claims made before the commencement of the amendments in this schedule; that is, claims made under the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act before 1 July 2010.
Eligibility under the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act will cease for new claims relating to the relevant submarine special operations on and from the commencement of the amendments to this schedule, 1 July 2010. This means that any compensation payable under the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act prior to the commencement of this schedule, including claims lodged before the commencement of this schedule and determined after the commencement of this schedule, will continue to be payable and may be offset against any subsequent disability pension payable under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. The Defence Service Homes Act will be amended to provide eligibility under that act for members with the relevant submarine special operations service.
Then there are the changes for those who served in Ubon in Thailand from 31 May 1962 to 27 July 1962 inclusive, which is to be re-classified as ‘qualifying service’ due to the potential risk from the activities of hostile forces and dissident elements. The reclassification of this service to qualifying service will provide members with eligibility for service pensions and associated benefits. Service in Ubon in Thailand from 31 May 1962 to 27 July 1962 will retain its current operational service status.
It should be noted that the qualifying service reclassification is limited to service in Ubon and does not extend to service in other parts of north-east Thailand during that period, as the circumstances justifying the reclassification applied only to those serving in Ubon at that time. Service in other parts of north-east Thailand during this period will remain operational service. Some of these areas of service have been the subject of much discussion over the years and I am pleased to see they have now been recognised.
Domicile legislation is also to be altered by this legislation. Under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, British, Commonwealth and allied veterans may be eligible for pensions and other benefits, if they have eligible service with a Commonwealth or allied defence force and if they had Australian domicile immediately prior to their enlistment in that defence force. This policy was intended to cover those Australians who were travelling or studying overseas at the time World War II broke out and who could not return to Australia to enlist in the Australian Defence Force.
In the absence of the legal concept of Australian citizenship until 1949, the domicile concept was adopted as a means of determining whether a British, Commonwealth and allied veteran could be regarded as an Australian at the time of enlistment. However, persons under 21 at the time of their enlistment in a Commonwealth or allied defence force could not establish a domicile of choice—independent domicile—as the common-law rules that applied at that time meant that a person could not assume a domicile of choice before the age of 21. Until the age of 21, a person’s domicile would have been dependent on the domicile of the father, or if the father was deceased, the domicile of the mother. The Domicile Act 1982 has since lowered the age at which a person can claim independent domicile from 21 to 18 years of age.
However, this act does not apply to circumstances that occurred before the commencement of the act and thus the common-law rules continue to apply in those circumstances. This will enable those veterans who were between 18 and 20 and unable to nominate Australia as their domicile of choice to gain eligibility under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act for their service in a British, Commonwealth or allied defence force, as Australian veterans, providing they meet the other domicile and service eligibility requirements.
Finally, the amendments made by schedule 5 will cease eligibility for war widow or war widower pensions for widows and widowers who enter into a de facto relationship prior to claiming the war widow or war widower pension. It will also cease eligibility for a widow or widower who is in a de facto relationship at the time of the veteran or member’s death and who would otherwise have been automatically granted war widow or war widower pension.
Under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, a war widow or war widower pension is payable to compensate the widow or widower of a veteran or member of the Defence Force who has died as a result of war service or defence service. Under the current provisions, a widow or widower remains eligible for a war widow or war widower pension even if the widow or widower enters into a de facto relationship prior to claiming the war widow or war widower pension. (Time expired)
This bill implements Labor’s 2007 election commitment to reconsider the unimplemented recommendations of the Clarke review of veterans’ entitlements. The review was, of course, conducted by the Hon. John Clarke QC and was completed in 2003. I note that in 2004, the previous coalition government responded with a package of $236 million over five years.
In Labor’s plan for veterans affairs in the Kevin 07 election the Labor Party promised:
A Rudd Labor Government will give further consideration to recommendations of the Clarke Review of Veterans’ Entitlements that were not acted upon by the Howard Government.
This process will also give early priority to recommendations relating to those Australian participants in the British Commonwealth Occupational Force in Japan—
and Defence participants in the atomic tests in Australia.
I do confess a conflict of interest: my uncle was part of the BCOF in Japan and would later volunteer and fight with the 3rd Battalion in Korea in 1951.
On 9 September 2008, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs issued a great press release: ‘Government kicks off Clarke Review—nuclear veterans and BCOF a priority.’ Submissions from veterans about unimplemented recommendations were due by 1 December 2008. The recommendations were delivered to Minister Griffin in February 2009. And then we waited. We waited some 30 months from the election of the government, and 15 months from the time the report was delivered, for any action at all on the recommendations.
And now we see in the budget, $36 million. The previous government spent $236 million. So another 15 per cent—$36 million—was certainly welcome over four years to implement the re-reviewed recommendations.
The Rudd Labor government noted that three had already been accepted and acted upon; four have been accepted and are the basis of this bill; four deferred for further consideration; 22 referred to the review of military compensation arrangements; and 12 rejected for a second time. Noting my declared conflict of interest, I am somewhat amazed that recommendations relating to BCOF veterans have been further delayed.
The government has stated it proposes to defer its response to these recommendations to allow further examination and discussion within the government and with the defence Nature of Service Review team. There appears to be no time line for the completion of this re-review of the re-review of the review, which is interesting because the minister’s press release was titled ‘Government kicks off Clarke review: nuclear veterans and BCOF a priority’. But apparently there is no time line for this ‘priority’; it just seems to have disappeared into the ether.
There is lots of noise from the government about correcting the service of BCOF veterans under the re-review of the re-review of the re-review of the review. But, again, nothing happened—30 months and there is still nothing for the 2,700 aged BCOF aged veterans, including my uncle, who has since died, and their families. And no-one is any the wiser about the commitment Labor made to them at the last election. I can only surmise that when the minister said ‘Government kicks off Clarke review’ and ‘BCOF a priority’ that a ‘priority’ would not end up as a re-review of a re-review of a review. I can only assume that is another broken promise—I have to say that list must be exceptionally long by now.
In terms of the substance of the bill, it deals with within the four accepted recommendations in five schedules, and there is one new issue there that was not part of the Clarke review. Schedule 1 deals with recommendation 45 of the Clarke review. The Australian government will reclassify the service of British nuclear test defence service veterans to an equivalent ‘hazardous, non-warlike’ status—costing $24.3 million over four years. Eligible ex-defence personnel will be able to access disability pensions, war widow pensions and, where applicable, a gold card. Of course, where I say ‘war widow’ I also refer to ‘war widowers’. Eligible ex-defence personnel will be able to access those benefits. In 2006, the previous coalition government extended coverage of the white card to all ex-defence and civilian personnel who were involved in the tests. White card coverage will remain for civilian personnel who are not ex-defence personnel. Under changes to the VEA Act, a new classification of service would be entered into the act.
Schedule 2 looks at the issue of submarine special operations—recommendation 31 of the Clarke review. The Australian government intends to reclassify the service of submarine special operations undertaken between 1 January 1978 and 31 December 1992 as ‘qualifying’ and ‘operational’ service. Considering that this service was on board the British Oberon class of submarines, I have absolutely and utterly no problem with this recommendation and where the government is going. I have not been or served on board an Oberon class submarine. I have been on board the Collins class submarine. But I know, from talking to my colleagues who served on the Oberon class, that it was like living completely wrapped in smelly, diesel-covered oily rags. I think anything we can provide for those men that served long periods in quite dangerous occupations in that sort of unknown environment is well and truly deserved. This change will entitle eligible people access to an asset- and means-tested service pension at age 60, to the disability pension, to the war widow pension and to the gold card at age 70. The Naval Association of Australia strongly supports the extended classification, as do I.
Schedule 3 looks at service in Thailand. The Australian government will reclassify certain service between 31 May 1962 and 27 July 1962 in Ubon in north-east Thailand as ‘qualifying service’. Again, this will entitle eligible veterans access to service pensions at age 60 and the gold card at age 70, on top of existing entitlement to disability pensions, and will entitle eligible widows to war widow pensions. This is not in response to the Clarke review. Yet a quick note of the history I think explains where the government has gone, and again I think it is a relatively good move. Throughout the 1960s, Australian service personnel were stationed throughout South-East Asia—in fact, some of them were stationed there from 1948, when the Malayan Emergency began, in which I think 36 Australian servicemen lost their lives. Australians were involved in confrontation in Malaysia. After 1965, of course, personnel were involved in the Vietnam War, specifically with the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam and then other forces that went there. On a quick side note, my first exposure to the Training Team Vietnam was through our school sergeant Jim Geedrick, a great Australian who fought at a very young age in World War II, fought in the Malayan Emergency, fought in the Korean confrontation and then fought with the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam. He was a tremendous man, a great Australian and a great asset to my school, Rockhampton Grammar School.
In May 1962, 79 Squadron from the RAAF, the Royal Australian Air Force, was despatched to north-east Thailand to protect the territorial integrity of Thailand. At the time, suffice it to say there were few facilities at Ubon. It was pretty rugged. It was very, very tough going for two months before something more permanent began to be constructed. I have lived in some fairly tough, disgusting places in the north of Australia and other countries on operations. The situation in 1962 I think took tough to a whole new level. So, for the government to reclassify ‘potential risk from the activities of hostile forces and dissident elements’, considering the circumstances they were living in, is appropriate and just.
Moving on to schedule 4, which relates to recommendation 60 of the Clarke review, the Australian government will correct an anomaly in the VEA Act to enable certain British Commonwealth and allied veterans who were aged between 18 and 21 at the time of enlistment in a Commonwealth or allied defence force to access the Australian repatriation system. Under the VEA Act, British, Commonwealth and allied veterans may be eligible for pensions and other benefits if they have eligible service with a Commonwealth or allied defence force and if they had Australian domicile immediately prior to their enlistment in that defence force. Again, that makes a fair degree of sense to me.
Finally, schedule 5 deals with war widows entering into a de facto relationship. In line with recommendation 54 of the Clarke review, the Australian government will remove an entitlement from war widows who claim a war widow pension after entering a marriage-like—that is, a de facto—relationship. Consequently, the government will require eligible war widows to claim a war widow pension before they enter a new relationship in order to qualify for their pension. I note that, under current legislation, a war widow who applies for a war widow pension after marrying or remarrying is not entitled to that pension. However, a war widow who enters a marriage-like relationship could still apply for a war widow pension. There was a difference between de facto and married. I note the government is proposing a change. It is not retrospective, but it does make assumptions on the way people live. The government is looking to save $1.4 million over four years, which in effect denies about 10 new applicants per year.
I think it is instructive to again look at history. In 1984, the Hawke government put back pensions to married or remarried war widows who, until then, had lost their pension upon remarriage. Again, this was a prospective, not retrospective, change. In 2001, the previous coalition government broadened the 1984 change to include any married or remarried war widow who lost their pension as a result of their marriage or remarriage after applying for and being granted a pension.
Justice Clarke recommended, inter alia, that no change to the present arrangements be made, including the broadening of the base of the war widow pension to people who had applied after marriage. The war widow pension is a compensation payment and is not means tested. I think it is paid at a rate of $703.90 a fortnight, and some eligible war widows may indeed receive an income support supplement. I note this change has the support of the veteran and ex-service community, including the War Widows Guild of Australia and Legacy. However, my view is that a war widow is still a war widow. Regardless of whether she remarries or moves into a de facto relationship, they have lost their partner—their husband and, in some cases, their wife—in combat operations overseas. I cannot imagine the horror and the pain of losing my wife or of someone losing their partner, but to lose them in the defence of the nation or in the national interest overseas in combat operations, in such difficult environments, is a whole new world of horror.
There is an incredibly brave Australian in my electorate, Nicole Pearce. She is the war widow of David ‘Poppy’ Pearce who died in combat operations in Afghanistan, fighting for all that we believe in and our way of life. I have recently got back from 10 days in the Middle East operations, including five days in Kandahar and in Tarin Kowt. In the middle of the base is an Australian memorial, to the young Australian—in this case—men who have paid the ultimate price, who have died on combat operations serving their nation. David ‘Poppy’ Pearce’s name is there. I took a photograph of the memorial and a close-up of his name, of his plaque, and sent it to Nicole. I gave her a call, because she is in my electorate, and she said, ‘You know what: today would have been our 15th wedding anniversary.’ You cannot imagine the horror. A war widow is a war widow—and we should never lose sight of that.
I rise to speak in support of the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010. The Rudd government is committed to supporting our veterans and their families. The budget handed down this year has a suite of new initiatives totalling $246.4 million. This includes greater access to compensation, income support, preventing unnecessary hospital admissions for members of the veteran community, decisive action with respect to the recommendations of Justice John Clarke in what is known as the Clarke review, and better access to health care and compensation for F111 workers, particularly those who worked on F111s at RAAF Base Amberley in the electorate of Blair. I have been a strong advocate of our actions on the Clarke review and of acting on what I would describe as the Bevis parliamentary recommendations, which recommended more justice and fairness for those in the military who worked on F111s, particularly in refuelling and the deseal-reseal operations at RAAF Base Amberley.
The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs is probably heartily sick and tired of my speaking to him on this issue. Every time he looks at me he initiates the conversation before I mention it to him. But I am pleased with the budgetary measures we have undertaken on both of these issues. Certainly, 2,400 extra people will receive justice in the deseal-reseal operations that took place at RAAF Base Amberley. These include the ‘pick and patch’ workers, at a cost of $39.6 million. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs said on budget night that more people will be eligible for care and compensation now, including those who carried out F111 fuel tank maintenance involving fuel tank entry. He announced a $55 million package of health care and compensation to those in need and the reopening of the SHOAMP healthcare scheme, which was closed on 20 September 2005 at a cost of $12.5 million. This is acting where the previous government failed to act.
I am pleased that Kathleen Henry from the group who advocated for justice on this issue has liaised closely with us. I commend her work and the work of Ian Fraser on this issue. It is not only the people involved in the F111 aircraft fuel tank maintenance operations but also those people who, sadly, in a terrible tragedy of our history participated in or were exposed to radiation as a result of British nuclear testing who will receive a degree of decency, compensation and health care as a result of the budget. British nuclear testing took place in a number of different locations in Australia. On 3 October 1952, the UK tested its first nuclear weapon, named Hurricane, at the Monte Bello Islands off the Western Australian coast. Two major test series were conducted at Maralinga called Operation Buffalo and Operation Antler. The Indigenous people in the area at Maralinga, who considered Maralinga to have very deep spiritual significance to them going back generation after generation, were simply ignored and treated appallingly at the time. This is a terrible period of our history, and it is not as though governments of the day did not know about this.
These people were exposed to radiation which had lifelong impacts upon them. The government’s response is to act on the recommendations of Justice Clarke, who recommended in 2003 in a report that the participation of defence personnel in the British nuclear test program in Australia be deemed non-warlike hazardous. This had implications for the provision of decent health care and compensation for these people. I say 2003: the actual review was the 2003 review of veterans entitlements conducted by Justice Clarke. We were not in power at the time; the coalition government was in power in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and nearly all of 2007. It is a terrible shame that the recommendations of Justice Clarke were not acted upon by the coalition government. We appreciate that now there is a bipartisan approach on this issue. We appreciate that from those opposite. But those opposite have failed dismally when it comes to the recommendations of Justice Clarke.
After I was elected to this place in November 2007 a fellow came to see me, a constituent of mine, Merv Kleidon, who lives in Ipswich at a place known as One Mile. It is a nice place with a great community centre, and there is a great Baptist church in the Leichhardt-One Mile area.
My Uncle Merv Newmann is actually the president of the Leichhardt-One Mile Community Centre and secretary of the Leichhardt Baptist church.
Merv Kleidon is a well-known figure in the Leichhardt-One Mile area. He came to see me because he was concerned about this issue. I pointed out to him that there were about 470 submissions made in relation to the Clarke review when the government was considering this issue. I said, ‘Tell me, Merv, why are you interested in this topic?’ He said, ‘Well, Shayne, I’ve got a gold card. I got one for my service in Malaya in 1959 to 1961. I worked in the RAAF. I was an engine fitter and I was based at the RAAF base at Amberley in Ipswich,’ now in the electorate of Blair. He said, ‘I worked on the Lincoln aircraft. Me and my mates worked on them.’ I said, ‘Tell me about this.’ So Merv proceeded on this occasion, and on numerous occasions subsequently when he popped into my office to have a chat with me, to say that so many of his friends had died from radiation sickness and poisoning. He said, ‘We worked on these aircraft which were monitoring the clouds that came across as a result of the nuclear tests.’ He said he had been advocating for quite some time for justice, but he told me that the Australian Nuclear Veterans Association had contacted him about it. He said that the Australians who are involved in this association had contacted him and asked him to get involved. So he is actually on the editorial committee that publishes a magazine that deals with issues concerning nuclear veterans. He told me about the stories of his friends and what they put up with.
Merv went to places like Alice Springs and Toowoomba to advocate for the cause. He said, ‘We were treated shabbily. They knew and we weren’t told. We were exposed to this stuff and the authorities knew about it. We would go into the planes afterwards, the gunnery areas and where the pilots were, and they would have great packs of chocolate and nuts and food and we would eat these rations. We weren’t told that they were exposed to radioactive material, we weren’t told that we were damaging our health, but we were effectively fodder. We were misled deliberately and mistreated.’ So he and his mates and their families suffered accordingly.
Merv is obviously still alive and still advocating for the causes in which he believes. He claims that the British knew all about and he said, ‘We knew that they knew all about it later on.’ He felt the Australian government knew about it at the time but did little about it. Artie Fadden, who had been Prime Minister for a while, supposedly said to the British, ‘What’s going on about these clouds that are coming across the country?’ And the previous coalition government knew about it as well.
Merv’s response when I had a chat with him today about this issue was, ‘Good one, Shayne. You have done what you said you would do.’ Merv has got a gold card from his overseas service in South-East Asia, but he said it is long overdue recognition of what went on. He said that many people have been affected. I will never forget Merv coming into my office, with tears in his eyes, telling me about his mates. I want to commend Merv and all those like him who fought for justice for so long, who travelled around everywhere, who wrote articles, who advocated, who agitated, who annoyed politicians on both sides of the political divide. He said he was exposed not just for a couple of days but for a considerable period of time.
We treat and have treated our men and women who have served in the military pretty shamefully at times and we have adopted the views and we have followed slavishly at times the advice and the actions of our great and powerful friends. But sometimes our friends deserve to be told that they got it wrong. Sometimes we need to stand up more strongly for the Australian public, the Australian veteran community and the Australian military who serve on our behalf.
I thank Merv for his advocacy and I thank him for the many times he popped into my office. It is never a short conversation with Merv; he likes to let you know what he thinks. I want to thank him very much and I want to pay tribute to Merv and all those like him for what they have done in this regard.
I see the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs here. He will have nothing to talk to me about after the Clarke review and after the Bevis review. But I am pleased we have acted on those things, because he has honoured what he said he would do. This has not been an easy process, but it is a just decision. We will see legislation amended to ensure that the declaration of non-warlike hazardous service can in fact be extended to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. We have given action to the recommendation of Justice Clarke and it means veterans and their widows and widowers can get access to the kind of health care and assistance that they so deserve. This is the closure of a sad chapter in the military service of our country by so many people.
Other aspects of this legislation deal with the reclassification of certain submarine special operations as qualifying service, the reclassification of service in Ubon in Thailand as qualifying service, the lowering of the age of domicile of choice from 21 years to 18 years for the purpose of the VEA Act and the cessation of eligibility for war widow or widower pensions for widows and widowers who enter into de facto relationships prior to claiming the same.
Many of these things are the recommendations of Justice Clarke. I am sure that many people across the country will be pleased today with this legislation. It will help a lot of people. It will help honour their memories, particularly in relation to the British nuclear testing service. This change will potentially help up to 2,700 former defence personnel. This is a good day where we correct a terrible injustice that was perpetrated and perpetuated on Australian military personnel and their families for a very long time.
I will concentrate my comments on a number of issues that have been raised in the debate on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2010 Budget Measures) Bill 2010 and address some of the concerns that have been raised. Some of the issues include not only the legislation but also, in a wider sense, the government’s conduct in veterans affairs over the last couple of years. I think some of these points need to be addressed. I will go back in time a bit, because much of what we are dealing with in this legislation is about going back in time and dealing with issues which were outstanding over many years.
I make the point that the government, when in opposition, came forward with a very comprehensive plan for veterans affairs. It has been mentioned by some of the speakers and I have a copy with me today. The funny thing about it, though, is that a number of people who have brandished the document or have endeavoured to quote from the document have, frankly, just quoted selectively. They have not gone to the details. They have picked headings out. They have used quotes such as, ‘The government promised to restore the value of compensation and entitlements.’ And, yes, we did. We then listed a series of specific commitments that we would act on, which we have overwhelmingly done.
Some people have sought to expand upon that far beyond what the government ever said, far beyond what the government ever suggested. In that way, they try and say on the basis of a heading or one line, ‘That means that the government meant (a), (b), (c).’ Well, it did not. We laid it right out there. That is why there was a document this big—some 28 pages—with details and specific commitments. What we heard from the ex-service community was that they were sick of being lied to, they were sick of being led down a path and they were concerned that matters were not getting addressed and had been outstanding for more than a decade.
In fact, when we look at the Clarke review, some of the issues that it raised are dealt with in this legislation. The Clarke review was the result of, under the previous government, massive concern within the veteran and ex-service community about the government’s lack of action around a whole range of issues. That is why the Clarke review was established. It was a commitment by the previous government earlier this century to look at what they had not addressed in the last part of the last century. It was about going to an all-encompassing inquiry which produced a range of different issues.
The government of the day subsequently responded to that, but, as has been said, many recommendations were not accepted and that was the nature of the commitment that was made by the government. We made the commitment to review those recommendations, not to accept them all, not to implement them all but to review them and to see what could be done about those recommendations that were worthy of action and those recommendations that were worthy of support.
We stipulated in our election commitment—in fact, it was in our platform—two particular recommendations that had received a good deal of public interest and a good deal of concern. We made sure that the debate internally around those issues was considered carefully and we looked to the question of what should be done with those particular issues. On this occasion and in this response one of those key issues—British nuclear test participants—has been addressed.
What is funny about it is speakers from the opposition saying ‘this has taken too long’, ‘it hasn’t gone far enough’, ‘some of these recommendations shouldn’t have been acted upon’ or whatever—take your pick. But let us remember what this means. This is an opposition complaining about the fact that this government is taking too long to address issues that they refused to address when in office. These recommendations were rejected by the previous government. It is great to see speakers like the member for Fadden and the member for Greenway standing up and endorsing, to a large extent, what is in the legislation and saying these are positive moves forward, even though the member for Greenway is a member of the party that rejected those recommendations—not so much the member for Fadden, seeing as he is a new member. I agree with him that action is long overdue in relation to submarine service, but, frankly, it was reviewed by the Howard government and it was rejected. I agree that action is long overdue on the question of Clarke’s recommendation about British nuclear test participants, but, frankly, the previous government refused to go any further than they did with their response in 2006, which provided white card coverage for cancer treatment.
Every single dollar under this legislation is a dollar that goes to members of the veterans community. It is money that they did not get, would not have got and were refused by the previous government. So it is funny to have the opposition stand in here today and talk about how long it has taken. It took them a long time to consider the issues in the first place, but then they were very clear: the answer was no. I am very proud of being part of a government where today the answer is yes on some of these issues. I am very proud to be part of a government that is moving forward in dealing with some of those outstanding concerns.
There are other issues that have been raised today which again I would like to comment on and which I think also tell part of that story. The member for Blair made much of the F111 deseal-reseal program, and I know in comments if not today then certainly in the appropriations debate that the shadow minister, the member for Greenway, raised issues in relation to that. The member for Blair made the point that this was a positive $55 million commitment in the forward estimates to deal with issues around the deseal-reseal program—that it expanded significantly the number of people who were covered and gave people access to opportunities to receive compensation and health care for conditions they had developed. The shadow minister said of the F111 Deseal-Reseal Support Group:
They feel incredibly let down by the response to the review.
Maybe she should go back and check with them now, because I met with them in Brisbane subsequent to the budget announcement to discuss the issues around the response and what it means for the people that they have concerns about—and it is fair to say that there are concerns that remain. But one of the key people in that group, who has had a long involvement in this issue, Kathleen Henry, said in an open meeting, ‘I think you’ve got this 90 per cent right.’
I will tell you what else: this was the result of a parliamentary inquiry conducted under the chairmanship of the member for Brisbane, Arch Bevis. It was a parliamentary inquiry that was a commitment I made as the shadow minister, in opposition, out at Amberley at a meeting of the deseal-reseal support group. I remember it very clearly because at the time I was not sure what the answer was, I was not sure what needed to be done here, but I was concerned about the level and degree of concern being expressed by those people about their circumstances. I could not commit, and it would not have been sensible to commit, to firm action at that time in terms of a monetary sum or a system, but I committed to having the parliamentary inquiry. ‘Let’s have a look at it,’ I said, and that is what they wanted us to do.
The next speaker after me that day was the then minister, the member for Dunkley. I have a lot of time for the member for Dunkley and, as I have said on the public record, I think he was a good Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. In his time as minister I think he addressed some issues where action was long overdue on a number of fronts. But on this one he dropped the ball, because he was asked for the same commitment that day and he refused to give it. We have the shadow minister complaining about a response to an inquiry that, when they were in government, they refused to have. They refused to conduct it; they refused to allow it.
As I said, there is some $55 million, according to estimates from the department, in health care and compensatory support, potentially going to up to another 2,700 or so members who were actively involved in the deseal-reseal area, and every single dollar of that exceeds the requirement and the allowance of the previous government in terms of what they were prepared to do. The opposition are saying: ‘Oh, it took too long,’ and, ‘Oh, it doesn’t go far enough.’ Well, it goes a bloody sight further than what the previous government did over a decade. I might add that the general response within the ex-service community on that issue, on most occasions—certainly from those who have actually read it—has been positive.
The shadow minister also mentioned the review of ESO advocacy and welfare services, commonly known as the BEST review. It has been put, as I understand it, that this has been sitting on my desk. It started sitting on my desk today—today; not a month ago, not six months ago. I received it today, and what I received is what we said and what I have said publicly it would be: a key issues paper for circulation. I have made that very clear to the ex-service community.
There are concerns about this review and there is good reason to be concerned, because it is a complex area. It is a complex area in terms of providing support where the ex-service organisations need it and where the people that they service need it. It is a complex area in which to make sure things are done properly, transparently and fairly. There have been issues, and the ESOs know that. It is one of the reasons why, despite their concerns about what the result might be, they have overwhelmingly supported the review. It has been embraced because people know there are issues that need to be looked at. I might add that there were probably more issues under the previous government, the reason being that there was less funding provided in their forward estimates for this program compared to what we have provided. So, if there are problems now, goodness knows what the problems would have been if the previous government had been returned. We are going to work through the issues in that review because it is important, but we are going to work through them with the ex-service community to ensure that we get a good outcome to deal with some of the issues in the future.
My understanding is that it was also said, if not in the appropriations debate then today, that there were concerns about the MRCA review. I think it was said that I verballed the opposition so they would not support it. No. What I said was: when they were in government and they established the system in terms of the MRC Act, it was said by all and sundry, frankly, that there ought to be a review of it once it had been in operation for several years. I said that when we committed to that in opposition the then government did not.
This is another example of today’s opposition all of a sudden on the road to Damascus having an epiphany and deciding that they will now support something. It was not that long ago that they were in government and had an opportunity to deal with these issues but did not. It was not that long ago that they just sat on their hands.
Concerns have been raised about the pharmaceutical costs review—it is long-awaited but still has not quite been delivered. Many ex-service organisations regularly raised the very important issue of the cost of medications to deal with war caused disabilities. The commitment from the opposition at that time—the Labor Party—was to review that area to achieve a fair outcome for those who have war caused disabilities. It was always made very clear that this commitment would be acted on very late in the term, and the bottom line is that is what is happening. Once again this issue was raised repeatedly with the then government and they refused to take any action. Again this government is being criticised by the opposition for taking too long to consider an issue that they refused to consider. Frankly, it smacks of hypocrisy.
There has been quite a bit of debate on military superannuation matters, which are also relevant to this. There was some debate yesterday on the legislation relating to the governance of superannuation schemes in the government sector. It has been suggested by members of the opposition that I made commitments prior to the last election to remove the confusion and ensure there was certainty.
Once again they were sitting on a report—they had information and they would not release it. Once again they had the ability to ensure people understood what was being considered, but they refused to do anything about it. It has been suggested that it has taken too long to consider Clarke. Yet they sat on that review for three months. They sat on that review for only three months because the election was called. I suspect that, if we had had another 12 months to wait, they would have sat on it for another 12 months because there was absolutely no sign of it coming out before the election.
We have the opposition intimating they may take action around issues like indexation in the longer term when they are back in government and when the budget is in surplus, yet they were in government for over a decade and overwhelmingly in that time the budget was in surplus and they did not do it. In fact, the opposition sat on the report. When we released that report, it was roundly turned on by the ex-service and defence community as being not the way they thought the government should be going. The Rudd government publicly released a report produced under the previous government, as we committed to do. Having released it, we sought to have it discussed and commented on. We had a process for that. The response from that process was, ‘We don’t want this,’ and we have been looking at the issue since.
I am happy to admit that it is taking a long time and it is taking too long. I am hoping to make some announcements in the next few weeks about where we will go with that issue. I think the opposition need to make clear whether they are supporting the Podger recommendations, the recommendations that were taken out of a review conducted under their stewardship. Are they saying they think that should be the military superannuation scheme for this country?
The opposition also should have a think about what they are doing with the superannuation governance bills that are heading towards the Senate. The improvements and efficiencies that will be made by that new system will mean real dollars in the hands of military superannuants in the years to come, as they retire. Depending on the circumstances of the individual—their rank and their length of service—the lump sum under the MSBS that they will receive towards the end of their career will be between an additional $20,000 and $50,000. When this parliament has the opportunity to provide people with those sorts of benefits I do not think we should be playing politics with issues of symbolism—and that is what it is. I think that, when serving personnel on the bases around this country understand what the implications of the action being taken by the opposition are for their final payments, they are not going to be real happy. I do not think they are going to think that is a good or fair way to go.
On the question of British nuclear test participants—one of the key issues covered by this bill—I want to put on the public record that we are talking about compensation, pensions et cetera being in the region of $24 million over the next four years. I also need to put on the record what that means in the longer term. We estimate on the basis of the age profiles of the people involved and their expected longevity that, although it is $24 million over the first four years, it will be some $71 million over the first 10 years. Beyond that, over 20 years, it will be in the region of $135 million. There is significant compensatory support to be paid out over time, as is the system under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act.
I commend the bill to the House. I urge the opposition to concentrate on criticising what we actually have done rather than what they say we promised to do when we never, ever did so.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.