Wednesday, 27 October 2010
Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Weekly Payments) Bill 2010
Debate resumed from 21 October, on motion by Mr Snowdon:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I rise to lend support to the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Weekly Payments) Bill 2010. This bill will seek to enable the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to make payments to some veterans on a weekly rather than fortnightly basis. The Repatriation Commission and/or the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission will make recommendations to the department for this purpose. Ostensibly, to be eligible, a veteran must either be homeless or at risk of being homeless. It is a small change but certainly one that provides benefit to that small group of veterans who may find themselves in difficult straits.
It is interesting to note that similar measures to these were contained in legislation passed in the 42nd Parliament, in the Social Security and Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Weekly Payments) Bill 2010. That bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in February 2010 and subsequently passed the Senate on 18 March. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs advises that the measures contained in this legislation were intended to be included in the social security legislation; however, time did not allow this to occur. I am a little staggered that the government could not sort its act out to include a very, very simple amendment within the wider bill and now has to take more of the parliament’s time because the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the minister could not get it together to put it there. I could perhaps say to the government: if it would better prioritise its time, that would be useful.
If it could not manage to find the time for a range of simple housekeeping bills, seriously, what hope do we have at all about the government finding time for real reform within the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio? One only has to look at the Podger review, which the Gillard government has now had for three long years. We are still waiting for a response from this government after three years as to what it will do with that review that has come through. The member for Blair may sit there and smile, but his government has had this for three years. For three years the veterans community has been waiting for a response to the Podger review. Over 1,000 days have now transpired whilst various ministers have sat there and cogitated, and the veteran community is none the wiser as to what the government will do. All this sends a disturbing message as to the efficacy of this government and its ability to make serious and sound reform for our veteran community.
Be that as it may, the relevant changes to the MRC Act and the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, with this veterans-specific legislation, mean that veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness will be treated in the same manner as those clients eligible for assistance under the Social Security Act. Simply put, this bill will halve a fortnightly pension and provide half of that payment each week to the eligible recipient. It is almost that simple.
But, importantly, the bill makes a range of relevant changes to the MRC Act 2004 and the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 to ensure that veterans who choose to be paid weekly are not financially disadvantaged as a result of electing to receive weekly payments. It is also worth noting that, where a veteran is subject to deductions, these deductions will also be halved. The bill also mandates the authorities for determining which veterans are able to access weekly payments, the authorities being the Repatriation Commission and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission. This bill provides these authorities with the discretion to allow a veteran or ex-serviceperson in receipt of a pension through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to receive that payment weekly where it is in the veteran’s best interests to do so. The bill also establishes the power to create a ‘class of persons’ who can be considered eligible for weekly assistance where such a determination is in the veterans’ best interests.
The bill provides that the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission, and separately, although likely identically, the Repatriation Commission, may also specify by legislative instrument a ‘class of persons’ who are eligible to apply to have their usually fortnightly-paid pension paid in weekly instalments. This instrument, once written, will become a disallowable instrument, normally tabled in the Senate. Once the commissions have determined this ‘class of persons’, upon request of an eligible veteran, their income support and/or disability pension can then be paid weekly. It is also worth noting that a veteran can continue to receive their weekly payments indefinitely—that is, the weekly payment option is not subject to review.
Clearly we support the bill, however with a comment on the lapse of the government in not actually combining this with the aforementioned social security bill. We certainly believe that it will ensure that veterans’ entitlements continue to be determined in a beneficial manner, which is the sole purpose. Any change to veterans’ entitlements which will ensure that veterans are better provided for has to be a worthwhile change. However, this legislative change, whilst welcome, will not deal with homelessness and should not be seen as a panacea for dealing with homelessness. The bill simply changes a payment from a fortnightly one to a weekly one.
Thankfully, the number of homeless veterans is small. My considered view is that it should be zero. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs has advised that the number of veterans who may be eligible for weekly payments is commensurately small. Furthermore, the RSL in New South Wales advises that they have provided assistance to a small number of homeless veterans—less than 10—in the Sydney area. I think everyone in the House would agree that a worthy goal for the number of homeless veterans has to completely and utterly zero.
This bill is a housekeeping bill. It makes a small change to legislation that affects a relatively minor number of veterans. That is not to say that the change is not welcome; it is. Anything that provides support to veterans will certainly be welcomed by our side of the House. However, the changes remain small. And whilst the Gillard government refuses to respond, after over 1,000 days, to the Podger review, and continues to tinker around the edges of Veterans’ Affairs policies, it continues to avoid the great reforms needed. One of those, of course, has to do with military superannuation. In fact, since the government has not even responded to the review of military compensation arrangements in the Podger review for over 1,000 days, we are none the wiser as to where the government is going. The former Minister for Veterans’ Affairs made a range of noises before the last election about an impending large announcement, which all came to nothing. On the other hand, the coalition remains committed to addressing the needs of DFRDB military superannuants and veterans more widely. While the Gillard Labor government continues to deny a problem in the area of DFRDB superannuation, only the coalition has a plan to address these issues. The coalition released its plan before the last election: that we would index DFRDB pensions to the same level as those for the age pension. We made that firm and absolute commitment prior to the last election.
Furthermore, staggeringly, the Gillard Labor government’s complex pharmaceutical cost reimbursement scheme will not provide any real relief to veterans until 2013. The coalition’s plan, announced before the election, would have benefited almost 20,000 more veterans than Labor’s plan and would have included all of our most disabled veterans, which would have provided real relief from 2012. The Gillard Labor government must do more than simply tinker around the edges of veterans affairs policy. It needs to take the issue of veterans seriously, listen to the concerns being raised by the veterans community and act decisively—words that, unfortunately at present, the Gillard government seems to ignore.
I rise to speak in support of the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Weekly Payments) Bill 2010. It is always interesting following the member for Fadden, as I have on many occasions—he has spoken after me and I have spoken after him. One of the things that the member for Fadden failed to elucidate for the House was the fact that the coalition did nothing with respect to the issues concerning veterans. If you speak to people in the veterans community, they know very well that, with respect to the DFRDB and indexation, the coalition’s record was not in the light that the member for Fadden claimed—and their announcing a policy before the election, which we do not believe they would ever implement if they had a chance, is simply not good enough.
In relation to Podger, the coalition did nothing in relation to the issues raised in that during 11½ years as well. And with respect to homelessness, which this bill seeks to address in a small way, the coalition’s record in the area was simply appalling. The privatisation of public housing and social housing across my state of Queensland was the norm. You only had to speak to state minister Robert Schwarten about the issues in relation to that. In my electorate alone we are putting $66.5 million into social housing and defence housing, simply to make up for the culpable failure of the Howard coalition government with respect to social housing and defence housing, particularly in Ipswich and the West Moreton region.
The bill that is before the House is a minor one, but we think it goes a long way to assisting disadvantaged people who may have difficulties managing their finances and their funds and who may, indeed, spend them too quickly. So payments on a weekly rather than fortnightly basis can make a difference in the budgets of veterans, to make sure they do not fall into homelessness.
No-one in our country, as wealthy as we are, should be homeless. The white paper on homelessness, The Road Home, identified the responsibilities that we as a country have in addressing issues of homelessness. The government have responded to that white paper. We have set ambitious targets for what we will do in relation to homelessness. We have set addressing those issues of homelessness as a national priority. We have committed to halving homelessness and providing accommodation for rough sleepers—some of whom, sadly and tragically, are veterans.
We want to make sure we invest money to address the issue of homelessness. We have committed $4.9 billion in new funding to address homelessness, with an additional $400 million coming from the states and territories. We have increased funding to homelessness services by 55 per cent and committed to building more than 80,000 affordable homes across the country. This includes almost 20,000 built through the nation building and economic stimulus plan, which I addressed. The sum of $66.5 million in my electorate alone which I referred to earlier includes that.
Reducing homelessness is a shared responsibility that must encompass not just government at a state and territory level but federal government, business, charities and the community. In February this year we saw the coalition walk away from a bipartisan approach to homelessness by refusing to support the white paper targets. The member for Fadden did not say that. The former coalition government could not even find a minister to address the issue of homelessness and housing. They did not even have one allocated for that purpose. They did nothing to help the homeless in my community. All they thought they could do was privatise public housing. There are simply too many kids in this country, some in veterans’ families, who grow up without a roof over their head. It is a national disgrace. We should have determination, a commitment and real vigour to attack this problem.
The legislation before this place is minor. It is technical. Most veteran recipients of money use it wisely and well. It does accord with what we did earlier this year in replicating the Centrelink arrangements and aligning veterans’ affairs legislation with social security law. That is sensible. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs administers payments to veterans, members and former members and their dependents under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, the Veterans’ Entitlements Act and the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. As I said, those payments are made fortnightly. The amendment here will enable compensation and income support pensions and other payments under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act to be paid weekly instead of fortnightly in certain circumstances. It is voluntary. In other words, if a veteran wants to get paid the money voluntarily they can. It may assist them if they have fallen on hard times. People at risk of homelessness need money urgently. That is why many approach organisations like Lifeline and Centrelink. It is to get the kind of assistance they need urgently.
We are acting in the area of homelessness. The National Affordable Housing Agreement will deliver longer term housing for Australians who are currently homeless, and we are partnering with the states and territories to do that. I think the aspiration is noble and the commitment to halving overall homelessness by 2020 is sure.
Supported accommodation is particularly important for rough sleepers. When I was much younger I was the secretary of a church committee that ran a homeless shelter for what many years ago people would have described as delinquent teenage boys. We kept many out of jail and away from trouble during those times. I saw firsthand the challenges of young teenage fellows, some of them a little younger than me. It changed your life when you saw how they could fall into a life of crime, how they could lose their self-esteem and how their employment skills could be diminished because of illiteracy and lack of ability in numeracy. This is a big challenge for this country, and we need to take a very broad-brush and committed approach to funding. The cycle of violence and abuse which many people suffer from can lead to homelessness. We must be sure to tackle this.
In my community, the Ipswich and West Moreton community, we have the fantastic Ipswich RSL Services Club. I want to pay tribute to a number of people there who do a lot of work in the community, particularly looking after veterans and their dependents. I am sure that they will warmly welcome the funding that we have provided. Certainly they would warmly welcome the arrangements whereby veterans can get the money on a weekly basis. I pay tribute to: Phil Gilbert, the president of the Ipswich sub-branch of the RSL; the railway sub-branch president, Ray Watherston; and Donna Reggett, who is the pension and welfare officer of Ipswich RSL. Donna is on the Prime Ministerial Advisory Council on Ex-Service Matters. She is the partner of a long-serving RAAF veteran who served as a peacekeeper in Somalia. She is also the daughter of a RAN veteran who served in Vietnam. She is a member of the Operational Working Party. She has undertaken studies in counselling and mediation at Southern Cross University and has trained under the department’s training and information program as a level three advocate. She is actively involved in the Ipswich community and in the veteran and ex-service community as a pensions and welfare advocate. She has been a tremendous supporter of RSL Ipswich, both the railway and Ipswich sub-branches, and has also fought for the rights of veterans and stood up for their dependents.
Anything we can do to help veterans, whether it is by way of financial support or simply these arrangements whereby we make sure that the payments are made weekly rather than fortnightly, will assist to avoid the risk of homelessness, to help veterans and to provide for their families to make sure that their children and particularly those young fellows at the home I talked about earlier—which we called Baldwin House—no longer fall into a life of criminality, despair and destitution. We want to make sure that they get provided for and make sure that veterans and their dependents and also all those associated with the RSL are looked after in the Ipswich and West Moreton area.
I rise to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Weekly Payments) Bill 2010. From the outset, Mr Deputy Speaker, can I say that, along with my Liberal and National party colleagues, I support the government’s bill. This bill will enable the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, upon the recommendation of the Repatriation Commission and/or the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission, to make payments to some veterans on a weekly basis rather than a fortnightly basis. I welcome this move and the coalition supports this bill. I would, however, note that to be eligible a veteran must either be homeless or at risk of homelessness. It is distressing that any veteran would actually be in this position, and I would caution that the criteria should be based on compassion and not rigid bureaucracy. This bill will ensure that veterans’ entitlements continue to be determined in a beneficial manner. Under the measures, a veteran’s usual fortnightly payment is halved, with one half being paid each week. Where the veteran’s payment is also subject to deductions, these deductions will also be halved. Half of the deduction will be removed from each payment so that the maximum benefit of weekly payments is passed on.
Any change to veterans’ entitlements which will ensure that veterans are better provided for is a worthwhile change. Whilst it may not be one that will impact on a lot of veterans, and the member for Fadden mentioned that the RSL in New South Wales advise that they have provided assistance to a small number of homeless veterans—fewer than 10—in the Sydney area, I do welcome this legislation and I emphasise that any improvements to this system have the support of the coalition. However, I think it would be a bit rich for the Gillard Labor government to be able to slide their way through this debate without their appalling track record in the vital policy area of veterans’ affairs being highlighted and condemned. On that note, can I say how proud I am to come from this side of the chamber, the Liberal-National side of politics, which has a strong record of standing up for and protecting our veterans since our party’s creation in 1944. It has always been and will continue to be the Liberal way to support veterans and their families and acknowledge their sacrifices and the contribution they have made and continue to make to the fabric of our nation. We must hold them in the highest regard, and the coalition does so.
As well, this legislative change, whilst a welcome one, will obviously not on its own deal with the serious issues surrounding homelessness in the community. The Gillard government cannot and must not see this as an easy way out when it comes to homelessness in this country, and I call on the government to put to one side their usual ideological games in this social policy area and get on with the job of actually addressing the problem and not just talking about it. The member for Blair had the temerity to criticise the Howard government and mentioned the Queensland government and the problems of homelessness. That is a state government which has sold off public housing. At a time of greatest need they have sold off homes that should have been there to be provided for the homeless in that state.
I would like to put on the record that the coalition remains committed to addressing the needs of DFRDB military superannuants. The Gillard Labor government continues to deny a problem in the area of DFRDB superannuation and that summarises and epitomises the Labor Party’s true thoughts on veterans and military personnel. As a member whose seat takes in the Gallipoli barracks at Enoggera and who has a substantial military personnel population in the electorate of Ryan, I am naturally concerned that the Labor government has a closed mind when it comes to this issue and I am concerned about their neglect of the veteran and military community. Once again only the coalition has a plan to address these issues and stand up for veterans and military personnel. It is also worth mentioning that the Gillard Labor government’s complex pharmaceutical cost reimbursement scheme will not provide any real relief to veterans until 2013. This is a great shame given that the coalition’s plan would have benefited almost 20,000 more veterans than Labor’s excuse for a plan and would have included all of our most disabled veterans and provided real relief from 2012.
It is totally shameful that in Senate estimates last week the shadow minister for veterans’ affairs, Senator the Hon. Michael Ronaldson, confirmed with the War Memorial’s director that consideration was actually given, although not ultimately actioned, to close the memorial one day a week because of the Labor government’s funding cuts. This is yet another black mark and a poor reflection on the Labor government when it comes to veterans’ affairs. It is not unreasonable that Australians rightfully expect our war memorials around the country to be resourced by the government. Everyday Australians have an expectation of their elected representatives and government to ensure war memorials and veterans’ facilities are well maintained and are resourced and staffed appropriately so that Australians who have made the ultimate sacrifice and fought for their country, its people and our freedom can be remembered in the highest regard. It is fair to ask when will Labor give veterans the support that is their due.
in reply—I am pleased to be able to sum up in this debate on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Weekly Payments) Bill 2010, and I thank the members for Ryan, Blair and Fadden for their contributions. But I would encourage the member for Ryan to actually read a bit of history and to understand very clearly the absence of any commitment by the former Howard government to address the issue of superannuation entitlements for veterans. In fact, that government had the Podger report provided which they refused to release. It took the Labor government, and me in particular as the then Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, to release that report for public comment.
Whilst I understand that the member for Ryan is a new member in this place, and I understand she has no corporate memory of what has happened in the past, I would encourage her to understand the facts of what has happened in the past and not come in here and blithely just annunciate the lines she has been given by her shadow minister. Clearly, she has got no deep understanding of the veterans’ affairs issues or, indeed, the history of veterans’ affairs policy under the Howard government or what we are doing under the Gillard government and previously under the Rudd government. I might say that those comments apply equally to the member for Fadden.
This bill will implement in the repatriation system an important element of the government’s strategy to address homelessness. The bill will enable the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to introduce the option of weekly payments of pension entitlements for those who are homeless or at risk of being homeless and who would benefit from weekly payments.
This measure is an important component of the government’s strategy to reduce homelessness. Whilst this measure does not affect the total amount of a pension that a person can receive, the availability of weekly payments will assist those vulnerable clients to better manage their money. This action, in conjunction with other elements of the government’s strategy, can contribute to stabilising and improving the circumstances of those who may be facing homelessness. I commend the bill to the House.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
Ordered that the bill be reported to the House without amendment.