Monday, 20 August 2012
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012; Second Reading
That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
“the House declines to consider this bill until such time as the Government introduces legislation to index military superannuation pensions for Defence Forces Retirement Benefit (DFRB) Scheme members and Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits (DFRDB) Scheme members aged 55 and over in the same manner as aged and service pensions are currently indexed.”
The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill makes a series of minor technical amendments to various pieces of legislation that impact upon veterans. These amendments are generally noncontroversial and the coalition supports the measures contained in the bill. However, the legislation can be made better and the coalition will seek to do that. First and foremost, we will draw a line in the sand tonight. We will seek to legislate for fair indexation as a prerequisite for passing this legislation. Enough is enough. We have called for this, we have gone to an election on this, we have introduced a private member's bill in the Senate for this, the Leader of the Opposition has reannounced this, at the RSL at Bendigo, and we will now seek to establish this as a requirement for passing this legislation. Once this legislation is agreed to by the House the coalition will seek to make the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme the fair system it deserves to be.
We do not move this amendment lightly. The bill before the House makes important legislative changes which we support, although we seek to make the pharmaceutical benefits scheme aspects better. We believe that this government, now, needs to consider and introduce fair, just and equitable arrangements for military superannuants. We will prevent the passage of the current bill through the House until fair indexation is introduced. We are drawing a line in the sand now. The time has come for this parliament to deliver this important reform. The government speaks about reform often but, in the government's words, every reform it does is historic, monumental or world leading. All I ask, all the coalition asks, is for a simple reform so that veterans have the same entitlement to the indexation of pensions as age pensioners in Australia do. It is a simple request—there is no hyperbole about the world's greatest reform.
The coalition has a very proud record of supporting ADF personnel, whether serving or in retirement.
We believe in the unique nature of military service. In the case of veterans and ex-service personnel, we are committed to fair indexation of military superannuation pensions. We committed to it as a policy at the 2010 election. We introduced a private member's bill. As I said, the Leader of the Opposition has reiterated that there are no ifs and no buts. The government is fond of telling people that we will not roll back the carbon tax. Let me say very clearly to the nation. Do not doubt that we will do both of these things. We will legislate the fair indexation of military pensions and we will roll back the carbon tax. We will do them both.
The Leader of the Opposition has formally recommitted the coalition on a number of occasions since the 2010 election. On 20 September 2011, at the RSL national conference in Melbourne, Tony Abbott said:
It has long been to me and my colleagues in the Coalition, verging on the scandalous that defence retirees do not enjoy the same indexation arrangements as other people who have retired.
In Bendigo on 5 March, the Leader of the Opposition, together with the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Senator Michael Ronaldson, signed the coalition's pledge to deliver fair indexation. The pledge says in no uncertain terms that the coalition is committed to our veterans and to delivering fair indexation to 57,000 military superannuants and their families. It says that the coalition will ensure that DFRB and DFRDB military superannuation pensions are indexed in the same way as the age pension and service pensions for those aged 55 and over.
The Leader of the Opposition and the shadow minister for veterans' affairs signed two large pledges. Senator Ronaldson has one of them and I have one of them. If anyone doubts our commitment to fair indexation, walk into my office and there you will see it, signed by the Leader of the Opposition—a pledge a metre high and half a metre wide, a pledge which could not be clearer. Do not believe the government's hyperbole. We will deliver this important reform.
Frankly, I would rather we delivered fair indexation to military superannuants now. I would rather the government agreed with the amendment we are moving tonight, did the right thing and indexed military superannuation the same way the age pension is indexed. My colleague Senator Ronaldson, who, as I mentioned, is the coalition spokesperson on veterans' affairs, has committed the coalition to this policy at every veterans forum and at every opportunity. In conjunction with these commitments, the coalition has also taken concrete steps to fairly index pensions.
As I said, Senator Ronaldson introduced my fair indexation bill into the Senate on my behalf on 18 November 2010, a bill designed to provide fair, just and equitable indexation for DFRB and DFRDB military superannuants. On 24 March 2011, the Greens and Labor called for a Senate inquiry into the legislation. The coalition opposed yet another inquiry. The Greens and Labor used the inquiry to oppose fair indexation—the first time the parliament has ever opposed fair indexation. On 16 June 2011, in a shameful day for the Senate, the coalition's fair indexation legislation was defeated by Labor and the Greens.
Again, be under no illusion—the coalition is resolutely behind the policy it has stated time and time again, the policy it transparently took to the 2010 election. That is why I stand in the chamber this evening to seek to amend the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012—so that the issue of fair indexation receives its proper hearing.
Labor's record on military superannuation reform is nothing more than a litany of hyperbole, hot air and inaction. Let us not forget that, before the 2007 election, Labor led the veteran community to believe they would fix military superannuation indexation.
As I stand here, the Minster for Veterans' Affairs is in front of me at the desk. It is great to hear him and see him sitting here for the entire debate. I thank you, Minister, for coming to listen to this important debate. I know that, deep down, you want to do the right thing. The issue is that, since 2007, the government in which you, sir, are a minister has led the nation to believe that you would fix it. In fact, the member for Eden-Monaro, who is currently the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, together with Senator Kate Lundy, who is the Minister for Sport, sent a letter to the former Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Lindsay Tanner, dated 14 September 2009. I will quote from that letter so we can all hear the words clearly. It said:
Significantly, many people genuinely believe that prior to the 2007 election, the ALP had committed to determining a "fairer" method of indexation, and a 'review' would provide the direction …
It is entirely appropriate, fair and consistent with our election commitment that the introduction of this improved indexation arrangement should coincide with that for pensions and benefits as announced by Minister Macklin.
These are the words of the current Minister for Sport and of the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence—a close colleague of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, who is sitting here tonight. They have both unequivocally called upon the government to honour what it led the Australian community to believe in 2007—that it would index military DFRDB and DFRB pensions.
Their words have only been met with more obfuscation. Let us not forget that Labor failed to respond to the Podger review, which was released publicly back in December 2007—it was released 4½ ago and the government has not officially responded to it.
Mr Snowdon interjecting—
Let us not forget the Matthews review, Minister, which I hear you talk about. I believe you spoke to and, indeed, commissioned the Matthews review. It was a whitewash in name, it was a whitewash in fact, it was a whitewash in substance and it was a whitewash of the government's own false election commitment. There have been 10 high-level inquiries into military superannuation indexation, all of which—except for yours, Minister—recommended changing the current arrangements. Yours was the only one which—surprise, surprise—said that we should keep the status quo. That is 10 to one. Where I come from, Minister, three to one and you are out.
It does not stop there. Labor's finance minister, Senator Wong, and veterans' affairs minister, the Hon. Warren Snowdon, who is at the table tonight, launched an ongoing scaremongering campaign in an effort to distract from Labor's lack of policy. Their argument is that the cost of fair indexation is too high. Minister Wong claims that the coalition's $100 million cash cost is actually $1.7 billion, and that the scheme will cost $4.5 billion to fully implement. The finance minister, like Minister Snowdon, is being deliberately misleading. The cost of the forward estimates in cash terms is between $100 million and $150 million, depending on which view you take. That is it in cash terms, and no-one argues with that.
In terms of accrual accounting, yes, the cost goes into the billions of dollars over the next 40 years. But when was the last time you heard a debate on increasing age pensions in this House that looked at the cost over 40 years? When was the last time that was done? We deal with everything in this House in cash terms. We deal with every announcement in cash terms. We deal with every single increase in pensions in cash terms. To be completely consistent, in line with everything else that the House does we should deal with this issue in cash terms. And, when we deal with this issue in cash terms, over four years, we come to between $100 million and $150 million.
This point was reinforced by the Commonwealth Actuary during the debate surrounding my Fair Indexation Bill. In advice to Finance Minister Penny Wong in January 2011, the Commonwealth Actuary, Michael Burt, said:
… great care should be exercised when using fiscal balance figures for decision-making purposes, particularly in the area of unfunded superannuation arrangements.
He blew an almighty hole in Labor's claims that the cost of fair indexation is too high. The cost to the Commonwealth of fair indexation over the next four years is approximately $100 million. The government have told me it is about $150 million. I am happy to accept either amount. And that is before any clawback, because of course it is taxable. It is not the inflated $1.7 billion that the Labor government claim by confusing the accrual side with the cash side. In the first year, it is something like $5 million or $6 million, and then it increases slowly. It would be between $100 million and $150 million to achieve that. Compare that to the $4.7 billion the government have spent because they rolled back the proven Howard government border protection policies, the Pacific solution, out of pride, which has led to the debacle we have right now. Can you imagine what that $4.7 billion could have been spent on if this government had left proven border security solutions alone? And we are talking about $100 million to $150 million.
In negotiating with the Greens, the leader of the Greens at the time, Bob Brown, asked me to come up with savings—how we would pay for this prior to the vote on our private member's bill in the Senate. In a Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade committee hearing, I questioned the then Defence secretary, Dr Watt, and Mr Minns, Deputy Secretary, People Strategy and Policy Group, about the 12.8 per cent increase over the forward estimates for public servants. They indicated that because of a range of things, notwithstanding the government's cut to the Defence budget, that increase would not be as high. I suggested 30 per cent less and they agreed, which came out to about $200 million to $250 million, which I took to Senator Bob Brown as the savings. The Greens actually promised in 2007 and 2010 to index DFRDB pensions; but, when given the savings so they would be true to their promise and put it in writing, they still voted against it. And—surprise, surprise—the Minister for Defence, a number of months later, announced savings of exactly the same quantum as I brought up in the foreign affairs, defence and trade committee meeting. I indicated where the savings could be, where the money could be found in the budget. The government then, a few months later, took those exact numbers and pocketed that exact amount of money. That money was identified to fund, over the forward estimates, the indexation of super, but they took the savings and dudded 57,000 veterans and their families.
The tragedy is that we have come to expect this from a government that cannot even put pink batts in roofs without blowing $2½ billion, that cannot put up school halls without private schools getting a 60 per cent advantage over public schools because of the wasted $5 billion that went to Labor state governments. There is the $36 million spent on advertising the carbon tax and, of course, there is the $4.7 billion spent rolling back the border protection solutions that worked and on which the government have now done an amazing backflip. The money was found, it was identified, but the government pocketed it and delivered nothing.
More recently, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Mr Snowdon—who is at the table this evening—argued that a superannuant on $58,000 per year did not need fair indexation, that they were already well off. Labor's politics of envy are alive and well when it comes to military superannuants. What Minister Snowdon failed to acknowledge, however, is that the average DFRDB military pension is just $24,386—2½ times less than the figure he quoted in June. Labor is misleading the public. Furthermore, in June, veterans were sent letters offering them a few cents extra per fortnight in their pensions. Many veterans received an increase of less than $1 per fortnight. As Tony Abbott said on Brisbane radio in 2010:
You can turn this into a huge figure. In any one year, it is bearable and we should bear it.
At the last election, we identified more than $50 billion in savings to specifically meet the costs of this commitment. More specifically, I identified over $200 million in savings on Defence personnel, savings the minister re-announced two months later and that he pocketed, that was not spent on indexing pensions.
On another matter of importance regarding the bill, when this legislation passes the House, the coalition will seek to further amend the legislation to deliver fairness for disabled veterans with high pharmaceutical costs. Labor's Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme is flawed and unfair. It has created two classes of disabled veterans—those with qualifying service and those without. Up to 1,500 of our most disabled veterans get no assistance from the scheme. These are our most disabled veterans who receive the special rate, or TPI, pension but who do not have qualifying service as defined by the Veterans' Entitlement Act 1986.
The coalition has a better way. At the last election we proposed a comprehensive veterans' pharmaceutical reimbursement scheme which would deliver financial relief to more than 80,000 disabled veterans. Importantly, it did not create two classes of veterans and ensured that all of our most disabled veterans had no out-of-pocket pharmaceutical expenses. The coalition's scheme was also immediate. There were no cumbersome requirements nor was there any need for technical amendments, as this legislation proposes, to ensure the scheme functions properly. Under the coalition scheme, a veteran who qualified for the scheme would pay for only 30 scripts per year. Once they reached this veterans' pharmaceutical safety net, they would pay no more for their scripts. This meant immediate financial relief for veterans. Significantly, the coalition scheme did not require cumbersome reimbursements; Labor's scheme leaves veterans waiting for the calendar to tick over to a new year before they receive any financial relief for the cost of pharmaceuticals.
In the Senate, the coalition will move amendments to extend eligibility for the veterans' pharmaceutical reimbursement scheme to include all special rate, or TPI, ex-service pensions. Our amendments will extend the coverage of the scheme beyond just disability pensioners with qualifying service to also include all special rate pensioners. These amendments will bring fairness and justice to Labor's flawed and unfair scheme and will cost up to $234,000 per year, based on the government's advice about the average cost of the reimbursement and the approximately 1,500 special rate pensioners without qualifying service.
The government's scheme is budgeted to cost $30 million over the next four years, making this extension a very modest additional cost to provide the fairness disabled veterans deserve. This is a small price to pay to ensure our most disabled service personnel are not further disadvantaged by Labor's unfair Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme. If successful in the Senate, I will be supporting the Senate's request for the House to amend the legislation in this respect. I look forward to doing so—the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, Mr Snowdon, is at the table.
Providing fair indexation for Australia's DFRB and DFRDB military superannuants is the right and proper thing to do. My amendment to the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 has only been necessary due to the continual intransigence of this government.
Last week I spoke in response to the ministerial statement by the Minister for Defence. The member for Eden-Monaro and Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, the Hon. Dr Mike Kelly AM, was also at the table. I had heard he had been saying to his veterans groups that he would be seeking at a later juncture to move a private member's bill to index DFRDB pensions the same way as we are seeking to do. I said to the member for Eden-Monaro: I've heard this. I'm happy to be wrong. I'm happy to apologise if I'm wrong, and I'll provide every assistance, on indulgence, for the member for Eden-Monaro to rise from his seat, to approach the dispatch box, to point out the error of my ways and to say I'm wrong and that that was not his intent or, if it was his intent, to move a private member's bill straightaway.' The member for Eden-Monaro did nothing. He did not move. His silence was acquiescent and he walked out of the chamber. He had the opportunity to say, 'I was wrong,' and I would have apologised, but he did not because he has no intention of moving a private member's bill. He is all talk and no action on this. He was all talk and writing letters, all signatures in ink, when he wrote to the then finance minister, Minister Tanner. But when the rubber hits the road and he is called to the dispatch box to either refute—and I would back down—or to back up his words with action, he shrunk like a wilting violet. The member for Eden-Monaro is a fine man. He is a decent Australian, but he failed that test on that day last week.
I urge all to support this amendment. I look in front of me and there is the member for Blair waiting to speak next. The member for Blair said in relation to the latest CPI increase:
It is ridiculous to expect people to accept a 0.1 per cent increase. That is unviable, given the cost of living. It is too meagre and it needs to change. The current situation is unsustainable. It's become exacerbated by a series of fairly low CPI rises ... the Government needs to look at this again.
I say to the member for Blair that I have read your comments faithfully, sir. If I have not, stand and correct me. If they are indeed your words—and I know they are—join us in indexing fair and equitable military superannuation. Match your words with action. Do that. You have the chance tonight before the vote comes tomorrow. The Greens said in their 2010 election policy:
In a long-running campaign, current and former... defence force personnel have been pushing to ensure their superannuation pensions are indexed fairly and appropriately. It is a campaign the Australian Greens support wholeheartedly.
Except when a private member's bill is in the Senate, except when savings are identified and at the time they needed to match the words that they took to an election, the Greens were found wanting. Bob Brown said in March 2011:
At the outset I should say that fair indexation is consistent with the Australian Greens policy at the last election.
He said that when he needed the votes of 40,000-odd Tasmanians but when it came time to vote in the Senate he was found wanting. One of the Independents in this House, the member for Dobell, Craig Thomson, said of supporting fair indexation:
I am the only MP of the Central Coast who is prepared to support them—there are two others who won't.
When this comes to the vote, I expect the member for Dobell to be a man of his word and to back up those statements, as I expect of the member for Blair, whom I know to be a man of his word.
I know the member for Denison, Andrew Wilkie, has also publicly supported fair and equitable indexing of DFRB and DFRDB in the past. He said:
The ALP should be condemned for not doing something about it since its election in 2007.
He also said:
Defence Force retirees in particular, would be better cared for if the unsatisfactory indexing of defence pensions were overturned in favour of a system that at least keeps up with the cost of living.
The Independent member for Lyne, Rob Oakeshott MP, has moved two motions in the House of Representatives calling for fair indexation. The last motion was seconded by the member for New England, Tony Windsor. The member for Lyne said:
… there are many in the community who are aggrieved and their concerns deserve to be heard in this House. There are many who are frustrated that government, report after report, seems to get the concerns about a lack of purchasing power within the current military superannuation scheme, yet, when it comes to actually doing something about it, the arguments of cost and difficulty in making those changes seem to be directed towards those who have done military service.
I want it be recognised that Defence service is unique within the Public Service.
… … …
… the uniqueness of Defence service lies in defending the nation, our sovereignty and our freedoms.
They are fine words from the member for Lyne. He continues:
I would hope it is generally recognised that CPI is not a good indicator for cost-of-living measures and for purchasing power.
… … …
In my view the alternatives that are worthy of consideration are in the form of the age and welfare pensions, which are indexed by the new living cost index, to reflect the failings of CPI in the pensioner and beneficiary living cost index, or the male total average weekly earnings, whichever is the greater.
The Independent member for New England, Tony Windsor, in 2010 asked the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Minister Lindsay Tanner:
What measures will he take, and when, to address the ongoing concerns within the veteran community that (a) the indexation of military superannuation pensions against the Consumer Price Index is not an accurate measure of the cost of living, and (b) inequality exists between the indexing of military superannuation pensions and other pensions such as age and welfare; and will he consider introducing a fairer indexation method for military superannuation pensions in line with that used to calculate age and welfare pensions.
In conclusion, prior to the 2007 election the Labor Party indicated that they would index pensions. Many of their front bench wrote to Minister Tanner seeking the indexation of pensions. Many of the Independents, as I have just quoted, have publicly stated their desire to index military pensions. The cost is about $100 to $150 million in cash terms over the next four years. Savings of up to $250 million were outlined in the private senator's bill in the Senate last year. Within two months of that private senator's bill being defeated by Labor and the Greens the Minister for Defence acted on those savings and pocketed that money. It was promised, the Independents have backed it, the money was outlined, the money was found, and the money was pocketed.
There is no reason this parliament this week should not join with and support the coalition in saying that no more steps will be taken in this area and on this bill until the fair indexation of DFRB and DFRDB pensions is addressed. We call on those who have publicly called on this issue, those who have made a point of this issue and those who have stood on soapboxes on this issue to seek votes to now stand and put their vote where their mouth is and support the coalition on indexing pensions.
I speak in support of the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012. The Repatriation Commission is responsible for determining and managing claims under the Veterans' Entitlements Act, and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission is responsible for determining and managing claims under the MRCA and the SRCA. Lest we think that these bits of legislation are irrelevant or small, they certainly do affect people across the electorates in this place. MRCA active clients in the electorate of Blair as at 30 March 2012 total 129 people. SRCA active clients in Blair as at 30 March 2012 total 252 people. These are people whose lives will benefit from this form of legislation.
There is a range of miscellaneous measures in this bill. To a certain extent the measures tidy up things that have happened, exempt for income tax purposes certain things and ensure that, for example, people on Norfolk Island are eligible for clean energy payments under the Veterans' Entitlement Acts and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. I will deal briefly with each of those as we go through it.
The first element of this particular bill before the chamber deals with travel expenses for treatment. The DVA funds eligible people for travel to appointments for medical treatment. It is a sad fact that as veterans get older, and sometimes because of what they have experienced, they have more medical treatment and need more travel for those purposes than other Australians, particularly if they are living in regional and rural areas in an electorate like mine. The amendment makes clear the policy that has been happening in practice—namely, that within the act this type of travel can be approved by the DVA after the travel has been undertaken by a particular person who is eligible for reimbursement. This practice has been undertaken by the DVA for a very long time and it really now is simply authorised by the legislation in order to avoid any hint or suggestion that it is not actually covered.
The next aspect of the amendments is eligibility under the Defence Service Homes Act for an operation in the Red Sea from 13 to 19 January 1993, Operation DAMASK-VI, and reclassification as operational service. It makes sure that those who have been engaged in this particular operation for that short period of time will, as a result, be eligible for subsidised home loans and insurance under the Defence Service Homes Act 1918.
The third aspect that I wish to deal with briefly is special assistance. The VEA and the MRCA give the commission the power to extend special assistance and benefits to people not otherwise provided for under the legislation. Currently, that is provided by means of a regulation. This amendment makes it clear that that sort of assistance is provided by way of a legislative instrument rather than regulation, and it permits more timely payment and assistance to be provided.
The fourth area the amendments deal with is debt recovery—the technical amendment making sure that debt recovery provision within the legislation applies to all possible circumstances relating to debt recovery.
The fifth area, as I said before, deals with clean energy payments payable to people residing in Australia. I am not always sure that people who live in Norfolk Island think they actually are Australians. Having visited the place myself and having enjoyed a holiday there, I can say that the Norfolk Island residents are unique people. But these amendments make sure that Norfolk Island residents are eligible for clean energy assistance payments, as any other Australians would be.
The next aspect deals with the MRCA supplement. In 2009, this federal Labor government implemented historic pension reform, the largest pension increase we have ever seen in the history of the Commonwealth of Australia. As part of that package we introduced the MRCA supplement which replaced the telephone and pharmaceutical allowances that were payable. The amendment really just fixes up a clause and makes sure that all references to the previous telephone and pharmaceutical allowances are replaced with a reference to the supplement that now exists, which is now described as the MRCA supplement.
The next area is the bereavement payment. The VEA provides a bereavement payment to the estate of a deceased veteran or member who was in receipt of a special rate or extreme disability adjustment payment and who has died in indigent circumstances—very poor circumstances. The amendment makes sure that that bereavement payment is exempt for income tax purposes.
The next aspect of this particular amendment bill—and, as I said, it is very much a tidying-up provision—deals with the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme, which provides reimbursement of all out-of-pocket expenses incurred in the purchase of pharmaceuticals under that scheme. Approximately 70,000 veterans and members are eligible for annual, automatic reimbursement of those costs. Those payments will commence on 1 January 2013. The amendment simply makes crystal clear that the payments here are tax-free.
The previous speaker dealt with issues in relation to DFRDB. What he failed to say was that for nearly 12 years the coalition did nothing in relation to that issue. There was a lot of sanctimony and unction mentioned, and there were displays of passion, but really they did nothing in relation to that issue. Further, the member did not point out the fact that what they were proposing excluded about 150,000 Military Superannuation Benefits Scheme members from June 2011. He failed to mention the fact that, under his proposal, other Commonwealth public servants are excluded from receiving payments under similar types of schemes. So there was a lot of passion and unction, but the coalition simply failed to specify to the House that that proposal—which he now says they will do, which the Howard government never did and which the then minister for finance, Nick Minchin, opposed passionately and would never get through past Peter Costello or John Howard—is something that he claims they will do. But what he should really say is that in the past they have always opposed that. He also now wants to discriminate in his proposal in relation to this. I do not think it is appropriate to bring this amendment to this particular legislation. The member is trying to simply discriminate, as I have said, between different forms of military service and service on behalf of the public.
The legislation that is before the House is very clear legislation that will be to the benefit of many Australians, particularly Australians who live in my electorate, and I support the legislation.
I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012. In doing so, I need to point out that serving and retired members of the Australian Defence Force should not be treated as less than worthy citizens when it comes to superannuation entitlements. This is, unfortunately, exactly how they are faring under this Labor government. Australian veterans risked their lives for our country, yet this extraordinary level of faith has not been returned in kind by this miserable, miserly government.
As a condition of employment, fair indexation for veterans must be a non-discretionary obligation in the budget. It is a topic close to my heart and I have already spoken about it in this House on a number of occasions. In fact, I asked in this chamber on 18 June this year: why is fair indexation not affordable for military superannuation pensioners? It is affordable for some 3½ million aged pensioners and other welfare beneficiaries, and for certain parliamentary and judicial superannuation pensioners. A condition of service provides for retirement pay—a superannuation pension which maintains its purchasing power. Its purchasing power is a condition of service upon which veterans plan their retirements. Service people themselves must make compulsory contributions.
The government is bound to honour all those employment conditions, and the veterans argue that the budget should provide for fair indexation as a non-discretionary item before other discretionary items.
I have received an email from my constituent Robert Bak of Bethungra, who is the President of the Integrated Service People's Association of Australia, an organisation which does a power of good helping veterans with all manner of things. Mr Bak writes:
It is not acceptable to the ex-service community, to have both sides procrastinate over this very serious issue. It is even more important than other current issues.
He concluded by saying:
… we are not going to let this matter rest.
And nor should they, and nor should Mr Bak.
Wagga Wagga is a proud triservice Riverina city, with bases for the Australian Army, Royal Australian Air Force and Royal Australian Navy. Blamey Barracks at Kapooka are the home of the soldier, with every Australian Army recruit passing through prior to other deployments. Those presently posted to Wagga Wagga know how essential fair superannuation is to their futures. And, like Mr Bak, they also know that the coalition is fighting hard to give them what they want, to give them what they need. They also know that those on the other side of the political equation are not.
I have received much correspondence about this matter from Bert Hoebee, who was the Deputy Commandant at Blamey Barracks Kapooka in 1989 and 1990. Now retired but passionately pursuing this issue on behalf of all veterans, Mr Hoebee had this to say in his latest stinging rebuke:
I believe that our argument is unassailable as far as its fairness and logic goes.
The coalition is committed to military superannuation reform, and on 5 March this year the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Senator Michael Ronaldson, signed the coalition's pledge to deliver fair indexation. This pledge states the coalition's clear commitment to our veterans, to those who have served, to those who are serving, and to those who will serve into the future. And we will deliver fair indexation to 57,000 military superannuants and their families. The pledge also ensures that the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Scheme and the Defence Force Retirement Benefits Scheme are indexed in the same manner as age and service pensions. This will benefit all superannuants aged 55 years and over. The coalition want to see fair indexation. We know how important, how needed and how just it is.
The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 includes a number of minor technical amendments to veterans legislation. However, the main issue of concern that parliament must immediately deal with is the unfair, unjust and inequitable situation confronting military superannuants. It is unacceptable that this Labor government continues to tarry with semantics while at the same time bluntly ignoring the everyday concerns of veterans, ex-service personnel and their families. Whilst the coalition support this amendment, we believe it can be made better, and we seek to legislate fair indexation as a requirement for this bill to pass.
Furthermore, once this legislation is passed through the House of Representatives the coalition will seek to make the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme the fair system it deserves to be. The coalition moved an amendment to defer the debate, and this was not done lightly. We believe it is vital this legislation incorporates fair indexation. This is fair, it is just and it is equitable for military superannuants—men and women, as I say, who put their lives in harm's way for our country.
On Saturday I attended the commemoration service for the Vietnam veterans in the Victory Memorial Gardens in Wagga Wagga. One of the questions I was asked—not once, but several times—was, 'When is this parliament going to fairly index military pensions?' The coalition made a commitment to fair indexation on 27 June 2010 and took this commitment to the 2010 election. Although not able to form government, we introduced legislation to the Senate on 18 November 2010 to bring about indexation for DFRB and DFRDB military superannuants.
On 24 March 2011 the Greens and Labor called for yet another inquiry into the legislation. The coalition opposed this on the grounds that there have been more than half a dozen inquiries, all of which have supported fair indexation. The Greens and Labor used the inquiry to oppose fair indexation—the first parliament which has ever opposed fair indexation. This is disgraceful, and Labor and Greens members should hang their heads in shame at the way Australian veterans—who lived the ANZAC legacy—are being treated.
Failure to justly index military superannuation pensions comes at a significant cost to veterans' purchasing power. The Minister for Veterans' Affairs has argued a superannuant on $58,000 per year did not need fair indexation—they were already well off. However, what the minister failed to acknowledge is that the average DFRDB military pension is just $24,386—almost 2½ times less than the figure he quoted in June. Veterans received letters in June this year offering an increase to their pensions. These increases were a measly few cents and, really, were a slap in the face to military superannuants, with many receiving less than a $1 increase per fortnight. Is this what they deserve after their years of service, their dedication and the sacrifice that they made, and the risks that they took?
Peter Grimmer, a retired warrant officer (aircrew), who served from 1965 until 1985, wrote to me stating he would receive an increase of 96c per fortnight, a pitiful total of $24.96 per annum. He told me the increase made him feel 'not only physically sick over this vile betrayal but very angry and very abused'. I think anyone could understand why Mr Grimmer feels this way, although this government continues to look the other way. It is time Labor faced reality and told veterans such as Mr Grimmer how less than a dollar a fortnight will help meet the ever increasing costs of living, costs which are not helped by the imposition of the carbon tax. Labor claims it will cost too much to fairly index military superannuants. To that I say: how can delivering what is rightly owed to military superannuants, people who put their lives on the line for Australia, cost too much?
The current Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme is also flawed, and it is unfair. The coalition seeks to amend legislation to deliver equality for disabled veterans with high pharmaceutical costs. Under Labor there is division between disabled veterans—those with qualifying service and those without. Up to 1,500 disabled veterans receive no assistance from the scheme as it currently stands. These are disabled veterans who receive the special rate, or totally and permanently incapacitated, but do not have qualifying service as defined by the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. The coalition proposed a comprehensive veterans' pharmaceutical reimbursement scheme at the 2010 election which delivered financial relief to more than 80,000 disabled veterans. It did not create two classes of veterans and it ensured that all of Australia's most disabled veterans had no out-of-pocket pharmaceutical expenses. Furthermore, the coalition's scheme was immediate. There were no cumbersome reimbursements needed, nor any need for technical amendments to ensure the scheme functions properly, as the legislation before us today proposes.
Under the coalition's scheme, a veteran who qualified would pay for only 30 scripts per year and, once they reached this number, under the veterans pharmaceutical safety net threshold they would pay no more. This meant financial relief for veterans.
Labor's scheme leaves veterans waiting for the calendar to tick over to a new year before they receive any financial relief for the cost of pharmaceuticals. It is important the government does the right thing by our retired military personnel. It is time to put a stop to the discrimination against them and to recognise the conditions of their employment, to which they contributed financially during their service.
I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012. Today's bill includes nine changes to various pieces of legislation which are technical and non-controversial in nature. The coalition will support the passage of the nine adjustments in this bill, which include clarifications under the Veterans' Entitlements Act, the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act, the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act and others. For example, the legislation will rationalise the maintenance income provisions of the Veterans' Entitlements Act by addressing redundant definitions and aligning definitions with those in the Social Security Act.
As the member for Fadden has already indicated, the bill presents the House with an opportunity to implement real change for veterans. As this legislation amendment bill includes important legislative changes and is intended to change conditions for veterans and ex-service people, it is more than appropriate that all avenues to improve the lives of veterans and their families be considered in this context. As such, the coalition has proposed two amendments to rectify indexation for military superannuants and to rectify provisions in the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme.
I have said previously in this House that the only way to deliver this very important reform is to change the government. Today's amendments mean that this need not be the case in the short term. The introduction of this bill in the House is an opportunity to effect real change for our veterans; it is an opportunity to pass these very important amendments. They are important because veterans—as well as the coalition—have had enough of this tired Labor government, which refuses to support their community. It is an opportunity to commit this country to fair indexation of military superannuation pensions under the Defence Force Retirement Benefits Scheme, the DFRB Scheme, and the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Scheme, the DFRDB Scheme.
Fair indexation is one of the most important issues affecting the veteran and ex-service community. I spoke in my maiden speech about Gallipoli Barracks at Enoggera, which is in the Ryan electorate, and I acknowledged the very valued contribution made by their service men and women. In that speech, I recommitted to fair indexation of the DFRBS and the DFRDBS. It is a community to which I recommit myself again, and it is an issue for which I will continue to fight. As such, I, with my coalition colleagues, am drawing a line in the sand when it comes to supporting veterans, and I call on the Labor Party and the Greens to finally accept that it is time for indexation. It is time that this parliament delivered for veterans.
This issue is not new, and the coalition has a proud record on which to stand when it comes to supporting veterans. The Leader of the Opposition first announced our commitment to fair indexation on 27 July 2010, more than two years ago and prior to the last election. Since then, on 18 November 2010, the coalition, in the Senate, introduced legislation so that we could finally and effectively deal with this issue. At that time, the Labor Party and the Greens did what they do best—referred the issue to an inquiry. As veterans know, this is merely this Labor-Green government's way of delaying and delaying, hoping that the issue will go away.
We opposed an inquiry because by 2010 there had already been more than six parliamentary inquiries, and I remind the members on the opposite side of the House that every single inquiry prior to 2011 held into fair indexation had supported its implementation. Instead, Labor and the Greens used that inquiry as a pretence to oppose fair indexation, the first time ever that parliament had done so. Finally, on 16 June 2011, in what can only be called a day of disgrace for the Senate, the Labor Party and the Greens combined to vote down the coalition's fair indexation legislation. On that day, the Australian Labor Party and the Greens demonstrated that they do not care about the lives of military superannuants and their families.
Since then, the coalition has maintained its strong commitment to fair indexation, and earlier this year I signed the coalition's pledge to deliver fair indexation. This pledge has also been signed by the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow minister for veterans affairs and many other members of the coalition. That pledge says:
The coalition will ensure DFRB and DFRDB military superannuation pensions are indexed in the same way as age and service pensions. All DFRB and DFRDB superannuants aged 55 and over will benefit.
Just this morning, my office received yet another letter from a constituent in Ryan, asking what my position is on this policy and asking what the coalition will do for military superannuants. In my electorate, I represent many groups, including the Returned Services League with sub-branches at Gaythorne, Kenmore-Moggill and Indooroopilly-Sherwood, as well as the Australian Army Aviation Association, the Veterans Support and Advocacy Service Australia and the VSAS Toowong branch, the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam Association, and the many members of the Australian Defence Force at Gallipoli Barracks in Enoggera. The Defence community and the veteran community want fair indexation, and they know it should happen now.
I can say with pride that, should the ALP and the Greens continue to neglect this issue by not accepting the coalition's amendments and should we the coalition be elected by the Australian people, the coalition will deliver this reform in our very first budget.
This was a promise at the 2010 election. It will be a promise at the next election, and I can give an ironclad guarantee that a coalition government will deliver this important reform. At present the average DFRDB pension is a meagre $24,386. In June 2012—