Tuesday, 21 August 2012
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012; Second Reading
As I was saying, 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 we 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 veterans received the news that military superannuation pensions would increase by just 0.1 per cent, as opposed to the 0.9 per cent increase announced in March this year for age and service pensions. Many veterans received an increase of less than $1 per fortnight. This is at a time when cost of living is increasing and when we now have the world's only economy-wide carbon tax. And, for all Australians, the cost of electricity, gas, water, petrol and grocery prices keeps going up and up.
As another clear demonstration that the Gillard Labor government does not take the veteran community seriously, veterans on the DFRDB scheme will receive no additional assistance to compensate them for the increased costs they face associated with the toxic carbon tax. But, while members on the opposite side of the House clap and cheer and sing and dance at passing the world's biggest carbon tax and its flow-on costs to veterans, without compensation, they then come into this chamber and declare that fair indexation would be too expensive to implement. While veterans tell me—and they constantly tell the government—that they are struggling to make ends meet, Labor turns around and says to them that it does not care about their concerns and deliberately misleads the Australian community about how we can implement fair indexation.
I do of course acknowledge the undeniable fact that the Treasurer and the Minister for Veterans' Affairs cannot sit down and find $100 million over the forward estimates to support fair indexation, because of the gross incompetence and poor and reckless financial management by the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments. I acknowledge that, because of this incompetence and despite the constant pleas from the veterans' community, they increased military superannuation pensions by only 0.1 per cent. Labor's wasteful and reckless spending in so many other areas has left them unable to meet their commitment in 2007 and their now-broken promise to reform pensions and prevent erosion of pensions arising from unfair indexation.
In the context of increasing cost of living, the coalition will also propose an amendment to fix the deeply flawed and unfair Veterans' Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, to deliver fairness for disabled veterans with high pharmaceutical costs. At present, the Labor government's legislation has created two classes of disabled veterans: those with qualifying service and those without. My office has received inquiries from some of our most disabled veterans, who do not receive assistance under the scheme and are, as you can imagine, extremely frustrated and angry. Across the country up to 1,500 of our most disabled veterans slip through the cracks under Labor's scheme. This is because they receive the special rate of TPI but do not have appropriate qualifying service as defined by the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986.
The coalition has a plan to fix this situation, a plan we took to the 2010 election and a plan we will take to the next election. Under our election promise, more than 80,000 disabled veterans would be provided with financial relief under a comprehensive veterans' pharmaceutical reimbursement scheme. We identified the need to fix the situation such that there will no longer be two classes of veterans, and all veterans with a disability would have no out-of-pocket pharmaceutical related expenses. We proposed a scheme by which eligible veterans would pay for only 30 scripts per year—that is, once they reach the veterans' pharmaceutical safety net, veterans pay not a dollar more for their scripts. Such an approach also removes cumbersome requirements placed on eligible veterans with complicated reimbursements.
Our plan provides assurance to veterans such that they would no longer have to wait until the new year before they could again receive financial relief for the cost of pharmaceuticals. The coalition will therefore move amendments which would enable all special rate or TPI ex-servicemen to become eligible for the veterans' pharmaceutical reimbursement scheme. As I have mentioned, this means the coverage will be extended to all of the approximately 1,500 special rate pensioners who do not have qualifying service. These proposed amendments provide fairness, justice and peace of mind to all veterans.
This proposal, based on the government's advice about the average cost of reimbursement and the approximate number of 1,500 recipients of the special rate pensions, will cost up to $234,000. In the context of the full government scheme, which is budgeted to cost $30 million over the next four years, we are not talking about a lot of money. Yet we have a government so incompetent that it cannot implement a policy that will cost only $234,000 a year. However, one can never justify a policy based solely on cost; one justifies policies because they are the right thing to do. The coalition plans to repeal the carbon tax, and not just because it is a $9 billion a year carbon tax that pushes up electricity prices and increases cost-of-living pressures. We will repeal the carbon tax because it is the wrong policy approach that does nothing to benefit the environment.
The coalition opposes wasting more than $56 billion on the National Broadband Network not only because it is gross mismanagement of taxpayers' money but also because we know that it can be done faster, cheaper and more affordably.
Similarly, the coalition supports fair indexation of military superannuation pensions because people on those pensions are doing it tough and they deserve fair indexation. We support spending an extra $234,000 a year on disabled veterans because they deserve and need the funding. Not only will the next election be a referendum on the carbon tax; it will be an election on how the Australian government supports the veteran community. It will be an election to decide between the Labor Party, which constantly refuses to listen to the community, and the coalition, which has shown not only the ability to listen, to consult and to devise competent policy but also the ability to understand the needs of the veteran community. It will be an election to restore hope, reward and opportunity to Australian veterans and their families.
I am proud to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill because this government has an incredible record of delivering for veterans in this country—greater than any government preceding it. It is amazing to hear the coalition talking about this, because they talk the talk but they fail to walk the walk. The issues that they have raised in this debate demonstrate their hypocrisy. For 12 years they did nothing in so many of the areas they have highlighted. I will come back to that point.
I will summarise how this bill improves the situation for a lot of veterans. The bill will make it clear within the Veterans' Entitlements Act that travel for medical appointments can be approved by DVA even after it has been undertaken. That will clearly be sanctioned by the legislation to clear up any doubt. For sailors in Operation Damask VI who served in a period between 13 January and 19 January 1993, an anomaly has been resolved and that period has been reclassified as operational service, enabling them to get access to things like subsidised home loans and insurance under the Defence Service Homes Act. In relation to the power to extend special assistance or benefits to persons to whom they are not otherwise available under the act, this legislation will enable special assistance to be created via legislative instrument so there will be a more timely response to these issues as they will not have to go through the mechanism of a regulation. The estates of deceased veterans or members who were in receipt of the special rate for the extreme disablement adjustment disability payment and died in indigent circumstances will now have the bereavement payment exempt for income tax purposes. We will also see the reimbursement of all out-of-pocket expenses incurred in the purchase of pharmaceuticals under the RPBS, so that from 1 January 2013 we could see up to 70,000 veterans and members becoming eligible for annual automatic reimbursement of those costs.
There are some other technical clean-up issues associated with this legislation, but let us recall the government's record in resolving veterans' issues—it is an outstanding one. From 20 March 2008 all veterans' compensation pensions have been indexed with reference to both CPI and MTAWE, and then from 20 September 2009 we added the additional index of the Pensioner and Beneficiary Living Cost Index—the PBLCI. We managed to resolve the issue for all veterans with compensation pensions and TPI status. We also increased the extreme disablement adjustment pension and non-economic loss compensation payments. We improved indexation of and provided an increase in the war widow's domestic allowance, we contributed $50 million to provide concessions for senior cardholders who use public transport services outside their home, and on 20 March 2008, the utilities allowance for eligible pensioners was increased to $500 per annum, paid in quarterly instalments. We had secure and sustainable pension reforms for 320,000 service pensioners and war widows, adding $1.1 billion to the budget as at the 2009-10 budget.
We increased funding for the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training program. We introduced a comprehensive Australian Defence Force Mental Health Lifestyle Package, and we improved mental health support in line with the Dunt review recommendations. More than $92 million has been allocated for the implementation of both of those key initiatives of that review. We have extended repeat prescriptions for the chronically ill, we have included young ex-service people with disabilities in the Commonwealth State/Territory Disability Agreement for the first time, and we have improved community care and support for those with chronic and complex conditions, with $152.7 million being put into an initiative to increase community based support for those with those conditions. We have provided zero real interest loans for aged-care facilities, and we extended income support supplements to widows without dependants in July 2008, abolishing the age restriction on that payment.
We also introduced the Vietnam Veterans Family Study, and it is appropriate to mention that in the context and shadow of Vietnam Veterans Day. We have extended bereavement payments for single TPI and EDA veterans who die without sufficient assets to pay for a funeral. There is automatic granting of war widow pensions to widows of TTI and intermediate rate pensioners. We increased financial assistance for ex-service organisations—an additional $5 million, with total funding of $14.9 million over four years. There is a new consultation framework for the ex-service community through the introduction of the PMAC, which I know has been well received by many veterans. We also formed a special claims unit that has cut processing times in DVA, and that has certainly been well received because it has had an effect on those processing times. We established an independent Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal, and that has produced a large number of results for so many longstanding issues that have been festering for over 60 years. I am very proud to say that I had a strong personal role in resolving things like the Long Tan gallantry citations—again in the context of Vietnam Veterans Day it is important to highlight that—and the criteria for the Australian Defence Medal and recognition of service of the 4th Battalion RAR in Malaysia in a period from 1966 to 1967 were also resolved by the work of the tribunal.
I was also proud to be involved in resolving the post-armistice Korean service issues. Many veterans came to me early on in the 2007 campaign to highlight their situation and I am proud to say we were able to introduce the Australian General Service Medal for Korea from early 2010 and to make sure these proud veterans were able to wear the Return from Active Service Badge. We also declared the Ballarat Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial to be a national memorial and granted $160,000 over four years for its maintenance. I am particularly proud of that effort as my grandfather's name is on the memorial—he was a survivor of the Thai-Burma Railway. We have also committed $10 million for an interpretive trail on the Western Front to highlight that legacy, a legacy which has, I think, been sadly neglected over many years—with the emphasis having been quite rightly on Gallipoli.
We have also looked particularly at the legacy of war for our wounded personnel. We introduced the Simpson Program of enhanced services and support, which is costing $21.2 million over four years. It is intended to minimise financial disadvantage, provide housing assistance, develop a comprehensive training and reskilling program and ensure access to specialist rehabilitation. I acknowledge the work of two young officers, John Bale and Cavin Wilson, who have established the Soldier On organisation, which is also looking to improve the lot of our wounded personnel.
This government resolved the longstanding and festering story of the F-111 deseal-reseal issue. We also resolved the British nuclear test issue, providing $24.2 million for disability pensions for those who suffer from conditions caused by those nuclear tests, as well as for war widow pensions. We resolved the issue of certain submarine special operations from 1978 to 1992. These were reclassified from July 2010 to allow the provision of service pensions, health care and gold cards to up to 890 submariners who served during that period. We resolved the RAAF Ubon issue—that period in Thailand between 31 May 1962 and July 1962 now qualifies as operational service. I know a lot of RAAF personnel who were personally involved during that period who are very grateful for that resolution.
We have just heard reference to the impact of the carbon price. It is as well to remind ourselves not only of the household assistance package flowing through to all low- and middle-income earners but also of the fact we have added to that—self-funded retirees who have not reached eligible pension age and are not taxed are able to apply for low-income supplements of $300 a year through Centrelink. This has been just a very quick, broadbrush summary of the great range of measures this government has taken to improve the lot of veterans. You can never do enough for our veterans and we should always be trying to do more.
I take this opportunity to address another issue, one which has been raised by my good friend the member for Fadden in association with the candidate who is opposing me in the electorate of Eden-Monaro at the next election. A press release was recently put out claiming that I should be putting forward a private member's bill to address the situation of non-compensation TPI pensioners in relation to the indexation issue. Of course both the member for Fadden and the Liberal candidate in Eden-Monaro would well know that, as a member of the executive, it is not technically possible for me to raise a private member's bill. But it is also not necessary for me to raise a private member's bill for this issue to be resolved.
This is an issue which I have worked very hard on since that campaign in 2007. There have been many steps on the way to resolving this issue, including the Matthews review and the introduction of the new indexation mechanism—the PBLCI—about which there has been a fair bit of debate. I point out that the candidate in Eden-Monaro, Mr Hendy, was a member of the Howard government for its 12 years in office—and nothing was done to resolve this issue. If he had spent less time putting the work he did into introducing Work Choices—which he has proudly claimed in front of the Bungendore Chamber of Commerce and Industry to be the father of—and if he had spent less time involving himself in the children overboard scandal, victimising people like Admiral David Shackleton, who lives in Narooma in my electorate and who has very bitter memories of that period, and focused on the needs of veterans, perhaps he could have pushed for something to be done during the 12 years the Howard government had rivers of gold with which to do address the issue.
Instead, they allowed people like Nick Minchin to say that he was not going to do anything to fix the circumstances of these people—because that would be looking after fat cats. Senator Minchin has repeatedly argued, in recent times, that the coalition should walk away from this measure. They have now proposed to introduce indexation but only for a certain category of military personnel—and ignoring all of the other civil service people who are in the same financial situation. In my view, these people should also be looked after—I represent the ones who live in Eden-Monaro.
The utmost hypocrisy is coming from the coalition on this issue. I point out that a coalition would have to deal with its $70 billion black hole—they have announced an array of new policy proposals and their great big new tax to pay for their paid parental leave scheme. There are massive areas of spending which, we know, they do not have proper costings to support. This military superannuation indexation policy would be the very first promise they would throw overboard—to coin a phrase. There is absolutely no question about it—nobody could take the coalition's commitment to deliver on this policy promise seriously. They have never been able to do it in the past. They never showed an intention to fix it during the 12 years they had those rivers of gold with which to do something about it. There is absolutely no way they would deliver on this policy promise. The first thing they would do if they got into government would be to say, 'Now we have gotten hold of the books, clearly circumstances have changed and clearly we are not in a position to deliver—
Mr Deputy Speaker Adams, I raise a point of order relating to standing order 90, reflections on members. I made the personal guarantee yesterday and last night that we would deliver this important reform of indexation of pensions, and I will deliver it.
I have no doubt that the member for Fadden has serious intentions in this regard, but I also have no doubt that there is no chance that his team will even attempt to deliver on this—
because they have never done it in the past. It would be the first thing they would throw overboard. They would get in there and say, 'Sorry, we did intended to do it.' The evidence I have for that is Senator Ronaldson's speech at the Victorian RSL recently, where he talked about all the things he would like to do if the coalition were ever to get into government. He could only say, 'Well, I don't think I'd be able to do it because the budgetary situation just wouldn't allow me to.' There would be a lot of hands on hearts and beating of chests and false tears, and they would say, 'We would've liked to have done it, but once we got hold of the books we found out we couldn't.'
I am intent on actually delivering a result. I really believe we can do this, we can find a way to do it, and I will never cease my efforts to achieve an outcome in this respect. I am committed to work for as long as it takes to achieve that result.
In speaking on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 and the coalition's amendment, I seek to represent those in my electorate who have served in this country's armed forces, those who continue to serve in the armed forces and all the people in my electorate who honour and respect our veterans. Sadly, honouring and respecting our veterans is not unanimous in this country, and I feel it is not unanimous in this parliament either.
While this bill makes a number of important legislative changes that the Liberal-National coalition supports, there is still something missing. Fair treatment of our veterans is missing. The coalition has long recognised that this particular element was missing and has moved on numerous occasions to correct the situation. I speak of course of fair indexation. In 2010, the Liberal-National coalition announced a commitment to fair indexation, but this government has repeatedly signalled that it does not want that particular type of fairness for our veterans. The government has blocked every move to make the treatment of veterans fair. The coalition's commitment included fair indexation for veterans who are superannuants under the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Scheme and the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Scheme, or the DFRB and the DFRDB.
The reason the coalition made this commitment is that we believe our veterans deserves a fair go. Without fair indexation, the level at which our veterans are looked after declines. It will decline this year. It will decline further next year. It will continue to decline as long as the real cost of living keeps increasing faster and further than the indexation.
I would like to use a specific example here to illustrate my point. I have received numerous letters from veterans who tell me that they are being ripped off by this unfair indexation. I spoke with John Markham, in my electorate, about the advice he was given about DFRDB at the end of last financial year. He was told, in a letter:
… the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has recently announced an upward movement in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) over the past six month period from September 2011 to March 2012. As a result your DFRDB pension will increase by 0.1% on 12 July 2012.
The letter then goes on to advise that the increase means an extra $1.03 in his gross fortnightly pension—that is a mere $1.03 added to his gross fortnightly pension. But, because the Australian Taxation Office changed the way they withhold tax, his net fortnightly pension actually went down by $30.97. Does that sound like fair indexation—an extra dollar a fortnight that is gobbled up by a $32 a fortnight tax take by this government? What can this veteran splurge on with those extra funds from that indexation rate of 0.1 per cent! As another veteran pointed out to me, during the same six months the ABS statistics for expenses paid by a pensioner increased as follows: transport costs went up 1.1 per cent, or 11 times the DFRDB rate; insurance costs, up 1.6 per cent; rents, up two per cent; and health costs, up 3.2 per cent, 32 times the DFRDB rate. But these are national figures, of course, and in North Queensland we can only dream of cost increases like that! The cost of body corporate insurance for the kinds of units and apartments that many veterans live in has increased by 200, 500 and as much as 1,000 per cent throughout North Queensland, so you cannot tell me the cost of living has gone up just 0.1 per cent in my neck of the woods.
The very least anyone with any respect for our veterans could do is vote for fair indexation. I am left wondering what it is that this government has against our retired Defence Force personnel. They seem to have this thing against our Defence forces and other good Australians who work in the Defence forces. Maybe the government would prefer these people just went away. Perhaps the Greens are controlling their puppet government on defence matters as well, because it is after all Greens policy that they want a reduction in Australian and global military expenditure. At least they are upfront about it. Their belief, according to their stated principles, is:
… genuine security rests on cooperation, fair economic and social development, environmental sustainability, and respect for human rights, rather than on military capabilities.
I suppose fairies and mushrooms can be thrown into that as well! The Labor government demonstrated with their budget in May that they do not even want to maintain the existing Defence Force. In fact, I spoke in the debate on the appropriation bills about how this government is worse for our Defence forces than the Taliban. How much respect can the government have for defence and our Defence personnel when they are slashing—
Mr Deputy Speaker Adams, on a point of order: I do not mind if the member for Dawson strays from the subject and is not relevant, but to impugn the motives of the government as being akin to those of the Taliban is disrespectful to our Australian soldiers fighting there. It certainly impugns the motives of the government. You might not like what we do, but to make that insinuation is unworthy.
How much respect does a government have for Defence and our defence personnel if they slash $5½ billion from the defence budget? That is a 10.5 per cent cut to the budget—cutting to the lowest level, as a percentage of GDP, since the eve of World War II. But so deep does this loathing of defence seem to run through the Labor Party that fair indexation has been rejected time and time again.
The coalition took our commitment to fair indexation to the 2010 election and have since worked to promote the issue in parliament. The coalition introduced appropriate legislation to the Senate on 18 November 2010 so that DFRB and DFRDB superannuants would have fair, just and equitable indexation. In March last year, the Greens and Labor called for a Senate inquiry to look into this legislation. Given that more than a dozen inquiries have already supported fair indexation, calling for any more inquiries can only been seen as a stalling tactic—stalling because it is something the government does not want to do, something that probably most of the Labor Party does not want to do.
It can be hard to work out who really wants fair indexation and who does not. Even the Greens do not know whether they support it or not. I visited a local RSL sub-branch whose members told me that they were most upset by the government and the Greens not supporting fair indexation, and when I posted a comment about that on Facebook I received an email from the recently endorsed Greens candidate for Dawson, Jonathon Dykyj, who said:
I noticed on your Facebook page that you are claiming that the Greens oppose Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefit Pensions indexed to the age pension.
Here is a policy initiative from the 2010 election and it was nothing new for us then either.
He provided the link and then said:
I kindly ask that you do the decent thing and correct the record on your page.
So I had a look at the document Mr Dykyj sent me, the Australian Greens policy initiative Fair indexation for Commonwealth and Defence Force superannuation pensions, which says—this is the Greens policy:
In a long-running campaign, current and former federal public servants and 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.
That sounds encouraging, but it goes on:
The government went to the last election with a promise to address the indexation issue. Instead it commissioned the Matthews Review, and subsequently decided against changing the indexation measure. Australian Greens leader, Bob Brown—
it is a little bit old—
wrote to Minister Tanner earlier this year to urge him to re-consider the government's response to the Matthews' review and revise the indexation for Defence Force superannuation pensions. We strongly believe that the government should now act to provide wage-based indexation on the same terms as the aged pension for all Commonwealth and defence force superannuation pensions. The cost for ensuring fair and appropriate wages-linked indexation for Commonwealth public servant superannuation pensions is estimated by the Matthews Review to be around $42 million in 2010-11, increasing in following years. However, the actual cost will be lower when the tax implications are taken into account. The Australia Greens believe these costs are outweighed by the longer term benefits and principle of fairness.
When you read that, you would think that we were onto a winner, that they would back fairness for our veterans—that is, until it comes to the crunch, to decision making. On Thursday, 16 July 2011, between the time when the Greens took that policy to the election and the time when they were telling me to do 'the decent thing and correct the record' about what I said about them—there votes are recorded here. So, as the Greens candidate in my area says, I will 'do the right thing' and I 'correct the record'.
The Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Amendment (Fair Indexation) Bill 2010 third reading majority was zero. It was a tied vote of 34 to 34. Listed under the no voters—to correct the record—are Senator Bob Brown, Senator Hanson-Young and Senator Milne. So, yes, I am doing the right thing and correcting the record! Not only are the Greens opposed to fair indexation for veterans but they lie about their opposition so they do not lose votes. They lied at the election and they are lying still. The only time the truth comes out is at the time it matters. And, if it were not for the Greens saying one thing and doing another, it would seem the Labor Party alone is against fair indexation for veteran pensioners because the Independents are on board. The member for Lyne believes:
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.
So he is on board—but, when it comes to actually voting, doing the real thing, will he be bought off like the Greens were and back the government again? The member for New England, in 2010, asked the former finance minister if he would:
… consider introducing a fairer indexation method for military superannuation pension in line with that used to calculate age and welfare pensions.
He is another one on board—unless he can find someone who will sell their backside. No wonder we are going broke. We have a government that is determined not to do the right thing by veterans.
But let's go back to the Labor Party's position on fair indexation. Even the member for Dobell, now free of the shackles of toeing the party line, even though I see him wandering near the Labor whip's office all the time, may be seeking divine redemption by doing the right thing on this matter. He was reported in the Central Coast Express Advocate as saying he was more than happy to support the veterans' campaign. But if you go a little closer to the other side, a little closer to the cliff face of political oblivion where those opposite reside, you will see a little row of fingernails along the edge. They are all dangling over the pit of obscurity but desperately clinging on.
Perhaps the member for Blair is thinking about what is coming here, as he has his electorate breathing down his neck. He told the Minister for Finance and Deregulation:
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.
That is probably the smartest thing that the member for Blair has said. Even the Member for Eden-Monaro, who just spoke here and whom I recognise as one of our veterans, and Senator Kate Lundy have written in support of fair indexation. So it appears that the whole of this country—and certainly the veterans movement—and the parliament, if it were allowed to vote freely, is in favour of fairness. All of this country is in favour of fairness, that is, except for one faction—albeit a large faction—of the Labor Party.
We can hold all the inquiries we like and introduce all the legislation we want on military superannuation pensions, but to create real equality we need either an election or to wait for the faceless men to perform another hatchet job. The coalition and veterans have had enough of waiting; the time for fairness is now. Must we wait four years, just like we did on border protection, for the government to finally concede that the Liberal-National coalition is right once again? We are right—veterans must be fairly recognised through fair indexation.
I rise today to speak on the Veterans Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 because I believe that the coalition's changes to this legislation are very important for veterans living in Macarthur. The reason that the coalition is pushing for its amendments is simple—we want fair and just treatment for our veterans and military superannuants. While we support the measures contained within the government's legislation, we simply believe that it could be made better. This is why we are seeking to include fair indexation as a requirement for the passing of this legislation. Then, once the bill is passed through the House, we will seek to make the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme the fair system it should be.
It is no secret that my father, Reg, is a Vietnam veteran. He, like thousands of others across this country, deserves the utmost respect by the Australian people and this government. I know that there are many veterans in Macarthur who would like to see fairer arrangements for military superannuants. This was one of the issues raised recently by local veterans in Campbelltown when the shadow minister for veterans affairs, Michael Ronaldson, visited my electorate for a veterans' forum. I agree with their sentiments entirely—there is no reason that defence retirees should not enjoy the same indexation arrangements as other people who have retired. These veterans dedicated their working lives to defending our country. Some were physically injured as a result of their service; others still live with the mental scars. I find it absurd that our veterans do not receive the same treatment as civilian retirees. That is why I stand here today to support the coalition's push to introduce fair, just and equitable arrangements for military superannuants.
The coalition has been pushing for a fairer system for many years. We first announced our fair indexation commitment on 27 June 2010. This commitment extended fair indexation to superannuants aged 55 who are members of the DFRB and DFRDB schemes. Under a coalition government, their pensions will be indexed in the same manner as are aged and service pensions. We took our commitment to the 2010 election, and, despite losing that election, we introduced legislation to the Senate on 18 November 2010 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, on the other hand, opposed yet another wasteful inquiry. There had already been more than half-a-dozen inquiries, all of which supported fair indexation. The Greens and Labor used the inquiry to oppose fair indexation. This was the first time that the parliament had ever opposed fair indexation. On 16 June 2011, the coalition's fair indexation legislation was defeated in the Senate.
Since then, we have remained committed to the introduction of fair indexation—and that is something which everybody on this side of the House can be proud of. In March this year we made a pledge, which we will honour, to our veterans. This pledge was met with great support at the Macarthur veterans' forum in Campbelltown recently. The pledge says:
A Coalition Government will deliver fair indexation to 57,000 military superannuants and their families.
The Coalition will ensure DFRB and DFRDB military superannuation pensions are indexed in the same way as aged and service pensions. All DFRB and DFRDB superannuants aged 55 and over will benefit.
A Coalition Government will deliver fair, just and equitable indexation for DFRB and DFRDB pensions.
Australia's veterans and their families will get the fair go they deserve.
I am proud to say that I support this pledge on behalf of all veterans in Macarthur. I do this because local veterans in my electorate who are DFRB and DFRDB military superannuants have proudly served their nation. There is no reason that we should not recognise the unique nature of military service and deliver fair pension indexation to these men and women and their families. That is why a coalition government will deliver this reform in our first budget. This reform is critical, and we will deliver it—unlike those opposite, who say that it will cost too much and that the cost of fair indexation is too high.
It is disappointing that our own Minister for Veterans' Affairs has said that a superannuant on $58,000 per year does not need fair indexation and that they are already well-off. However, what he has failed to acknowledge is that the average DFRDB military pension is just $24,386. That is 2½ times less than the figure he quoted in June. I have to ask the question: is the government deliberately misleading the public? If so, for what reason? In June this year, local veterans received an increase of less than $1 per fortnight in their pensions. This is not enough to help them cope with the rising cost of living.
I am always confused when I hear the government say that things will cost too much, especially when they are talking about something as important as looking after those who have proudly served our nation. If the government stopped wasting money on pink batts, school halls, set-top boxes, green loans and advertising their toxic carbon tax broken promise, we would be able to pay for fair indexation many times over. The cost of fair indexation in the first year is estimated to be $4 million, yet this year alone Labor will spend $36 million on carbon tax ads. I think that the government needs to take a good look at its priorities. The coalition will find the funds necessary to introduce fair indexation. At the last election, the coalition identified more than $50 billion in savings to specifically meet the costs of this commitment—so really there are no excuses.
The Australian Veterans and Defence Services Council has released to the government, the parliament and the Australian people the outcome of its case studies conducted over the past two years.
These case studies are evidence of the distress being experienced by military pensioners through the inadequacy of the current system of indexation. This issue is over the inadequacy of indexation, which ultimately draws more and more of the military superannuation community in their later years to the benchmark of poverty. If fair indexation is affordable for some 3.5 million age pensioners, why is it not affordable for military superannuation pensioners? Military pensioners need the government to change from its indifference to their plight. They served when and where their country needed them and are worthy of our full support.
Another issue I would like to raise is also an important matter for our veterans, and that is the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme. Once this legislation passes the House of Representatives, the coalition will seek to amend the legislation to deliver fairness for disabled veterans with high pharmaceutical costs. We believe that the government's current scheme is unfair and the current pharmaceutical reimbursement scheme is flawed. Sadly, it has created two classes of disabled veterans—those with qualifying service and those without. Currently, up to 1,500 of our most disabled veterans receive no assistance from the scheme. These are our most disabled veterans, who are receiving the special rate, or TPI, pension but who do not have qualifying service as defined by the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986.
The coalition will implement a fairer system for veterans' pharmaceutical costs. At the last election we proposed a comprehensive veterans' pharmaceutical reimbursement scheme 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 our most disabled veterans had no out-of-pocket pharmaceutical expenses. Under the coalition's scheme, a veteran who qualified for the scheme would only pay for 30 scripts per year. Once they reached this reduced veterans' pharmaceutical safety net, they would pay no more for their scripts. This meant immediate financial relief for our veterans. The coalition's scheme does not require cumbersome reimbursement, yet Labor's scheme leaves veterans waiting for the new year before they receive any financial relief for the cost of pharmaceuticals. It is just not right.
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 persons. Our amendments will extend the coverage of the scheme beyond those disability pensioners with qualifying service, to include all special rate pensioners as well. This amendment will bring fairness and justice to the current flawed and unfair scheme. These amendments will cost up to $234,000 per year, based on the government's own advice about the average cost of the reimbursement and the approximate number of 1,500 special rate pensioners without qualifying service. The government's scheme is budgeted to cost $30 million over the next four years, so an extra $234,000 is really a modest additional cost to provide the fairness disabled veterans deserve. It is a small price to pay to ensure our most disabled service personnel are not further disadvantaged by Labor's unfair pharmaceutical reimbursement scheme.
These changes are a big deal to Vietnam veterans living in Macarthur. As the cost of living continues to rise, we cannot continue to discriminate against the people who have proudly served our nation. All we are asking for is fairness and equality for all of our pensioners, be it in regard to fair indexation or the veterans pharmaceutical benefit scheme. I do not believe this is too much to ask, and I ask those opposite to support these changes and look after our veterans who have done so much for this wonderful country and its people.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 tonight, because it was just on Saturday that the commemoration of Vietnam Veterans Day took place. I had the honour of attending two ceremonies in Perth. First there was the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia WA Branch's ceremony at the very impressive Vietnam War memorial in Kings Park. The service was very well attended. There were veterans of the Vietnam War and friends and relatives of those who gave their lives for a good cause. There was also the Premier's representative, Mr Michael Sutherland MLA. Although a list said that the opposition leader of WA would attend, he was not actually there. I was there. In fact, as it turned out I was the only representative from federal parliament at that event, which I think is a little bit sad. But I think that, as I talk about this bill tonight and the amendment from the member for Fadden, possibly we can see why the federal government was not represented at that event. But it was a very good event. It was a service that ran well. I would also pay tribute to Major General John Hartley AO (Retired), the National President of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam Association. Major General Hartley spoke very well about the realities of the war that took place with Australian involvement between 1962 and 1973. Major General Hartley spoke about what happened in the war and how it is important to keep the support of the public—otherwise wars can be lost.
The second event that I went to to commemorate Vietnam Veterans Day was later in the afternoon, at the Ballajura RSL. The Ballajura RSL is based at Ballajura Community College, which includes the Ballajura War Memorial and Peace Park, a park and place of reflection and commemoration that was paid for in significant part by the Howard government through a couple of different grants. I thank President Mike Gilmour, Scotty Alcorn, Barry Burley and Brian Rose, and the members, families and friends of the Ballajura sub-branch of the RSL. I thank them for the opportunity to speak at that commemoration.
We are certainly getting back to the bill now, Mr Deputy Speaker. We know that the intent of the bill involves a number of fairly procedural matters, but the part of the bill that I would like to speak to is, of course, the amendment put forward by the member for Fadden. I am very well aware that the issue of fair indexation for DFRDB and DFRB superannuants is a big issue—certainly in recent times. Many constituents have asked me about this. Of course, Terry 'Mad Dog' Malligan is very active in this space, and I fully support Terry. Don Horsley, Bill Bekendam and Daniel Armour have all contacted me in fairly recent times to talk to me about it. As we know, there is an issue in this country at the moment about 57,000 military superannuants and their families and the need to have their military superannuation pensions indexed in the same way as the age pension and the service pensions for those aged 55 and over.
It is important that we remember that, as part of the 2010 election campaign—and before that as well—the coalition was very clear on this. The Leader of the Opposition has signed a pledge, and we have all given our commitment to our veterans and these military superannuants that the coalition parties will be backing them at the earliest opportunity. Although some might think the earliest opportunity will be after the next election, I would say that this is an excellent opportunity right now to provide fair indexation. I know that, within this chamber, the Independents seem to be on the record for supporting fair indexation. The member for Lyne certainly should, when the time comes for a vote, stand with us on the coalition side. The member for New England should also be there as well, certainly given the fact that the, albeit a reserve unit, has a great history and I believe is based within his electorate. And, obviously, the member for Denison as well—someone who has a background in the Army—should also be in support of fair indexation.
Of course, we can always rely on the Greens to never support anything that supports our veterans. They are always self-serving in the first degree, and always against anything to do with the armed forces that this country needs and depends upon. But it is shaping up, in my view, as a great opportunity to provide the fair indexation at the earliest opportunity—and the earliest opportunity may well be tonight, or at least tomorrow, when this bill comes to a vote. I certainly join with that member for Fadden and my other colleagues for their advocacy on behalf of this worthy and just venture.
The government loves to speak about scare campaigns—and Minister Wong is on the record for the claim, ridiculously and, no doubt, to coin the favourite phrase of one of the ministers: mendacious—that our plan of indexation would cost $1.7 billion to begin and $4.5 billion to fully implement. But the reality is that we are really talking, across the forward estimates, of between $100 million and $150 million to implement, to take this fair indexation to where it should be.
So it is the case that, as I said before, the earliest opportunity to provide the long-awaited and fully justified fair indexation is upon us now in this House. It is an opportunity for those who claim to stand for the interests of veterans to stand very clearly and vote—rather to sit, really, on the side of this amendment from the member for Fadden—and put their money where their mouth is. It is the opportunity for everyone to be on the record and to finally be counted.
I know that, particularly in Western Australia—and probably around the rest of the country as well—we have seen a number of picket lines put up outside Labor senators' and members' offices to talk about fair indexation. Particularly, just days after Vietnam Veterans Day, it is a time—as I said before, 57,000 veterans and family members—when everyone is extremely focused on this matter. We have very clearly made the commitment. The leader, Tony Abbott, has made the pledge. The team stands absolutely behind Tony—which is something we at least can say in this House: that we stand behind our leader—and it does provide us with that opportunity now to be counted.
So I call upon the Independents, when they come back to the chamber, to remember who they stand for and whether they wish to just continue in lock-step with the government or whether they want to be counted on the side of veterans. It will be an opportunity where the veteran community will get a very clear and salient message about who is on whose side—and at this point it is not looking good for the government. But it does provide the opportunity for the government, in the hours ahead of this debate, to redeem themselves and come back and do the right thing. So the opportunity to do the right thing is upon us. It does not need to wait for the next election. I hope it does not have to wait for next election. But, in any case, we are about to vote for the right thing, and it is just a shame that those on the other side in the Labor Party will not be.
I rise to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012. This bill makes a number of minor changes to legislation that affects veterans. These changes will allow how expenses are paid for veterans who are travelling for medical treatment; introduce a formal legislative mechanism to provide special assistance in a more timely way; replace old references to the pharmaceutical and telephone allowances, with the MRCA supplement; and exempt bereavement payments from being classed as income in the social security income test; among several other small changes. All these are worthy changes. These are, however, minor technical amendments and, for the most part, we in the coalition have very little issue with them. I do, however, throw my support behind the two amendments that the coalition will be moving.
In speaking about issues affecting veterans, the elephant in the room is always this government's complete ignorance of what the ex-servicemen of this country are really crying out for: fair indexation of the Defence Force Retirement Benefits and Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Scheme—DFRB and DFRDB. The coalition will be proposing two amendments to this bill. The first of this is to delay further debate until this government brings legislation to fairly index DFRDB pensions into this parliament.
That is the issue that veterans are talking about. That is the issue that they are talking to me about. That is the issue that they want to see action taken on. It is about time this Labor government took some notice.
The DFRDB is indexed differently to other pensions, like the age and service pensions. DFRDB is simply tied to the CPI, while other pensions from the government are connected to the CPI, male average weekly earnings or the cost-of-living index, whichever one is the largest. That means, every year since the Whitlam government brought about these changes, DFRDB recipients fell a little bit further behind. After 40 years that has left a big gap between what the government thinks is good enough for veterans and what is good enough for the recipients of other pensions. I do not specifically blame this government over the nonaction on this matter. I blame the Howard government. I blame the Keating government. I blame the Hawke government. I blame the Fraser government. I blame the Whitlam government. Everyone has had a chance to do the right thing here, and none has. This government has the chance to do the right thing. This government is the one that took the policy to the 2007 election that it would do something about it. This government stood up there and told the veterans they would do it, and they have done nothing.
Once you add in the world's biggest carbon tax, even without any direct compensation, veterans have been hung out to dry as they struggle to cope with rising living costs. There are 57,000 recipients of DFRDB and DFRB pensions. These are people who have dedicated their lives to selfless service. For the record, to qualify for DFRDB you must have a minimum of 20 years' service to your country in one of the services. That means packing up your family and moving every two years around the country to places you probably do not want to go—of course everyone does want to go when they come to Townsville. We have the opportunity to reward that service with a little bit more financial security and support in their retirement. You simply cannot overstate the impact that correcting this injustice will have on those recipients and on their families.
As well as having the largest Defence base in the country, Townsville has a strong community of veterans. On the weekend we had Vietnam Veterans Day. I was talking to an ex-RAAF member. His first tour of duty to Townsville was in 1959. He brought his wife up in 1962. They made the decision then that no matter where they finished their career in the RAAF—and he went to Vietnam; he went all the way around the world—they would retire in Townsville. They are now tried and true grey nomads based in Townsville. Townsville has a strong community of veterans, and they have been fighting for this change for years. And they are only asking for what is fair. It is important to remember that they are not asking for anything extra. All they are asking is for what is right and fair and to be treated equally. They are not even looking for compensation to account for the 40 years that their pensions have been falling behind. They just want their pensions finally indexed against the same measures as everyone else's.
In June last year I tabled a petition in this House calling for fair indexation. We had 12,620 signatures. Support very quickly came from all over Townsville and the entire country, and from overseas. The veterans community are united in their fight for this. We on this side understand that. We are determined to see the process of military superannuation reform begun. That is what we went to the last election saying we would do. Two years ago I was elected and said to the people of Townsville that, if we made government, we would bring this about. That is what we have continued to fight for, with Tony Abbott restating in March the coalition's commitment to fix this problem if we are successful at the next election. He has signed the pledge.
In 2007, the Labor Party were apparently on board with this issue as well. It made their list of policies leading up to the election, only to make their list of broken promises afterwards—surprise, surprise. But then they vowed to prevent further erosion of veterans pensions due to unfair indexation. Veterans have now had to watch their pension levels eroded for another five years since that phoney promise was made. We on this side have already put forward the alternative. In 2010 we introduced the bill that would solve this problem once and for all. With help from their Greens alliance partners and Senator Xenophon, the Labor Party shot the bill down and they have spent more time trying to criticise than they have listening to the veterans community or coming up with their own policy.
I would like to refer to the member for Fadden's speech. He said that now is the time for the members of the government to stand up and consider the veterans in their electorate. The member for Blair knows how unfair the current indexation arrangement is. He described the last paltry 0.1 per cent DFRDB increase as:
… unviable, given the cost of living. It is too meagre and it needs to change.
It is amazing what you will say out in public that you will not say in here. The member for Eden-Monaro and Parliamentary Secretary for Defence has acknowledged in a letter to the former finance minister signed by himself and Kate Lundy:
… 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.
What happened to that? That is right: nothing. Nothing happened with that. It went by the wayside.
And in his effort tonight the member for Eden-Monaro stated in his speech that Labor had established the Vietnam Veterans' Family Study. This is just plain and simply wrong. He cannot be more wrong. The Howard government established the study in 2006, and it was originally supposed to be that detailed that they were given 10 years to do the study and then come back and report in 2016. But such was the urgency, such was the dedication that they brought in, it was so far ahead of schedule that it was due to be completed this year. Labor budget cuts will, however, delay the finalisation until after 2014, all because they are chasing a phantom surplus. Shame on you.
And then we have the Greens and Independents who are propping up this government and stopping this reform going through. To quote from the Greens' policy in 2010:
We strongly believe that the Government should now act to provide wage-based indexation on the same terms as the Aged Pension for all … defence force superannuation pensions.
What happened to that? That is right: they voted against it. The member for Denison, in highlighting this problem in this House less than 12 months ago, said:
The ALP should be condemned for not doing something about it since its election in 2007.
He will have his chance on this amendment. The member for Lyne has moved two motions, both with full coalition support, calling for fair indexation. These were also supported by the member for New England, who has even raised this issue in the past in a question to the former finance minister.
This is where I have a problem, because the member for Lyne and the member for New England, who seconded both these motions, can get the government to bring in a carbon tax, but they did not take it to an election. When it comes to fairness on DFRDB and DFRB, all they can offer is hollow words in parliamentary motions. Where are they on this? Come on! What are they actually saying on this and where are they? They are as hollow as the words they say.
Lastly, the member for Dobell, who found his support for this campaign around the same time he found his independence in this House, is on the record saying—once again, what he says to people in public is different to what he says in parliament—at a fair indexation protest:
I am the only MP of the Central Coast who is prepared to support them—there are two others who won't.
That all of you can say time after time that you support the veterans cause and then turn around and support a government that has reneged on its promise to do just that is shameful. Now is your opportunity to follow your words through with a vote.
Once again, I do not excuse any government for not doing this. This government is in power and has the opportunity to do the right thing. This is about delivering fairness and respecting the service of these men and their families to the defence forces over the decades. Once again, I call on this government to do the right thing and get on board with this change. There are enough people in this parliament who get why this has to happen. Instead, we have so far only seen them reject outright the changes necessary to right this wrong.
I recently had the shadow minister for veterans affairs, Senator Michael Ronaldson, in town to sign the coalition's pledge to commit to DFRDB reform. This was also an important opportunity to discuss with Townsville's veterans community the issues that were affecting them. We were welcomed by the Thuringowa RSL branch, the Vietnam Veterans Federation Townsville, and the TPI, or Totally and Permanently Disabled Ex Servicepersons Association. It was a great opportunity to sign the DFRDB pledge in front of them and show them just how seriously the coalition are taking this issue. I say to them again: a coalition government, and only a coalition government, will take responsibility for our commitments, and we will deliver on this vital promise. You have the signed pledges; now to prove it. You have Tony Abbott's word on this, you have Michael Ronaldson's word on it and you have my word on it.
I will just raise one other issue while I have the time. I often have veterans coming to me to discuss the different problems they have in dealing with the Department of Veterans' Affairs. I understand that there will always be some problems in government departments and I respect the job done by those working for them, especially the staff in Townsville, who do an absolutely tremendous job. But last week we again saw in Townsville a problem come up that defies all common sense. As reported in the Townsville Bulletin, a former RAAF pilot was being chased up by the Department of Veterans' Affairs regarding an overpayment on his pension of the grand sum of one cent. Even putting aside the issue of how you can overpay someone's pension by one cent, where is the logic in spending far more money hounding someone over an overpayment than the payment is actually worth? He got a letter and he got phone calls chasing one cent. By the time you consider the stamp, the stationery, the wages, the time and the calls to discuss the matter, this incredible debacle will have cost both the department and the veteran involved a lot more than that one cent. If I were them, I would send them 10c and ask for the 9c in change. This situation sums up perfectly the bureaucracy problems that we have, not just in the DVA but with this government. It is wasting money and it is wasting time, and it is wearing thin with all Australians. What we need is a government that is prepared to stop public sector waste. With this government's record, I think we will be waiting until they are out of office for that to happen.
The second amendment to this bill that the coalition is proposing is to bring a new schedule to this legislation that will allow veterans who are receiving the special rate TPI pension access to the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme. This will give eligibility for this scheme to the roughly 1,500 people on special pensions with qualifying service. Once again, this is about providing fairness and assistance to those who have served our country. The overall cost of the DFRDB is between $100 million and $150 million gross, and I must say that that is also taxable, so that is not the net amount.
In the coalition, we hear the voices of those who have served our country. We understand not just what they want but why it is entirely reasonable. Our policy for veterans is to give them fair indexation of their pensions. That is what we took to the last election, that is what we have fought for since then, and that is what we will do if successful at the next election. It is about time this government started to listen as well.
I rise tonight to speak to the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012. Let me begin tonight by acknowledging the contribution of the previous speaker, the member for Herbert. He and I have had many conversations about this issue and I know his heart is very much in this fight. It is good to know that we stand on this side of the House together trying to achieve a positive outcome for our veterans.
Last month I held the Longman Veterans' Community Forum, an opportunity for the veteran community to raise their concerns about matters pertaining to veterans affairs as well as ask for clarification on any questions they have about veterans affairs policy. I want to take this opportunity to thank my colleague Senator the Hon. Michael Ronaldson for his time in attending the Longman Veterans' Community Forum and for taking the opportunity to take on board the feedback from members of my community who are personally impacted by the decisions made with regards to veterans affairs.
During this forum many and varied concerns were brought to light, including the difficulties individuals are experiencing with the administration of veterans affairs services. The member for Herbert had an excellent example of that, of one cent being chased down from a veteran. The difficulties include the lack of mental health support services and the culture of disrespect that our veterans feel they are met with by the broader community, including when they return from service abroad. The attendees of the forum felt that more can be done to support them and honour the sacrifices made and the unique nature of military service.
All of the points that were raised at the community forum were very valid and worthy of further consideration. But these concerns pale in comparison to the overarching veterans affairs issue that was raised at the community forum. The very first comment of the day and the first question that was put to me and to Senator Ronaldson was about fair indexation of the Defence Force Retirement Benefits, DFRB, scheme, and the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits, DFRDB, scheme.
Attendees at the forum wanted to know what was being done to achieve fair indexation of those two military superannuation pensions. They were unhappy that despite the many allusions by the federal Labor Party members to delivering fair indexation they had not seen any change of their position on this issue.
Earlier this year our DFRDB and DFRB recipients were delivered a meagre 0.1 per cent increase via indexation, which for some translated into a mere 47c per week increase. After consistent campaigning from the Liberal-National coalition on this issue it is most disappointing that, two years on, Labor is still holding out from delivering fair indexation.
The answer to their questions, which I had to give to the veterans in my community, was not encouraging. I wanted to be able to say to the local veterans in my community that their federal government was in the process of taking steps to fairly index the DFRDB and DFRB. I wanted to give them some hope. But the reality is that this was not the case. While many Labor members are prepared to talk the talk, it would seem that they have never been prepared to walk the walk. It is beyond belief that this Labor government has not delivered fair indexation. At every opportunity, this Labor government has walked away from the veterans of Longman and of this country. And we on this side of the chamber have provided many opportunities in this place for Labor, the Greens and the Independents to act.
Not only have Labor failed to take the lead to deliver for our veterans, they have taken active steps to block the coalition from delivering it. It would seem Labor are desperate to avoid giving our veterans the respect that is due to them. After the 2010 election, the coalition introduced legislation to implement fair indexation of the DFRDB and DFRB, but Labor sided with the Greens to ensure that our veterans would not receive a fair go. This politically motivated decision means that instead of directing funds into securing the future of our veterans, this federal Labor government decided to continue their reckless spending spree and addiction to failed government programs.
I cannot help but wonder when I see that the Labor-Greens government can find $10 billion of taxpayers' money to sink into a dodgy clean energy finance corporation but cannot find money for our nation's veterans. They can find $10 billion to keep their mates, the Greens, happy. I cannot help but wonder where this Labor government's priorities are, for they seem to have forgotten the very people that they once claimed to represent. The Labor members of this place would rather stand next to the Greens than stand up for our veterans.
I also cannot help but be discouraged when I speak to veterans who are telling me that they are struggling to buy their groceries, pay their electricity bills and put fuel in their cars. I am hearing them tell me that they are forgoing even the smallest of luxuries because the money is not available, because their payments are able to buy less and less. In real terms, they are watching their payments decrease, rather than stay constant or increase. As the cost of living skyrockets for all Australians, this Labor government continues to make decisions that are in fact making cost-of-living pressures worse, not better, and this is putting more strain on the already stretched budgets of those relying on the DFRB and DFRDB.
I have veterans telling me that the last increase they got was a mere 47c—an increase which does absolutely nothing to alleviate the cost increases across the board that we have seen recently. It does not buy a loaf of bread or a litre of milk. It does nothing to help them get by. They are telling me that 47c a week is an insult. They are right. How can those opposite stand idly by as our veterans struggle like this? Why is it that Labor members of this place are more at home standing next to the Greens instead of standing up for our veterans?
Our veterans should not find themselves in this situation. Our veterans, who have given us so much—made so many unthinkable sacrifices for our country and our future—deserve to be treated fairly. They deserve for their military superannuation to be treated with an indexation that reflects the cost of living. This is about fairness, justice and equity for military superannuants relying on pensions which are not keeping pace with the cost of living.
The Liberal-National coalition have fought long and hard for action on this issue. And we are not about to give up. I am not about to give up. We are committed to delivering fair indexation for military superannuants. We believe that the DFRB and DFRDB military superannuation pensioners aged 55 and over should have their pensions indexed in the same way as age and service pensioners. We will not end the fight for fair indexation for our DFRDB and DFRB recipients until that is delivered. We remain absolutely committed to fair indexation and will continue to put pressure on those opposite until they finally concede that the veterans of Australia are worthy of having their military superannuation fairly indexed.
I am proud to stand up for delivering a fair go for the veterans in my community. Should the coalition win the next election, we will move to fairly index the DFRDB and DFRB in our first budget, finally giving veterans in my local community and across the nation a fair go. I am convinced that the only way—I am sorry to say that it has come to this—to achieve fair indexation is to change the government. Whatever we will achieve in this place, I am afraid that Labor will once again team up with its Green mates in the Senate and deny veterans a fair go. But I am hopeful that maybe, just maybe, we will be surprised by a change of heart from the Labor Party.
I call on the Independent members in this place tonight to support this amendment, and support our veterans with fair indexation of the DFRDB and DFRB. I know that the member for Lyne and the member for New England have previously supported our fight for a fair outcome for veterans on this issue and I encourage them again to stand up for veterans in their electorates and around the country to deliver a fair result. I note that it has been reported in local media that the member for Dobell has also come out in support of fair indexation for veterans, and I call on him to indeed support them when it counts—in this place tonight, with this amendment.
Let's not delay one more day, one more hour. The time has come for this parliament to make a stand. Our veterans have waited long enough to see a resolution. These men and women have proudly served our nation. It is time the nation recognised the unique nature of military service and delivered fair pension indexation to these men and women.
As the elected representatives of this nation, let's make a stand in this place tonight and deliver a fair go for our veterans. It is no longer acceptable that this Labor government continues to linger around the edges of policy while at the same time wholly dismissing the everyday concerns of veterans, ex-service personnel and their families. The lack of fair indexation for the DFRDB and the DFRB, and the consequences of this, is something that our veterans deal with every day of their life. The onus is now on those members opposite. They know what they should do. They should stand up and support our veterans. They should stand up for fair indexation of the DFRDB and the DFRB. I know it has been a long wait for our veteran community, but let's not make them wait any longer. I implore members to finally honour our veterans and fairly index the DFRDB and the DFRB by supporting the coalition's amendment tonight.
It is with great pleasure that I rise tonight to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 and the coalition's amendments. I will start by sharing a few thoughts and reflections about a recent trip I had the pleasure of taking with members of our Defence Force as part of the ADF parliamentary program. I spent five or six days with members and with the ship's company on HMAS Anzac. When we talk about veterans we are talking about people such as the crew of HMAS Anzacwho are going to spend the next 6½ months separated from their families. These are people who are dedicated to their job of protecting our interests in the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea against piracy, drug smuggling and people smuggling. These people are on board the ship 24/7, working to protect our nation, and many others, from pirates and others. My trip was a tremendous experience and, I think, very relevant given the topic that we are speaking about tonight.
This bill seeks to amend the Veterans' Entitlements Act and other legislation to give effect to a few minor measures. These measures will clarify arrangements in terms of travel payments, provide for the more timely provision of special assistance and ensure that the debt recovery provisions and regulations within the Veterans' Entitlements Act are tidied up. They will make some technical amendments to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act and rationalise maintenance income provisions. They will exempt bereavement payments from income for the purposes of the social security income test. They will exempt reimbursements made under the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme from income tax. In addition we have moved some amendments to defer the debate on this until DFRDB and DFRB indexation is included. It is in these key areas that the legislation can be made better, and we as a coalition seek to do so.
To start with, it is worth noting that the changes in the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme have not been widely welcomed by the veteran and ex-service community. It is instructive to note that it was initially promised during the 2007 campaign but then it was delayed and reintroduced in the 2010 campaign. We believe this scheme is unfair as some 1,500 of our most disabled ex-service people who are in receipt of a disability pension but do not have qualifying service are excluded from this scheme. Our feedback is that the veteran community does not support a divide being drawn between those with qualifying service and those without. By contrast, the coalition's proposal at the last election included all special rate, or TPI, veterans in the scheme and was tailored to ensure that all veterans and ex-service people in receipt of a disability pension at or above 50 per cent of the general rate qualified for the scheme.
The RSL stands for the abolition of out-of-pocket pharmaceutical expenses for all veterans. The same position is held by Legacy, the Vietnam Veterans' Association of Australia and the Vietnam Veterans' Federation of Australia. This is therefore an important opportunity for parliament to extend the coverage of this scheme within this legislative amendment.
The member for Fadden has moved an amendment to prevent further debate on the legislation until such a time as the government introduces legislation, or amends this legislation, to include fair indexation of DFRB and DFRDB military superannuation pensions in line with the coalition's commitment in this area.
The coalition announced on 27 June 2010 our commitment to extend fair indexation to superannuants aged 55 years and over to DFRB and DFRDB scheme members. This would result in their pensions being indexed in the very same manner as age and service pensions. Our proposal for fair indexation has had the support of more than half a dozen inquiries, as well as the full support of the veterans living in my electorate. I have met with members of our veteran community, including the pension officers at the Beenleigh RSL, and they have stressed the importance of fair indexation, in addition to a number of other concerns.
In May this year, RSL Australia made a submission to the government in relation to the 2011-12 Veterans' Affairs budget. Indexation was listed as their main priority, followed by free pharmaceuticals for accepted disabilities; the development of a national mental health rehabilitation scheme for veterans suffering with chronic mental health problems; and appropriate residential accommodation for disabled veterans who require 24-hour support but are too young to be in aged care.
It also went on to talk about to removing the barriers to veterans' widows accessing higher levels of community aged care; to adequately resource the provision of the yearly allocation of eight days of in-home respite care under the Veteran's Home Care program; and adjust the rates for veterans' disability pensions by the same increment that was granted at the time for a single rate of service pension in the 2009-10 budget.
Despite losing the last election, we introduced legislation in the Senate in November 2010 to provide fair, just and equitable indexation for DFRB and DFRDB military superannuants. This was followed by the Greens and Labor using the Senate inquiry to oppose fair indexation. This was the first time ever that the parliament had opposed fair indexation and, in a day of shame for the Senate on 16 June 2011, the coalition's fair indexation legislation was defeated. Since then we have remained committed to the introduction of fair indexation and the coalition has a clear commitment to give Australian veterans and their families a fair go.
In addition to the request for fair indexation we are also moving amendments to extend eligibility for the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme to include all special rate or TPI and ex-service persons. This will bring fairness and justice to Labor's flawed and unfair scheme. It is instructive to note that the government's scheme is budgeted to cost $30 million over the next four years, making this extension a modest additional cost to provide the fairness disabled veterans deserve.
Our government recently was quite happy to hand some $12 million to the makers of the Wolverine franchise. There is no requirement to repay those funds yet this is a movie franchise that makes many millions of dollars. I would suggest this $12 million could have been far better invested on behalf of our veterans. By comparison, our amendments will cost up to $234,000 a year based on the government's advice about the average cost of the reimbursement in the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and the approximate number of 1,500 special rate pensioners without qualifying service. This is a small price to pay to ensure our disabled service personnel are not further disadvantaged by Labor's unfair pharmaceutical reimbursement scheme.
As an example of the frustrations being felt in the veteran community, I would like to share an email with you from a constituent to highlight the outrage over the current indexation rate of 0.1 per cent. The email said:
I should like to discuss with you your opinion of the 0.1 per cent increase retired servicemen got last week. This has provided me with a $0.72 increase per fortnight. On top of this we now also incur the carbon tax for which we receive no compensation. What can be done about the injustice being done to ex-servicemen or don't you care?
I have said to this constituent and I will say to this House: I do care, and that is why I am speaking on this bill and why I support the amendments put forward by the member for Fadden.
As I mentioned earlier, it would cost only $234,000 a year to have a fairer Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme for our disabled service personnel. Given this government's unrivalled ability to waste money on all variety of schemes, $234,000 is a small price to pay for taking care of the veterans who have served this country so magnificently. Earlier this year the government could have already paid for two years at this rate but instead spent $500,000 on consultants to make Anzac Day more politically correct in a report on the centenary of Gallipoli.
When the government started its carbon tax advertising blitz it was costing more than $270,000 a day. The government's total carbon tax advertising is predicted to cost close to $70 million. Surely this is excessive and unjust when we have veterans who are struggling to make ends meet, who are fighting for fair indexation yet the government spends $70 million advertising a tax that it promised six days before an election it would not introduce. As I touched on earlier, the government can happily give $12 million to Hugh Jackman and the makers of the Wolverine franchise, which is a multi-million dollar profit-making venture, yet at the same time it continues to actively resist fair indexation and pharmaceutical benefits for our veterans.
Our veterans that have served our country allow us to enjoy the life we enjoy today. It is not only the veterans that have served in the past but also those who are serving us today in Afghanistan, the Middle East, East Timor, Bougainville and many other places around the world that deserve our support, our consideration and the knowledge that for their efforts, when they return to this great country that they have fought for, they will be well and truly looked after.
I rise to add my voice to the list of coalition members expressing their concerns in the House about the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012. This is an excellent opportunity for this House to act on what is the intention of the majority in this place: to fairly index the DFRDB and DFRB schemes for veterans in this bill. I commend the member for Fadden and the shadow minister, who put this amendment forward, for this initiative because it is a worthwhile initiative for us to be pursuing finally in 2012.
You can still find on the Labor Party's website, funnily enough, that defence of the nation is the top priority of the federal government. In the context of $5 billion worth of cuts to Defence and the lowest level of expenditure on Defence as a proportion of GDP since World War II, some would consider it to be laughable.
Is it the first priority for this government to look after our veterans? You would have been forgiven for thinking so in 2007 when the then shadow minister for veterans' affairs, the member for Bruce, Alan Griffin, made these commitments so vehemently to veterans all around Australia—and then, of course, this government reneged on those promises when it came to office.
I heard from the member for Moreton earlier tonight on Twitter. He was wondering where coalition members were because there were no coalition members at the World Wide Fund for Nature function in Parliament House. I responded to him on Twitter that I was in this chamber preparing to speak on this very important veterans matter, as are many other coalition speakers, because we regard veterans as important and fundamental to this nation. Looking after the indexation of their pensions is fair and proper. It is raising the ire of members opposite that we are not at the World Wide Fund for Nature event. It reminds me of a Ronald Reagan quote. He said that the only species that the environmental movement does not care about is the human species. Perhaps the member for Robertson could reflect on that great quote from a very great man. We do care about our veterans.
In the context of this bill, our second reading amendment is designed to see fair indexation. It is the government's policy. The member for Robertson can raise her voice in support of what has been the government's own policy over many years—to deliver fair indexation and benefits for veterans. That is why this amendment is so pivotal. There is no greater evidence that Labor has lost its way and abandoned its core support base than when it does not move to implement its core promises to veterans, to workers and to those people who have formed its constituency since it formed in 1900. In 2012 we see Labor refusing to commit to what is a modest amount of money in the context of the federal budget—we estimate it is around $100 million. Sometimes the government says that it would be more over the forward costs of the scheme being fairly indexed, but it is a modest amount of money today, when a lot of money is thrown around for other purposes.
We are concerned about some of the poorly drafted parts of this bill, particularly in relation to pharmaceutical benefits. I am very happy to support the idea that there will be an amendment in the Senate to extend the eligibility for the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme to include all special rate or TPI ex-service pensioners. Perhaps the government are unaware that they have drafted this bill poorly, because I cannot understand why you would create two categories of TPI veterans accessing pharmaceutical benefits schemes. Some of the most disabled veterans who receive the special rate or TPI pension do not have qualifying service as defined by the Veterans' Entitlement Act. We do not need to create two classes here. Again, the cost is insignificant and really the government ought to consider its response to this amendment most carefully. We would not seek to embarrass the government if they sought to adopt it, given that it would only be a few hundred thousand dollars a year to see all severely disabled veterans covered equally.
I have been lobbied relentlessly by the veteran community in my electorate. They are a very hardworking bunch of people who have an extraordinary record of service in our armed forces over many years. I would like to mention a few of them, in particular Colonel Don Tait OAM, who is now the president of the Castle Hill RSL subbranch—a very big and effective subbranch in Sydney. They have lobbied for fair indexation of DFRDB and DFRB pensions for many years. The other members of the executive of the Castle Hill RSL are David Cronin, Phil Everden, John King, Mike Lee, Ron Smith, Brian Walters and all the members who form this nucleus of key veterans that do such a great job in representing veterans' interests.
The member for Werriwa raises the Howard government—and I was not fortunate enough to have been a member of that government—and he is correct that no government has got to the point where the indexation of DFRDB or DFRB pensions has been achieved. As more and more members fill this place, I know he will be concerned to put pressure on his government, which has been in office almost five years—even though we ignore the first three years under Prime Minister Rudd occasionally—to make a commitment to these veterans to deliver this outcome. It is time for him to stop looking back into the past. As he said of the Prime Minister's current problems: 'Don't look into the past; look to the future.' I know the member for Werriwa will be happy to hear that the future is this amendment.
I heard the contribution of the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, the member for Eden-Monaro, earlier. The member for Eden-Monaro has a strong record in relation to Defence, and his contribution to this debate was particularly extraordinary. He said: 'We can never do enough and we should always do more.' This amendment provides the opportunity for the member for Eden-Monaro to do more. As soon as he finished saying that, he went off on a tangent attacking the opposition candidate who has been preselected for the seat of Eden-Monaro, Peter Hendy. I know Peter Hendy well and, if Peter Hendy were here and able to speak in this House, he would tell you that he would support this amendment for veterans. He is a supporter of the coalition's amendment to fairly index DFRDB and DFRB pensions. He would stand up for those veterans in his community of Eden-Monaro. It is time for the member for Eden-Monaro to do the same. He has the opportunity to do just that, afforded by the coalition's amendment here today. I believe he should come back into this chamber and commit himself to that, because in the past he and many other members of this government have written to their own ministers, including Lindsay Tanner when he was the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, calling on the government to do it. The letter to Lindsay Tanner has been quoted many times, but it is worth quoting again:
It is entirely appropriate, fair and consistent with our—
Being the Labor Party's—
election commitment that the introduction of this improved indexation arrangement should coincide with that for pensions and benefits as announced by Minister Macklin.
We are all in support of that, and this is a good opportunity for the government to do just that.
I want to praise the contributions of the member for Lyne and the member for New England in relation to this matter. They have already supported legislation introduced into the federal parliament by the coalition in 2010, just after the election, to deliver fair, just and equitable indexation for 57,000 ex-service men and women.
Unfortunately, of course, the government and the Greens—the Labor-Greens alliance—used their numbers in the Senate to defeat the coalition's amendment. It was the first time this had faced a legislative defeat in the Parliament of Australia. It was a pretty ugly situation.
We are faced with another such situation today. I encourage all members, including the Independents—among whom is the member for Dobell, Craig Thomson, who has put himself on the record in relation to this matter—to support fair indexation. This will be yet another acid test of his claims of independence when he is called on to support fair indexation for our veterans. If all the Independents support the measure, it will head off to the Senate. Once again, the Australian Greens and the Labor Party will have to face the fire of public life; they will have to stick to their commitments or yet again break a commitment to this very important community in Australia. It is a community to which all members of this House pay tribute regularly.
It is very concerning that Mr Snowdon, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, does not seem to grasp the significance of these measures. I think that was particularly highlighted in the exchange when Minister Snowdon argued that a superannuant on $58,000 per year did not need fair indexation, that they were already well off. I have spoken in this House on many occasions about Labor's continual class warfare and politics of envy. According to Labor, if you have a pension of $60,000 or if you are a family earning $100,000 in Sydney you are considered to be rich. I have said many times that if you have a dual income of $100,000 with a mortgage in Sydney you are not rich. I do not think a pension of $60,000 means that you are rich. But let us look at the facts. Minister Snowdon failed to acknowledge that the average DFRDB pension is about $24,386—less than half what the minister quoted.
We know that many veterans—I have heard from some myself—received letters earlier this year offering them a $1 increase in their pension. These are people who have served our nation and they are being offered an extra dollar in their pension. Given the real cost-of-living increases and the ongoing expenses they have to face, that is not a just and equitable outcome. I know there are members of the Labor Party opposite who do not believe that is a fair, just and equitable outcome. Given the modest amount of money that this will cost, it is difficult to understand where the government is at on this. Even though there are $5 billion of cuts in Defence, there is $4.7 billion out the door in relation to border protection, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars for a carbon tax advertising and all the other things that are going on, such as money for car-manufacturing workers, we do not have $100 million for our veterans to ensure that they get fair indexation. It is very difficult to understand the government's position, but it is more difficult to understand the position of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, who is claiming that somehow these people already have it pretty good in relation to their pensions. That is not really a valid argument when veterans are being offered $1 or, in some cases, a few cents extra in their superannuation pension.
This is a very serious issue. I welcome the opportunity to speak on it again. I have raised this matter before on behalf of my veterans and of veterans in western Sydney and Sydney in particular. I believe the coalition has made an excellent decision in putting forward this amendment. The Leader of the Opposition has also made an excellent decision in committing the opposition to this policy in government. I have taken the pledge in front of my veteran community. I am happy to stand in front of the Castle Hill subbranch and the Blacktown subbranch and tell them that is our commitment. I will stand in front of them in opposition and I will stand in front of them in government and tell them that we will deliver it. And we will deliver it in government, because it is the right thing to do.
I believe that the coalition generally believes that defence is the top priority of government. It says that on the Labor Party website still—even today—even though it is fairly embarrassing today, given the context of defence cuts and the passage of this particular bill without proper consideration of indexation. It is pretty embarrassing for the Labor Party to say on its website that defence is the first priority of a national government, but it is there. It is an ode to a past era of Labor, when it did represent veterans, when it did represent the worker, when it did stand up in this place for those people who should be stood up for—that is, our military and service personnel who have done so much for our country and who deserve fair indexation treatment from the federal government.
I rise today to talk about the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 and the coalition's efforts to see fair indexation for Defence Force Retirement Benefits and Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits superannuants aged 55 and over. At the heart of these amendments is the idea that our military veterans need to be looked after in retirement. Unlike some in the Labor Party and the Greens, the coalition believes in the unique nature of military service. I hope the Independents will stand and be counted when the time comes to vote on this issue. Australia's service personnel, past and present, after giving so much to their nation, deserve to live out their lives in the knowledge that they have financial security. I have many former service personnel living in my electorate and I want to see them given a fair go.
The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 contains a number of minor technical amendments to veterans legislation. There are nine in total; however, the No. 1 issue of concern, which the parliament must immediately deal with, is the unfair, unjust and inequitable situation facing our military superannuants. It is no longer acceptable that this Labor government continues to fiddle about the edges of policy while at the same time wholly dismissing the everyday concerns of veterans and ex-service personnel and their families.
Just six weeks ago, when many on the other side of this place rose to enjoy the winter break, military superannuants in my electorate received letters from the Gillard government, explaining that they would be receiving just a few cents more in their pensions—a 0.1 per cent increase—each fortnight. Compare that to the rise in age and service pensions of 0.9 per cent. The paltry rise of 0.1 per cent comes at a time when the carbon tax will push many prices up by 10 per cent, according to the Treasury's modelling.
Also, contrast this with the increase these people would have received from the coalition had our 2011 legislation passed in the Senate. We proposed a ninefold increase in military superannuants' pensions. I would like to briefly detail the nine alterations put forward by the coalition. I realise that others have done this before me and have said the same, but this is so important that the government must hear it over and over until it introduces fair indexation legislation. The time has come for those who truly value our retired Defence Force personnel to take a stand.
Firstly, the coalition wants to clarify payment expenses for treatment of those impacted by the nuclear testing in the past. Secondly, we want to provide more timely provisions of special assistance by way of a legislative instrument in place of current arrangements requiring a regulation. Thirdly, we want to ensure that the debt recovery provisions will be applicable to all relevant provisions of the Veterans' Entitlements Act. Fourthly, we want to make technical amendments to provisions in the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act that refer to legislative instruments. Fifthly, we want to amend the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act to replace obsolete references to pharmaceutical and telephone allowances under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act supplement. Sixthly, we want an amendment to rationalise the maintenance income provisions of the Veterans' Entitlements Act by repealing redundant definitions used in the Social Security Act. Seventhly, we want to see bereavement payments in respect of indigent veterans or members made exempt as income under a social security test. Eighthly, an amendment will make reimbursements under the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme exempt from income tax. Ninthly, a change would be to make minor technical amendments to the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme.
These amendments are not particularly controversial. They are common-sense alterations to existing legislation. However, they still need to be made. It is a travesty that under the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme, a 2007 Labor commitment which was delayed until the 2010 election campaign, only veterans with qualifying service and in receipt of a disability pension are eligible to have their out-of-pocket expenses reimbursed. This means that approximately 1,500 of Australia's most disabled ex-service personnel who receive a disability pension but do not have qualified service are excluded from the scheme. This is blatantly unfair. The coalition's proposal suggests all special rate or totally and permanently incapacitated veterans in receipt of a disability pension paid at or above 50 per cent of the general rate would automatically qualify.
It is often said that the most important role of the federal government is to ensure that it is defended adequately from all foes—domestic and foreign. I would like to take that concept a step further on two fronts. Firstly, it is the government's duty to ensure that the people who are prepared to stand and be counted when their country needs them or voluntarily serve in our armed forces are looked after properly on their return and in their later years. Also, how are we supposed to attract quality people to serve in our armed forces when they face myriad discrepancies in their retirement compared to those who have not served their country in this way? As I said earlier, the coalition recognises the unique nature of military service. It is as fundamental a responsibility to protect this nation as it is to look after those who put themselves on the line to do it—the Anzacs of the past, present and future.
It is timely that this debate is being held now given Vietnam Veterans Day 2012 and the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Australian troops in Vietnam. Some 521 men died on active duty in Vietnam between 1962 and 1972. This was a huge loss of life and the impact of this is still felt today. By the end of the war, more than 58,000 Australian sons and daughters had taken part in the conflict that shaped a generation. When recognising Australia's contribution in Vietnam, we can never look past the Battle of Long Tan, which took place on 18 August 1966. For those brave 108 men of D Company 6RAR to fight and win the day against a vastly numerically superior enemy was truly an incredible feat. It is against this backdrop that we must reflect on this legislation and view the treatment of our Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Scheme and Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Scheme military superannuants.
I am lucky enough to enjoy a strong relationship with the RSLs in my electorate. In the north of Hasluck, the Bellevue RSL has a strong membership. In the hills, the Darling Range RSL continues to enjoy strong community support and, in the south, the Gosnells RSL goes from strength to strength every year. These are amazing people who have formed strong bonds with those they served with and recognise that camaraderie is as important now as it was on the battlefield.
I try to be nonpartisan when talking about issues such as this. Our ADF must know that they enjoy the full support of our parliament. They must know that their contribution to the nation is valued and that they are not put in harm's way lightly. They must know that we as parliamentarians will do whatever we can to honour their service and sacrifice. Earlier this year, the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, along with the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Senator Michael Ronaldson, signed a written pledge to affirm the coalition's commitment to veterans on this occasion.
The coalition's commitment will see Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Scheme and Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Scheme military superannuation pensions being indexed in the same manner as the age and service pensions. Contrast this with the actions of Treasurer Wayne Swan. On the same day the Leader of the Opposition recommitted to providing veterans with fair indexation, the Treasurer rejected outright any such changes.
Labor's commitment at the 2007 election to fix military superannuation is one of its many broken promises. The Gillard Labor government promised much to those in the veteran community but has repeatedly failed to deliver, due to its own self-interest and poll-driven policy paralysis. Unlike Labor, the coalition has consulted widely and listened carefully to the views put forward by veterans, ex-service men and women, ex-service organisations and current ADF personnel. Labor has failed veterans when it comes to military superannuation reform. Labor has failed to respond to the review into military superannuation arrangements, or the Podger review, which it has had for over four years.
Labor's wasteful and reckless spending in so many other areas has left them unable to meet their commitment of 2007 to prevent further erosion of veterans pensions due to unfair indexation. Labor had no military superannuation policy at the last election and it continues to have no policy on military superannuation reform. Labor used more paper in criticising the coalition's plan to tackle an important and pressing issue in the veteran community than in actually setting out a plan to tackle it themselves.
Times are tough in the community for many, many people. A government should do all it can to make things easier, not harder, for its citizens. Let me quote a small paragraph from an email that was sent to me about this very issue. It is poignant and a reminder that there are multiple sides to this tale. The government has a moral obligation to give our veterans a fair go, not just a financial one. The email speaks to the entire veteran community, not just those doing it tough. The author believes it is not the Australian way to ignore our comrades just because some of them might not be as impacted as others. So please indulge me while I quote from this email:
… whether or not you are a Defence Force Retirement Benefits and Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits superannuant, you should be concerned about the Senate's latest decision to negate the Fairer Indexation Bill on 16 June. We have always been a team, we have stood by each other, we have defended our mates, especially those who are in difficult situations. We need your help now.
Those last words resonate strongly with me and those who have contacted my office about this issue. Looking after your mates does not stop just because you have stopped serving.
The financial distress experienced by our veteran community is unacceptable. Sadly, Labor and the Greens are too caught up in ideological policies and not in alleviating some of this distress. How does wasting billions of hard-earned dollars on pie-in-the-sky schemes help our veterans or the wider community? When examining the track record, it is of concern that we have a section of our community who have fought, who have stood and faced the anger and the fire in the battlefield, and we have seen the neglect of their contribution to the freedoms and the moments that we enjoy on a daily basis in the way that we live within this community. Yet those who have sacrificed their time and their efforts in defending us against the foes that are common to our allies and ourselves are being overlooked. I cannot understand why it is that those who give so much are given so little.
It is important that we look after the service personnel who served this country to give us the freedoms that we enjoy. I find it fascinating that Minister Snowdon, who has been around to a number of veterans, veterans organisations and RSLs, makes commitments but does not deliver. Many of the service men and women whom I have met in my electorate and in the broader community are absolutely angry at the fact that they have been ignored.
I had the privilege of spending seven days on the HMAS Melbourne and I saw firsthand the way in which our service men and women gladly dedicate themselves to defending this country. They are at the forefront of conflict. They are there in times of both peace and war, working to make sure that we enjoy the freedoms that each and every one of us in this country has. So it is time for us to seriously give back to them, give them the financial peace that they deserve, give them the opportunity, in their later years after serving their country, to have financial security so they do not have to worry about the next meal on the table, so they do not have to struggle to live each day as it evolves. I want to acknowledge every veteran within my community, because I think that I and all of us owe them so much for the contribution that they have made in making our society the way we enjoy it—so rich, so free. We owe them for the liberties that they have given us.
I rise to support the amendment moved by the member for Fadden to the second reading of the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012. I hope that there are people in the south-west who are watching this debate this evening. I acknowledge them as I acknowledge all of the veterans not only in the south-west but all around Australia. I have very great respect for them and I believe that the indexation of military superannuation pensions is worthy of support by all in this parliament, and so is the amendment before the House.
The coalition has a very proud record of supporting our ADF veterans and ex-service personnel. The coalition announced a fair indexation commitment to superannuants aged 55 and over under the DFRB and DFRDB schemes in June 2010. We took this commitment to the 2010 election and we have not given up ever since. We have not given up. We are still working on your behalf. We introduced legislation to the Senate in November 2010 to provide fair, just and equitable indexation for DFRB and DFRDB military superannuants. In March 2011 the Greens and Labor called for a Senate inquiry into the legislation and then simply used that inquiry to oppose fair indexation—the first time the parliament has ever opposed fair indexation. What an indictment of this government and the Greens, that they oppose fair indexation for our military personnel. On 16 June 2011 the coalition's fair indexation legislation was defeated by that Labor-Greens alliance.
Fair indexation remains our policy and our commitment. On 5 March this year 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, and we will.
A coalition government will deliver fair indexation to the 57,000 military superannuants and their families. And do not forget those families. The coalition will ensure that 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.
Last week we acknowledged and showed respect for Vietnam Veterans Day and recognised, as we should, the sacrifice and the contribution made by our veterans, who were so shabbily and badly treated when they returned. I attended a very moving ceremony at the Diggers Club in Waterloo in the south-west to honour and show respect for the local men and women who served in Vietnam. The Australian Army sent 42,407 troops to Vietnam between 1962 and 1973. The Royal Australian Air Force sent 4,443 personnel the and the Royal Australian Navy 13,500 personnel. Of the nearly 60,000 Australians who served in the Vietnam War between 1962 and 1972, 521 were killed in action and more than 3,000 were wounded in action.
This year is particularly important because we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the first Australian troops in Vietnam, in 1962. The first group in were the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, who were sent to South Vietnam in July 1962 to provide support and training to South Vietnamese troops. Training Team Vietnam was a vital component of Australia's war effort. As well as being the first in they were the last out at the end of the campaign. Their work was absolutely outstanding. I would like to recognise one person in particular: Warrant Officer LD 'Aussie' Osbourn. He was raised in Warner Glen in my electorate. He volunteered for the team in 1964 and completed three tours, finishing in 1971. Aussie spent almost the entire war period in Vietnam as a part of the Australian war effort. Although he has now passed on, he is far from forgotten. I would also like to recognise Major Vin Murphy, now of Bethany Village, who is another of our Vietnam vets in the Forrest electorate.
The battle of Long Tan is remembered as a classic Australian struggle against massive odds. The 108 men of D Company 6RAR fought against an estimated 2,000 enemy soldiers. They are nationally and internationally recognised for their tenacity, their courage and their bravery under fire. Bill Wood of Australind was there that day. Bill was originally a farmer from Greenbushes, which was up until recently in the Forrest electorate. He is a local legend. Other battles deserve no lesser recognition, although Long Tan sits high in our national conscience. All of our veterans and their families deserve respect and our support and acknowledgement for their sacrifice and commitment.
I acknowledge all of the RSLs and our ADF returned servicemen and servicewomen in the south-west and around Australia. I call on all members in this House to show that same level of respect to all of our veterans. Support the coalition's amendment and support the fair indexation of the DFRB and the DFRDB legislation that we have before us.
I would suggest that I would be one of a few people in this place who would know directly about the sacrifice made by our servicemen and servicewomen and their families, because I am the daughter of a war widow. I know very well the sacrifice that my mother and my two older sisters made, as did the families of the other 16 men from the Brunswick and Harvey areas who lost their lives during the war. It is where I live and where my mother's husband lived and worked. I know what it did to our family. And I know what it did to the broader community every time Brunswick or Harvey lost another one of its sons. The whole community felt it.
We ask for an incredible commitment from our ADF people. Every time I go out on one of the Defence Force Parliamentary Program tours, I am again reminded of the incredible commitment and the sacrifice that our men and women make. But I equally understand and respect the sacrifice their families make. I saw my mother make the ultimate sacrifice, as her husband did. He lost his life on the banks of the Busu River in New Guinea in 1943. I saw what it did not only to my mother, in her later life, but to my sisters for all of their lives. One of them, my sister Judy, did not have any memories of her father because she was so young when he went to war. He went because Australia was under real threat at the time. Darwin had been bombed, Japanese submarines had entered Sydney Harbour, and it looked like we in this country were going to be overrun. Jack Leonard was one of the oldest people to enlist. He was 43. He volunteered and went off to New Guinea. He spent his last night in a little dugout hole on the beach. He and his mate, who was only 19, had to dig out enough of a hole to be able to lie in it and keep their heads down. They were in the 2nd/28th and they were the forward patrol. There was gunfire across their heads for most of the night, so they had to keep their heads down. It was raining incessantly and they had to try to keep their noses out of the water but keep their heads beneath the gunfire. The next day Jack lost his life. He was surrounded by a ring of six dead Japanese soldiers, whom he had had to deal with in hand-to-hand combat. He lost his life as a result of a sniper shot.
This story is replicated right around Australia, and that is why we know what it is that we ask of our ADF men and women when we ask them to take on the missions this parliament decides that they should. They go there knowing exactly what they are there to do. Yes, they are exceptionally well trained. And, yes, they do the job we ask of them very well.
Recently I was in East Timor, and last year I had the absolute privilege of being in Afghanistan with our men and women. We know the sacrifice that we ask of them. And we know, because some of them will see five or seven tours of duty, the risk that is involved and the amount of commitment that they display as well as what their families give up.
In recognising some of that, we see before the parliament an opportunity for everybody in this place to show the level of respect that these men and women have earned, not only by what they have done for us but by what they continue to do. We owe it to them to never, ever not show respect for what we ask them to do. We have, in this place, that moral obligation. I tell you right now, if my mother—that war widow—was alive, she would be saying, 'Nola, this is something that everybody in this place should do.' So I am asking you on the other side, for my mother and for everybody else who has suffered and is suffering, and all of those Vietnam vets and all of those who are really asking for our support: please, please give it. For this one measure that we have in our amendments, please show the respect that our ADF men and women deserve. I believe we really need to honour their service.
This is not a big ask. To all the military service men and women out there, I say that we on this side understand exactly what you have done for this country. That is why the amendments we propose have such a great influence on us and why we take this so seriously. We are incredibly committed to this, and I personally will have great pleasure in signing the pledge that this is what we will do. I say to the other side that I am very disappointed, as the daughter of a war widow, that there are not more of you who are choosing to speak on this matter and recognise just what we ask of our people when they go overseas, or even when they are here in Australia, and the enormous commitment they make on our nation's behalf. I hope you think really seriously about this. This impacts on people's lives every day. We owe it to the people who have gone out there and put their lives on the line, as they did. They did exactly what we asked of them as a nation. They did it exceptionally well, and they made incredible sacrifices on our behalf.
To all the veterans out there, no matter where you are in Australia, I will stand up for you, and I know that my side of politics will stand up for you. I of all people understand exactly what it is that you have done, are doing and will do for this nation. I thank you and I show great respect. And I say to those on the other side: please, please support the amendment that has been moved by the member for Fadden.
I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill as the representative of many veterans and a strong supporter of causes that recognise the great role played by veterans in our nation's development and the need to provide strong social and financial support for veterans and their families. This bill implements a range of minor technical amendments to several pieces of legislation which affect veterans and their families. The coalition supports these measures, but we also believe that this legislation can be improved, and we will be seeking the government's support to work collaboratively to make these improvements. This includes an amendment that will defer this legislation in order to impose a fair indexation standard as a requirement for the passing of this legislation.
We do not move this amendment lightly. We believe the government should immediately introduce fair, just and equitable arrangements for military superannuants. By deferring passage of the bill until it includes fair indexation legislation, we are stating loud and clear that the time has come for this important development. Through my work at street stalls, at shopping centres and doorknocking, I have spoken to many Bennelong veterans who have implored me to fight for fair indexation. Through this amendment, I am honouring their service and delivering on my commitment to the Bennelong electorate.
In June 2010, prior to my entry into parliament, the coalition announced our fair indexation commitment. This extended fair indexation to superannuants aged 55 and over to members of the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Scheme and the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Scheme. We have made a commitment to Australia's former warriors that under a coalition government their pensions will be indexed in the same manner as the age and service pensions. We took this commitment to the 2010 election and, despite returning to the opposition benches, introduced legislation to the Senate in November 2010 to provide fair, just and equitable indexation for DFRB and DFRDB military superannuants.
True to form, four months later the Labor-Greens alliance decided to refer this legislation to an inquiry. There have already been more than half-a-dozen inquiries, all of which supported fair indexation. The coalition just wants to get things done to support our veterans, and we therefore opposed yet another inquiry.
True to form, the Labor-Greens alliance set a new precedent by using the inquiry to oppose fair indexation.
Finally, on 16 June 2011, in a day of shame for the Australian Senate, the coalition's fair indexation legislation was defeated. Since then, the coalition has remained committed to the introduction of fair indexation. In September last year the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, told the RSL National Congress:
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.
The coalition committed to addressing the indexation arrangements going into the 2010 election. Sadly, we were not able to form a government after that election but we didn't let that stop us.
We brought private members legislation into the parliament for decent indexation for Defence Force retirees and, I regret to say, that that legislation was not supported.
This commitment was reiterated earlier this year when the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Senator Michael Ronaldson, signed the coalition's pledge to deliver fair indexation. The pledge reads:
The Coalition's clear commitment to our veterans:
A Coalition Government will deliver fair indexation to 57,000 military superannuants and their families.
The Coalition will ensure DFRB and DFRDB military superannuation pensions are indexed in the same way as aged and service pensions. All DFRB and DFRDB superannuants aged 55 and over will benefit.
Only a Coalition Government will deliver fair, just and equitable indexation for DFRB and DFRDB pensions.
With your support, Australia's veterans and their families will get the fair go they deserve.
For the veterans in Bennelong, and my fellow constituents who may not have served our nation but have the utmost respect for the actions and sacrifices of those who did, I am delighted to take this opportunity to support this pledge. This is not an idle promise; this is a critical reform. Unlike the Gillard government and their promises that there will be no carbon tax, this promise is locked in and will be delivered by an Abbott government in our first budget. Unfortunately for veterans, in Bennelong and across the nation, they are being punished twice. Not only has this government denied them fair indexation but they have also denied veterans any specific or direct compensation to assist with the increased costs associated with the carbon tax. Their excuse? It will cost too much. How much is a fair go worth for our veterans?
Amazingly, a few months ago, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Warren Snowdon, argued that a superannuant on $58,000 per year did not need fair indexation, saying that they were already well off. What the minister did not acknowledge is that the average DFRDB military pension is just $24,386—less than half the figure he quoted. It seems that Labor is continuing to play the politics of envy and to deliberately mislead the public.
Deceptive claims are being made that the coalition's scheme is not funded. It is estimated the coalition's policy will cost $100 million and yet we have identified more than $50 billion in savings to specifically meet the costs of these and other positive policies. It is clear to all Australians that, if this government stopped wasting money on pink batts, school halls, cash for clunkers and advertising their carbon tax broken promise, we would be able to pay for a fair go for veterans over and over again. For example, the cost of fair indexation in the first year is estimated to be $4 million, yet, in this year alone, Labor will spend $36 million—nine times more—just on carbon tax ads. Their priorities are simply all wrong.
Following the passage of this amended bill to implement fair indexation the coalition will be seeking to make the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme the fair system that it should be and that our veterans, deserve and to deliver fairness for disabled veterans with high pharmaceutical costs. It has become clear that Labor's pharmaceutical reimbursement scheme is deeply flawed and is simply unfair. It has created two classes of disabled veterans—those with qualifying service and those without. As a result, up to 1,500 disabled veterans get no assistance through this scheme. These are our most disabled veterans, receiving the special rate, or TPI, pension but who do not have 'qualifying service' as defined by the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986.
The coalition's system for veterans' pharmaceutical costs is much fairer. At the last election we proposed a comprehensive veterans' pharmaceutical reimbursement scheme which delivered financial relief to more than 80,000 disabled veterans. Importantly, this 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—no cumbersome reimbursements were needed, nor was there a need for technical amendments, as this legislation proposes, to ensure the scheme functioned properly.
Under the coalition's scheme, a veteran who qualified for the scheme would only pay for 30 prescriptions per year. Once they reached this reduced veterans' pharmaceutical safety net, they paid no more for their scripts. This means immediate financial relief for veterans. Significantly, the coalition's 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. The coalition's amendments will be presented in the other place and I look forward to being granted the chance to wholeheartedly support these fair and reasonable initiatives when they come to this House.
In conclusion, I urge the government to learn from their recent backflips in other policy areas and to embrace the coalition's policy that provides fairness for many of our great Australian heroes. Last Saturday we commemorated Vietnam Veterans' Day, and I take this opportunity today to argue that our veterans have given so much for our nation, it is time that we gave back.
I too rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012. This legislation, proposed by the government, makes a series of minor technical amendments to Veterans' Affairs portfolio legislation and to other acts that impact on veterans entitlements.
Most of the amendments, as my colleagues have said, are technical amendments which do not engage in any of the applicable rights of freedom. The amendments proposed are by no means controversial, and the coalition supports the measures being introduced. While it is a good start, the legislation can be made better, and that is what the coalition is seeking to do by proposing these amendments. The coalition seeks to legislate fair indexation as a requirement for the passing of this legislation. As the shadow minister, the member for Fadden, outlined, once passed through the House of Representatives the coalition will seek to make the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme the fair system it deserves to be.
In March of this year I pledged my commitment to veterans. I joined my leader, Tony Abbott, and Senator Michael Ronaldson to pledge our commitment to our veterans. My pledge is here and I would like to seek leave to table my signed pledge.
Leave not granted.
That is disappointing. I informed my electorate that as the elected representative I would fight for a fairer system of indexation for the Defence Force Retirement Benefit, or the DFRB, and the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefit, the DFRDB, military superannuation pensions. This is not a new platform. It is the same policy that the coalition have been pursuing for some time. In fact, at the 2010 election we committed to fair indexation. Despite the election outcome, the coalition did introduce legislation into the Senate to provide fairness, justice and equity. Unfortunately, the Greens and the Labor Party opposed this legislation. The coalition have remained committed to the introduction of fair indexation. On 20 September 2011 the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, told the RSL National Congress in Melbourne:
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.
As I indicated earlier, in March this year while in Bendigo 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, which is the same pledge that I tried to table. The pledge says:
A Coalition Government will deliver fair indexation to 57,000 military superannuants and their families.
The Coalition will ensure DFRB and DFRDB military superannuation pensions are indexed in the same way as aged and service pensions. All DFRB and DFRDB superannuants aged 55 and over will benefit.
Only a coalition government will deliver fair, just and equitable indexation for DFRB and DFRDB pensions.
As I said, I support the pledge made, and through engagement with my local community they know where I stand on this issue. This is a promise I made and it is locked in, just like the other coalition members who have made similar pledges.
In this current period of Australian politics where those opposite are handing out cash left, right and centre, we on this side of the parliament pause to remember those who represented this country and who fought for this nation and those who lost loved ones while away fighting for Australia. Our veterans and their widows represent the fundamental bedrock of our Defence Force. Stop in any small town or major city and you will always find an RSL supported by a proud membership. In my electorate I have three RSLs, the Darwin RSL, the Darwin North RSL bowls club and the Palmerston RSL. All are very popular amongst the local community.
Veterans and those that remain must not be forgotten or stood aside by this government, because we will never forget but we will forever owe them a debt that cannot be paid with dollars and cents. We must do everything that we can, and what is being proposed by these amendments is just a start.
In my electorate of Solomon we have almost a thousand veterans, partners and dependants. Across Australia there are about 57,000 recipients of military superannuation pensions. The coalition's plan is to provide fair indexation to those people on the pensions. As many of you would remember, Labor has led people to believe that they would provide a fairer deal for ex-service men and women. Unfortunately, in all their time in government, the Rudd-Gillard government has not delivered. In fact, when the coalition's policy went to the Senate it was the Labor-Greens alliance waltzing together which blocked the legislation. It is an absolute shame.
I have been contacted by many veterans in my electorate seeking help because they are struggling to make ends meet. Bill Elliott of Malak recently came to one of my mobile offices to speak to me about the DFRB superannuation. He told me many veterans are feeling the pinch, particularly as they feel that turning their superannuation into a pension has disadvantaged them. Bill asked me several times: 'What have we done wrong? What is the government going to do?' And he said: 'This is unfair. Most men volunteered to serve their country.'
Another constituent from Northlakes in Darwin's northern suburbs who has asked to be referred to as Mr J wrote expressing his concern. He said he receives a DFRB pension from the Navy and he is disappointed that Labor is sticking to the CPI related increase to his pension, which he believes is unfair. Last week I received an email from Rick, who states:
I received $1.29 increase in my COM Super pension. I retired last December after paying 5% of my wage for the past 32 years 20 into COM SUPER thinking I would be able to survive. I won't be able to do it if that's the yearly CPI increase. I had worked for Defence for 38 years before pulling the pin.
Natasha, please make a stand on our behalf.
There are many more emails from people like Rick, Bill and Mr J who are pleading for help.
Along with these veterans, as recently as last weekend I was meeting with veterans in my electorate at the Vietnam Veterans Day memorial service where, after the service, I discussed these matters with the people there that will be directly impacted by this. These issues were also raised and echoed by many at the two veterans forums which I have held recently in Darwin, that were attended by the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Senator Michael Ronaldson, who got to hear firsthand from the veterans in my electorate and take up their concerns.
He was quite concerned, and they were really pleased that Senator Ronaldson had actually taken the time, not once but twice, to come to Darwin to listen directly to their issues.
It is no longer acceptable that the Labor government continue to fiddle about the edges of policy while at the same time wholly dismissing the everyday concerns of veterans, ex-service personnel and their families. Local veterans who are DFRB and DFRDB military superannuants have proudly served their nation. It is time that the nation recognised the unique nature of military service and delivered fair pension indexation to these men and women, and their families.
Not only are our veterans facing unfair indexation, but they are facing the double whammy of the carbon tax, with no direct compensation to assist and offset the increased costs associated with this toxic tax. This is why I am speaking on this amendment. I am voicing the concerns of those Territorians who want fair indexation, who deserve fair indexation. They have made sacrifices and it is only fair that they receive fair indexation.
Not a week goes by that Territorians, in particular our veterans, do not raise with me the fact that they are struggling and veterans say to me that they want fair indexation. Electricity bills are starting to arrive in letterboxes, and households are beginning to feel the pressure of the extra costs which are directly related to the carbon tax. Yet, despite the clear cries of help from veterans struggling to make ends meet, Labor says the scheme is too expensive.
A few months ago, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Warren Snowdon, argued that a superannuant on $58,000 per year did not need fair indexation—that they were already well off. He should know better. He lives in the Territory and he knows that $58,000 is not a lot of money when you live in a regional are like the Northern Territory. What Minister Snowdon failed to acknowledge is that the average DFRDB military superannuation pension is just $24,386—2½ times less than the figure he quoted in June. That same month, veterans were sent letters advising that they would receive a few cents extra per fortnight in their pensions. Many veterans received an increase of less than $1 per fortnight. This is just a disgrace. Then we had Penny Wong claiming that the coalition's costing of $100 million should actually be $1.7 billion, and that to fully implement the scheme will cost $4.5 billion. Factually, the cost to the Commonwealth for fair indexation over the next four years is not $1.7 billion, as claimed by Labor, but approximately $100 million.
Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, as you know, at the last election, the coalition identified more than $50 billion in savings necessary to meet the costs of our commitment. Following the election, the coalition identified more than $170 million in savings, which I can say were later adopted by the Gillard Labor government as savings of their own. We identified savings once to fund this important change, and we will again find the funds necessary to make this important change for our Defence people. If the Gillard Labor government could stop wasting money on poorly implemented initiatives such as pink batts, school halls and cash for clunkers, along with reducing the cost for advertising their toxic carbon tax, there may be some money around and fair indexation could be well and truly funded. The cost of fair indexation in the first year is estimated to be $4 million; yet, in this year alone, Labor will spend $36 million on advertising the carbon tax. It is clear Labor has its priorities in absolutely the wrong order.
In conclusion, the coalition does not move this amendment lightly—nor do I support these proposals lightly. The bill before the House makes a number of important legislative changes which I support. Members such as the member for Dobell and the member for Eden-Monaro claim that they support veterans. Well, if this is true, I urge them to get on board, to come over with their crossbencher mates to support the amendment moved by the shadow minister, the member for Fadden. I believe the government should now introduce fair, just and equitable arrangements for military superannuants. It is time for fair indexation for our veterans. It is time that the parliament delivered.
I honour the veterans in my electorate and I want them to know that I will continue to fight for fair, better indexation for DFRB and DFRDB superannuants, just as my coalition colleagues will. This is my pledge, along with the other coalition members. We support Defence personnel.
I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012. This amendment has been introduced by the member for Fadden and, as he said in his speech, he did not move the amendment lightly. I have spoken in this place a number of times about the immense respect I have for our Defence forces and those that serve and have served in its ranks. They have made important contributions to Australia throughout our short history, for which we today enjoying lasting benefit.
This contribution stretches back to our founding. In our early history, Australia's fundamental institutions, the parliament, the law, and many of our customs, were derived from our British heritage, much of which, including this parliament, remains with us today. From this beginning, a range of factors, but more importantly the actions of our troops during World War I, and Gallipoli in particular, helped us form a national identity that was uniquely ours, uniquely Australian.
I, as do many of my colleagues, take a great deal of pride in participating in Anzac Day each year in my electorate of Swan. It is great to see the many that turn out each year at these ceremonies, the young and the old, to pay their respects to the Anzacs. I know many make the pilgrimage to Gallipoli or the Western Front each year to pay homage to those who give their lives for their country. Furthermore, no country can thrive and prosper without security. You cannot develop a strong economy and you cannot look to the future with confidence if you are a country under fear of threat.
Australia's continued success relies in great part on the ability of our people to look to the future with hope and a hunger for opportunity. Stability and security is a key to producing that environment.
When I express my respect I believe that we need to do more than attend ceremonies. We have a duty also to look after our veterans, and I know many Australians—many on both sides of the House—share this desire. The legislation proposed by the government makes a series of minor technical amendments to various pieces of legislation which affect veterans. As outlined by my colleagues, the coalition support these measures but we believe this legislation can be made better.
It is hard to measure the sacrifices made by those who serve in the Defence Force, or their families. To serve in the Australian military is to serve and protect every single Australian. The very nature of this service deserves recognition in the form of financial security that is fair and reasonable in meeting living standards now and in the future. Fair indexation, as proposed by the coalition, should be part of this bill. Additionally, we will move in the Senate to ensure the Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme is made fairer.
When I attend Anzac services each year, and as I interact with veterans in my day to day duties in my electorate of Swan, many servicemen speak to me about the unfairness of the DFRDB and DFRB schemes. They deserve financial security for their contributions to Australia and I and many of my constituents consider it truly shameful for the government to have raised expectations in 2007 only to ignore these veterans after the election. This broken commitment from the government to provide a better policy joins the long list of broken commitments this government has made since taking office, and it is amongst their most shameful. Not only are our veterans facing unfair indexation, but they are facing the double whammy of the carbon tax, with no direct compensation to assist with the increased costs associated, including the huge jumps in electricity and gas prices that come with that carbon tax.
As I said before, the coalition do not move this amendment lightly. Fair, just and equitable arrangements for military superannuants are overdue for introduction by this government. That is why we will be preventing passage of this current bill through the House until fair indexation legislation is introduced. I stand with my colleagues to draw a line in the sand. The time has come for fair indexation and it is time for the government and the parliament to get behind it.
The coalition have demonstrated consistent support for these changes. The coalition announced our fair indexation commitment on 27 June 2010. Our commitment extended fair indexation from superannuants aged 55 and over to DFRB and DFRDB scheme members. Under a coalition government, their pensions will be indexed in the same way as the age and service pensions. The reform proposed by the coalition on 27 June 2010 was a firm commitment brought to the 2010 election, and despite our loss we introduced legislation to the Senate on 18 November 2010. We remain committed to fair, just and equitable indexation for DFRB and DFRDB military superannuants.
Despite more than half a dozen enquiries into the proposal, all of which supported fair indexation, the Greens and Labor sought to further delay progress on 24 March 2011 by calling for yet another inquiry into the proposal. Unfortunately for the many veterans in my electorate of Swan, who get a raw deal under the current arrangements, the Greens and Labor used the inquiry to attack fair indexation. It was the first time the parliament has ever opposed fair indexation. On a day of shame for both the Greens and the Labor Party they used their Senate majority to reject the proposal on 16 June 2011. Fair indexation was defeated.
Despite the government choosing to ignore veterans, the coalition remains committed to this policy, and in Bendigo on 5 March this year, the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow minister, Senator Michael Ronaldson, signed the coalition's pledge to deliver fair indexation to veterans. It is worth me reading part of this pledge to the House. The pledge states:
I am pleased to say I support this pledge and my constituents in Swan know I offer my full support for fair indexation. If elected, the Leader of the Opposition will deliver this reform in our first budget. The coalition commitment to fix indexation is locked in and we will not rest until things are put right.
The government has resisted fixing indexation on the basis that the cost is too high, despite continual rises in the cost of living putting increased pressure on veterans. Labor is being deliberately misleading to the public. In June, veterans were sent letters offering them a few extra cents per fortnight in their pensions. Many residents in my electorate of Swan saw this barest of increases as a slap in the face from a government refusing to listen to their concerns. Many veterans received less than $1 per fortnight. The government has continued to claim that fair indexation is too expensive, with Senator Penny Wong claiming, for example, that the scheme will cost not $100 million, as the coalition has indicated, but $4.7 billion to implement.
The senator is being misleading. This point has been reinforced by the Commonwealth Actuary who, in advice to Senator Wong, blew a hole in Labor's claim that the cost of fair indexation is too high. To any superannuants out there, I know that Senator Wong will be in my electorate early in September—on about the 4th—to open a Leisureplex centre in Canning. So if you have something you want to let the senator know about, that is the time to come down and make sure that Senator Wong knows about your thoughts on the indexation. The cost to the Commonwealth is not the inflated $1.7 billion claimed by the minister. I endorse the Leader of the Opposition's statement when he said:
You can turn this into a huge figure. In any one year, it is bearable and we should bear it.
When making this promise at the last election we identified over $50 billion in savings to cover the specific costs of the commitment. The coalition will find the funds necessary to make this change without hurting the budget.
Of course, if the government had not blown billions of dollars on numerous wasteful programs since 2007, they could have funded this index correction many times over. Whether it is pink batts, school halls or giving cash hand-outs to dead people, this government have spent like a drunken sailor since 2007 and now, in order to achieve their political surplus, are sacrificing good initiatives such as this one. If they had been competent fiscal managers as they promised in 2007, I dare say that if they were not obsessed with their political survival they would have supported these initiatives from the start.
As a further example of how off track this government is, the cost of fair indexation in the first year is estimated at $4 million, yet this year alone the government will spend over nine times that amount on carbon tax ads to try and convince people that the most unpopular policy a Labor government has introduced for over a decade is good. The priorities of this government focus on politics and not on producing good outcomes for the Australian people.
I note the support from government members for fair indexing. The member for Blair has written to Finance Minister Senator Wong to express concern. He stated that it was 'ridiculous to expect people to accept a 0.1 per cent increase' and went on to state that 0.1 per cent was 'too meagre and it needs change'. Again, I remind the House that these same pensioners who are receiving indexation have also been hit hard by the carbon tax cost-of-living increases, which will go up and up. Senator Kate Lundy and the member for Eden-Monaro wrote to the former finance minister, Lindsay Tanner, in 2009 urging him to keep their 2007 election commitment, stating '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'. The member for Dobell, expressed his support for these changes as recently as July this year.
Despite the government's attempts to shut down the push for fair indexing with false claims of billion-dollar price tags, the coalition will continue with our push for fair indexing. Our veterans deserve the respect and recognition that the government has so far denied them, and I hope the Independent members of this place will also support the coalition's amendment to legislate fair indexation as a requirement for the passing of this legislation.
Once this legislation passes the House of Representatives the coalition will seek to further amend the legislation to deliver fairness for disabled veterans with high pharmaceutical costs. The government's scheme is deeply 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. They do not have 'qualifying service' as defined by the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. These are our most disabled veterans who receive a special rate, or TPI, pension but miss out on the scheme's assistance due to the structure of the act. This is why the coalition will act to fix this to create a fairer system for veterans' pharmaceutical costs. Our commitment at the last election proposed comprehensive reimbursement which would have delivered financial relief to more than 80,000 disabled veterans. Importantly, it did not create two classes of veterans; it ensured out-of-pocket expenses were removed for all of our most disabled veterans. The coalition's scheme meant immediate financial relief for veterans. There are no cumbersome reimbursements—unlike Labor's policy our scheme does not leave veterans waiting until a new financial year to start to receive relief.
In the Senate the coalition's amendments will extend eligibility to include all special rate, or TPI, ex-service persons. Our amendments will extend beyond those disability pensioners with qualifying service to also include all special rate pensions as well. The amendment will bring fairness and justice back to Labor's unfair scheme. The government will struggle to use the cost argument against this proposal given that it will cost less than $234,000 based on the government's advice about the average cost of the reimbursement and the estimated 1,500 special rate pensioners without qualifying service.
These amendments put into the House and the amendments to be put into the Senate deserve to be passed by the parliament. Our veterans, who have served our nation with dignity and honour, deserve recognition and they deserve to be unbound from an unfair system that leaves them struggling with cost-of-living increases which have been made worse by the carbon tax.
The government's legislation does make some good minor changes, but it does not go far enough in addressing the unfair design of the scheme. The fair indexation changes and proposed Veterans' Pharmaceutical Reimbursement Scheme improvements are long overdue. I urge crossbench and government members to join with the coalition in making these changes for the good of Australia's veteran community.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012. We certainly owe a great debt to our veteran community. We sleep in our beds knowing that we can depend on the protection that our armed forces provide. It has been that way in Australia since Federation. Our armed forces have served this nation well, they have kept us safe, they have fought against the odds and they have always prevailed—and that is certainly something for which we owe them a great debt.
The legislation before the House tonight is largely procedural and makes a series of minor technical amendments to legislation that affects the veteran community. It is non-controversial in nature and the coalition support the measures contained within it. But this legislation can be made better and the coalition will seek to do so. Firstly, we will seek to legislate fair indexation as a requirement for the passing of this bill. Secondly, once the 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. We believe in fairness for our veteran community, a fairness that has yet to be achieved.
The coalition does not make this amendment lightly. The bill before the House makes a number of changes that the coalition supports. However, the coalition believes that the government should now introduce fair, just and equitable arrangements for military superannuants. By preventing the passage of the current bill through the House until fair indexation legislation is introduced, the coalition will be drawing a line in the sand. The time for fair indexation has come, and it is time for this parliament—this House of Representatives and our Senate—to deliver it.
The coalition announced our fair indexation commitment on 27 June 2010. Our commitment extended fair indexation to superannuants aged 55 years and over to DFRB and DFRDB scheme members.
Under a coalition government, their pensions will be indexed in the same manner as age and service pensions. We took that commitment to the 2010 election but, regrettably, the coalition was not elected. The Prime Minister was able to form a minority government with the support of the Greens and with the support of the Independents. To this date, fairness in military superannuation and taxation has not been achieved.
But, despite losing the election, we introduced legislation into the Senate on 18 November 2010 to provide fair, just and equitable indexation for those 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. This matter has been the subject of so many inquiries that, I think, there is no need for further discussion. The need for equity is obvious and the coalition support equity. The Greens and Labor used that inquiry to oppose fair indexation, the first time the parliament has ever opposed fair indexation. On 16 June 2011, in a day of shame for the Senate, the coalition's fair indexation legislation was regrettably defeated.
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.
The coalition are committed to addressing those indexation arrangements, and so they should. We have a pledge to commit to fair indexation arrangements for our veterans. They served our nation well in the Defence forces. The service by veterans is a unique form of service. It is unlike any other employment. It is a service in which you surrender many of the liberties we enjoy as citizens in this country in order to provide the degree of discipline and provide the degree of services that our military services must provide.
All we have had from Labor in this matter is excuses. We have had one excuse after another. This represents yet another broken promise by Labor. It is a broken promise that the coalition promise to redress. We promise that, on being elected to government, if these amendments fail that we should introduce fair indexation for military superannuants—something that is long overdue. I know that members of the veteran community in my electorate of Cowper have been campaigning long and hard to achieve appropriate indexation of military superannuation as the coalition is proposing. I have had many representations from people right across my electorate. From Kempsey in the south to Maclean in the north to Dorrigo in the west, I have had members of the veteran community say this is unfair. Military service is unique and it should not be discriminated against in the way that our superannuation is indexed. The coalition agree with this view. We are committed to making these changes and certainly look forward to achieving them. I certainly hope we can achieve it in this parliament. If that is not the case, the coalition would certainly, if elected as the next government of this country, pursue a fair and equitable system for veterans.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this legislation. It has been a matter that has concerned the veteran community for too many years. The veteran community feels let down by the government's failure to address this issue. It has been an issue that has been too long in coming. The coalition is committed to achieving those changes and will certainly be pursuing that either through this parliament or when we are elected to government. I know that so many members of our veteran community are deeply concerned. They want the matter addressed and it is high time that occurred. I commend the proposed changes by the coalition to the House.
The legislation that we are debating today is about fairness and justice to the veteran community. Deputy Speaker Scott, you and I were former veterans' affairs ministers and we appreciated incredibly strong support from Prime Minister Howard and the Howard government to bring about many changes throughout the veteran system to make sure it was responsive to the changing requirements of the veteran community. I invite the Labor members opposite to delve a bit deeper and they would see it was actually me who started the Podger review to investigate arrangements relating to military superannuation. We were very supportive of some ideas to bring about fairness and justice. It is great to see that even though the coalition is not in government it continues to provide leadership in veterans' affairs and Defence personnel matters.
The veteran community in Dunkley knows very clearly that there is only one side of parliament that will bring about justice in the indexation of DFRDB superannuation payments. There is only one side of politics that recognises that it is one thing to talk about support for the veterans' community but my commitment and that of the coalition was always to provide best-of-breed support for those men and women that we put in harm's way. That is a responsibility that all of us in this place should have and it is certainly a responsibility that seems to be beyond the current veterans' affairs minister. I am courteous and too respectful to go through some of the titles that the current minister is afforded. I am, too, thoughtful about how strongly the veterans' community feels about the lack of representation and advocacy they get from the Labor Party and the Gillard government. But I am aware of the vivid feeling and the strength of support for the coalition's action to bring about fairness in the indexation of DFRDB.
I also want to again pay tribute to our Vietnam veterans' community.
Last weekend was Vietnam Veterans Day. That date is an important date, not only for the veterans community but also for the commemoration of the Battle of Long Tan. It has taken a long time for this nation to right the wrongs of the way in which it treated the veterans coming back from Vietnam, and the measures before the House and the amendment that the coalition has offered are a further example of how it is the Liberal-National Party that can always be counted on to support the veterans community and the serving men and women of the ADF.