House debates

Tuesday, 30 November 2021


Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Exempting Disability Payments from Income Testing and Other Measures) Bill 2021; Second Reading

12:53 pm

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs (House)) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Exempting Disability Payments from Income Testing and Other Measures) Bill 2021, and I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House criticises the Government for:

(1) failing to increase the Totally and Permanently Incapacitated (TPI) Payment for disabled veterans and ignoring the concerns of Australia's 27,000 TPI veterans; and

(2) ignoring the recommendation of a Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee Inquiry into the TPI Payment (Special Rate of Disability Pension) that recommended that the Government consider an increase in the TPI payment".

At the outset, I say that Labor is on the side of Australian veterans and their families. We will be supporting the legislation, as it will simplify and streamline assistance to veterans and improve their wellbeing. The bill addresses recommendations made by Mr David Tune in his 2019 Independent Review of the Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Payment—the Tune review as it's now known—and the Productivity Commission's 2019 report entitled A better way to support veterans. I note that the Morrison government first announced these measures in the 2020-21 budget, and it announced its intention to bring forward these important changes from 20 September to 1 January 2022 in this year's budget following pressure from Labor and the TPI veterans.

These reforms will simplify the administration of some payments for veterans and their dependants. This will be done by exempting disability payments from income testing under the Social Security Act 1991, simplifying payment arrangements for approximately 14,000 veterans and their dependants. The government will also increase access to rent assistance for most of our veterans with disabilities. This will benefit approximately 6,900 veterans and their dependants. Specifically, the first schedule will implement the government's commitment to exempt the adjusted disability pension defined in the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 from the income test under the Social Security Act. This will remove the need for the Defence Force income support allowance, known as DFISA. Introduced in 2004, DFISA was paid as a top-up to ensure that veterans who received an age pension under the Social Security Act were not financially disadvantaged. Changes in this schedule will ensure that veterans will receive the same payment as before, but the administrative process will be much simpler.

The second schedule will remove the disability income rent test from the Veterans' Entitlements Act. This will mean that veterans with disabilities will now have access to the same rent assistance as those who receive it from Centrelink. It will increase rent assistance payable to veterans or enable some veterans with disabilities to receive rent assistance for the very first time. The disability income rent test results in severely disabled veterans receiving less rent assistance than those with a lower level of disability. In particular, this measure will benefit totally and permanently incapacitated veterans who presently do not receive any rent assistance due to the amount of compensation they receive.

The third schedule will remove reference to the term 'disability pension' in the Veterans' Entitlements Act. In future, this payment will be referred to as the 'disability compensation payment'. This change will clarify that these payments are compensation and will reduce the potential for the payment to be confused with the Department of Social Services disability support pensions. The measures contained in these first three schedules will commence on 1 January next year.

The bill's fourth schedule will streamline indexation of disability pension compensation. Currently, the extreme disablement adjustment intermediate rate and special rates pension, colloquially known as the TPI payment, is split into two components for indexation purposes. Each is indexed separately. The fourth schedule will remove this anomaly so that the whole amount is indexed as one. This measure will commence on 20 September 2022. This will simplify the Department of Veterans' Affairs legislation, policy and procedures. It will also help avoid confusion for veterans about the purpose and structure of the extreme disablement adjustment intermediate and special rates of disability pension.

The fifth schedule in the bill introduces a pilot program for earlier access to rehabilitation. Labor supports this legislation, as it will improve and streamline assistance to veterans and improve their wellbeing. While those measures that I've just referred to in this bill are beneficial, we know it's actually not what most TPI veterans want. The reality is that most actually want an increase in the TPI payment.

I moved a second reading amendment on behalf of my colleague Shayne Neumann, who is in a position to speak to this bill but not in a position to procedurally move an amendment to this bill.

On behalf of Labor and, indeed, my shadow ministerial colleague, we moved that amendment because we are concerned that the commitments that were made, the undertakings that were given by the Prime Minister to this very important constituency, have gone without proper realisation of what was undertaken by the government. There was a very, very strong impression left on veterans and their families that this government, prior to the last election, was making an undertaking to increase the TPI payment, but we've seen no such increase to that payment. For that reason, the government should hang their heads in shame because that was the impression that the Prime Minister left them—that they would be providing an increase to the TPI payment—and that's not forthcoming.

Whilst of course we support the provisions because they will provide some support to some veterans with disabilities, particularly in relation to rent support, we believe they are too little. More should be done to provide support to this very important constituency, who have been advocating now for years to see increases to their TPI payment. While measures in this bill, as I say, are beneficial, we know it wasn't what they actually expected or wanted. I am moving this second reading amendment to call out the Morrison-Joyce government for its appalling treatment of Australia's 27,000 TPI veterans.

The Australian Federation of Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Ex Servicemen and Women, known as the TPI Federation, has raised the issue of the TPI payment for several years now, but the government has ignored their concerns. This is why Labor referred the issue of the adequacy of the TPI payment to a Senate inquiry earlier this year: so that TPI veterans could have their say. The Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee inquiry into the TPI payment reported on 1 July this year and recommended that the government consider an increase in the payment. At the time, Labor called on the government to respond to the committee's unanimous recommendation, which would ensure that those veterans who have severe disabilities, in particular, would not be left behind. However, in its response to the inquiry tabled on 7 October, all the Morrison government could say was that it notes the recommendation and will take it into account when considering future policy options for support to TPI veterans. This was a grave disappointment to TPI veterans and their families, and it underlines that this government does like to make announcements and does like to give the impression of providing support to particular constituencies in the country, but doesn't follow through and doesn't always deliver, despite its undertakings earlier. It was just another blow for these long-suffering ex-service men and women.

As I say, before the 2019 election the Prime Minister raised the hopes of the TPI Federation that he would increase the payment by commissioning the review, only to dash them after the election with his flawed response to the review. After sitting on the report for more than a year, the Prime Minister announced in last year's delayed October budget that he'd provide only rent assistance to a small proportion of TPI veterans—about 10 per cent of all TPI veterans—leaving most very dismayed that they will miss out. In response to Labor's questions in Senate estimates last year, it was revealed these benefits would not start to flow until September next year, while the government made changes to legislation and IT systems. Following pressure from Labor and the TPI veterans, the government did bring forward the measures in this bill to January next year, but given that they have left it to the very last sitting week this year to introduce and pass legislation it's probably fair to say that they're cutting it very fine.

Given that this is now time critical, Labor will not stand in the way of these measures and want to see some assistance, however modest, for these most deserving former Defence personnel. We do censure the government for ignoring the recommendation of the Senate inquiry to boost the TPI payment and for its appalling treatment of TPI veterans over eight long years. The Prime Minister should listen to his colleagues, including Senator and former Major General Jim Molan, who said that this is the most deserving issue in the veteran community. I don't always agree with Senator Molan, but the fact is he is absolutely right when he says that this is one of the most deserving issues for the veterans community.

On top of this, we know that the Department of Veterans' Affairs is struggling to deal with a huge backlog of veterans with disability pension claims, with 68 per cent of claims yet to be finalised as of April this year. This, along with long waiting times for most veterans' claims, has prompted the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel to commission a fresh review of the DVA claims processing system by one of the government's favoured consultants, McKinsey. Meanwhile the government refuses to address the real reason behind these dangerously long delays with assistance, which are having a terrible impact on veterans' mental health—that is, chronic staff shortages and record levels of labour hire workers, many of whom are not skilled to deal with this constituency, with the people who are in need of help. We say to the government that they need to do better in providing proper support and advice to the veteran community. It is just not good enough. Our veterans and their families deserve so much better. Notwithstanding this, the bill currently before the House is better than nothing. It will go some way towards supporting some veterans with disabilities and their families and former Defence personnel more broadly. To that extent, Labor supports this bill.

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Meryl SwansonMeryl Swanson (Paterson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

1:06 pm

Photo of Michael McCormackMichael McCormack (Riverina, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

At the outset, I acknowledge that the member for Herbert is in the chamber. I recognise his fine service in uniform and, indeed, his ongoing contribution to veterans' affairs and to his community at large since he resumed life as a civilian. I also acknowledge that today in Brisbane the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide continues and that senior counsel assisting, Kevin Connor SC, has said inquiry hearings will be held in regional centres such as Townsville, so proudly represented by the member for Herbert, as well as Wagga Wagga, my hometown, a city with tri-service representation—the Royal Australian Air Force at Forest Hill, the Royal Australian Navy at the RAAF base, and Kapooka, the home of the soldier, from which a long line of khaki stretching back to Gallipoli, and even before that, has marched out. Indeed, just the other day, Governor-General David Hurley was the reviewing officer at the latest march-out, where 60 or so recruits joined the 350,000 before them who now and in the past have proudly worn the khaki uniform. We say thanks to them. Thanks to you for your service. Thanks to you for your sacrifice. May that long continue and endure.

I listened carefully to the member for Gorton and I heard what he had to say about the total and permanently incapacitated payments. I would say to any veterans listening: don't just listen to what Labor says; observe carefully what Labor does. I well recall when I first served in this place what Labor did in the Defence space and what Labor didn't do in the veteran space. I'm proud to be part of a government which has provided record investment to Defence and very much listened to the needs and wants of our veteran community. As a former Minister for Veterans' Affairs, I'm very much in tune with what veterans have to say. I know that many veterans not only do their recruit training through Wagga Wagga and end up being posted to Wagga Wagga; they also return to Wagga Wagga and the Riverina once their military careers are over. In terms of requiring help, if any veteran is seeking to reach out to say that they are not okay—and it is alright to say that you're not okay whether you're in uniform or part of the wider civilian network here in Australia—they can call Open Arms, a 24-hour line, on 1800011046 or the Department of Defence All-hours Support Line on 1800628036.

I was pleased when I was the veterans' affairs minister that the Defence-centric or veteran-centric reform legislation was put to the parliament. That piece of legislation was very important for the current and future needs of those who wear and have worn our uniforms. Indeed, at 30 June 2019, the Australian Defence Force comprised about 58,000 permanent members—47,000 men and 11,000 women—and 27,500 active reserve personnel across the RAN, the Army and the RAAF. At June 2019 there were more than 290,000 DVA beneficiaries in receipt of pensions, allowances and treatment or pharmaceuticals. This included about 184,000 veterans and 110,000 dependants.

The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Exempting Disability Payments from Income Testing and Other Measures) Bill 2021 is an important piece of legislation. This bill assists in ensuring some of our most vulnerable veterans will be better assisted, better supported and helped at the point when they require that assistance. We are giving them exactly what they need. It delivers on the government's budget commitments announced in October 2020 and May 2021.

I noted that the member for Gorton talked about the delayed budget and the favoured consultants, dripping with sarcasm. This isn't about having a crack at the government. This should be about doing what we need to do in a bipartisan way for our veterans. I'm pleased that Labor will not stand in the way of this bill passing the House of Representatives.

This bill implements the recommendations of the review conducted by esteemed public servant David Tune into the adequacy of the TPI payments. This bill includes provisions to exempt disability pensioners' income under the Social Security Act. These alterations simplify the support system for more than 14,000 veterans and dependants and negate the need for the Defence Force income support supplement.

There are provisions to remove a means test imposed on rent assistance for certain veterans and dependants. About 6,900 veterans and dependants will now become eligible for rent assistance or an increased rate of rent assistance. This ensures assistance even under the provisions of acts that are passed and changes that are ultimately made as time goes on. Even if a veteran drops, say, $100 that they can't make up on, that, for many veterans, means the difference between having a reasonable life and being on the breadline. It truly does. That is why we know that the veterans' affairs legislation amendment is so critical and so time-sensitive as well.

The bill also includes provisions to clarify the existing disability pension. It's a compensation payment but it should not be confused with other income support measures such as Centrelink's disability support pension. It also provides for the simplification of indexation arrangements for the disability pension, which is presently an overly complicated bureaucratic process. If there is one thing I know and that veterans certainly know it's that they don't want a complicated, intricate, bureaucratic process. They want to know that they are going to be supported without having to go through all sorts of rigmarole and hardship just to get the payments that they so desperately want, need, expect and, most importantly, deserve—because it's their money. They have been sent, by us, by the government, by the Commonwealth, to do a job. They have done that job proudly. They have done that job diligently. They have sacrificed so much. That's why it's so important that this pass the House.

This bill also includes a measure to implement a two-year trial of non-liability rehabilitation. This will enable veterans participating in the trial to access DVA rehabilitation services in a more prompt manner, without the need to make a claim for compensation or to have to wait for the determination of liability.

The government has accepted all of the recommendations of the review undertaken by Mr Tune. If passed, this bill will give effect to changes to meet four of these recommendations. The Defence Force Income Support Allowance will be abolished; and the adjusted disability pension, including the TPI payment and permanent impairment payment, under the MRCA, will be defined as exempt income under the social security law. That is schedule 1. In schedule 2, in addition, the disability income rent test should be abolished. This would simplify payment arrangements and allow TPI veterans who are renting to receive Commonwealth rent assistance.

The bill also gives effect to changes that include the indexation of the TPI payment being changed to index the whole payment all at once rather than in two components. That's schedule 4. This could also apply to the intermediate and extreme disablement adjustment rates of disability pensions. The split indexation mechanism was brought in in 2004 as a result of the different indexation mechanisms in place for the general rate and above general rate components, but it is now redundant as the indexation mechanisms were all brought into line back in 2008.

The bill also changes the terminology and language in legislation guidelines and policy documents. This will mean that the TPI pension will no longer be referred to as a pension but as a payment. Some stakeholders are concerned that the term 'pension' in schedule 3 implies welfare instead of compensation. It's not welfare; it is indeed compensation.

The feedback received by the government when these measures were introduced and announced in the October 2020 budget was that the measures were supported. The proposed legislation before the House today is critical because veterans know how important this is. They know how important every dollar in their account is—it's deserved and needed. We've listened to that feedback, of course. We've brought the implementation forward to 1 January 2022 as part of this year's budget which was handed down in May.

Veterans will not need to apply for rent assistance. DVA will contact those income support recipients who may be eligible, and we will seek up-to-date rent information from them. Once received, this information will be used to undertake the assessment process of rent assistance, with payments commencing on the first pay day following New Year's Day next year.

Finally, on the Senate inquiry recommendation that the government consider increasing the TPI payment, I appreciate what the member for Gorton says. We are constantly in a process of consultation with veterans. We will continue to be the side of politics that listens to veterans and acts on their concerns. We understand full well the service and sacrifice that they have made, both at home and abroad. We will continue to take on board those discussions and that feedback, and that is why we are bringing forward this particular legislation and those particular payments as part of this legislation. We know that it is needed, we know that it is expected and we know that it is deserved.

To veterans: please know that help is always at hand, whether in mental health support or in financial support, because you deserve it and because you have sacrificed so much for and on behalf of our nation.

1:18 pm

Photo of Shayne NeumannShayne Neumann (Blair, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I'm pleased to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Exempting Disability Payments from Income Testing and Other Measures) Bill 2021. I speak in support of the amendments moved by the member for Gorton. This government has ignored the concerns of 27,000 TPI veterans. The government has ignored the recommendations of a vital Senate committee, which recommended an increase in the TPI payment. This bill is better than nothing. As the member for Gordon has indicated in his speech, there are 6,900 veterans and independents who will benefit from this bill, so Labor won't stand in the way of them receiving some additional assistance.

The bill removes the disability income rent test under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. It's one of three acts that apply in the area of veterans' affairs: MRCA, DRCA and VEA, and VEA applies to TPI recipients. This change will operate from 1 January 2022, so the government's left it very late to assist a small cohort of veterans who need help. These are veterans on low incomes in private rental accommodation who would be eligible for Commonwealth Rental Assistance, who'd receive a high rate of rent assistance, and they'll get a bit of help.

The bill also exempts their disability pension from social security income tests from 1 January 2022, which means that what is commonly called the DFISA, a top-up payment, will be abolished as it's simply not necessary. There's some renaming of the disability pension to the disability compensation payment to clarify that the disability pension is not an income support pension or welfare but a compensation payment. There's an adjustment in terms of combining some separate indexation components and also the establishment of that two-year non-liability rehabilitation pilot program in response to the Productivity Commission review recommendation in relation to cultural change and encouraging early voluntary participation in rehabilitation. I might add that the government's not responded to even half of the Productivity Commission's recommendations in the report that was released on 2 July 2019.

The government advises that the changes to the bill are beneficial and no veterans receiving disability compensation claims will be worse off. I note that the government first announced these changes in the October 2020 budget. Perhaps the government should consider backdating the measure to provide rent assistance to some TPI veterans to October 2020, when the government accepted the recommendations of the Tune review. After all, the government knew it was underpaying TPI veterans, but it's not prepared to compensate them for the long time it took for this legislation to be drafted and eventually passed. It must be said that Labor is supporting this bill because, frankly, it's better than nothing. It's better than anything the government's delivered for disabled veterans to date.

We can't let this legislation go through without mentioning the government's abysmal treatment of TPI veterans over the last eight years. This is what our second reading amendment is all about. The fact is that the TPI Federation has been raising the issue of a TPI payment for several years, and the government's ignored their concerns. They've been the victims of grossly bad acts of faith on behalf of this government.

Before the 2019 federal election, Prime Minister Scott Morrison effectively promised to increase the payment by announcing a review of the TPI pension to be conducted by Mr David Tune, and that would report after the election. The TPI review was really a cynical marketing exercise by a prime minister desperate to win an election, to placate veterans and to ask for their votes before the election. It was a pretend move. In a letter to the TPI Federation in April 2019, on the eve of the 2019 election, the Prime Minister committed the government to the review. He stated in that letter: 'The TPI Federation makes a compelling case in relation to the relative value of the above general rate component of the special rate of disability pension. The fact that TPI veterans are not able to earn an income as a result of their service to our nation means their loss of income during what would have been their working life should be appropriately recognised and replaced.' The Prime Minister said TPI veterans have a 'compelling case'. If ever there was a case of raising expectations, this is it. In fact, in a Senate estimates hearing in October last year, the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Liz Cosson, conceded that the Prime Minister's letter had raised expectations that the government would increase the TPI payment and the TPI Federation had made a strong argument for an increase. Ms Cosson admitted that she thought the TPI Federation had made a strong argument for an increase in the TPI pension, but this is not what the government's doing and it's not what this legislation does today.

Following the election, the TPI Federation revealed there was very limited consultation with TPI veterans as a result of the review undertaken by David Tune. Mr Tune met with the TPI Federation only once so they could put their case to him. However, shockingly, the review completely dismisses the group's submissions. They were not even given a copy of the report. The review was then completed in August 2019 but was buried under the cloak of cabinet in confidence until the delayed October 2020 budget. Then, after sitting on the report for more than a year, the government finally announced the response in the budget. Far from increasing the TPI payment, all the government offered was some modest rent assistance to about 10 per cent of TPI veterans. That's what they said at the time: about 2,700 people living in private rental accommodation, leaving most TPI veterans disgusted that they were missing out.

After raising the TPI Federation's hopes before the election, the government went on to dash them after the election. This was a huge disappointment to TPI veterans and shows that veterans who are TPI and other veterans can't trust the Prime Minister or this government. To add insult to injury, in response to Labor's questions in Senate estimates last year it was revealed that these benefits were not due to start flowing until September 2022 while the government made changes to legislation and IT systems. In other words, it would have been many years before even these people, who are acknowledged by the Tune review as being in desperate need of support, would receive any assistance.

When asked by Labor in the hearing what these people should do in the meantime, DVA secretary Liz Cosson said, 'Good question.' It was only after pressure from Labor and TPI veterans that the government brought forward the start date to January 2022. They left it until the very last sitting of this year, 2021, to pass the enabling legislation. They were in very real danger of running out of time to deliver the budget measure from October 2020. It goes to show this government's priorities and the lack of urgency concerning support for TPI veterans. Given TPI pensioners have had to wait for answers since April 2019, when the Prime Minister commissioned the review on the eve of the election, these delays only created more anxiety and frustration amongst TPI veteran communities.

That is why Labor listened to TPI veterans and referred the matter to an independent Senate inquiry earlier this year so that TPI veterans could have their say. The Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee inquiry was established by Labor on 18 March 2021 to examine the adequacy of the TPI payment special rate of disability pension and the case for an increase in the payment. The committee included government and Labor senators as well as independent Senator Jacqui Lambie and allowed for an open and transparent examination of the issues and establishment of the facts. The report was adopted unanimously, though I must say the government members played little role in the inquiry.

In this deliberation, the inquiry noted that a number of reviews of TPI payments in recent years, including the Tune review, concluded an increase in TPI payment was not warranted and recommended more targeted assistance instead. However—and this is really critical—the inquiry recognised that these reviews wrongly factored in other benefits, such as service pension and other payments, when considering the adequacy of support provided to TPI pensioners. The committee found that submitters made a persuasive case for a fair and just structural adjustment of the above general rate component of the TPI payment to restore the relative value of the payment and recognise and replace TPI veterans' loss of income. Further, in evidence before the committee DVA officials did not even attempt to defend the government's position and response to the Tune review. DVA officials agreed that the level of compensation for TPI veterans was inadequate.

Based on all these submissions and evidence provided at the public hearings, the committee recommended that the government consider an increase in the TPI payment and consider the next exact level of the increase, yet the government has failed to do so. Labor welcomes the report. We have called on the government to do better and more. The government has failed to respond to the unanimous recommendation in a way that satisfies TPI veterans. The government has given platitudes in relation to the issue. There's an election coming up. There's a budget in March next year. If the government wants to take action, as it should, it should listen to the voices of TPI pensioners and give them the increase they need and deserve. As this amendment sets out, Labor condemns the government for its failure to accept the recommendations of the Senate inquiry and to listen to the voices, the cries and the pleas of TPI veterans.

On behalf of the Labor opposition, I call on the government to do the right thing. We'll support this legislation today, but—

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.