House debates

Tuesday, 30 November 2021


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

4:42 pm

Photo of Phillip ThompsonPhillip Thompson (Herbert, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to start by acknowledging all the men and women around the nation who have worn the uniform or continue to wear the uniform in service to this nation, and I want to acknowledge their families, who are the backbone of the defence community. Our soldiers know their mission remains fixed: determined, unbreakable, it is to win our wars. Almost everything outside of our military career will not hold such gravity as this vital dedication and service to this nation. Our soldiers are the ones we look to to train, to fight. Their skill set is in the profession of arms; their will to win, the sure knowledge that there is no substitute for victory.

There are more than 31,000 defence personnel, veterans and their families living in Townsville. Townsville is a proud garrison city with a long military heritage. We have served the Australian people for many years, in many wars, through many natural disasters. We have had soldiers killed in action, wounded in combat, injured in training, and those that have died by suicide. Improving the wellbeing of veterans and their families should not just be words; it should be enshrined in all of us here, every day, to better support the people that have fought for our freedoms, our democracy, our way of life—the people that we put in harm's way to ensure that we can sleep safely and soundly in our beds at night.

I deployed to East Timor and Afghanistan. I witnessed firsthand the commitment and dedication of the men and women of our armed forces—commitment and dedication on the battlefield, which is difficult for the community who are left behind to see and fully understand. We built schools for girls, wells for community; we fought the enemy. Just recently we had our soldiers from Townsville—from the First Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, my former unit—in Afghanistan on an extremely dangerous rescue mission. Our brave men and women answered the nation's call to go into harm's way, where the rule of law has failed, and to rescue people that helped us in Afghanistan. This mission was like no other. We haven't seen an operation of this magnitude for a very long time. They did a fantastic job and an honourable job. We as a grateful nation owe a great debt to our soldiers. We have also seen just recently soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, based in Townsville deployed to the Solomon Islands to help the people of the Solomon Islands during civil unrest.

Some of the best times of my life were in the Defence Force, and also some of the hardest challenges I've faced were when I was transitioned out. Our defence family, whether we served together or just share that experience, are people that I call family—people I represent here in this place and people who look to me to ensure their voices are heard. For those who have been injured from their service, we must do better.

This bill, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Exempting Disability Payments from Income Testing and Other Measures) Bill 2021 does a small bit in doing better. This bill implements the recommendations of the review by Mr David Tune. This bill will allow veterans on this compensation to access housing assistance, which they hadn't been able to do before. These provisions are to remove the means test imposed on rent assistance for certain veterans and dependants. Many will now be eligible for rent assistance or an increased rate of rent assistance. It is to our nation's shame that veterans would be homeless, sleeping rough or not able to get rent assistance. So this bill goes an extra step in the right direction to ensure that the people we in this place call on to do our bidding can get the supports that they deserve. Rent assistance is a supplementary payment to the service pension, income support supplement and veteran payment recipients who pay private rent that exceeds a certain threshold. Disability pension and permanent impairment payment recipients have these compensation payments taken into account in the calculation of any rent assistance paid with the service pension, income support pension or veteran payment. These disability compensation payments can reduce the rent assistance payable if an individual's compensation payment rate exceeds a certain threshold.

This bill simplifies the absolute complexity of what people have to go through. This is to really streamline things and make it easier for our service personnel and our veterans to get the help they need. It is clunky. The opposition agree. We on this side agree. This has been clunky for a long time, and it has been complex. This bill is to help streamline the processes for our soldiers and our veterans, the ones who could be overseas right now, who one day may fall on hard times and need assistance through rent assistance.

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 earlier, without the need to make a claim for compensation or await a determination of liability.

The changes relating to disability compensation payments will cost $33.3 million. Who cares, to be honest? There is no figure or number that needs to be thrown around when we are talking about supporting our veterans and our soldiers. When it comes to supporting those who support us through wars, from wars before my time, before I was born, to ones I have been involved in to ones that could potentially happen in the future, there is no number.

The purpose of this bill is to exempt certain disability pensions paid under the VEA, the Veterans' Entitlement Act, and the MRCA, the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, from the social security income test. Removing an income test that applies to rent assistance paid to some veterans' disability pension receipts will allow those receiving higher rates of disability compensation to receive higher rent assistance. There are changes to references to 'disability pension' in the VEA to the term 'pensions by the way of compensation to veterans and their dependants'. You can already see where we're going here. This is clunky, right? So streamlining this will make it a lot easier for veterans who are looking at this bill to understand it and to understand what they're entitled to. It will also help the department and the states that we'll be working with to really understand it. Not everyone's a veteran, not everyone has served, and not everyone fully understands the difference between when we're talking about compensation and when we're talking about pensions. This makes it a little bit easier.

I think establishing the pilot program, or the trial, is a good step in the right direction, but I'd like to see that trial become fixed. Once again, I don't want to see a trial happen and then us try and wind anything back. I think we should be opening the gamut of services to our bravest. The people that put on the uniform, our brave men and women, do it every day. And you hear stories—not just overseas but inside Australia—like when the floods happened in Townsville and soldiers' houses were flooded. They didn't even go to their houses to remove their stuff, because they were too busy helping someone else down the road. It's a selfless sacrifice to your community and to your nation, to always put someone else first and the community first. This bill is about putting our people first, the ones we ask to go into harm's way—the ones we ask to go to where the cyclone is and clean up, the ones we ask to go and help out with COVID-19 Assist, the ones we ask to go and help out with floods and natural disasters. This is about supporting our soldiers.

One thing that I'll leave on, and I'll depart on here, is that it's okay not to be okay. It's okay to have a bad day, it's okay to have a mental illness, but it's not okay to suffer in silence. We must change how we view and how we speak and how we act when it comes to mental wellbeing, when it comes to mental illness, when it comes to suicide prevention and stigma. We must, in this place, be leaders in that. Debating, and going back and forward, is not what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is having the courage to stand up and support each other when the bad times happen. We all have them here. We all miss our families; we've all had lockdowns, like our communities have. But we, in this place, need to be the change agents and be leaders in our community, and say, 'It's okay if you're not travelling okay, but you must speak to someone. You must.'

It's an ever-changing world and we have high rates of suicide in the veterans community, but I want to see leaders in this place work together to ensure that the stigma is gone. Stand up, put your hand up, if you're not tracking well. That's cool; there are places where you can get help.

4:52 pm

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

It's a pleasure to follow my friend the member for Herbert. We share a lot of very similar views on this stuff. It is so important, and there should be no division between anyone when it comes to this.

I rise to support our Australian veterans. From the outset I will say that Labor will not oppose this legislation, as it will improve assistance currently available to many disabled veterans. The parliament owes a duty to the men and women who serve our country in uniform. These Australians place themselves in the path of danger so the rest of us don't need to. They make immense sacrifices so that we can all live a safer life. Owing to the significance of the sacrifices they have made, we must ensure that our care for service men and women extends beyond their time in uniform.

The bill aims to simplify and better target support for the most severely impaired veterans. This bill is in response to a review of the TPI payment conducted by Mr David Tune. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker Vasta, Mr Tune was commissioned by the Prime Minister on the eve of the 2019 election to review the TPI payment. In his investigation, Mr Tune highlighted the disadvantage faced by many TPI veterans in private rental arrangements. The bill implements the recommendations from the Tune review and will simplify the payments and related administrative arrangements for veterans. It will do a number of things to increase the support provided to severely impaired veterans. It will remove the disability income rent test under the Veterans' Entitlements Act and allow some TPI veterans on low incomes in private rental accommodation to become eligible for Commonwealth rent assistance or receive a higher rate of CRA.

The bill also exempts the disability pension from the Social Security Act. This means that the existing Defence Force Income Support Allowance top-up payment can be abolished, as it's no longer deemed to be necessary. The bill will also combine separate indexation components for the extreme disablement pension adjustment and the intermediate rate of special rate pensions, the TPI payment, into one from September 2022 and establish a two-year non-liability rehabilitation pilot program in response to a PC review recommendation. Importantly, this bill will also rename the disability pension to the disability compensation payment. That clarifies that the pension is not an income support pension or welfare, a term the government likes to use, but a compensation payment—an acknowledgement, if you like, of the service that these men and women have provided that led to their impairment.

Whilst these changes are undoubtably important and will provide some benefit to the severely impaired veterans who they affect, we cannot pretend that this bill is enough. The government has been dragged kicking and screaming to many of the reforms presented in this bill. The Australian Federation of Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Ex Servicemen and Women was dismayed by the government's response to the Tune review. In particular, the measures to extend rent assistance were criticised by stakeholders, as they were estimated to only benefit around 10 per cent of TPI veterans. The TPI Federation has advocated for an increase in the TPI payment of around $10,000 a year for all TPI veterans in order to provide adequate assistance.

Furthermore, the rent assistance measure was originally scheduled to commence on September 2022. However, following pressure from Labor and the TPI Federation, the government backflipped and brought this forward to January 2022. It's important that they've done that. In response to the TPI Federation's concerns about the Tune review, this year Labor initiated a Senate inquiry into the adequacy of the TPI payment. That recommended an increase in the payment. However, in its response tabled on 7 October this year, the government ignored the recommendation and instead opted to do nothing.

It is clear that the government is not fully committed to providing the necessary support to severely impaired veterans. Whilst the changes in this bill are based on common sense, it's disappointing that the government has taken this long to implement them. The bill that has been proposed by the government reeks of tokenism. Labor will not oppose the bill. It's supported by Labor and stakeholders, as some change is better than none. We are not going to be the ones who put average aside because we seek perfection. We can't stop here. What we need to do is actually get the government to stop playing tokenism with veterans. Do the right thing; they deserve it.

A Labor government will seek to implement real and meaningful changes to the way in which we as a country support severely impaired veterans. An Albanese Labor government will offer more than the half-baked tokenism that's been put forward in this bill. As I said, we're not going to oppose this legislation, as it will improve and streamline assistance to veterans and improve their wellbeing. However, we know it is not what TPI veterans want. We know that what they want is a proper increase in the payment.

We do, however, condemn the Morrison government for their failure to accept the recommendation of the Senate inquiry that the TPI payment be increased. Such an increase would ensure our most disabled veterans are not left behind, something you'd think would be so important to every member of this chamber and the other place. For years, stakeholders have been arguing for an increase to the TPI payment. The government's response to a bipartisan inquiry was a slap in the face for Australia's 27,000 TPI veterans. It just goes to show that this is a government that's all about announcement; when it comes to delivery, they run and hide. This has a big impact for Australian veterans.

What is most disappointing is that before the 2019 election, the Prime Minister effectively promised to increase the payment, but since then he has deliberately and wilfully ignored the pleas of TPI veterans—and his own colleagues' advice—and failed to deliver on that. It is a pattern that Australians have become used to—all announcement, no delivery—except this time it's really impacting the people that this government say they care so much about.

After sitting on this review of the TPI payment for more than a year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced in last year's budget that he would only provide rent assistance to a small proportion of TPI veterans. That means most veterans will miss out. We're not going to stand in the way of this legislation, but, along with many TPI veterans, we believe these tokenistic measures are not good enough, and our veterans and their families deserve much better.

When we look at this bill it's clear that only Labor is truly on the side of Australian ex-service men and women. It's clear that the Morrison government is only interested in its own image. The modest reforms put forth in this bill do not provide the necessary assistance to veterans and their families. All Australians deserve more than the Morrison government, especially our veterans. These men and women have made and continue to make immense sacrifices for our country, and they deserve full and unconditional support—not only those who have been in wars past but those who are going to be in the chapters of war that we face into the future. It's time we got things right.

Something I'm very, very passionate about is supporting our veterans. I think back to many times when we've had absolutely horrid discussions with DVA, and now we can't even get a response from the laziest minister that God ever put wind into. We need to have veterans looked after properly, efficiently and correctly. This bill that we see today before the House will simplify and streamline assistance to veterans and improve their wellbeing. It is better than nothing. I'm sorry that it is only a little bit, but we will continue to push and to support our veterans.

I make it very clear: the Morrison government should not construe the support of this side of the House as validation of the pitiful efforts they have provided veterans. Veterans and their families have not been a priority of this government. Only Labor is on the side of Australian veterans and their families. We know what they've been through, and we know what they deserve. They deserve not to be cast aside by this government. As I said, we will not oppose this bill, but the government should be on notice that we are not going to continue to allow them to make tokenistic gestures to our veterans in their time of most need and that we will continue to support them to get everything that they truly have earned and deserve.

5:03 pm

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (Monash, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you for this opportunity to address the parliament on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Exempting Disability Payments from Income Testing and Other Measures) Bill 2021. Every now and again there is a moment in the parliament that should not be missed, where history is made, where a change comes, and we as parliamentarians need to note it. With the retirement of the member for Lingiari, Warren Snowdon, our last connection to Old Parliament House will be severed.

Warren Snowdon was the Minister for Veterans' Affairs from 2010 to September 2013. He achieved two things I would like to acknowledge, amongst many other achievements. He moved the veterans' affairs equivalent of Five Eyes from officer level up to ministerial level, so the issues were acknowledged as far more important than the parliaments of the day were recognising. Subsequently, the second ministerial meeting was held here in Canberra, and that was Warren's work. From 2010 to 2012, Warren focused on the eminent persons group to start planning the Gallipoli event of 2015. He knew that they had to look ahead and they had to be three years out to make this event the very important event that it was. To his credit, the member for Lingiari understood the value of relationships. To underpin such important work he twice visited Turkey and France. His foresight in dealing with the mayor of the province of Villers-Bretonneux was seen when he happened to have a signed Wallabies jumper at hand to give as a gift to the mayor.

Closer to home, according to Warren's return speech, Warren wondered if having a child at the height of his 2013 campaign would grab the granny vote and some of the women's vote. I have heard since, though, that the women of his area rallied and put out the cry 'Support Elizabeth; vote Warren go back to Canberra'! He did return, and his list of parliamentary achievements is two A4 pages of tiny writing, so I won't even try to go through all the work that he's done in the parliament, but I would like to highlight some things.

In August 2013 he launched the online suicide prevention and mental health resource Operation Life online. In June 2013 he improved military compensation arrangements in response to the 2011 review of military compensation changes to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004, including increased permanent impairment compensation and DVA white cards for former ADF members with long-term health conditions accepted under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. He increased the compensation for dependant children of deceased ADF members. In May of 2013, the DVA Veteran Mental Health Strategy was launched, with proposed extended arrangements allowing access to mental health supports—here we go again—and supports prior to compensation claims post discharge and GP assessments. It also extended the veterans and veterans families counselling service to those with certain peacetime service.

In May 2012, funding was announced for the Anzac centenary commemorative program to run from 2014 all the way through to 2018. In May and June of 2012, the government provided assistance to Bomber Command veterans travelling to London for the dedication of the new Bomber Command Memorial on 28 June 2012. In February of 2012, the first national observance of the bombing of Darwin was held on the 70th anniversary. In December 2011, Australian personnel involved in maintenance, transport or decontamination of aircraft used in the British nuclear testing program became eligible for cancer testing and treatment. In September 2011, the prisoner of war recognition supplement was introduced. It was paid to veterans who were prisoners of war and to civilian detainees. It was paid at the rate of $500 per fortnight and indexed in line with the CPI. It was not income for income tax purposes or for the purposes of social security or veterans entitlements income checks. In May of 2011, the Coordinated Veterans' Care Program was introduced to provide ongoing planned and coordinated primary and community care for gold card holders who have chronic conditions and complex care needs and are at risk of unplanned hospitalisations.

Sharon Bird just gave her valedictory speech, and I've heard the member for Lingiari speak to the parliament. In March 2011, he released a military compensation review, a review of the Military Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2004; and, in 2010, members of the Australian Protective Service who patrolled the Maralinga site up to June 1998 became eligible for cancer testing and treatment. He has the serious dedication around mental health and condition of the community that veterans' affairs ministers become a part of—part of their family. For all his hard work, Warren is to be congratulated. The parliament is better for it. Having said that, I will refer to his first speech in just a moment.

The era that Warren first joined the parliament in—the Old Parliament House—was totally different to the expanses of this Parliament House. Everybody was connected together in a very small group of people—it's only what I've been told—and so the interaction between members, staff, ministers and backbenchers was fierce and unrelenting for the whole of the time they were there. COVID has had us so disconnected in this House with the social distancing and all the measures that we have had to deal with, whereas the old House was a very small unit, and the interaction of parliamentarians then was quite different to what it is today.

We have someone coming from that era still here in 2021 and having suffered a loss. I identify with the member for Lingiari, because I have been a 'oncer' in this place twice, and I know how hard it is to come back. I know how hard it is to stay here in a marginal seat, like the member for Lingiari. There are many people—I'm sure the member for Lingiari won't talk about them—who would be very happy if he weren't in this place or if he had been booted out long ago. You've got to fight for your position, you've got to fight to stay here, it's hard to come in, it's difficult when you are in here and it's very easy to be thrown out. So you've got to be a dedicated parliamentarian and have a commitment to the people that you serve, the people of this nation, the party you represent, the caucus you are a part of and this House of Representatives—this place where the decisions for the nation are taken. It's a privilege for all of us to be a part of that decision-making process for the nation in good times and bad.

The member for Lingiari said in his first speech:

This nation cannot pretend to wear the mantle of maturity until the indigenous rights of Aboriginal Australians are given formal recognition and the demands by Aboriginal and Islander people for compensation for lands stolen and for social and cultural disruption are addressed. In my view, this should involve appropriate amendments to the Constitution.

I say to the member for Lingiari: we stand here today, you and I, in unison on that need to change the Constitution and recognise the importance of the Indigenous people in this nation. Further, he said:

Until we give back to the black man just a bit of the land that was his, without strings to snatch it back, without anything but complete generosity of spirit in concession for the evil we have done him—until we do that, we will remain what we have always been so far, a people without integrity; not a nation by a community of thieves.

Pretty strong words for a first speech in this place! But those words were written and spoken by someone who had a clear sense of responsibility of representation.

I wish the member for Lingiari and all who travel with him, his family and friends, the very best in his retirement. May you go well and may the sunsets of the Northern Territory be a part of your days.

5:14 pm

Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

I don't know what I do here. I'm highly embarrassed by those wonderful words, and I thank the member for Monash for that wonderful contribution. I had prepared a speech about veterans affairs, which I probably won't use, but I just want to say to the member for Monash and other members in this place that I'm not on my own here. Right across this parliament, on both sides, from all quarters, we have people of commitment and people of character, some of whom we agree with some of the time and some of whom we disagree with all of the time, but what we can be assured of is that, by and large, their motivation is for public service and to represent their communities in the best possible way. I'm not sure whether I'll give a valedictory. I may, but I'm not quite sure how I would address the words of the member for Monash in a way that could do him justice. There was no need for you to make that contribution in the way you did, and I'm very, very grateful. Thank you.

I will reflect for a moment on what it was to be Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister for Defence Science and Personnel. I was given what was, I think, a great responsibility but a wonderful opportunity, an opportunity to meet and be part of a broad defence and veterans family. My father had been a serviceman and was TPI. His father and his father's brothers, five of them, went to the First World War. My father's brother went to the Second World War. My uncles went to the war. So we had a tradition of service. I was in the Citizen Military Forces, a cut-lunch soldier, for a few years. So to be given the awesome responsibility of being Minister for Veterans' Affairs was a huge privilege and a dreadfully great honour. What I found was that, by and large, when we worked across the chamber on issues which related to veterans there was very little difference in approach. Michael Ronaldson, as you'll recall, was the shadow minister for a period. It was a privilege to be part of that family and to understand the needs and wants of veterans, understand their service, understand the difficulties they and their families confronted as a result of their service, and understand our nation's obligation to accept responsibility for those people as veterans from the day that walked into Kapooka. The day that they sign on is the date that we sign up to look after their interests for the rest of their life. That doesn't mean we have to be sitting on their shoulders, but clearly, as we've seen, particularly after a very intense period of war in the Middle East and Afghanistan, we've hurt people. We as a nation have a responsibility to make sure that those people are given every opportunity to heal. I commend the government for the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide. I think it's very important.

I talked briefly about the privilege of being a minister. I mentioned Villers-Bretonneux; the privilege of giving the Anzac morning address at Gallipoli or V-B; and being involved in the identification of a mass grave at Fromelles. Working with the French and British governments for the exhumation and then the identification of those First World War heroes and then having them buried in a dedicated war service gravesite at Fromelles was really very important. It could not have been done without the tireless work of the Department of Defence's Army History Unit and the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Similarly, I accompanied some old special forces soldiers, who had served in Vietnam, to Hanoi. The purpose of this trip was to receive the remains of the last Australian soldier missing in action, Private Fisher, and we were able to accompany him home. That was an enormous privilege and a great honour, and I think it helps me, at least, come to terms with the reality of war: sacrifice, comradeship, struggle, hardship, and the need for us to forever recognise that the hardship, the struggle and the sacrifice are borne not only by those soldiers themselves but by their families.

So, when we look at this legislation, we use just one marker: how does it make life better for someone? To me, it appears that this type of legislation that we are talking about today will make life easier. We will have our differences about the issues of the TPI Federation and their requests for more resources, and we can have those discussions, but what we have to do is agree that across the parliament we have but one responsibility: to look after them and to make sure they get the best opportunity and the best service.

I think my comrade next to me may know the figure, but I think we've had in excess of 40,000 soldiers, sailors and air men and women serve in our longest war. When I finished as a minister in 2013, we were only halfway through. We have the issues which have emerged now and which are the subject of the royal commission, and we have an enormous responsibility to address those issues. But I have to say that the motivation of those people who are servants of the community in the Department of Veterans' Affairs should really be understood. They do their utmost, given the restrictions we place upon them, to do the best they possibly can for veterans.

I know I have spent very little time talking about the legislation, but, having felt quite embarrassed, I thought I should respond in some way. I again thank the member for Monash. Member for Monash, as I said in a contribution earlier today about you, I hope you will reconsider your thoughts about walking away from the chair of the Privileges Committee. It's very important that you stay there, and I know that's a feeling which is shared across the parliament.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I won't take up any more of your time. Thank you very much.

5:25 pm

Photo of Luke GoslingLuke Gosling (Solomon, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Exempting Disability Payments from Income Testing and Other Measures) Bill 2021. I want to join the member for Monash in reminding all honourable members of this House that we are indeed, as this parliament draws to a close, at a special and particular time in the history of this parliament, with the member for Lingiari leaving. I was reminded of his father yesterday, who served in the independent companies in World War II, with the passing of Jim Ellwood. Jim was the last veteran from the island of Timor, during World War II. He served with the 4th Independent Company. From this, we remember a couple of things. One is that the Department of Veterans' Affairs is providing services not only to veterans of the Second World War but, through the generations to the current day, to a young Australian soldier, sailor or aviator who is injured, who would need some support, who is in service as we speak.

I want to thank my friend the member for Lingiari for all those veterans' lives he made better during his service as the veterans affairs minister. Whether it was here in Australia or overseas, he represented us with distinction. I know so many people whose lives he made better because of his work with the department and because of the ex-service organisations getting good results. I will mention one person from my electorate. He is someone who is a big character in the Northern Territory who served with the Department of Defence, in Maralinga. He was left to cover all his own medical bills as he fought cancer and had different procedures. To receive that acknowledgement, and that gold card, made all the difference to him. Thanks, Woz, for all you did for the veterans community and all those families. I support that sentiment 100 per cent—that making life better for our veterans and their families is the focus, and that that should never be lost in the back and forth of this place.

I want to say upfront that I support the intent of this bill, and Labor is supporting it. Later I will make some comments about a veteran that I want to bring to the attention of the minister and the House. I am glad the government has responded to the calls of veterans and their families, and of federal Labor, to implement the measures that were first announced in the 2020-21 budget and were due to commence in September this year. That time frame, as I understand it, has been brought forward. In particular, around rent assistance, key elements of the measure contained in this bill will commence on 1 January next year. This is positive news. Labor is of course supporting them, particularly as there is some urgency to get this legislation passed so that they can start on 1 January. I won't take my whole 15 minutes, so that we're able to crack on with the work that needs to be done.

As the member for Lingiari mentioned, there are those who have been speaking out loudly. Of course TPI veterans would prefer an increase in the TPI payment, and the TPI Federation has been campaigning for that. The Prime Minister did commission the Tune review just before the last election, and I hope that he hasn't raised the TPI Federation's expectations about an increase in that payment by telling them they had a compelling case, without being willing to follow through with that. I guess we'll see in the coming months. Some TPIs have obviously seen it as a breach of trust, seeing that their wishes have been ignored, but it is why Labor—in its desire to make sure that our veterans do have the government held accountable—set up an independent Senate inquiry. That inquiry found that the TPI Federation did make a compelling case and recommended an increase in the TPI payment. I would point those opposite to the comments of even some of their own members such as former General Jim Molan, who's also supporting the TPI case.

On top of this, we heard in Senate estimates recently that the department is struggling to deal with a huge backlog of veterans' claims, with 68 per cent of disability pension claims yet to be finalised as of April this year. I can tell you that a wife of a currently serving member has contacted me—and I'll be writing to the minister—to say that, after in excess of 530 days, he still hasn't had someone allocated to his case and he is, obviously, still waiting for a determination as he transitions. That period of transition is really important. I think we're going to hear out of the royal commission story after story about how some of our veterans have declined in terms of their mental health through the long periods of waiting. Let me make it clear, though, when I say this I'm not taking anything away from the passion and hard work of the employees of the Department of Veterans' Affairs—not at all. But governments make decisions about resource allocation, and, obviously, what needs to happen is that resources are allocated so that we're dealing with these cases of our veterans much more quickly than we currently are and there's more support.

The chair of the royal commission has also called out the government for pre-empting and duplicating the work and recommendations of the royal commission with this latest review that's been talked about recently, with McKinsey, so I just encourage the minister to ensure that we're not duplicating effort and we're not retraumatising. And, as I did in the other chamber just a little while ago, I call on the minister and the government to make sure that there are 24-hour human resources, mental health resources and counsellors for those families and veterans involved in the royal commission to access. Often we find that after hours is when the black dog can visit, so I think it's important during these hearings that there is 24-hour care.

As I said, Labor supports this legislation. We do believe that our veterans and their families deserve the best support. I want to, again, thank all of those who are working on this very important royal commission, because it will, I'm sure, identify trends where those patriotic men and women of the Defence Force fall through the cracks and identify how that has happened so that we can, in a systematic way, make those changes that mean that we will give them what the member for Lingiari said during his speech, which is: through what we do, make life better for our veterans and their families.

5:35 pm

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It gives me great pleasure to be able to rise to speak to the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Exempting Disability Payments from Income Testing and Other Measures) Bill 2021 this evening, although I do seek indulgence just to reflect on some of the contributions made by previous speakers and, particularly, my friends the member for Monash, the member for Lingiari and the member for Solomon. I want to particularly, this being perhaps the last time I'll get to speak on a bill with my dear friend and colleague the member for Lingiari, acknowledge his exceptional service and work for the veteran community. I really appreciated the speeches beforehand. I have often worked with the member for Lingiari on a lot of First Nations issues, learning from him. When I have travelled with him throughout Australia when we have been doing committee work, his knowledge of defence and the area of veterans affairs in particular has been second to none. People everywhere have acknowledged that. He is so exceptionally well known. I think that those three years from 2010 to 2013 when he was Minister for Veterans' Affairs really cemented his legacy in this area. It is a legacy that is immense, and I for one really appreciate that—and I know many other colleagues in this parliament do too. I have been in denial for some time that he is in fact retiring. I find it hard to believe. But I did not want this evening to pass without acknowledging his extraordinary work, to thank him for that and to acknowledge that legacy. It's one that he should be immensely proud of.

Labor is very much on the side of Australian veterans and their families, and that's why we will be supporting this legislation this evening. This simplifies and streamlines assistance to veterans and will improve their wellbeing, and nobody in this place would be opposed to that. The bill addresses recommendations made by Mr David Tune AO PSM in his 2019 review of the totally and permanently incapacitated payment, the TPI payment. The government's had the Tune review's recommendations and the Productivity Commission's 2019 report on a better way to support veterans. I am a little disappointed that it is 2021. Both those reviews are a couple of years old now. Sometimes the wheels in government move slowly, and this is very much one of those examples.

The government first announced these measures that we are seeing in the bill tonight back in the 2020-21 budget, and its intention to bring forward these important changes from 20 September to 1 January 2022 was flagged in last year's budget. That was following immense pressure from TPI veterans, with the support of the Australian Labor Party.

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. It will simplify arrangements for some 14,000 veterans and their dependants. That's a good thing. The government will also increase access to rent assistance for our most disabled veterans. This will benefit some 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, from the income test under the Social Security Act. These are important changes. This will remove the need for the Defence Force Income Support Allowance, or DFISA. Introduced in 2004, that allowance 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 veterans will receive the same payment as before but administrative processes will be much simpler. While it's an administrative change, this will make the allowance redundant, and this bill will remove all relevant references to that from the Veterans' Entitlements Act.

The second schedule will remove the disability income rent test from under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. That will mean disabled veterans will now have access to the same rent assistance as those who receive it via Centrelink. It'll increase rent assistance payable to veterans or enable some disabled veterans to receive rent assistance for the first time, and that is important. The disability income rent test results in severely disabled veterans receiving less rent assistance than those with a lower-level 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. That's been a gross inequity for some time. Schedule 4 will remove references to the term 'disability pension' in the Veterans' Entitlements Act.

Labor supports this legislation. As I said, it'll improve and streamline the assistance that we can deliver to veterans and ultimately improve their wellbeing. However, we know it's not what most TPI veterans wanted. The reality is that most actually want an increase in the actual TPI payment. The Australian Federation of Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Ex Servicemen and Women, the TPI Federation, has been raising this issue about the inadequacies of the TPI payment for many years now. But the government has continued to ignore those concerns. 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, have a direct line to lawmakers of this country, to tell them of their lived experience of this payment.

The Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References 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. So this wasn't just Labor's call here; this was a recommendation backed by government members on the committee. We asked that the government respond to that unanimous recommendation, which would ensure that most disabled veterans would not be left behind. Surely, that is a good thing. Surely, that is something this government would want to support. However, in its response to the inquiry, which the government tabled on 7 October, all that the Morrison-Joyce government could say was that it noted that recommendation and would take it into account when considering future policy options for the support for TPI veterans.

That turned out to be a very huge slap in the face of the 879 TPI veterans in the Newcastle and Hunter Region, and it just goes to show that this is a government that is still all about the announcement but not actually coming through on delivery. This makes Australian veterans very nervous. It was another blow for those long-suffering ex-service men and women who have long advocated for this important change to be made to remedy the existing inadequacy of the TPI payment. Before the 2019 election the Prime Minister totally raised the hopes of everybody at the TPI Federation when he said that he wanted to increase the payment and he was going to do that by commissioning this Tune review. But then he dashes all of their hopes post election with this very flawed response to the review that we now have before us. After sitting on the report for more than a year—again, another pattern very common in this government now—the Prime Minister announced in last year's budget that he would only provide rent assistance to a very small portion of those TPI veterans, perhaps around 25 per cent, leaving most disgusted because they were going to miss out. In response to Labor's questions in Senate estimates last year it was revealed that these benefits would not start to flow until September 2022—September next year—while the government made changes to the legislation and various IT systems that needed changing.

Thankfully, following pressure from Labor and those TPI veterans who turned up again to try and be strong advocates for the people they're representing, the government brought forward those measures in this bill now to January 2022. But they're cutting it very fine to get them passed. We are just knocking on the door of December now and the government wants these in place in January. So Labor is not going to stand in the way of these measures because we want to see at least some assistance being delivered, however modest or indeed tokenistic it might seem to some TPI veterans, and who can blame them for that assessment? We don't want to get in the way of this very modest form of assistance for those most deserving former Defence personnel. But we do condemn the Morrison Liberal government for its failure to accept the recommendation of a Senate inquiry and its appalling treatment of TPI veterans over the past eight years. I would acknowledge that there are some government members who are trying to advocate for this matter, and I say all power to you, but we've not seen any actual response from the government that is going to really cut it for the TPI veterans.

We've got a Department of Veterans' Affairs that's struggling with a huge backlog of TPI pension claims. It's really just not good enough that our veterans and their families are having to, first, be disappointed with inaction, and, second, be confronted with a department that is probably not resourced enough, I don't think, to be able to actually get through some of the claims that it has in its system. I note on that matter that ex-service men and women in my community are still very concerned about the VAN office in Newcastle. I want to thank my local veteran community for their very strong advocacy. The last few months have been very tough on veterans, with the cancellation of local Anzac services; the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was really triggering for many, many Defence ex-service men and women; and of course the release of the Brereton report. I think that's why it is critical that this Morrison government reopens the VAN office in Newcastle, which still remains closed, as a matter of priority. The Minister for Veterans' Affairs should be reassuring local veterans in my community that this government will not be making any moves to close that VAN office permanently because that is what is worrying veterans right now. I won't stop fighting for this issue. It is the very least we can do to honour those who serve us, to ensure that they have a place to come and be treated with dignity and have their concerns addressed.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the extraordinary efforts of our ex-service organisations in Newcastle generally. As I said, it's been another really tough year for veterans. I want to give my personal thanks to the TPI Association at Wallsend; the Newcastle and Hunter Region Vietnam Veterans; the RSL sub-Branches of the City of Newcastle, Merewether-Hamilton-Adamstown, Lambton-New Lambton, Wallsend and District, Shortland, Waratah-Mayfield-Islington and Stockton. I know the work you do each and every day to honour those who you have lost and to care for those who remain, and I do want to put on record my thanks. I also want to acknowledge the Hunter Anzac Memorial Ltd; the RSL Coffee Pot Day Club in Merewether; the WRANS Naval Women's Association, Hunter Region; the Gallipoli Legion Club Preservation Group; the Newcastle War Widows Guild Club; the Wallsend Diggers; the RAAF Association; the City of Newcastle Anzac Day Committee; Newcastle Legacy; the Newcastle branch of the National Service and Combined Forces Association of Australia Inc; the Naval Association of Australia; Newcastle N16; Open Arms Veterans and Families Counselling; and the many other service organisations which do their utmost every day to honour those who have served. It's been an especially challenging year for everyone. I certainly hope that 2022 is much kinder to you all. Take care, and best wishes. (Time expired)

5:50 pm

Photo of Matt KeoghMatt Keogh (Burt, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Defence Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor is on the side of Australian veterans and their families. That is why I and Labor will support this legislation that will simplify and streamline assistance to veterans. This will improve their wellbeing. Life has been made far too difficult for veterans and their families—individuals who have put their lives and wellbeing on the line in the interests of our nation. It is up to us to support them following their service. That's not something that has been adequate to date.

The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Exempting Disability Payments from Income Testing and Other Measures) Bill 2021 addresses recommendations made by David Tune AO in his 2019 review of the totally and permanently incapacitated payment, or the Tune review, as well as the Productivity Commission's 2019 report A better way to support 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, simplifying payment arrangements for 14,000 veterans and their dependants. This will remove the need for the defence force income support allowance, simplifying the administrative processes.

This legislation will also see increased access to rent assistance for our most disabled veterans—rent assistance that they have not been able to access at all before. This will benefit approximately 6,900 veterans and their dependants. This will mean that disabled veterans will now have access to the same rent assistance as those who receive Centrelink benefits. This will increase rent assistance payable to veterans and enable some disabled veterans to receive rent assistance for the first time. In particular, this measurement will benefit totally and permanently incapacitated veterans who presently do not receive any rent assistance due to the amount of compensation that they receive.

The third schedule in this bill will remove references 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 Services Australia's disability support pensions.

The bill's fourth schedule will streamline indexation for disability pension compensation. Currently, the extreme disablement adjustment intermediate rate and special rate pensions, colloquially known as the TPI payment, are split into two components for indexation purposes. This legislation will remove this anomaly so that the whole amount is indexed as one. As an aside, this is but one of many anomalies that currently exist between the Veterans' Entitlements Act, the MRCA and the DRCA, but it is good to at least get this one resolved. Overall, this will simplify DVA legislation, policy and procedures. It will help avoid confusion for veterans about the purpose and structure of the extreme disablement adjustment intermediate and special rates of disability pensions.

The fifth schedule in the bill introduces a pilot program for earlier access to rehabilitation. This non-liability rehabilitation pilot will enable individuals to commence DVA funded rehabilitation before a liability decision has been made under the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act or the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act. Under these amendments, a two-year pilot will be established to bridge the gap and enable veterans to start their rehabilitation program sooner. This will improve and streamline the assistance that is provided to veterans whilst they are awaiting a liability decision, which can take some time.

However, the reality is, most veterans are looking for a TPI payment increase. The government has completely ignored concerns made by the Australian Federation of Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Ex Service Men and Women, as well as those of the Disabled Veterans of Australia Network, both of which have been raising the issue of the TPI payment level for many, many years—indeed, quite directly to me over my entire time in this parliament.

This led to the establishment of a Senate inquiry earlier this year. The Senate committee included both government and Labor senators as well as Independent Senator Jacqui Lambie, and its report was adopted unanimously. The committee found that submitters made a persuasive case for a fair and just structural increase in the above general rate component of the TPI payment to help restore the relative value of the payment and recognise and replace TPI veterans' loss of income. In fact, the committee noted correspondence from the Prime Minister, sent to the TPI Federation, where he said:

The TPI Federation makes a compelling case in relation to the relative value of the Above the General Rate (AGR) component of the SRDP [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 that their loss of income during what would have been their working life should be appropriately recognised and replaced.

In addition, in a Senate estimates hearing on 26 October last year, the secretary of the Department of Veterans' Affairs conceded the Prime Minister's letter had raised expectations that the government would increase the TPI payment and the TPI Federation made a strong argument for an increase.

The committee recommended the government consider an increase to the TPI payment, with the government to consider the exact level of that increase. However, in response to this inquiry, the Morrison-Joyce government have merely 'noted' that recommendation. This is an absolute slap in the face to our 27,000 TPI veterans, veterans who are receiving less per annum than the minimum wage, veterans who quite rightly wonder why their service pension is reduced based on their partner's income, when, as recognised by a number of reviews, it is supposed to be an income replacement benefit for TPI veterans that is compensation consistent with insurance principles, not welfare. The means testing of this component of the payment against a spouse's income can be seen as a partial transfer of responsibility for paying such compensation from the Commonwealth to that veteran's partner or spouse. Before the 2019 election, the Prime Minister raised the hopes of veterans by commissioning a review into the TPI payment. It turns out that this was yet another announcement with no real delivery for our veterans.

Labor will not stand in the way of these measures, as we want to see some assistance, however modest, for these most deserving former Defence personnel. We know that the Department of Veterans' Affairs, though, is struggling to deal with a huge backlog of TPI pension claims, with 68 per cent of claims yet to be finalised as of April this year. This has now prompted a fresh review of the claims processing system. It's just not good enough. Our veterans have given so much for us. They deserve to be treated better than this. Veterans in my community are very fortunate to have the support of the RSL in Gosnells, the Kelmscott RSL and the Armadale RSL, and I thank them and other service providers in my community for their service to our veterans. But the department and this government should and must do better.

I commend the bill to the House.

5:58 pm

Photo of Michelle LandryMichelle Landry (Capricornia, National Party, Assistant Minister for Children and Families) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to recognise all members who contributed to the debate on this bill and acknowledge the continued tradition of bipartisan support for Australian veterans. This bill will implement the recommendations made by Mr David Tune in his Independent review into the TPI payment and the Productivity Commission's report, A better way to support veterans.

Mr Tune's review particularly highlighted the disadvantage faced by TPI veterans in private rental arrangements. Presently, the disability income rent test results in severely disabled veterans receiving less rent assistance than those with a lower level of disability. To address this, the Australian government is abolishing the disability income rent test from the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. Disabled veterans will now have access to the same rent assistance as those who receive it from Centrelink. This will increase rent assistance payable to veterans or enable some disabled veterans to receive rent assistance for the first time, benefiting approximately 6,900 veterans and their dependants.

By exempting disability payments from being considered as income under the Social Security Act 1991, this bill simplifies the payment arrangements of 14,000 veterans and dependants. As part of the Australian government's response to the Productivity Commission's report, this bill will also implement a two-year trial to encourage and enable access to non-liability rehabilitation for 100 veterans for each year of the pilot. This will provide veterans earlier access to treatment without the need to make a claim for compensation or await a determination of liability.

Improving support for veterans remains an important piece of national work. This bill will make tangible improvements to the lives of our most incapacitated veterans, who served our country with distinction and gave their all. The Australian government remains committed to helping ensure that they get the support they deserve. I commend this bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.