Senate debates

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Matters of Public Importance

Military Superannuation Pensions

5:46 pm

Photo of Mark BishopMark Bishop (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I bring a somewhat different perspective to this discussion, because I have been involved in this discussion for some 15 years or more as I have been in this place. So I bring a degree of corporate knowledge, history and experience as to the growth and development of veterans' benefits over the last 10 to 15 years.

I go back to the time when Mrs Dana Vale—I think she was the member for Hughes—was the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Senator Sandy Macdonald was the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence in this place. I had some frontbench responsibilities in those days in opposition for some three or four years, in this area and in other areas. I remember at the time that we suffered a number of deaths of personnel in combat, and there was a raging debate as to the alleged inadequacy of benefits that their widows, partners or children might receive subsequent to the death of a soldier in operations. It became a very heated issue for some two or three years.

Arising out of that debate, the government of the day—the Howard government—introduced legislation into the parliament to improve benefits for veterans, their partners and their children if the particular soldier should be killed or become severely disabled in combat. That bill, of course, was referred off to a committee, and a roadshow developed as it went around Australia. It was a legislation committee, so of course it was controlled by the government members of the day. At the end it came up with a set of recommendations which were quite radical, quite expensive and, in some senses, seeking to overcome discrimination practice that had existed post-World War II in payments of benefits to some soldier's dependants and not to others.

Initially, the position of the government of the day was to reject that uniform set of recommendations from the particular committee to improve benefits in that particular way. There were then some discussions held that I was involved in, and those negotiations were conducted with Senator Sandy Macdonald, who was the parliamentary secretary at the time. Interestingly enough, Senator Macdonald, as I recall the negotiations in his office, made it quite clear that he had authority to negotiate on a range of points and that if we could reach a package of agreement then that would be taken back to his party and he anticipated endorsement, subject to approval.

Of course, the authority to engage in those negotiations came from his cabinet—he was the delegated person instructed to have the negotiations with the opposition, and the Acting Deputy President before us today was intimately involved in that authority because he was the head of the Prime Minister's office at the time. Without going into the detail, a significant package of benefits for widows, for partners and for children as to payment of benefits upon death or disablement—payment of lifelong allowances for children and payment of a whole range of other allowances in particular circumstances—was negotiated between the government and the then opposition, put to both parties and presented to the parliament, and the bill went through. Since that time, effectively, you would have noted in the last three or four years with all of the deaths in Afghanistan that there has been little to no public outcry as to the utility of benefits paid to the widows, wives and dependants of all of those men who have been killed.

I raise that history because the opposition—the government of the day—here today and the Labor Party in opposition for many, many years bring to this debate and discussion a proud record of involvement and activity over many years seeking to improve the health, the financial benefits and the welfare of our soldiers who we seek to send overseas to face death, and of their wives, children and others who are dependent should they pay the ultimate sacrifice. We bring—and we are proud to say it—a long and proud record of involvement and activity in this entire discussion. I have said it before and I say it here again today.

Why do we do that? Why do we say that? Because in the final analysis it is an irrational choice for a boy of 19, 20 or 21 to join the armed forces, to go to war, to face death and to eliminate his life, because that happens to many of them. We say that that irrational choice has to be provided for by the government, which asks soldiers to do that with an implied promise: that we will look after their wives, their children and their dependants as to their finances and their health for as long as they would remain dependants, if their husband or father should be killed. That is the philosophical justification for having higher, different and larger benefits, and for improving benefits for veterans across Australia.

So in that context, when this discussion comes before the chair what can we say?


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