Tuesday, 21 August 2012
Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 2012; Second Reading
I am proud to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill because this government has an incredible record of delivering for veterans in this country—greater than any government preceding it. It is amazing to hear the coalition talking about this, because they talk the talk but they fail to walk the walk. The issues that they have raised in this debate demonstrate their hypocrisy. For 12 years they did nothing in so many of the areas they have highlighted. I will come back to that point.
I will summarise how this bill improves the situation for a lot of veterans. The bill will make it clear within the Veterans' Entitlements Act that travel for medical appointments can be approved by DVA even after it has been undertaken. That will clearly be sanctioned by the legislation to clear up any doubt. For sailors in Operation Damask VI who served in a period between 13 January and 19 January 1993, an anomaly has been resolved and that period has been reclassified as operational service, enabling them to get access to things like subsidised home loans and insurance under the Defence Service Homes Act. In relation to the power to extend special assistance or benefits to persons to whom they are not otherwise available under the act, this legislation will enable special assistance to be created via legislative instrument so there will be a more timely response to these issues as they will not have to go through the mechanism of a regulation. The estates of deceased veterans or members who were in receipt of the special rate for the extreme disablement adjustment disability payment and died in indigent circumstances will now have the bereavement payment exempt for income tax purposes. We will also see the reimbursement of all out-of-pocket expenses incurred in the purchase of pharmaceuticals under the RPBS, so that from 1 January 2013 we could see up to 70,000 veterans and members becoming eligible for annual automatic reimbursement of those costs.
There are some other technical clean-up issues associated with this legislation, but let us recall the government's record in resolving veterans' issues—it is an outstanding one. From 20 March 2008 all veterans' compensation pensions have been indexed with reference to both CPI and MTAWE, and then from 20 September 2009 we added the additional index of the Pensioner and Beneficiary Living Cost Index—the PBLCI. We managed to resolve the issue for all veterans with compensation pensions and TPI status. We also increased the extreme disablement adjustment pension and non-economic loss compensation payments. We improved indexation of and provided an increase in the war widow's domestic allowance, we contributed $50 million to provide concessions for senior cardholders who use public transport services outside their home, and on 20 March 2008, the utilities allowance for eligible pensioners was increased to $500 per annum, paid in quarterly instalments. We had secure and sustainable pension reforms for 320,000 service pensioners and war widows, adding $1.1 billion to the budget as at the 2009-10 budget.
We increased funding for the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training program. We introduced a comprehensive Australian Defence Force Mental Health Lifestyle Package, and we improved mental health support in line with the Dunt review recommendations. More than $92 million has been allocated for the implementation of both of those key initiatives of that review. We have extended repeat prescriptions for the chronically ill, we have included young ex-service people with disabilities in the Commonwealth State/Territory Disability Agreement for the first time, and we have improved community care and support for those with chronic and complex conditions, with $152.7 million being put into an initiative to increase community based support for those with those conditions. We have provided zero real interest loans for aged-care facilities, and we extended income support supplements to widows without dependants in July 2008, abolishing the age restriction on that payment.
We also introduced the Vietnam Veterans Family Study, and it is appropriate to mention that in the context and shadow of Vietnam Veterans Day. We have extended bereavement payments for single TPI and EDA veterans who die without sufficient assets to pay for a funeral. There is automatic granting of war widow pensions to widows of TTI and intermediate rate pensioners. We increased financial assistance for ex-service organisations—an additional $5 million, with total funding of $14.9 million over four years. There is a new consultation framework for the ex-service community through the introduction of the PMAC, which I know has been well received by many veterans. We also formed a special claims unit that has cut processing times in DVA, and that has certainly been well received because it has had an effect on those processing times. We established an independent Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal, and that has produced a large number of results for so many longstanding issues that have been festering for over 60 years. I am very proud to say that I had a strong personal role in resolving things like the Long Tan gallantry citations—again in the context of Vietnam Veterans Day it is important to highlight that—and the criteria for the Australian Defence Medal and recognition of service of the 4th Battalion RAR in Malaysia in a period from 1966 to 1967 were also resolved by the work of the tribunal.
I was also proud to be involved in resolving the post-armistice Korean service issues. Many veterans came to me early on in the 2007 campaign to highlight their situation and I am proud to say we were able to introduce the Australian General Service Medal for Korea from early 2010 and to make sure these proud veterans were able to wear the Return from Active Service Badge. We also declared the Ballarat Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial to be a national memorial and granted $160,000 over four years for its maintenance. I am particularly proud of that effort as my grandfather's name is on the memorial—he was a survivor of the Thai-Burma Railway. We have also committed $10 million for an interpretive trail on the Western Front to highlight that legacy, a legacy which has, I think, been sadly neglected over many years—with the emphasis having been quite rightly on Gallipoli.
We have also looked particularly at the legacy of war for our wounded personnel. We introduced the Simpson Program of enhanced services and support, which is costing $21.2 million over four years. It is intended to minimise financial disadvantage, provide housing assistance, develop a comprehensive training and reskilling program and ensure access to specialist rehabilitation. I acknowledge the work of two young officers, John Bale and Cavin Wilson, who have established the Soldier On organisation, which is also looking to improve the lot of our wounded personnel.
This government resolved the longstanding and festering story of the F-111 deseal-reseal issue. We also resolved the British nuclear test issue, providing $24.2 million for disability pensions for those who suffer from conditions caused by those nuclear tests, as well as for war widow pensions. We resolved the issue of certain submarine special operations from 1978 to 1992. These were reclassified from July 2010 to allow the provision of service pensions, health care and gold cards to up to 890 submariners who served during that period. We resolved the RAAF Ubon issue—that period in Thailand between 31 May 1962 and July 1962 now qualifies as operational service. I know a lot of RAAF personnel who were personally involved during that period who are very grateful for that resolution.
We have just heard reference to the impact of the carbon price. It is as well to remind ourselves not only of the household assistance package flowing through to all low- and middle-income earners but also of the fact we have added to that—self-funded retirees who have not reached eligible pension age and are not taxed are able to apply for low-income supplements of $300 a year through Centrelink. This has been just a very quick, broadbrush summary of the great range of measures this government has taken to improve the lot of veterans. You can never do enough for our veterans and we should always be trying to do more.
I take this opportunity to address another issue, one which has been raised by my good friend the member for Fadden in association with the candidate who is opposing me in the electorate of Eden-Monaro at the next election. A press release was recently put out claiming that I should be putting forward a private member's bill to address the situation of non-compensation TPI pensioners in relation to the indexation issue. Of course both the member for Fadden and the Liberal candidate in Eden-Monaro would well know that, as a member of the executive, it is not technically possible for me to raise a private member's bill. But it is also not necessary for me to raise a private member's bill for this issue to be resolved.
This is an issue which I have worked very hard on since that campaign in 2007. There have been many steps on the way to resolving this issue, including the Matthews review and the introduction of the new indexation mechanism—the PBLCI—about which there has been a fair bit of debate. I point out that the candidate in Eden-Monaro, Mr Hendy, was a member of the Howard government for its 12 years in office—and nothing was done to resolve this issue. If he had spent less time putting the work he did into introducing Work Choices—which he has proudly claimed in front of the Bungendore Chamber of Commerce and Industry to be the father of—and if he had spent less time involving himself in the children overboard scandal, victimising people like Admiral David Shackleton, who lives in Narooma in my electorate and who has very bitter memories of that period, and focused on the needs of veterans, perhaps he could have pushed for something to be done during the 12 years the Howard government had rivers of gold with which to do address the issue.
Instead, they allowed people like Nick Minchin to say that he was not going to do anything to fix the circumstances of these people—because that would be looking after fat cats. Senator Minchin has repeatedly argued, in recent times, that the coalition should walk away from this measure. They have now proposed to introduce indexation but only for a certain category of military personnel—and ignoring all of the other civil service people who are in the same financial situation. In my view, these people should also be looked after—I represent the ones who live in Eden-Monaro.
The utmost hypocrisy is coming from the coalition on this issue. I point out that a coalition would have to deal with its $70 billion black hole—they have announced an array of new policy proposals and their great big new tax to pay for their paid parental leave scheme. There are massive areas of spending which, we know, they do not have proper costings to support. This military superannuation indexation policy would be the very first promise they would throw overboard—to coin a phrase. There is absolutely no question about it—nobody could take the coalition's commitment to deliver on this policy promise seriously. They have never been able to do it in the past. They never showed an intention to fix it during the 12 years they had those rivers of gold with which to do something about it. There is absolutely no way they would deliver on this policy promise. The first thing they would do if they got into government would be to say, 'Now we have gotten hold of the books, clearly circumstances have changed and clearly we are not in a position to deliver—