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Thursday, 26 March 1987
Page: 1646


Mr TIM FISCHER(9.21) —In considering the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 1987 honourable members would do well to be reminded of two quotations from former Prime Ministers Ben Chifley and Arthur Fadden. Many years ago Ben Chifley told the House:

The careers of hundreds and thousands of young men have been interrupted and in some instances partially ruined. There is a break of education, training and opportunity which cannot be repaired. It is perfectly true that experience is gained, but that is not material to an ordinary civil vocation. On this Parliament rests the responsibility of seeing that the right thing shall be done.

Former Prime Minister Arthur Fadden told the House:

A grateful nation must see that those who are privileged to return from battle areas shall be properly cared for, and that their reinstatement in civil life shall be wisely and expeditiously carried out.

It is very much the responsibility of every member of a Parliament to see that the right thing is done by the veteran. The Opposition does not oppose the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill but does take the opportunity to discuss in some detail the four broad thrusts of the Bill, namely poverty traps, Medicare fraud, the review of benefits under the Seamen's War Pensions and Allowances Act 1940 and minor drafting errors. At the outset I ask whether the errata in respect of the explanatory memorandum have been circulated around the House. It is relevant that those errata sheets be before honourable members to enable them to follow fully the detail of this quite important legislation.

In the course of this debate I will be joined by a number of colleagues-the honourable member for Warringah (Mr MacKellar), who will concentrate on the pharmaceutical benefits as they come within the ambit of this Bill; the honourable member for Denison (Mr Hodgman), who will look in particular at the totally and permanently incapacitated criteria as they are affected by this Bill; the honourable member for Fisher (Mr Slipper), who will discuss the poverty traps aspects; the honourable member for Gilmore (Mr Sharp), who will look especially at the seamen's provisions among other matters; the honourable member for Cowper (Mr Nehl), who will look in his normal efficient and effective way at the assets test matters relating to this legislation; and the honourable member for Lyne (Mr Cowan), who will provide an overview.

Since May 1985 there has been a wide range of cutbacks and changes in relation to veterans' affairs. In dealing with this important legislation it is my duty to remind the House of the extent of some of these cutbacks and changes. Firstly, the travel allowance was reduced--


Mr O'Keefe —You have got to be joking. The $14 billion kid.


Mr TIM FISCHER —I am sorry that the honourable member for Burke denies these cutbacks and changes. He ought to read the communication that has gone out to the Returned Services League sub-branches, which shows that veterans have suffered cuts of more than 11 per cent. They are bearing more than their fair share of cutbacks imposed by this Labor Government, contrary to the commitment given by Prime Minister Ben Chifley. Government members ought to be ashamed of themselves.

The cutbacks and changes which arose from the May mini-Budget of 1985 affected the travel allowance, which was reduced by half, to a flat rate of 11.6c per kilometre; the subsistence allowance was reduced sharply; the eligibility of some categories of service pensioners to utilise the repatriation pharmaceutical benefits scheme was terminated; and, of course, limits were imposed on four categories of dental treatment.

The Veterans' Entitlements Act contained a number of provisions for a more stringent eligibility, especially in terms of the totally and permanently incapacitated pensioner, and the termination of the dependants allowance by way of commutation, albeit on a voluntary basis, as well as a number of other provisions. The 1986 Budget contained an outright attack on war widows. War widows were eliminated and obliterated from the repatriation pharmaceutical benefits scheme, which cut across the very commitment given by Prime Minister Ben Chifley and Prime Minister Arthur Fadden, in a way which I think was very regrettable. That will be dealt with in more detail during the course of the debate. War widows who also receive an age pension had their social security component frozen at a maximum level of $60.05. At least we headed off-in part through the efforts of the honourable member for Dobell (Mr Lee) and a number of members on this side of the House-a reducing maxima associated with that decision. Nevertheless, this freeze at $60.05 still applies from last year's Budget.

In addition there were provisions in respect of the six-week deferment of the consumer price index related increase for veterans. There was a cutback of 2 per cent to the Defence Force retirement and death benefits scheme, which caused a great deal of hardship and agony for many retired armed forces personnel. There was the continuation of the assets test, which has affected over 13,000 veterans whose service pensions have been reduced or cancelled. So in examining the area of veterans' affairs, I believe that the Parliament is entitled to look at what has happened over the last two years. That is why I have gone to the trouble of listing the range of cutbacks and changes which this Government has introduced, and which have resulted in the Department of Veterans' Affairs having to carry more of the cutbacks than all but three other departments. Veterans have borne more than their fair share of the cutbacks imposed by the Government.

Of course, I must tell the House that veterans are very concerned about the next mini-Budget, whenever it might occur. It is currently scheduled for 14 May, but in fact the timetable for the next mini-Budget might well be altered dramatically, should the Prime Minister go to Government House and should this nation be faced with yet another early election, this time at the behest of the Prime Minister of this moment, Bob Hawke. If that does happen, there will be a new Prime Minister and a new Treasurer, and a much improved, more fiscally responsible mini-Budget will then be produced for the nation.

In dealing with the legislation that is before the House, I must highlight the concerns of veterans and war widows in respect of the forthcoming May economic statement. I must highlight that to the House without causing undue concern, because I realise that many veterans and war widows are elderly people who become readily upset. Therefore, one must deal very responsibly with this area of the law. I want to highlight that not only have they borne more than their fair share of the cutbacks over the last two years, but also their assistance, their entitlement, is not welfare; it is compensation. It is compensation for the fact that they went to war and fought for their country in order to defend our rights and our freedom-our very right to have a parliamentary democracy in action in Australia at this time. They are entitled to compensation. That compensation should not be lightly trampled upon by Treasuries, Ministers for Finance or any government, whatever its political persuasion.

Before considering the legislation in detail, I want to deal with the explanatory memorandum. I understand that an errata sheet is about to be circulated to assist honourable members. The latest copy of that errata sheet tidies up a number of minor errors. It does not actually deal with an error which I detected on page 95 of the explanatory memorandum, which requires an alteration. The question was raised by me at a briefing, and it concerns the wording in the second paragraph. I am sure that the matter will be explained further in the debate. I compliment the Department of Veterans' Affairs on the detail of the explanatory memorandum. Amendments to this type of legislation can be very complex and it is difficult for us to consider them if there is not an adequate explanation.

The Bill will apply in the area of veterans' affairs the poverty traps provisions which are due to come into effect on 1 July. It will also apply the fraud provisions for false information and related matters, as contained in the Health Insurance Act, in terms of veterans who are hospitalised. A review mechanism will be available under the Seamen's War Pensions and Allowances Act. The honourable member for Gilmore will deal with that important amendment in more detail. A total of 219 people still receive benefits under that legislation.

In addition, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill seeks to alter the way in which the assets test and valuation formula are applied. Those alterations in no way affect the decision in the Williamson case which was brought down last year. The decision was the subject of an appeal, but fortunately, that appeal was withdrawn by the Government. The Williamson formula, which makes allowance for hardship and ensures that primary producers will not have their farms sold in circumstances arising directly from the assets test, will still apply and will not be affected by the amendments. In conjunction with the honourable member for Richmond (Mr Blunt), I have circulated detailed information on the Williamson case. That case represented a real breakthrough in easing the hardship which flowed from the assets test. Farmers who are eligible for service pensions will not be forced to sell their property as a direct consequence of the application of the assets test. A degree of flexibility, a degree of consideration, is applied, and that is very important.

I commend to those who study the debate on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill, those who may be listening to the debate, and those who may be having difficulty with the assets test in these tight economic times, that they apply for more detailed information on the Williamson case because it has a major role to play regarding the application of the assets test, particularly as far as the rural sector is concerned.

Many of the other amendments contained in the Bill flow as a consequence of the sheer size of the Veterans' Entitlements Act and the need to straighten out minor drafting matters in the legislation.

I was pleased to note that the Minister in his second reading speech reiterated the commitment to set up an independent monitoring committee which will look not only at the Veterans' Entitlements Act but also at the guide to assessment of rates and pensions, which has now applied for almost a full year and which can now be effectively reviewed through the independent monitoring committee mechanism. I hope that the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt) in the debate on this legislation in the Senate will provide additional details in relation to that independent monitoring committee and perhaps will spell out its composition and assure us that its terms of reference will be sufficiently wide to allow a comprehensive examination of the operation of the Act and the guide to assessment of rates and pensions.

There are many categories of pensioners, including those in the retirement phase of their lives, who under the provisions of the Veterans' Entitlements Act no longer have access to an intermediate or special rate of the totally and permanently incapacitated pension because of the provisions of section 24 of the Act. There have been considerable discussions among the veterans organisations as to how this anomaly might be addressed. I hope that those organisations will make detailed submissions to the independent monitoring committee for it to provide a solution. I hope that, in turn, that committee will responsibly recommend a change or amendment to cover those veterans in the retirement phase who, under the provisions of the Act, are restricted to a maximum general rate pension of 100 per cent and cannot get access to the intermediate or special TPI rate, even though their war disability might further deteriorate, justifying increased pension in those circumstances.

Indeed, at present there can be two people working side by side at Borg Warner (Australia) Ltd at Albury, one of whom can be on a general rate pension and suffer a deterioration in his war related condition just before retirement and be granted a TPI pension, which he will keep for the rest of his life, and he might live to 80 or 90. But a slightly fitter veteran who gets through to his normal retirement age and six months after retirement suffers the same deterioration in his war related condition can get only the 100 per cent disability pension, no matter how bad his condition becomes. In a nutshell that is the anomaly which is of great concern to the Returned Services League and to many other veterans organisations, including the Australian Veterans and Defence Service Council in respect of TPI. That anomaly must come within the terms of reference of the independent monitoring committee so that its ramifications and impact can be properly considered and subsequently dealt with by government and parliament further down the track.

I do not plan to delay the House unduly on this legislation because the Opposition does not oppose it. However, many World War II veterans are reaching a very critical age and believe that they are entitled to compensation and care during their critical years. They feel that this Government has turned its back on veterans, although the Government has provided some improvements in the Veterans' Entitlements Act and in the repatriation hospitals system. I freely acknowledge and welcome those improvements, but the veterans feel that the range of cutbacks and changes which have been brought forward since the May mini-Budget in 1985, without consultation with veterans, and the Veterans' Entitlements Act itself in part and the Budget in 1986, has led to their being despicably let down by this Hawke Government. They now believe that they should turn elsewhere in seeking to gain real and meaningful support for veterans in future. The commitment of the Liberal and National parties in relation to the veteran is clear cut; it is to provide to the veteran the greatest generosity, recognition and support that responsible government can afford. We stand very strongly by that commitment to look after those who fought for their country; that is whether they served in World War I, World War II or the conflicts-particularly Korea, Malaya and Vietnam-in which Australia was involved.

I note in passing that this year will see for the first time a national welcome home parade in Sydney on the first Saturday in October for Vietnam veterans who regard themselves as never being fully recognised in terms of their contribution. They made a highly disciplined and dedicated contribution when they were sent to Vietnam in the most difficult circumstances and conditions. I believe that this Parliament should salute those Vietnam veterans and support that welcome home parade set down to take place in Sydney later this year.

The Opposition does not have any specific amendments to offer in relation to this legislation because upon examining it we found it to be keeping with our general thrust for improving and clarifying the Veterans' Entitlements Act, for providing the poverty trap provisions to apply in social security and the other provisions which are transferred from the Health Insurance Act. We believe that in the future, as World War II veterans particularly enter critical years but as all other veterans age, the Parliament does have a responsibility to look after the veteran in a proper, dedicated and efficient way. That is a responsibility for the government of the day.

I hope that, as we speak and consider this legislation on the eve of the month of Anzac Day and on the eve of the dedication of the Hellfire Pass on the Burma death railway in Thailand, the Parliament will pause for a moment to look at what it is doing in veterans' affairs and will look, particularly, at the cutbacks and changes which have taken place and will spell out to the Government, to the Treasurer (Mr Keating) and to the Minister for Finance (Senator Walsh) that enough is enough so far as veteran cutbacks are concerned. To further cut back on veterans will be totally unjust and unfair in all the circumstances, given the fact that veterans have already been subjected to a wide range of cutbacks, that veterans' expenditure is finite expenditure and due to the sad process of natural attrition will sharply decline next decade in any case.

The Treasurer and the Minister for Finance have no right to come across to veterans' affairs with a series of wide ranging cutbacks as part of some secret agenda held by the Government. For those honourable members who will stand up and perhaps give some assurance that veterans will not be subjected to further cutbacks in the next mini-Budget, if it comes down before the next election, may I remind them that the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) told the nation last Sunday that all areas of government expenditure will be subjected to review in terms of the May 1987 mini-Budget. Let us see what happens down the track. One thing I will tell the nation is that if the Federal elections are on 2 May or 9 May, the mini-Budget and economic statement will be coming forth under a new regime, a new administration which will see that the right thing shall be done by the veterans.