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Thursday, 13 October 1988
Page: 1556

Mr ROCHER(11.38) —The honourable member for Petrie (Mr Johns) shows that he is not far behind the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) when it comes to unmitigated gall. I concede that his response as a former bureaucrat had certain technical properties and charm. However, in moving this motion he maintained the arrogant tradition of this Government in blowing its own bags, usually because no-one else will. It is one thing to say, as is said in this motion, that the House acknowledges our debt to veterans and the need to compensate them for their sacrifices. That is common ground. It has, of course, bipartisan support. However, it is another matter entirely to marry a widely acknowledged debt of honour to veterans with self-serving claims to achievements by the Government, as the motion does. The sensitivity of the mover of the motion and his Government is to be found in the motion which, after the motherhood opening and self-congratulations, concludes with the following words:

. . . providing for the welfare of veterans in times of restraint in public expenditure.

There you have it: that is the cop-out. The sensitivity of the Government is encapsulated in the words `in times of restraint in public expenditure'. It has good reason to be sensitive. I can think of no other section of our community that has been more disadvantaged during the term of this Government than retirees and those approaching retirement.

Mr Tim Fischer —Cutbacks after cutbacks.

Mr ROCHER —Cutbacks upon cutbacks upon cutbacks. Included in that group are veterans. Is the Government serious in crowing about achievement in compensating veterans for our debt of honour to them? What sort of achievement was it to change the onus of proof, making it more difficult for veterans to claim for war-caused disabilities? This Government did that. What sort of achievement was it to make veterans' entitlements subject to an assets test with the deliberate intent of reducing veterans' entitlements? This Government did that. What sort of achievement was it to tighten the criteria affecting entitlement to the totally and permanently incapacitated pension? This Government did that. How can gross interference with war widows' pensions and medical benefits be said to be an achievement?

What is so great about the debacle surrounding war service home loans? Does the House remember the massive chopping and changing after the 1987 Budget announcement by the Treasurer (Mr Keating) that the $25,000 maximum war service home loan was to be replaced by a $10,000 grant? That was some achievement, I do not think! A week after that announcement the loan entitlement was reinstated. A few months later, in December 1987, the $10,000 grant was scrapped. The maximum term of the loan was then reduced from 32 to 25 years. Some achievement!

What sort of achievement in providing for the welfare of veterans are the events that I have just mentioned? What about the betrayal of servicemen's and servicewomen's organisations in 1985 when the first major inroads into veterans' and war widows' entitlements were mooted? Surely, it has not been forgotten that the solemn promise of the then Minister for Veterans' Affairs to consult with veterans' representatives was so blatantly broken. The Veterans' Entitlements Bill 1985 began the slide which now sees veterans' and war widows' entitlements greatly reduced and the qualifying criteria more stringent than ever before. To pretend otherwise is to practise blatant deceit.

I ask the House to remember that these events came hard on the heels of one of the Prime Minister's most infamous broken promises. Mr Deputy Speaker, you know the one that I am talking about. Government members must cringe when we recall that statesmanlike pronouncement of the Prime Minister that his Government would not take money out of pensioners' cheques. It has continued to do just that ever since. No amount of smarmy words, such as those used in the motion that is before the House, will cause us to forget the series of betrayals foisted upon the aged and retirees; nor will we be persuaded to overlook the fact that veterans and war widows suffered as much and possibly more than most.

It is a source of some concern that war widows do not even rate a mention in the motion. By that omission the mover of the motion and the Government of which he is a member again illustrate a sensitivity which is not born of achievement, as the motion would have us believe, but of lack of achievement, in providing for the welfare of war widows. War widows have been hit hard by this Government. Take as an example the $60 freeze on the social security component of a war widow's pension entitlement.

Mr Tim Fischer —Ask the honourable member for Bass.

Mr ROCHER —The honourable member for Bass understands that as well. On top of that, there is the further loss of benefits in the form of prescription drugs which were so recently removed from the repatriation pharmaceutical benefits list. These are just some of the matters which make it perfectly clear that what the Government has achieved is a reduction in benefits and entitlements for veterans and war widows.

I would have thought that the Government would leave the subject well alone. After all, even the present Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Mr Humphreys) knows enough to keep silent. We never hear a peep from him in this House. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) must be particularly uncomfortable with the words of its Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, who, after the conclusion of World War II, when referring to his Party's then commitment to veterans, said:

The careers of hundreds of thousands of young men have been interrupted and, in some instances, partially ruined. 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.

That was an entirely appropriate response to the sentiments expressed by the Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Military Forces, Sir Thomas Blamey, who, at the end of hostilities in 1945, said:

We are now to go to our homes having done our part in ensuring freedom for which we have fought for so long and successfully.

How the once compassionately great ALP has slipped! In its treatment of veterans we can find no better evidence of how it has lost its way in government. It is a classic example. Further evidence of its stagnation, mindlessness and craven approach to retaining government was to be found in the 1988 Budget measure to count non-cash investment growth as part of the income test applied in determining pension and related entitlements. We all know that that part of the proposal to count growth over the past three years was scrapped-not for equity reasons or because it would have had a retrospective effect, but for the most blatant political reasons in the run-up to the Victorian State election.

I summarise my reaction to this motion by breaking it up into three parts. The first part calls for the House to acknowledge the debt of the Australian community to veterans. I wholeheartedly do so, although I would want to include reference to our debt to war widows. They also served who endured the pain and uncertainty of not knowing how their loved ones who saw active service were faring. I reject the second part of the motion which calls on the House to note the achievements of this Government in providing for the welfare of veterans. Not one additional benefit has been granted by this Government during its almost six years in government, while countless entitlements have been removed or reduced. That is a mean and negative achievement, not one which confers credit on this Government. In regard to the third part of the motion, which mentions times of restraint in public expenditure, I simply repeat that that is a cop-out. It is rationalisation on the part of the mover and on the part of Government supporters for its failure to achieve improvements in the lot of war veterans and war widows.