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Thursday, 2 September 1999
Page: 9858

Mr MARTIN (9:58 AM) —The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 1999 seeks essentially to do four things: firstly, to allow determinations to be made which will align the test for permanent incapacity for work for the invalid service pension with that for the special rate for totally and permanently incapacitated disability pension; secondly, to allow determinations to be made which will align the test for permanent incapacity for the income support supplement with that for the social security disability support pension; thirdly, to extend eligibility for the HomeFront scheme and introduce a home loan support program to provide loans for home maintenance and alteration; and, fourthly, to extend the Veterans' Children's Education Scheme to recipients of the extreme disability adjustment.

I can indicate, from the opposition's perspective, that we will not oppose the passage of this bill through the House of Representatives. But I want to flag, for those who are interested, that Labor does have concerns about the bill. As a consequence of that, whilst we will not impede its passage through the House of Representatives, my colleague the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Senator Schacht, will be pursuing these matters through the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee. We believe that it is important that the veterans community has time to properly assess this bill before parliament decides whether to pass it or not. The committee hearings in the other place will facilitate that.

There is some concern about the question of the nexus currently between social security and the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Those on both sides of politics have argued for as long as I can remember that there should always be a separate Department of Veterans' Affairs and a separate department of social security in its various guises, even though some people could argue that, from an efficiency point of view, it is necessary to ensure that there is no disadvantage occasioned in the delivery of government services by the perpetuation of that particular state of affairs. Nevertheless, what we have seen in the main is agreement that the amendments being proposed are sensible—and I am delighted to see that the Minister for Veterans' Affairs has entered the chamber—but there are some issues which we believe should be addressed through a Senate committee, and Senator Schacht will be pursuing those.

I therefore indicate that we will provisionally support the passage of this bill through the House of Representatives, but final support for the bill will be dependent on whether the veterans community supports the measures that are outlined here. The next opposition speaker in this debate will be the member for Cowan, Graham Edwards. He, of course, brings with him an incredible depth of knowledge of issues associated with the veterans community, and he will pick up on a number of these specific matters.

I take this opportunity to flag with the government, and with the minister directly, some other concerns, particularly those that the shadow minister for veterans' affairs has asked me to raise this morning. They are concerns that we are seeking some response to. The first is in respect of whether the government is addressing the request for extending the gold card provisions. I know this is an issue that has been around for some time, and I request the minister to enlighten us—including my colleague in the other place—on any progress in the matter.

My second question is: what has the government been doing to ensure that services will be maintained for veterans at repat hospitals now that the Commonwealth has handed over control of them to the state governments. I well remember that this was an issue when I had the honour of being the shadow minister for veterans' affairs in 1996, and it seems to continue to be an issue. It is certainly an issue in Victoria and has been raised in the House of Representatives, quite ably, in questions that have been directed to the responsible minister, particularly in respect of the Kennett government's manic decision to continue the process of privatisation in public hospitals.

My understanding—and the minister might like to address this—is that, when the decision was taken to hand over the Austin Repatriation Hospital in Victoria to the state government, there were some strings attached. At the end of one of those strings there was a fairly healthy wad of notes that went to ensure that veterans were not to be disadvantaged. The former Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Con Sciacca, has suggested that on the end of that string was an amount which approximated $0.5 billion to ensure that the veterans continued to have a hospital facility in Melbourne that would meet their needs. Since the minister is here, he may like to address this particular concern, which many of us on this side of the parliament have, as I am sure others do. I am not talking about the philosophical underpinnings of privatisations of hospitals—or anything else—but about ensuring that veterans continue to have access to those much needed facilities.

My third question to the government is: what is actually happening to ensure that veterans are receiving from Centrelink the assistance they deserve, now that it has taken over the administration of many of the veterans' benefits. Underlying that concern is whether or not this government is going to continue with what has been pretty much a bipartisan policy in the past of maintaining two different departments. I know that the veterans community has always maintained that it feels far more secure knowing that there is a Department of Veterans' Affairs. But if more and more of the benefit paying mechanisms are going to other departments, under the umbrella of social security, community services or whatever it might be, it is a question of allaying the concerns which veterans might have.

It is important to give some thought also to the impact that the present cuts to the legal aid budget are having on veterans. Senator Schacht informs me that he has received a number of complaints on this matter. It is apparent that resources are no longer available through legal aid for veterans to access assistance when appealing unfair decisions by the department with regard to entitlements. If that is the case, it is regrettable. I raise that too with the minister as a genuine issue of concern.

I know the minister would appreciate that there is very much a view that most if not all issues in veterans' affairs are above politics. Certainly we tend to try to ensure that that is so. But when there are genuine concerns, we always reserve the right to bring them to the attention of the minister. The honourable member for Cowan, who will speak later in the debate this morning, is far better equipped, because of his very much hands-on approach to dealing with the veterans community, to raise more specific elements of these sorts of questions.

Finally, we are delighted that—as reported today in the media—medals of valour have at last been awarded to six very deserving Australians. It must be placed again on the public record that Labor had been pushing the former minister, Mrs Bishop, to act on this. Labor had been saying to her that there was a need for people to be recognised appropriately. It is not just an officer class type of thing. If serving men and women, defending this nation, are deserving of appropriate recognition, then they should be given that recognition. I am delighted that the matter has been addressed by this minister. I say to the minister that that is a welcome thing. I think it is fair to say that a lot of heartache could have been avoided, though, had his colleague who was previously in this position taken a little more notice of the concerns that had been raised on behalf of those very deserving Australians.

Let me conclude my contribution this morning by again indicating that Labor will not oppose passage of this legislation through the House of Representatives. The shadow minister for veterans' affairs has some concerns and would like to see the veterans community given some opportunity to make some comment on them before Labor finally determines its attitude in the other place. I have raised one or two questions on behalf of the shadow minister for veterans' affairs because of the concerns that many members on both sides of the House have probably been feeling in terms of representations being made to them by veterans. We look forward to the minister's response in his summing up in answering, hopefully, some of those questions. I wish this bill speedy passage through the House.