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Thursday, 2 September 1999
Page: 9871

Mr BARTLETT (10:59 AM) —This century, some 1.8 million Australians will have enlisted for overseas service in the defence of this country or in the cause of what they knew to be right. Of those 1.8 million who enlisted—of whom there were one million from World War II onwards—most of whom did see overseas service, sadly some 102,000 never returned to these shores alive. Another 34,730 were taken prisoner of war and 225,737 were wounded in the cause of fighting for freedom and in the service of this country.

Sadly, many of the veterans who did see service have long since departed and the number of veterans with us is declining. Year after year, when we attend commemoration services—Remembrance Day services and Anzac Day ceremonies—we see the ranks of diggers being thinned as, inevitably, they age. It is incumbent on any government and on us as a country not only to recognise the incredibly valuable role that these people played in ensuring the protection of this country and the things that we hold dear, but also to ensure that they are looked after—that their health, social and housing needs are well provided for.

I think it is fair to say that both this government and the former government have seen as a high priority the need to duly recognise and care for our veteran community. I would like to mention briefly some of the initiatives that this government has undertaken in the last three years to provide security, better health, better services and better recognition for our valued veteran community.

For instance, we have provided the gold card to an extra 50,000 veterans with World War II qualifying service, thus entitling them to comprehensive health care benefits. We have committed $600 million over four years for the Department of Veterans' Affairs to directly purchase hospital and palliative care for entitled veterans.

We have provided eligible veterans with a new Home Support Loan Scheme, providing loans of up to $10,000 towards the cost of home maintenance and modification. We have provided $5.3 million over four years to continue the Community Care Seeding Grants Program. These grants improve the independence and the qualify of life of veterans, war widows and widowers. We have increased by about an extra 20 per cent the travelling allowances paid to veterans travelling for treatment.

We have reviewed 15 areas of service, resulting in an extra 10,500 veterans becoming eligible for compensation payments, health care and concessional home loans. We have allocated an additional $7 million over the next four years to veterans organisations to help them employ additional advocates and thereby speed up applications through the Veterans Review Board.

We have enabled an extra 20,000 veterans, including self-funded retirees, to qualify for the Commonwealth seniors health card, thus enabling them to obtain pharmaceuticals at a concessional rate. We have increased the service pensions, war widows and widowers pensions by $6.80 for single people and by $5.70 each for married couples per fortnight, and we have linked these to at least 25 per cent of male total average weekly earnings.

We have reduced interest rates on defence service home loans to a rate which is now guaranteed to be 1.5 percentage points below the average market interest rate, and we guaranteed that the rate on defence service homes will never exceed 6.85 per cent. This is a measure aimed at providing security and savings for our veteran community.

We have established a voluntary vocational rehabilitation scheme to help younger veterans obtain and retain employment. We have introduced annual health care plans through most GPs and the Royal Flying Doctor Service to offer chronically ill veterans a more coordinated approach to health care.

We have published the nominal roll of all Vietnam veterans. In addition, a Vietnam veterans mortality study and a Vietnam veterans health study have been published, and more than $750,000 has been committed to Vietnam veterans research. We have released the long overdue nominal roll of Korean veterans and contributed $700,000 towards the construction of the National Korean War Memorial. We have allocated $600,000 for the building of the Australian Service Nurses Memorial.

There are many other initiatives this government has undertaken that I could also refer to, but time does not allow. The point is that the coalition government—like the government before it, I have to say—is committed to the wellbeing, welfare and health of our veteran community. This particular legislation before the chamber today has a number of changes which continue the process of taking care of the needs of our veteran community. In total, the legislation includes an increase of about $7 million in extra spending initiatives.

I will briefly run through each of the provisions in this package of legislation. The first one relates to the invalidity service pension. It introduces more objective criteria to determine eligibility for applications for disability service pensions. This measure aims at giving greater predictability and greater security, and will bring a greater degree of reliability and accountability to the application of invalidity service pensions. Its aim is to match individual veterans more appropriately with the type of support they need.

It is true that a small number of people will be transferred via Centrelink for more appropriate income support payments with access to vocational assistance programs, rather than the disability pension. In contrast to the comments of the former speaker, it is important to note that this government is committed to ensuring support through Centrelink. It is committed to ensuring that the transition for the very small number of people who will be transferred to other support programs will be seamless. Contrary to some of the concerns expressed earlier, recipients of the TPI pension will already qualify and therefore will not be reviewed—that is, any who are unable to work more than eight hours a week. Under this arrangement TPI recipients already satisfy the criteria for eligibility.

The second aspect of this legislation is the extension of the HomeFront program. The HomeFront program is aimed at assisting those aged veterans who wish to stay in their homes to avoid residential aged care accommodation. It helps them to remain independent and to live in their own homes. This excellent HomeFront program assists them by providing free home assessment and information on services. It provides, for instance, up to $150 a year towards the cost of recommended safety appliances. In my community in the Blue Mountains, and in the Hawkesbury, I know that there is a large number of elderly veterans who do want to remain living independently in their own homes, and this legislation extends that provision. It extends what previously applied only to recipients of the gold card to other veterans who have service related incapacities.

It is estimated that each year one in three residents over the age of 65 fall in and around their own homes and that five per cent of those falls result in significant injuries. Obviously, not all of those are preventable, but a large number of them can, by fairly simple maintenance and safety security procedures, at least be reduced. Therefore the pain, injury and suffering to our veterans and the costs incurred can also be reduced. The extension to the HomeFront program helps to maintain the health and independence of the veteran community. This provision is extended to a large number of veterans who previously were on the white card and gives them the same qualification that those on the gold card have access to.

The third feature of this legislation is a veterans' children's education scheme. This extends the eligibility for benefits to children of veterans who are receiving an extreme disablement adjustment. Previously, this benefit was provided only for children of deceased veterans. This worthy program, which helps to look after the veterans' children's education, has now been extended to children of veterans with an extreme disablement. Surely the most severely incapacitated of our veterans and their children deserve the extra assistance that this provides.

The fourth feature of this legislation—peacekeeping forces—enables the minister to be able to gazette, to declare, peacekeeping forces that qualify under the Veterans Entitlements Act 1986 and to more quickly receive access to entitlement. It speeds up the process and removes some of the worry and stress from our veterans who have been involved in peacekeeping forces.

The fifth feature of this legislation is the home support advance program, which complements the HomeFront program. It extends the eligibility of the defence service homes advances to a broader range of recipients. It will assist those who want to stay in their own homes and live independently. You will remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, that this government introduced a Staying at Home package worth $270 million for our aged community in general to encourage and assist those who want to remain independent in their own homes. In addition to giving our veteran community access to the benefits of the other Staying at Home package, this group of measures gives extra recognition to our veteran community as compensation for the distress and suffering caused to them as part of their war service. The home support advance system provides an interest subsidy for the first $10,000 of a loan for home maintenance and improvement to help them make their homes more secure, more safe and more appropriate to their needs as they age.

This government has done much for our veteran community. We could certainly argue that more needs to be done, and we are continually looking at ways in which we can assist our veterans. I will mention two areas where we need to start to consider ways of helping. First of all, consideration could be given—dependent on the government's financial position, its capacity to pay and its policy directions—to extending the gold card provision to veterans who enlisted in Australia during the war, did not then see active service overseas during the war but were sent off to Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupying Forces. I would like to see consideration given to extending the gold card to that group of people who enlisted during the war but were sent overseas after hostilities ceased and represented Australia in Japan as part of the BCOF.

Another very small group that we could give consideration to—and I believe it is just an anomaly in the legislation—is the war widows who lost their entitlement to the war widows pension because they remarried prior to 1984. There are a small number who qualified for the war widows pension and, because they remarried before 1984, lost that pension. For those who subsequently became divorced or whose partner has died since that time and are again single, there is now a case to qualify again for the war widows pension.

This legislation takes a further step along the path towards greater recognition of our veteran community and our greater understanding of their needs in terms of housing, health and, for their children, education. It is another step along the way to appropriate care for our veteran community.