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Thursday, 2 September 1999
Page: 9882

Mr BRUCE SCOTT (Veterans' Affairs; Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence) (11:50 AM) —in reply—Firstly, in summing up the debate on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 1999 , I thank all the members for their contributions. There were certainly some questions raised that I will address during my summing up and I hope some of the answers that I give members in relation to their questions will alleviate any of the concerns that they have. I also thank the member for Cowan for his comments in relation to the Vietnam End of War List as he gave his presentation in this committee. As he says, the decision that six Vietnam veterans will now receive the medal for gallantry means that officers and other ranks will receive the same level of award under the Australian system and it will not be a system that is based on rank. Perhaps what was more at stake—and I think the member for Cowan touched on this too—was the intrinsic Anzac value of fairness.

This bill provides for several changes to our 1999-2000 budget measures, makes a number of minor and also technical changes, and provides for a legislative enhancement in relation to peacekeeping forces. The measures directly benefit veterans and eligible dependants and set out clear and objective standards for eligibility for certain income support payments. The extension of the HomeFront program can benefit a further 63,000 veterans and dependants by assisting them to remain in their own homes. At the same time I believe that this HomeFront program will be preventing falls and other accidents around the home. That is a key factor in reducing what is otherwise very much an avoidable admission to institutional care. The home support advance will complement the HomeFront program and assist persons to undertake home modifications to make their homes safer. There will be the capacity for loans of up to $10,000 to be made available to a broad group of eligible persons.

The extension of the Veterans' Children Education Scheme, the VCES, continues the government's commitment to removing anomalies in veterans' entitlements. What this bill will provide is eligibility to the Veterans' Children Education Scheme for the student children of living veterans in receipt of a disability pension at the extreme disability adjustment rate.

With respect to remarks made on the provision to align the criteria for the invalidity service pension, I certainly understand the points that have been made but I want to emphasise that the measure is intended to do one key thing—to restore credibility to the administration of what has, for many years, been a very necessary and valued benefit for ex-service men and women. I really do hear that there is no dispute about the policy change—indeed, it does make a lot of sense.

For those who are concerned at the intention to review a proportion of existing payees against the new criteria, assurances have been given that those who clearly satisfy the criteria will not be affected. Many members have touched on the exemptions that we will be making and I repeat them at this time. They include the blind, those already over 57, TPIs, those already with 40 impairment points under the GARP measurement, those who manifestly cannot work and those for whom information already exists where there is sufficient to render any review unnecessary.

This is a fair measure. Fairness is one of the issues that have always underpinned the Veterans' Entitlement Act, as has been so often stated by members of the ex-service community. All they have ever really asked for is fairness.

Further, for those who should more appropriately be receiving income support payments from Centrelink and thereby benefiting from the associated vocational assistance programs, their transition will be managed to avoid any disruption. It ought to be understood that the only people who will completely lose benefits under this process will be those who find employment. That ought to be considered, and I believe is, a highly desirable end in itself.

This bill builds on our government's commitment to provide generous compensation and also assistance, recognising the very special standing of the veteran community in our community. I commend the bill to the House. Also, I want to answer some of the questions that were raised by the member for Cunningham and the member for Cowan. Unfortunately, I could not remain in the Main Committee for all of the presentations, but the member for Cunningham raised questions on behalf of the shadow minister, whom I was with yesterday in Hobart, at the national congress of the RSL.

I refer firstly to the concern about the links with Centrelink. The future administration of veterans' matters will remain with the Department of Veterans' Affairs; I have said so on a number of occasions as I have travelled around Australia. I think it would be acknowledged that under the previous government there were concerns raised by the veteran community from time to time that in the future a government might subsume the roles of the Department of Veterans' Affairs in those of other government agencies. Let me assure you that is not on the government's agenda. It has been repeated by me since I became minister, and the administration of the veterans' matters will remain with the department.

What we will recognise is those links with Centrelink: in some areas where it is not economically feasible to put an agent of the Department of Veterans' Affairs in a stand-alone office, we are using Centrelink, which has contracted to provide that service. But we are also making sure that the personnel who deal with veterans in Centrelink are trained by the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Veterans have their own separate entrance to Centrelink offices, they do not join a queue of those seeking other social security benefits; in fact, they have their own area within those offices. I can also assure members that veterans are enjoying being able to have face-to-face service where they would not otherwise have it, albeit that in some cases, in smaller communities, only a few—fewer than half-a-dozen each week—are accessing it. Importantly, in those many rural and regional communities we are giving veterans that access and face-to-face service over the counter.

For the Department of Veterans' Affairs and veterans there will be a much closer link with the defence department, given that so many of the defence personnel have a veterans' entitlement. That is why it is important to get closer links with the defence department, and there will certainly not be closer links other than through an agency arrangement with Centrelink.

I will touch now on the repatriation hospitals. I think those on the other side would acknowledge that in their term of government they commenced and completed the process, with the exception of the Lady Davidson Rehabilitation Hospital, of the divestment of the repatriation hospitals, either to the state health departments or to the private sector.

We supported that. At the time we wanted to make sure we got the best possible access to health services for our veteran community. But we do continually monitor the service and the access that veterans have to health services, either through the former repatriation hospitals or through private hospitals or state hospitals throughout our states and territories. The important thing is that veterans, war widows and widowers can now have a greater choice of where they go for that entitlement when they need hospitalisation. I noted the other day when I was in South Australia looking at the question of access to Daw Park hospital that the majority of war widows of South Australia said they wanted the choice of where they went for hospitalisation. In so many cases they would rather be in a hospital where they have some extended family available to them when they are hospitalised rather than having to go to a former repatriation hospital. So it really is about choice.

I will touch on the issue of legal aid. I want to repeat for members of the chamber and the parliament that there are no restrictions on legal aid to the veteran community. I also repeat that it is free of a means test and it is only subject to a merits test. There are no restrictions on legal aid. The last available figures show that 95 per cent of claims for legal aid to the veteran community are approved. If you compare that with family law, where only 70 per cent are approved, you can see that the figures really do speak for themselves. But it is recognised, and I acknowledge, that there have been some problems with the administration of legal aid. We will continue with the Attorney-General to monitor the situation. I think legal aid commissioners need to do more to understand the very complex area of the veterans' jurisdiction. We certainly will be monitoring that. I do not want a message to be out there in a scare campaign in the veteran community that may see them not come forward to take their case beyond the two stages of review that they have already to the AAT, where they would have access to legal aid.

I will just touch on the income support payment. If I remember correctly, the member for Cowan was concerned that, with the transfer to Centrelink, we may be moving more and more of these responsibilities to social security. That is certainly not in relation to the income support payment. The transfer to Centrelink will only occur where it is considered there is a capacity to work. I think the member for Cowan and other members of the opposition also said that there should be a grandfather clause. If we inserted a grandfather clause, that would actually prevent the department from doing reviews. It is indeed unfortunate that the ISP has become difficult to administer. What we are proposing is something that has to be done. I must also say that it is true that the Department of Veterans' Affairs already has the power to do this. But it is only fair that, where a problem arises, notice is given of an intention to review the ISP.

The member for Cowan also raised the issue of the Gulf War and the veterans of the Gulf War. I might take this opportunity to say that this Sunday HMAS Melbourne returns to Australia from deployment as part of the UN Maritime Interception Force in the gulf. I will be meeting them on their arrival in Sydney. They will have the same veteran entitlements as those who participated during the time of the Gulf War.

We have established an advisory panel made up of people from the Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs to advise on deployment health issues relating to the Gulf War. I have also already announced that a nominal roll of those who served in the Gulf War is to be established. In fact, it is part of the Department of Veterans' Affairs links program that we have put in place. It is nearly complete. In fact, on the advice that I have been given, it is only weeks away. Once we have that nominal roll we can then move to get a health study of those veterans of the Gulf War under way. I anticipate being able to make the announcement in the near future. The advice I have been given is that the nominal roll is almost complete and that will allow us to move forward with the health study of those veterans of the Gulf War.

There were a couple of other issues raised and they related to HomeFront. I think the concerns were raised in relation to whether there were sufficient assessors. One of the things that we discovered with the announcement of that very popular and very worthwhile program was that we have actually had double the demand that we estimated. The contractor now is in the process of recruiting more assessors and we hope that we are able to meet that demand.

I also take the opportunity to remind the opposition that the extension of the HomeFront program to white card holders will not commence until we get passage of this legislation. Therefore, I hope the opposition will see fit to speed the legislation through the Senate and through the committee stage of the upper house because this is a popular program. That was acknowledged by the other side of the House.

The member for Cowan and others raised the issue of the amount of money, the $150, and the impact of the GST on that HomeFront program. In relation to that, I am already advised that the $150 covers the overwhelming majority of small improvements that are made around the house. The amount of $150 is funding that was researched well in the beginning and that is why that amount was so chosen.

The GST will impact on the cost of those home improvements and so we will review any impact on the program after the implementation of the tax reform package. If it is found that it is not meeting the need based on that $150 amount then we can review that situation. I also want to make the point in relation to that $150 allowance that it is an annual allowance, it is not a one-off or once-only allowance. So that $150 will be an ongoing amount and it can be paid on a yearly basis.

In conclusion, let me say that I appreciate the bipartisan nature that the opposition always tries to keep in relation to this portfolio. I know, and am reminded by the shadow minister and others on the other side of the House, that from time to time if they think we are getting it wrong they will certainly tell us. However, they will always avoid, wherever possible, a political dogfight because at the end of the day they know, and I know, and I think the parliament has always recognised, that to embroil veterans in the political process does nothing for the standing of members of the parliament.

I have always appreciated the fact that this portfolio should have bipartisan support, wherever possible. Governments of whatever colour, from time to time, perhaps do get it a bit wrong and we need always to be kept honest, as some political parties might say, but bipartisan support is what I have appreciated from members of the opposition and other members of the parliament.

My door is always open and if members have concerns they should feel free to come to my office and make sure that we are aware of the issue. I think that is the right of all members in this parliament. I thank the Main Committee and all those who have made a contribution.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.

Ordered that the bill be reported to the House without amendment.