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Wednesday, 20 March 2002
Page: 1662


Mr HUNT (1:01 PM) —I rise to speak on the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Gold Card Extension) Bill 2002 and the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Further Budget 2000 and Other Measures) Bill 2002. In doing so, I want to begin by referring to an issue that was raised by the member for Brand and by other members of this House before focusing on the central elements of the bills. I want to refer to the proposal currently afoot in France to take existing Australian war graves and to perhaps either abolish or move them. May I say that I find this to be a proposal which is repugnant and against the wishes of Australians. I wish to strongly place the views of both myself and my constituents on the floor of this House by saying that this is not something we should support and that it is something which the French government should reject.

Turning to the gold card bill, the core of it is about extending eligibility to the gold card to all Australian Defence Force veterans over 70 years of age with qualifying service, which means to those who have served overseas in times of hostility. I want to talk about it in three parts: firstly, about the context in terms of its implications for the people in my seat of Flinders; secondly, about what the bill itself does; and, thirdly, why it is important. In putting it into context I want to begin with the day after the federal election, 11 November 2001, Remembrance Day. The first function to which I was invited as a new member-elect was Remembrance Day at the Rosebud RSL. Whilst I was there a gentleman whom I know, Peter Barnett, a Vietnam veteran, who saw combat and duty in the harshest conditions, gave me a gift—his infantry combat badge. It struck me that someone was willing to give me something that had such a profound meaning and implication in his own life, and he gave it to me on the basis that he had served his country and had faced all the things which he had had to face, and that now it was my responsibility to do so. I wish to thank Peter, and I also wish to say that I take up the matters that he asked me to take up.

Within the seat of Flinders we have a significantly older population and a significantly higher proportion of veterans than the average within Australia. Aged 60 and over, 20.9 per cent of the population falls within that category. That compares with the Victorian average of 15.8 per cent, so approximately we have, over the age of 60, one-third higher than the average within Victoria. We also have approximately one-third more over the age of 70 than the average within Victoria and Australia. The Victorian average of people over the age of 70 is 8.3 per cent of the population; the average in Flinders is 11.5 per cent. Additionally, we have approximately 2.8 per cent over the age of 80 within Victoria and 3.6 per cent within Flinders. So this is a measure which has a particular meaning and relevance to those in my community.

Along the way I have had the fortune to deal with a number of people who represent those members of the veterans community who are most affected by the provisions of these bills. At the Rosebud RSL, which I mentioned, Jon White is the president and he leads a group of people there who have given great service to the country. Similarly, Jim Flynn of the Rye RSL also leads a very large group of people, all of whom have given great service to Australia. Similarly, there is Trevor Laurence at the Hastings RSL. There are a number of other sub-branches and branches throughout the community of Flinders—Dromana, Phillip Island, Corinella, Coronet Bay, Crib Point, Flinders and Somerville—all of whom comprise veterans who have given of themselves and who have given their time to serve their country.

Against that background, I now turn to the context of the bill itself: what it does and what it proposes. The bill falls within a package of measures which were announced by the government prior to the last election. During the last election campaign the Prime Minister announced three initiatives to extend entitlements which are currently available to Australian veterans and war widows. The first is that which is contained in the gold card bill. The proposal is to extend the gold card for comprehensive, free care to all Australian veterans over the age of 70 years who have qualifying service. What that means, in effect, is that it extends the gold card beyond just those who served in World War II to all those who have subsequently served Australia in a field of conflict, in a theatre of engagement, abroad.

The second initiative is, and this is dealt with in the second bill before the House, that it ends the freeze on the war widows' income support supplement. The third initiative is to hold an independent review to consider anomalies which exclude eligibility criteria for veterans' entitlements. That review covers not just those who have served in World War II but also those who have served in subsequent conflicts, those who have served within Australia and those who have served in the forces of allied armies in the period between World War II and the current time. It is not known what the result of that review will be, but that review was promised and it came into force in early February, when it was announced by the Minister for Veterans' Affairs.

Against that background, what does this bill in particular do? Schedule 1 of the bill inserts the following new provision into the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986:

... A veteran is eligible to be provided with treatment ... for any injury suffered, or disease contracted, by the veteran, whether before or after the commencement of this Act, if:

(a) the veteran is 70 or over; and

(b) the veteran has rendered qualifying service ...; and

(c) either:

(i) the Department—

of Veterans' Affairs—

has notified the veteran ...; or

(ii) the veteran has notified the Department—

of their qualification. So the essence of the bill is that it extends the range of people who are currently entitled to the gold card. All up, approximately 4,000 veterans are estimated to be eligible for the gold card in the first year after these provisions come into force. It is expected that the provisions will come into force on 1 July 2002 and that in the first year they will cost the government about $16½ million, rising to approximately $30.4 million in the financial year 2005-06. By that time the number of those people who will qualify under the new provisions and who would have previously been denied coverage will be approximately 5,000. These are people who have served Australia overseas in the period since World War II and who would not otherwise have been entitled to receive the gold card. The benefits that they receive are from a comprehensive range of medical, hospital, pharmaceutical, dental and allied health services, so it is a fine package which is worthy of those who come to it.

Who will receive those benefits? Australian service people who have been involved in the conflict in Korea, the Malayan Emergency, the Indonesian confrontation and the Vietnam War. The people who were in all of those theatres are beginning to come of age, having reached the age of 70. In time this also means that those who served Australia in more recent conflicts—in the Gulf War, in Timor and in Afghanistan, as they currently are—will all become entitled to receive recognition for the risk and sacrifice that they have made.

Why do we seek to do this? We seek to do this for a number of reasons. Firstly, Australia is indebted to those who have served it in time of war by enlisting in the armed forces and by placing their lives at risk for the greater benefit of the country as a whole. Secondly, the nation has a duty to ensure that those who have served, together with their dependants, are properly cared for. Thirdly, those who have served overseas in a theatre of war have a demonstrably higher chance of contracting some sort of disease, illness, disability or ailment as a result of the service and the stress under which they have given that service. So for all of those reasons this is a bill which should be commended.

There is an additional point, and it is this. The Minister for Veterans' Affairs has announced that there will be an additional review of veterans' entitlements. That will look at two things. It will look at the definition of `qualifying service', so that means that those veterans who served Australia during World War II within Australia and who may have carried out important tasks but who have subsequently been denied the gold card will be considered. No decision has been made yet. It is expected that review will report in late November. It is my firm hope, and I have made this point to constituents within my electorate, that the review will come down in favour of those who gave service to Australia—but not outside of Australia—in World War II.

The review will also consider the case of those who served for other countries. That is a more difficult question because there are over 40,000 in that category. But it is important that we have a full and thorough review and, in particular, that those who served Australia in World War II in any form and in any place are given a full entitlement and given access to the gold card, although I do not wish to prejudice the outcomes of the review. For all of those reasons I commend this bill to the House. I believe that it justly rewards and recognises those who have served Australia, have given of themselves and have placed their lives at risk, not just during World War II but in times since then.