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Wednesday, 20 March 2002
Page: 1671

Mrs DE-ANNE KELLY (1:44 PM) —I rise to speak on the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Gold Card Extension) Bill 2002. In speaking on this bill, I want to acknowledge the great debt that we owe our veterans who have sacrificed much in the defence and service of Australia. I am also pleased to be part of a Liberal-National government that is giving a high priority to providing appropriate recognition to that sacrifice and service. The extension of the availability of the gold card to a wider group of veterans is testimony to the responsibility that we carry as a government to our veterans. It is appropriate to mention two outstanding ministers under the Liberal-National government who have served our veterans. The Hon. Bruce Scott worked in his portfolio for some six years to assist veterans to raise the profile of their concerns. The current Minister for Veterans' Affairs, the Hon. Danna Vale, is a very compassionate lady who I have no doubt will take on board veterans' concerns and bring them forward to the parliament.

In January 1999, the coalition government extended eligibility for the repatriation gold card. It was extended to all Australian veterans and merchant mariners who were over 70 years of age and who had qualifying service from World War II. As a result of that initiative, 38,000 World War II veterans and mariners became eligible for the top level of health care under the repatriation system. In fact, the total number of veterans then eligible for gold cards was 282,000. Of course now the reality is that Australian servicemen who served in conflicts post-World War II are over or approaching the age of 70. They, like other veterans from earlier wars, are facing an increased need for health care.

I am very pleased to see that this bill will further extend to all veterans who are over the age of 70 and have qualifying service. This will mean that older veterans with qualifying service who served in the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, the Indonesian Confrontation and the Vietnam War will have the gold card available to them. This takes effect from 1 July 2002. This initiative will allow future gold card access to those veterans with qualifying service who have served in later conflicts such as the Gulf War, East Timor and Afghanistan, some of which of course are ongoing conflicts. It brings the issue home to us when these conflicts are so recent and so much in evidence when we look at our television screens.

The amendments to the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 are a package of measures designed to further improve the delivery of income support benefits through the repatriation system. I would like to give some examples to the House. As it presently stands, if a veteran receives a periodic additional payment from an insurance company, for instance, a couple's combined pension is reduced dollar for dollar by the amount the recipient receives. Now with this bill being agreed to, the pension of only the recipient will be reduced, not the other party to the relationship. Only in the event of the compensation amount exceeding the other person's pension will their partner's pension be affected.

A small but significant amendment to the act is that future instalments of income support will be paid to the nearest cent rather than being rounded to the nearest 10c. Perhaps the attention to detail of this amendment shows the extreme importance that the Liberal-National government places on the welfare of our veterans. I can certainly assure the House that the veterans in my electorate of Dawson appreciate the attitude of this government toward them. I would like to detail some of the particular benefits that veterans in Dawson—as I am sure veterans in other electorates around Australia—have received under the Liberal-National government. In Bowen, capital grants have been made available for improvements to the veterans' aged care facility known as Cunningham Villas. The most recent was $83,000 to enable them to upgrade their buildings and provide staff training, as a prelude to Cunningham Villas moving to what we trust will be a full three-year aged care accreditation.

My veterans well remember the budget announcement which saw pension rights restored to those widows who had chosen to remarry, to remedy the former Labor government's ungracious attitude to war widows. They also remember the $25,000 compensation payment to ex-prisoners of war of the Japanese during World War II. I just pause to say here that I know many of the ex-POWs in Dawson, and I think an example of the depth of the deprivation that they suffered is the fact that so few of them wish to speak about their experiences. In fact, one dear old POW is moved to tears if he is questioned about it. Those of us who live in a free Australia have little comprehension of the depths of despair, malnutrition, disease and hardship that our POWs experienced under the Japanese. No amount of compensation could ever make up for what they suffered and experienced, but $25,000 is one small acknowledgment and perhaps will buy them some measure of comfort. I know some in my electorate are planning to share it with their grandchildren. Others are planning to make a small extension to the house. They are small things, but are an acknowledgment of a grateful nation.

In my home town of Mackay, the Mackay veterans' support group have recently received $60,500 to refurbish and equip two houses to enable our Vietnam veterans to use them as a drop-in centre. This was a very welcome initiative. The government has also funded a new Mackay and district RSL welfare and pensions office in Mackay, providing veterans with a one-stop shop for assistance. This is womaned by hardworking volunteers led by Jan Jarrott, a well-known Mackay lady and a tremendous support for the veteran community. This office is a focal point for veterans in Mackay and the surrounding district who are in need of advice or assistance, or who sometimes just want to drop in and have a cup of tea and a chat. I was heartened when I was there recently to find a veteran—quite an elderly gentleman—from one of the small outlying towns. It was his first visit to the centre, and he really found it a comfort to be able to get sound advice, a cup of tea and a chat with the volunteers there. So congratulations to Jan Jarrott and her hardworking volunteers. One of the other initiatives in Mackay is a permanent memorial to the Rats of Tobruk.

Mr Forrest —Hear, hear!

Mrs DE-ANNE KELLY —I hear the member for Mallee saying `Hear, hear!' and I could not agree more. This project has been led by our absolutely tremendous Major Len Hansen retired—a great advocate for the Rats of Tobruk—and Don Rolls, a local councillor from Mackay City Council. Don put a tremendous amount of effort into rallying the support and the contributions in kind from the community and making this a reality. I was pleased that the Liberal-National government started the fundraising effort with a $4,000 contribution. We can see that this government really cares about our veterans and their families. It provides for them not only in many large ways but through many small measures that mean such a great deal. These bills are a testimony to the work of our veterans, and I commend the bills to the House.