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Thursday, 20 September 2007
Page: 58

Mr NEVILLE (12:57 PM) —The amendments contained in the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Disability, War Widow and War Widower Pensions) Bill 2007 will ensure that the value of a range of veterans entitlements will retain their value over time. It has been of great concern to veterans and I am happy to support them in this issue. Our gestures can, of course, never fully compensate veterans for their experiences and the sacrifices they have made at war and the service they have given to the Australian military. But I hope that these changes will go some way towards bridging that gap, as some veterans felt that they had been ignored. That was never the case where I was concerned. This will fill a very important hole in their entitlements.

The changes will increase the extreme disability adjustment and the general rate for disability pensions, change the indexation arrangements for the general rate disability pension and make changes to war widows’ pensions. They will benefit more than 140,000 disabled pensioners—1,400 of whom live in my electorate—and approximately 114,000 war widows and widowers. It will ensure that their pensions retain their relative values.

I am an unapologetic advocate for veterans. I am proud of the commitment made by the Prime Minister at the recent RSL national congress in Melbourne, where he announced a comprehensive $330 million package to assist veterans. The package is far superior to that proposed by the opposition, let me say. The package has been reinforced by the government’s decision to increase pension payments for Australian war widows and widowers, along with the introduction of a new indexation arrangement. It will bring the combined packages to a total of $470 million.

Under the coalition, from March next year all Veterans’ Affairs disability pensions will be tied to both CPI and MTAWE, in the same manner that the service pension is currently indexed. It means that these pensions will maintain their value relative to wages and other payments made under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986. It will come into effect—please note this, Mr Deputy Speaker—a full six months before Labor’s proposed indexation. As well, the general rate—the compensation that is paid for pain and suffering and loss of function—will be increased by five per cent, bringing it into line with other payments under the Veterans’ Entitlement Act 1986 and benefiting around 140,000 disability pensioners. And guess what—the Labor Party proposed no increase in the general rate disability pension rate until after the Prime Minister announced the coalition’s package. In other words, they were not going to do anything unless we set the bar. Veterans can make their own judgement on that, but it would seem to me that the Labor Party were going to try to get away with as little as possible.

What is more, the 13,000 veterans who receive the extreme disablement adjustment payment, which is for people with profound lifestyle impacts from their service related injuries and conditions, will get a fortnightly increase of $15 from March 2008. This will restore the value of the above general rate component of the EDA relative to those of the intermediate and special rates of disability pension. I point out that the opposition again had no such plans until after the Prime Minister’s recent announcement.

In total the government has committed around $470 million to these changes—a significant amount which is only available because of the coalition’s responsible economic management. I think this point is lost so often. You cannot do these things if you do not manage the economy. If you do not manage the economy properly, you do not have surpluses. If you do not have surpluses, you cannot make these sorts of additional emoluments available. These particular emoluments are real, tangible and substantial benefits for the veterans’ community, and I applaud them.

The Leader of the Opposition thought he was on a winner when he raised veterans’ entitlements in an MPI last month. The opposition stirred up sections of the veterans community and sat back while an orchestrated campaign swung into action. I think most government members would have been on the receiving end of that email campaign by disenchanted veterans. I certainly was, but I think my focus on veterans’ matters probably softened the blow for me. But that has died down, as has the opposition’s cockiness, after the coalition’s announcement, which you really have to say is a far superior package. In fact, while the Prime Minister was announcing this $330 million commitment, the opposition were cutting sections of their leader’s speech, and they then had the gall to approach the government for the workings and costings of our policy. Hello! ‘What have you done about it?’ is the question that one might ask.

We should not be surprised; the opposition has flip-flopped on veterans’ entitlements and has now dumped its own policy in favour of the coalition’s. We in the coalition are becoming accustomed to the faint cry of ‘Me too, me too!’ echoing around the nation after government announcements. ‘Me too!’ is simply not good enough when it comes to supporting those who have served this nation in wars and conflicts. Our veterans deserve more respect and more commitment from the opposition. The acid test for veterans is just how well they were treated under the previous Labor government. It angers me that Labor seeks to use veterans as a quick headline by peddling dud policies and telling untruths about the government’s record of indexation for veterans’ payments. I point out there were no MTAWE payments at all under the Labor government.

No government in the world takes its responsibilities towards veterans more seriously than this one. The coalition’s commitment to the care, compensation and commemoration of our veterans and war widows is rock solid. I know this because I have contact with a lot of people in the veterans community. I am very close to the two major RSLs in my electorate and some of the smaller ones in the country towns, and I am patron of the Vietnam Veterans Association in Bundaberg. I take my duties with those organisations very seriously, as I did the other night at a particularly fine Legacy charity dinner that we hold every year in Bundaberg to raise money for the children and widows of those who have passed on. This bill will shape an even better payment system for our veterans. I am proud to be associated with it and I commend it to the House.