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Tuesday, 10 February 2009
Page: 768

Mr SIMPKINS (6:39 PM) —As a former member of the Australian Regular Army and a serviceman for 15 years, I appreciate the opportunity to speak on the detail of the Defence Legislation (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2008. Most of my comments will be on the schedule 2 provisions. I speak in support of the view that the government’s election commitment, as embodied within this bill, to provide free medical and dental care to ADF families should be examined in detail by a committee.

This bill will have the effect of amending section 124 of the Defence Act 1903, allowing regulations that will allow for the provision of medical, dental and pharmaceutical support to family members of an ADF member. That sounds fine, and I am sure it sounded great to those RAAF families at Tindal, those Navy families at Cerberus and maybe even those Army families out in Oakey and Palmerston, near Darwin. Having never been posted to any of those locations, I would not be sure of the number of GPs which families can access, but it is easy to accept that seeing a doctor or a dentist in those locations is far more challenging than it is in our capital cities or, for that matter, the remote centres within this country. The com-mitment made by Labor is clearly stated in its election policy, and I quote:

A Rudd Labor Government will progressively extend free health care currently provided to ADF personnel to ADF dependent spouses and children.

That seems clear enough. Over a period of time, every dependent spouse and child will get free health care—and I emphasise ‘every one of them’ will get free health care. I will move on to the next sentence of that policy:

Labor will begin this with a $33.1 million investment starting at 12 Defence Family Health Care Clinics, with a focus on remote bases locations and major regional centres.

Again, that is very clear. The first clinics will be established, using $33.1 million, and will be across remote bases and even into major regional centres. Do you know what I, as a former Army officer, liked about this policy? The announced policy would lighten the financial burden on defence families in these non-capital city postings. You have to remember that it is far easier for a spouse to find employment in Brisbane than in Oakey, in Darwin rather than in Katherine, and in Sydney rather than Singleton. Paying for medical and dental treatment with just one income means a higher burden, and that is directly resulting from one’s service to this country. Local, non-defence people in these remote bases, locations and even regional centres would also benefit from a reduced level of competition for the available GP appointments. To my way of thinking, this would be good for both defence families and non-defence families in these sorts of areas.

In fact, my friends who still serve in uniform would benefit and, at the start of 2008, I looked forward to the allocation of $33.1 million to establish these 12 defence family healthcare clinics. I wanted to see that money and I wanted to know which bases and places would be supported under this 12-clinic plan. I also hoped to see further plans of when my friends in capital cities would begin to benefit from the promise of ‘progressively extended’ free health care.

This bill, like so very many before it, is another example of where a policy promised and possibly voted for does not measure up with the detail in the bill placed before this House. I do not know what the reason is behind this significant shortfall. Is it too expensive for the government to do exactly as it said it would or is it just about show and image? Is it too hard for the government to achieve what it said it would? Has the Department of Defence maybe said that it was a bad idea or that it could not be done? I do not know. It probably does not even matter, but what matters is getting a promised policy implemented: $33.1 million to roll out 12 clinics. To me, that sounds like a black-and-white commitment. It is the minimum requirement, but I will take this opportunity to remind the government what defence families heard when it said ‘free health care’.

There may be a lot of hiding by this Rudd government behind fine-print statements, such as $300-worth of treatment but, when you say ‘free health care’ to a defence family, they immediately think of the same level of health care that their ADF member gets. So is the government ready for flu shots and the full range of inoculations for every member of the family? And what about when Warrant Officer Smith’s son needs physio after a football injury at Lavarack Barracks? What about dental care such as braces or fillings? What about all of those things? Free health care in the ADF is a very comprehensive concept and defence families are not ignorant or stupid people. I wonder whether the government has finally realised that what looked good in a media release and clearly received no scrutiny from an adoring media fan club may be unravelling just a little.

I will come back to three colossal disconnects: what was said, what was heard and what will be delivered. To emphasise the scale of the shortfall, I refer to the Albury-Wodonga contract for health care to serving ADF members. It is my understanding that the contract is worth $27 million over four years, averaging out for the 900 personnel to around $7,500 each over that time. It would seem that even if $33.1 million were provided for free health care that amount would not even look after the families of ADF members of the defence facilities around Albury and Wodonga.

I would invite government members to do as we have done on this side: think of that defence base in or near your electorate, think about the married quarters and the private rentals leased by ADF families, think about the partner and the two or three children that are so common in ADF families and then multiply that number by $7,500 over four years, and you start to see the figures that will provide a meaningful amount for what defence families expect from this policy.

In looking into this bill, I would also like to raise the circumstances of reserve soldiers. Within Perth we have most elements of the headquarters and units of the 13th Brigade. Not far from the electorate of Cowan—in Joondalup, in the electorate of Moore—is D Company of the 16th Battalion, Royal Western Australian Regiment. I know that 16th Battalion has deployed soldiers to the Solomon Islands as part of the company group. For six months they are serving as full-time servicemen. With regard to this bill, it would appear that the families of reservists will not be able to access this health care, but it should be clarified that those who serve on full-time service should have their families looked after. I raise that matter on behalf of the soldiers posted to the 13th Brigade. I also take this opportunity to make mention of the regard that I have—and, we hope, that all members of this place have—for the reservists within the three services.

In Perth, the 13th Brigade consists of the brigade headquarters, the 16th, the 11th/28th Battalions of Light Infantry, the 13th Combat Services Support Battalion, the famous A Squadron of the 10th Light Horse Regiment, the 7th Field Battery of Artillery, the 13th Field Squadron of Engineers and 109 Signals Squadron. Within the formation, and particularly in its units, are reservists, many of whom have served over many years, giving up their holidays and weekends to fulfil their passion—a passion for service of this country in uniform. It is hard to believe that these men and women have time in their lives for anything else apart from their normal jobs and their service commitments as reservists. I pay tribute to their dedicated service to this country, and I believe it is not too much to ask that, when they serve overseas, their families be included in the scope of the policy that the government has put forward but that is not reflected in what is before the House.

Before returning to the bill in detail, I would also like to acknowledge the contribution of Major John Caporn, a long-serving member of the reserve and the 13th Brigade. I understand that in 2008 he celebrated 40 years of service—outstanding service. I know that not just the reservists but the whole Army is rightly proud of such an example of dedication.

I note that the bill also deals with the provision of health care to cadets, although this point is in need of further clarification. I can make the assumption that we are talking about the cadets of the three services as opposed to the staff cadets of Duntroon or the officer cadets of the Australian Defence Force Academy. The clarification of which I speak is that, while cadets are participating in camps sponsored on ADF bases, health care would be provided similar to that provided with the continuous service undertaken by reservists on annual camps. However, does health care get provided to officers or instructors of cadets or their families under these sorts of circumstances? That is the question.

Of course, the minister would be aware that most defence families have placed their private health insurance needs in the hands of the health insurance companies Defence Health or Navy Health. Will the families still need to maintain their health cover? How will this work under the policy that the government has put forward but that, again, is not fully reflected in this bill? Similarly, can we assume that defence families will not have to pay a Medicare contribution?

There remain a lot of questions that need to be answered about how this policy and, in fact, this bill will deliver on the expectations created by the government. I believe that this bill—this policy—will provide great problems for the government. The term ‘free health care’ carries with it the expectation of an equivalent standard of care to that provided to ADF members. I cannot see anything like that in this legislation, yet the policy said free health care, beginning with 12 clinics. I cannot even see that. The question remains: when will we see this government’s stated policy enacted in full and in accordance with the expectations of defence families—those expectations so clearly set by the Labor Party during the election campaign?

I have dealt with the changes put forward by the government for the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952 and its regulations. I will now turn to the proposed amendments for the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 and the Criminal Code Act 1995, being amendments put forward to incorporate a third universal emblem, with the red crystal to join the red cross and the red crescent.

If you examine the history of symbols of protection, you would be aware that, from the time the red cross was officially approved in 1863 in Geneva—the red crescent began being used around 1877 and was approved in 1929—a number of different symbols have been put forward. Generally, and despite differing religious faiths, most nations have adopted either the cross or the crescent. These symbols are authorised for use for facilities for the care of injured and sick armed forces members; for use by armed forces medical personnel and equipment; for use by military chaplains; and for use by international Red Cross and Red Crescent movements such as the International Committee of the Red Cross—ICRC—the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies—IFRC—and the 185 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.

The need for the red crystal has been generated over a number of years and addresses the needs of nations such as Israel that have not been able to adopt either of the two previously recognised symbols, which have perceived residual religious connotations. The need for the legislative changes embodied in this bill before the House originated with the signing on 8 March 2006 of the additional protocol to the Geneva convention of 12 August 1949.

In conclusion, we embrace the need to make the amendments to recognise the red crystal symbol. With regard to the amendments that impact on looking after Defence families, I reiterate that great expectations have been built by the Labor Party, now this federal government. What the government said and what Defence families heard is vastly different to what has been presented to this House. I would suggest to the government that they stop playing around in this area. This is not a matter of semantics. This is a matter of raised expectations that are not being delivered. I suggest to the government that they reflect on what they are doing and get on with delivering exactly what was promised.