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Wednesday, 20 October 2010
Page: 1057


Mr CHEESEMAN (12:27 PM) —Madam Deputy Speaker Bird, before I speak on the Veterans’ Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2010, I would like to congratulate you formally on your re-election at the 2010 election. I do not think I have had the opportunity to do that in this place to date.

The veterans community is a very significant community across my electorate of Corangamite and also my sister electorate, the federal electorate of Corio. In fact, under the veterans affairs legislation, some 3,000 veterans are provided entitlements within my seat and some 2,000-odd in the federal seat of Corio. It is a very active community. A number of service organisations meet regularly with me to advise and discuss matters that concern veterans. I certainly warmly acknowledge the active representations that they make to me.

I would also like to acknowledge the dedicated work of former Minister Alan Griffin, the member for Bruce, who worked in a very diligent way with the veterans community over the last three years to ensure that the Gillard government was responding to their needs. I certainly look forward to working with our new minister, Minister Snowdon, the member for Lingiari, in implementing further reforms that support the veterans community. They have made an outstanding contribution to Australia, and I certainly acknowledge that.

This piece of legislation has been many years in the making. The schedules associated with it have necessarily recognised some changes that have been a long time in the making. I first wish to discuss the Australian participants in the British nuclear test sites, particularly Maralinga, which has been an issue many governments have failed to recognise for a very, very significant period of time. The medical evidence has been mounting over many years that these nuclear tests have caused significant damage to the veterans community. The contribution made by the Deputy Government Whip and the practical example that she highlighted drew parallels to many people in our community suffering from asbestos related diseases. It is not just those who worked for the Australian Federal Police who were impacted on by radioactive dust. Particularly with those suffering mesothelioma and other diseases like that, it is often the women who might have had responsibility in the home for laundering the clothes of their husband or partner who also might have been adversely affected.

It is fair to say that through the white card the government has enabled these Australians to access this measure that has been a long time in the making. The non-liability healthcare treatment provides government funded treatment for cancers in the form of the white card for participants in British nuclear tests in Australia. The Commonwealth police at that period of time—now know as the Australian Federal Police—were previously granted access to non-liability healthcare treatment by an amendment in 2008to the Australian Participants in British Nuclear Tests (Treatment) Act 2006. The extension was granted on the basis of scientific evidence indicating that the unique nature of police and APS officer service increased the possibility of exposure to contaminated dust and dirt. As I relayed earlier, it occurs to me that there is a large parallel here with those suffering mesothelioma and particularly those who might have had responsibility for laundering clothes and the like of their partners or husbands.

The APS officers patrolled the Maralinga area alongside the AFP for many decades to ensure that the site remained safe from the rest of Australia. But that did do significant harm to them, as I understand it. The amendment provides treatment eligibility for APS officers who served at that test site up until 1988, after which time comprehensive precautionary protocols were put in place to prevent exposure. As I indicated earlier, it did take a long, long time for the Commonwealth to recognise the potential harm that that was doing. That is why I am so supportive of these amendments.

The amendment provides treatment eligibility for APS officers who served at that test site up until 1988; after which time, comprehensive precautionary protocols were put in place to prevent exposure. As I indicated earlier, it took a long time for the Commonwealth to recognise the potential harm of that exposure. That is why I am so supportive of these amendments. The amendment allows for APS officers who claim within six months of its introduction to have their treatment reimbursed back to June 2006. I think that recognises that our government has been working on this for a significant period of time, but also that there has been significant harm done. We want to recognise that, and this is a practical way we can as a government—and as a parliament hopefully—recognise the contribution that these men and women paid.

The next schedule that I wish to speak on is the New South Wales government’s introduction of a levy on insurance policy holders to contribute to funding for their state emergency services. As the Deputy Speaker well knows, I am a Victorian and we have sister organisations in Victoria—the CFA and the Victoria State Emergency Services. Having seen over the last couple of years the very significant contribution that the CFA and the SES have made to the Victorian community, I fully appreciate the need to have properly and adequately funded emergency organisations to provide a level of protection for us, whether it is responding to wildfire, which has been a significant issue in Victoria over the last few years, or flooding—this winter seems to have been a particularly wet one. I think it is quite reasonable that the New South Wales government puts in place mechanisms to ensure that their emergency organisations are properly funded to provide that level of protection to all of us.

The third component that I wish to speak to is the issue of claims for travel expenses. Under changes to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, ‘an eligible person may be paid travelling expenses incurred in obtaining treatment’. I think that is quite reasonable. We live in a country that is huge. Many in our veterans community come from rural and regional areas, and travel is a significant impost. I warmly welcome the provision, which will enable travel expenses to be recognised as appropriate. Under the arrangements the time limit for submitting a claim for travel expenses in the above circumstances is three months, and there are no exceptional circumstances provisions to extend that period. I think it is quite reasonable that people are given a window to make their claim for travel expenses and I think three months is adequate time to do that.

The fourth point I wish to touch on is the giving of notices and other documents. A Federal Court decision highlighted the absence of provisions within the Veterans’ Entitlements Act and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 setting out the requirements for service of written notices or other documents under each of those acts. The court found that there were no provisions in the Veterans’ Entitlements Act that specified how a person was to be served with a written notice. As a consequence, section 28A of the Acts Interpretation Act 1901 was applicable to the circumstances of the case.

The amendments to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act and, of course, the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 will require a number of entities under each act, such as the commission or a person’s service chief, to specify in writing the manner in which a notice or other document may be given to a person, and I think that is quite reasonable.

A number of the provisions under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act require persons to be given notices that affect them and may have, of course, legal consequences. According to the judgment, as I am informed, notices sent to a post office box or non-residential address would not be legally effective. I think that is a commonsense decision, and these amendments recognise that judgment. The amendments will ensure that notices and other documents that are served will be legally effective, and that is of course critically important.

This will also protect taxpayer funds in relation to the recovery of overpayments, and will ensure that time limits for appeal periods apply as they are intended to, and again that seems to me to be quite reasonable.

There are a number of other issues spelt out within the amendments which I will not go into. I do again just want to touch on this point: we have some 5,000 people within the broader Geelong area—again, across my seat and the neighbouring seat of Corio—who are paid one way or another and are recognised under the veterans affairs legislation. They have made an outstanding contribution to Australia, and I certainly continue to look forward to working with those veterans’ community organisations to ensure that the Gillard government responds in an appropriate way to their needs, recognising the significant service that they make, and I look forward to working with Minister Snowdon to ensure that we do deliver on that.