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Thursday, 24 March 2011
Page: 3382

Dr MIKE KELLY (Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (11:11 AM) —I thank the honourable member for Fadden for his contribution. I feel like I should be tithing my wage to him for the wonderful comments that he made during his speech. I want to acknowledge here that the member for Fadden is genuinely concerned about our defence members and our veterans. I have absolutely no doubt about that. We had very genuine collaboration on many issues concerning veterans matters, particularly when I had responsibility for the honours and awards aspect of the Defence portfolio. But I have also noticed that the member, in his time in parliament, has acquired some very impressive acting skills. If we want to deal with the entire spectrum of the issue of veterans affairs and defence matters, we will see that they do not all begin in 2007; they have quite a long history that goes back during the 12 years of the Howard government. I could throw out a few one-liners that would encapsulate many of those issues—things like ‘Seasprite’, ‘LCMs’, ‘Manoora and Kanimbla’ et cetera. I could go on and on, and a calculation could be applied there that would stretch to the billions of dollars.

I could also talk about the superannuation issue and the fact that there were 12 years during which the Howard government might have thought they could deal with that issue. I do not know where they were on that front; ‘missing in action’ might be the description we could apply. Nothing happened. If resolving this superannuation question were such a big issue—and certainly there are matters to be discussed there—why did nothing happen for 12 years? The bill that the member refers to is, I think, quite despicable and I do not support it. It is a divide and rule measure which does not also deal with the issue of civilian superannuated pensioners. But it is very hard to take the opposition seriously when they had the opportunity to do some of the things they have been talking about and did not do them.

But I am very proud of the measures that have been taken by this government in relation to veterans entitlements. It is a spectacular record. The Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (MRCA Supplement) Bill 2011 is a housekeeping bill, as the member has quite correctly pointed out. You will need to do housekeeping from time to time if you are a reformist government that takes on the big issues. Of course, you do not need to do housekeeping if you do not ever do anything—if you do not actually take on reform. These things are easier to do if you just sit back and say, ‘I’m not going to fix this; I’m not going to fix that.’ The legislative liability then becomes quite small. You can have quite an easy life, which is what we saw during the Howard years, the Rip Van Winkle years when nothing was done. This is a reformist government. This is a government that is determined and prepared to take on the big challenges, and the challenges of veterans affairs are some of the largest. There are so many things that need to be cleared up in this space.

The Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (MRCA Supplement) Bill 2011 deals with a situation that arose in relation to an election that wholly dependent partners of deceased members could make in relation to lump sum payments or weekly payments. In the six-month period when they were able to make that election there were anomalies that were evident in our overall pension reform package in relation to the pharmaceutical allowance. This legislation will clarify that position. There is also an aspect that needed to be cleared up and tidied up in relation to double dipping, which is perhaps the shorthand way of expressing that. This legislation clears up the conflicting aspects of the application of the Social Security Act, the Veterans’ Entitlements Act and the MRCA.

I feel that we should respond to the challenges that have been thrown out there by the honourable member for Fadden in his advocacy, which I applaud. Let us get the facts straight. Let us run through some of the things this government has done for veterans. Let us start with the fair indexation for all veterans compensation pensions from 20 March 2008, where we indexed those pensions to both CPI and MTAWE. The PBLCI, the pensioner and beneficiary living cost index, has also been employed to make sure that we have an accurate reflection of the actual cost of living for these recipients. This was a significant reform measure. There was also an increase in the extreme disablement adjustment pension of $15 per fortnight from 20 March 2008 and an increase in non-economic loss compensation payments from 2008.

The general rate table to assess payment amounts has been increased by five per cent. We have improved the indexation of the war widows domestic allowance so that from 20 March 2008 that allowance has been increased by $10 per fortnight. We have provided $50 million for national transport concessions so that seniors card holders who use public transport services outside their home state can have that access and facility, as applied in their states and territories, right across the nation—a very significant measure. We provided extra financial support through our Making Ends Meet initiative. The utilities allowance for eligible pensioners was increased to $500 per annum paid in quarterly instalments. The seniors concession allowance was also increased and the telephone allowance raised.

Secure and sustainable pension reforms have benefited over 320,000 of our service pensioners and war widows to the tune of more than $1.1 billion announced in the 2009-10 budget. Those new payments commenced on 20 September 2009 so that single service pensioners and war widows now receive up to $32.49 extra per week and service pensioners on the couples rate receive up to $10.14 extra per week combined. Those on disability pensions who qualify for the service pension, age pension or disability support pension, including over 80 per cent of the totally and permanently incapacitated pensioners, receive the increase in line with their financial circumstances.

We have increased funding for the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training program by an additional $1 million. A comprehensive Australian Defence Force Mental Health Lifecycle Package has been introduced. We have improved mental health support by implementing the two studies into this issue that were instituted by this government, and $92 million has been allocated for the implementation of both reports. Key initiatives such as case coordinators in DVA are now in place supporting clients with complex needs, and other recommendations are still being implemented.

We have got extended repeat prescriptions for the chronically ill so that 290,000 veterans and war widows with chronic health conditions can now get up to a 12-month supply on a single prescription for some medication, reducing the number of times they need to see a doctor just to obtain prescriptions. We have included young ex-service people with disabilities in the Commonwealth State and Territory Disability Agreement. That commenced on 1 January 2009 and includes a commitment to ensure that these younger veterans have access to specialist disability services where DVA programs are not available to provide the care and support they need and require.

We have improved community care and support for those with chronic and complex conditions. We are beginning a new, $152.7 million initiative to increase community based support for those with chronic conditions and complex care needs who are at risk of unnecessary hospitalisation. The program includes $28 million to expand the Veterans’ Home Care program by introducing a new service to target older, frailer veterans, who are most at risk. An estimated 17,000 veterans and war widows will benefit from that initiative alone. We are providing zero-real-interest loans for aged-care facilities. We have been delivering that initiative since 17 September 2008, supporting the development and expansion of aged care services. We intend to extend this initiative, providing a further $300 million in loans to support the development of up to 2,500 aged care places.

We have extended support for the families of veterans. We have extended the income support supplement to widows without dependents. This commenced in July 2008 and involved the abolition of the age restriction on the payment. We had the Vietnam veterans family study. We extended bereavement payments for single TPI and EDA veterans who die without sufficient assets to pay for a funeral. That enabled those families dealing with the loss of their loved ones without sufficient assets to pay for a funeral to get support, and that commenced on 1 July 2008. We had the automatic granting of war widow’s pension to widows of TTI—temporarily totally incapacitated—and intermediate rate pensioners. The automatic granting of that commenced on 1 July 2008.

We have empowered the ex-service community. We have increased the financial assistance for ex-service organisations with an additional $5 million. Total funding of $14.9 million will be made available over four years. There is a new consultation framework with the Prime Minister’s advisory council for these ex-service organisations, because even though we have done so much there will always be more to do and issues that need to be addressed. We now have a permanent mechanism by which we can stay engaged with that stakeholder community to deliver the outcomes that are necessary. The council has met eight times now, and we have looked at a range of issues, including the Clarke review and the F-111 deseal-reseal issue, which was in a bit of a mess prior to this government coming on board. Other bodies have been established, including the ESO roundtable and a series of issues-based committees to advise both the Repatriation Commission and the government.

We have improved the operation of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs by establishing an interdepartmental working group to help deal with multiple agencies. We have formed a special claims unit that has cut processing times. We have revisited the recommendations of the Clarke review. We have implemented the issues that were not being dealt with and addressed issues such as the changes in access to pensions and health care under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act for former ADF British nuclear test participants using more generous and reasonable hypothesis-based standards of proof, and other measures including the reclassifying of the service of personnel on certain submarine special operations from peacetime to qualifying service. A number of other recommendations were referred to the review of military compensation arrangements that is expected to report by the end of the year.

We have established a DVA hotline to assist ex-service officials. We have maintained a separate and properly funded Department of Veterans’ Affairs. I am very proud of the things that we have done to clear up decades worth of issues in lack of recognition and problems that are outstanding in the honours and awards fields. That was a particularly pleasing aspect of what we have done. These things went back as far as the Second World War and included the small ships issue and the 2nd D&E Platoon recognition. There were also the Long Tan issues that were left in such a mess by the previous government; the recognition of escapees among prisoners of war; the Battle for Australia Day and Merchant Navy Day issues; and the implementation of the Post-Armistice Korean Service Review recommendations, which I know was so well and eagerly received by the wonderful Korean service veterans, who were long overdue to have that matter resolved. There was also the declaration of the Ballarat prisoner of war memorial as a national memorial. I am particularly proud of this, as my own grandfather has his name on that memorial as having survived the Burma-Thailand Railway experience. It is so important that we do honour and recognise the incredible experience that so many members of our Defence Force endured with great suffering. There is $10 million for an interpretive trail on the Western Front. There is the establishment of the Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal, which took such a lot of effort and did receive bipartisan support, for which I thank the member for Fadden.

The Gillard government is now engaged in many other initiatives which will be put into place. Through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in 2010-11 we have seen funding of $12.1 billion, including the $6.9 billion for compensation and income support and $5.2 billion for health and health services. That is $1.3 billion more than was provided in the last coalition budget, and it is being provided over a period when DVA’s client numbers have decreased from around 440,000 to fewer than 380,000.

There are many other issues that would take me too long to go through, but they include issues to do with the Military Health Outcomes Program; reviewing aged-care needs of veterans; making community mental health more ex-service friendly; pharmaceutical reimbursement schemes; dealing with the longstanding mess that was left to us by the previous government on military superannuation and the Podger review; review of DVA funded ESO advocacy and welfare services; legacy of war-wounded personnel; et cetera et cetera.

I am particularly pleased with the $83 million that has been committed to implement improvements in mental health. We are pursuing new rehabilitation policies. We are very determined to make sure that our veterans receive the support that they deserve. Of course, there are many other issues that relate to how our service personnel deal with their day-to-day commitments in the Defence Force which are not well understood by the general community, and the risks and sacrifices they make. I take my hat off to them and I take this opportunity to salute them.

I also take this opportunity to thank two of my staff who did so much hard and excellent work in resolving many of these outstanding issues on honours and awards in particular. They are Mr Mark Sjolander of my office and Ms Elyse Gatt, known to us as Elsie. They did great work in liaising with these wonderful veterans and I am so pleased to see the outcomes that they have helped to deliver and the peace of mind and satisfaction that we have seen on those veterans’ faces. I commend this bill to the House.