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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 7659

Senator SCULLION (12:38 PM) —I rise to speak on the second reading of the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Further 2008 Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2008. It has three schedules. Schedule 1 and schedule 3, whilst I will make some submissions on them, are fairly non-controversial for us. It is schedule 2 that I will come back to and spend a little time on.

Schedule 1 makes amendments to align the maternity immunisation allowance with the National Immunisation Program by paying the allowance for children who meet the 18-month and four-year-old immunisation requirements in two payments instead of one. Two half-payments of the maternity immunisation allowance will be available for children up to the age of five. An additional eligibility category will allow payment of the MIA for a child between four and five years of age, provided eligibility is met and all immunisation requirements are also met.

The maternity immunisation allowance paid in respect of older, overseas adopted children will be the full rate of the MIA. Overall, no more than two half-payments or one full payment of the MIA will be made in respect of any child. This bill also extends the eligibility for the maternity immunisation allowance to children adopted from overseas who enter Australia before turning 16 and who are immunised appropriately after arrival.

The opposition supports this measure. It builds upon initiatives introduced by the previous government that significantly increase the funding for and the rates of child immunisation. In 1995, immunisation rates for children from birth to six years were as low as 52 per cent. The coalition government’s policies and programs improved that rate to an all-time high of within 90 per cent of all children from 12 to 15 months being fully immunised. We continue to support that aspect of the legislation.

I turn now to schedule 3. This schedule deals with child support and makes minor technical amendments to the child support legislation. It addresses a number of anomalies and clarifies aspects of the child support formula reforms that commenced on 1 July 2008. The schedule is set out in seven parts. I think it is of note that each part has its own commencement date, with some delays to 28 days after royal assent. This is for service delivery reasons and to allow changes to some of the computer systems for delivery aspects and forms and to allow staff to ensure that they are trained appropriately. The opposition again supports these amendments to the child support system as they continue to build on the significant reforms to the child support system introduced by the previous government, and adopted by the Rudd Labor government, that are delivering a strong and fairer system.

I move now to schedule 2 of the bill. We spoke out against this schedule when it was first introduced in the other place. The opposition and others have been pretty forthright in their criticism of particular aspects of this schedule. In the previous budget, the government announced two major changes to veterans entitlements, and they are included in this bill. They relate to the partner service pension.

Firstly, the government announced that, as of 1 January 2009, those who are separated—that is, partners of veterans who are separated but still legally married to a veteran—will cease receiving the partner service pension. It was anticipated that this measure would provide a net saving to the government of $33.9 million over four years. The government then increased their forecast saving on this item to $40.6 million over four years. Under this measure, eligibility for the partner service pension will cease 12 months after separation or immediately if the veteran enters a marriage-like relationship. The opposition continue to be opposed to this matter, and we are not alone in that matter. The RSL says:

It is the strong belief of the RSL, that the passage of the section of the Bill that relates to the cessation of eligibility for Partner Service Pension for those partners who are separated but not divorced from their Veteran spouse and who have not reached age pension age would cause undue hardship and distress to the separated spouse. It should be noted that the separated spouse is still legally married to the Veteran.

I know that there are many other stakeholders and many individuals across Australia who have provided a voice, not only to the opposition but also to the government and the media, on this matter. I am pleased to see that the government are introducing some amendments across the board in the schedule that hopefully will deal with those matters.

The second aspect of this is that the government announced another measure which further erodes veteran entitlements, and that is an increase in the eligibility age for the partner service pension, which was previously 50 years. What have the government done? In the last budget, they said: ‘As a cost-saving measure, we’re going to increase the eligibility age to 58.5 years for women and 60 years for men.’ That came into effect on 1 July 2008.

The government now proposes to make changes to its own unpopular legislation—and as I have said they have justifiably received significant opposition from many quarters on this matter. During the election campaign so many promises were made but I still recall, as I am sure those on the other side will, Kevin Rudd saying that veterans would not be worse off under a Labor government. That was an absolute commitment. It was another one of those commitments for which, as we look in the rear-view mirror—I am not sure if it is a bit cloudy or there has been a change in temperature—the image does seem to be becoming very misty. This is just another example of how an actual promise to a particular section of our community has been clearly breached.

They said veterans would not be worse off under a Rudd government, but in the first budget—

Senator Stephens interjecting—

Senator SCULLION —We have had an interjection from the other side saying ‘How can they possibly be worse off?’ Well, I will put it to the Australian people to work that out. In the first budget, the government ripped $113 million out of veterans entitlements with those two measures alone. I understand, as I am sure all veterans across Australia do, that if you are $113 million worse off through two entitlements then you are worse off. I do not think it takes a rocket scientist to work that out.

I do not want to verbal the government, but it certainly appears to be intended to shift a veterans entitlement into some sort of a welfare payment. Certainly, in real terms people would, under those circumstances, be shifting from an entitlement that is a very special entitlement that recognises the very special contribution that veterans and their partners have made to this country. Because of the changes, there is the potential that instead of receiving an entitlement after 12 months you suddenly would simply be receiving Newstart. That is something that we think is completely unacceptable. It absolutely ignores the often life-long commitment given and the stress endured by many partners in support of our veterans when they return from serving our country.

The changes to the age eligibility proposed in this bill demonstrate that the government now recognise that veterans are worse off under this government and that they are attempting to rectify bad policy on the run. The coalition strongly believes that veterans are entitled to special entitlements, particularly as a way of recognising the special contribution and sacrifices made not only by the men and women who have served overseas and served our country but also by their partners.

I must also make the point that the changes made by the government after it was elected have attacked the income of veterans. This is from a government that came to office claiming to support veterans. It has been all talk from the government—plenty of headline-grabbing announcements followed up by half-baked policy. They have not even defrosted this pie. Talk about half baked—it is still hard in the middle. I am not surprised about the number of veterans, particularly those who supported the government, who would be looking to get their money back.

We have got policy on the run that is being dictated by a razor gang determined to slash spending. It can only lead to a reduction in pension and entitlement payments. This is what the opposition said would happen. This is what we predicted when these cuts were announced in the budget. We now see the attack on the veterans coming home to bite the government. I have to say that I will always acknowledge good behaviour, and I acknowledge that the amendments the government are putting forward do, to some degree, ameliorate the pain that they have caused the veteran community.

As I alluded to earlier in this speech, we have a number of amendments that we will be moving to this schedule in the legislation because we do not believe that the amendments that will be brought by the government—we have yet to hear them and we will see how they go—will go far enough to ensure that the very special contribution made by the veteran community to this country is acknowledged through their entitlements.