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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 7661


Senator SIEWERT (12:48 PM) —The Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Further 2008 Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2008 is an omnibus bill that deals with three very different but important issues for families. Schedule 1 introduces changes to the maternity immunisation allowance, which will see payments to families split into two parts. Each payment will now be timed to coincide with the due date of the immunisation. This measure also extends eligibility to families who have adopted children from overseas. In our view this is a useful amendment to the immunisation allowance.

As Senator Scullion just articulated, schedule 3 introduces changes to child support arrangements. These are relatively minor changes to the Child Support (Assessment) Act 1989 and the Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act 1988. These changes have raised few concerns with those who gave evidence to the Senate inquiry; however, many of the comments that the Senate inquiry received into this bill related to other problems that have emerged from the 2006 reforms, which are only just being put in place now. These problems with child support are significant and we believe they need to be addressed, but we agree that this particular bill is not the vehicle for addressing those concerns. We trust that the government will take on board the concerns raised in the committee of inquiry when reviewing more extensively the implementation of the 2006 changes and the operation of the act.

Schedule 2—I am sure we are going to hear a lot about it today—is the most contentious element of this bill as it introduces amendments that impact on the eligibility for the partner service pension. I would like to address these proposed changes in more detail. On the positive side, the age of eligibility for partner service pension has been lowered from 58.5 years to 50 years, where the veteran is in receipt of certain categories above general rate disability pension. This measure softens the impact of the increase in age eligibility for partner service pension that was passed by the Senate earlier this year. This raised the age of eligibility for partner service pension from age 50 to age 58.5 years. This is part of an overall approach to equalise eligibility for all people—men and women. The changes also reflect a move to ensure that a person is supported not because of their dependency on another, but in their own right. They will no longer receive a pension or income support on the basis of their dependent relationship.

In principle the Greens agree with this aspect of government policy but, like all social changes, it has potentially large impacts and these need to be managed thoughtfully and carefully. We are therefore pleased that in the case of veterans with higher levels of disability their partner will continue to be eligible for the partner service pension at the younger age, and we support this amendment.

There is a second change to eligibility for the partner service pension in schedule 2, and this is much less welcome. Under current legislation, separated partners of veterans remain on the partner service pension unless they enter into another marriage-like relationship. The government bill proposes that separated partners of veterans lose their entitlement to the pension once they have been separated from the veteran for a period of 12 months. The government originally proposed that they would lose their entitlement immediately if the veteran commenced another relationship. Many of these people—and, let’s face it, these are nearly all women that we are talking about—expected to receive their partner pension for the rest of their lives. Many have been out of the workforce for a considerable period and are unlikely to have superannuation or recent employment skills. So, when this amendment was announced, it understandably caused a great deal of concern. My office received many letters, emails and phone calls, and I am sure every other member of parliament in Australia—particularly of the federal parliament—received similar emails, letters and phone calls.

This change has the potential to impact the wellbeing and financial security of a group of people who have, in many cases, faced considerable hardship. These people face the prospect of being advised by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs that they have lost their entitlement to the pension. Prior to the government circulating amendments, which I will get to later, there was the prospect that a certain group of partners, of women, would have had their pensions cancelled from 1 January. I will go on to these amendments shortly.

Many partners—and, again, we are talking about women here—have had to separate from their veteran partner because of physical or mental health issues. We heard evidence during the committee inquiry that some partners have spent a considerable period living with, caring for and supporting a veteran partner suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, or other significant physical or mental health issues. Largely, these are veterans whose mental health has been recognised by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. In fact, out of the 580 separated couples affected by this legislation, 390 include a veteran with either a mental illness or post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of the partners in these relationships have suffered from violence and psychological abuse as a result of living with their veteran. These partners have, in many cases, stayed for many years with their veteran but have finally had to leave the family home due to the threat of violence or psychological abuse.

Some partners have managed to remain in contact with their veteran, and they have maintained a social and public life as a family and as a couple. This has particularly been the case when the veteran’s illness is episodic. During times when the veteran is well, the family is able to reunite, in some sense. Couples who are separated due to physical or mental illness are likely to fall into the category of illness separated couples. An illness separated couple usually refers to a couple who have been separated due to one partner being in hospital, in respite or in aged care. However, as officials from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs explained to the inquiry, a couple who live apart due to the veteran’s psychological condition can also be considered an illness separated couple. This means that the separated partner will retain an entitlement to the partner service pension as long as neither partner commences another relationship and as long as they continue to maintain their relationship as a couple, even while living apart. That is termed a ‘married-like relationship’.

However, there is another group of partners who, for reasons of safety, have not maintained contact or have been unable to maintain contact with the veteran. These are partners who lived with their veteran partner for many years until their mental illness became so threatening that they felt forced to leave for their own safety and/or for the safety of their children. Neither partner has remarried and, in some cases, they have tried unsuccessfully to reconcile, but mental illness suffered by the veteran has made it impossible for the partner to stay without suffering further abuse. The inquiry into this legislation allowed the voices of this particularly vulnerable group of partners to be heard. The Greens were pleased to hear from a number of individuals and organisations that support partners of veterans. We listened very carefully to what they had to say. We particularly thank the organisations for representing the views of their membership in such an effective manner, both to the committee inquiry and also to us individually.

As outlined in our report to the inquiry, the Greens have some concerns about the eligibility of separated partners to receive the partner service pension. We have some concerns around the issues that were raised in the inquiry but we do not reject the change completely, believing that it reflects societal change. The government bill means that a partner of working age who has separated but not yet divorced from their veteran is no longer able to receive a partner service pension for life. If the marriage has ended—for the many reasons that marriages do end—then we accept that the separated partner should no longer have access to the partner service pension because of their dependency. We agree that, in many cases, these people need the support of the community and need some form of income support but not due to their dependency. We agree, as a reflection of societal change, that a person has the right to support as an individual. We agree with the move towards people being eligible for income support in their own right rather than on the basis of a relationship in which they are dependent on another.

However, there were some aspects of the bill that we believe were not fair or just to many of the partners, many of whom are women. They have been caught in the middle because of these changes and because certain aspects of the bill originally did not consider their circumstances.

The evidence to the inquiry clearly indicated consequences of the government’s bill, some of which we believed were simply unfair. Since the inquiry, I am pleased that the government has, in fact, taken on board these concerns and is proposing some amendments. A dissenting report to the inquiry focused particularly on the situation facing the most vulnerable group of partners. These are the partners who have been unable to maintain contact with their veteran due to the extreme nature of their mental illness, which has led to domestic violence and a threat to the personal safety of the partner and, in some cases, children. Partners and veterans in this situation are not considered illness separated couples. If you were recognised as an illness separated couple, you would be okay. Because a person’s illness has resulted in domestic violence, you cannot maintain contact and you cannot maintain a marriage-like relationship. These people were caught up in these provisions.

We are pleased that the government has agreed to amend the bill so that partners in this situation remain eligible for the partner service pension—that is, they will be regarded as illness separated couples. We support this amendment because it protects a very vulnerable group of people who have already suffered a lot and who stood to face further suffering by elements of this bill.

A very serious concern that was also raised in the inquiry was the lack of a transition period. The inquiry into this legislation was held in November. The legislation is now before the Senate and was due to come into effect on 1 January 2009. We do not believe this is an adequate time frame for people to adjust to the changes in their lives. Those partners who will lose their entitlement to the partner service pension may be eligible for income from Centrelink or they may need to seek at least part-time employment and reorganise their finances. It certainly effects change in their lives, and if we can possibly ameliorate the adverse impacts of change on people’s lives we should do that. We believe these women need more time to adjust than the brief period between this legislation passing—by the end of this week—and 1 January, which is less than four weeks away. We are pleased, therefore, that the government has amended the date when this bill will commence and it will now commence on 1 July. This gives those who may lose their entitlement a greater period of time to adjust to the change. We think this transition period is essential to those affected.

The government has suggested another amendment that we support. The bill proposes that on 1 January a person separated from a veteran partner will lose entitlement to the partner service pension immediately if the veteran establishes another relationship. This places the partner at the mercy of the veteran’s decision. Now, with the amendments to the bill introduced by the government, as we understand it a person in this situation will also be entitled to a 12-month period of separation that applies to all separated partners before they lose eligibility for the pension. The Greens are pleased the government has responded to concerns with these amendments. These amendments act to protect the most vulnerable group of partners. An area that was particularly pointed out during the Senate inquiry was the issue of domestic violence and of those who have separated and cannot maintain a marriage-like relationship as a direct result of the mental illness suffered by the veteran.

Partners over the pension age will remain on the partner service pension. Partners with dependant children are still entitled to partner service pensions. Partners separated from their veteran due to psychological illness will, in many cases, still be eligible to receive their partner service pension. The Greens also believe that it is important that the government ensures the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is properly resourced so that it can properly handle the inquiries received and fully respond to people’s concerns while they reorganise their lives and their finances. I must add here that evidence received at the inquiry suggested that the minister’s office and the department had been very responsive and very helpful to those people who had contacted the offices and who were trying to assist the 580 people who are potentially affected by this legislation.

As with any process of social transition, people deserve to be fully informed and consulted. The creation of a special team within the department to administer the change in legislation is a good basis for this. As I said, we are pleased that the government have listened to the concerns expressed, have particularly dealt with the transition period so that people have time to adjust, have provided more time for partners whose veteran partner remarries, and have dealt with that particularly vulnerable group of people who have had to separate from their partner due to mental illness by providing for them and clearly specifying them as illness separated couples.

The Greens support this legislation on the basis of these amendments because we think that it deals with the very significant issues that were raised during the Senate inquiry and makes this bill much fairer on those people who are potentially affected by the changes in this legislation. As I said earlier, the Greens do accept that we are making a societal transition not only to recognise that men and women should be dealt with equally under our social security system but also to recognise that a person has a right to income support or a pension in their own right—not as a dependant on somebody else. This legislation enacts both of those concepts.