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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 7671

Senator HUMPHRIES (1:32 PM) —I want to make a brief contribution to this debate not only because the Senate has plenty on its plate this week but also because previous senators have so well demonstrated in their comments the reasons we should be concerned about the direction of the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Further 2008 Budget and Other Measures) Bill 2008. I particularly refer to Senator Scullion and Senator Boyce’s excellent contributions. This legislation attempts to civilianise the arrangements for the separated partners of veterans. I think it is extremely clear that we do this in a way which fails to acknowledge the very clear and exceptional circumstances in which these partners so often find themselves.

It has been said by the government that we should not treat partners in these circumstances any differently from anybody else in the community who happens to be separated from a person with an entitlement to a pension. I think that the evidence before the Australian community today suggests that there are very good reasons for treating these people in a different fashion from other potential recipients of welfare payments from government. My attention has in recent years been drawn—and I would be surprised if other senators were not also well aware of this—to the Vietnam Veterans Family Study program, a very ambitious program to analyse the health and social needs of those who served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975. The study has a cohort of 20,000 people: 10,000 Vietnam veterans and a control group of 10,000 Army personnel who served between those years but did not serve in Vietnam. It demonstrates that there is a great deal that we need to understand about the various health and social needs of those people and their families. The study includes the veterans themselves and their families—that is, their partners, ex-partners, children and stepchildren, as well as the veterans’ siblings and their families.

The physical effects on these people of things such as Agent Orange and other hazardous materials are better understood than they once were and are still being explored, but the psychological impact on veterans and their families is an issue which remains substantially a mystery to the Australian community, particularly the Australian government. The psychological pressures on veterans and their families need to be better understood before changes of the kind which are put forward in this legislation are proceeded with. I would be surprised if anybody in this chamber had not had some contact with the Vietnam veteran community around the country. My contact in this territory as a territory senator suggests that there are a number of problems and issues associated with that service to veterans and the impact of that service on their families which the community and its representatives work through

It is absolutely wrong, in my view, to assume that a partner of a veteran who separates from that veteran should be treated like any other woman—they are generally women—and simply be required to go out into the workforce, obtain employment and obtain a Newstart allowance as if they were somebody who simply had not been in the workforce for some period of time and were now required to seek work. These people are in a different position. They have been affected by their veteran partners’ service, their needs are very different and the work that many of these people have done to support the veterans and the children and dependents of those veterans over a period of time puts them in a very different position from other people in apparently analogous situations. To require these generally older women to be seeking employment when, despite their separation, they might still have responsibilities to the veteran and the veteran’s family is, in my view, an obnoxious concept, and I call on the government to reconsider the direction it takes with this legislation.

I welcome the amendments the government has put forward, and I think they are valuable in mitigating the effect of this legislation. But, as Senator Boyce has clearly indicated, in a sense the amendments the government is going to move in this place make the legislation itself, with respect to the partner service pension, even more objectionable. The number of people we are talking about is very small—perhaps only 200 or 300 people, mainly women. They have separated from their veteran partner and there is no identifiable psychological condition which can bring them into the category of an ‘illness separated partner’. These people are not great in number and, therefore, the saving that the government hopes to make by effecting these amendments will not be significant. We cannot say with certainty in the case of these 200 or 300 women just what the background for the separation is and, therefore, whether that separation may not be attributable to the service concerned and whether it would still be unreasonable in these circumstances to require them to seek employment as if they were persons who had simply chosen to be out of the workforce for 10, 20 or 30 years. These people still face significant burdens of responsibility. These people may still have a range of other issues to deal with in the context of their family responsibilities which I believe warrant different treatment. Given the amount the government proposes to save by effecting these amendments, we should ask ourselves whether these amendments really are a manifestation of good public policy. Frankly, I sincerely doubt it.

We are left in a position where the government has realised it has gone too far in its original concept of these amendments. The government is pulling back to some degree from the original effects so that some of these women are being pulled back into an entitlement to a partner service pension. But the question remains: are we really certain that the people who are not caught by these amendments should be treated like people who are simply entering the workforce after a period of being outside the workforce? If we cannot answer that question satisfactorily, we should err on the side of caution and leave them within the net that we have created as an acknowledgement for the service of their partners or ex-partners. These people have given service in exceptional circumstances, particularly where they have been involved in a theatre of war. We know they will come back with potentially a number of conditions of a psychological nature which we will not and cannot fully understand. If we do not understand the nature of the burden which these people bear, which they have incurred in the name of the nation, then we owe it to them to give them some leniency and acknowledge the pressure on them and their families and protect them to some extent from the pressures which other people might face in analogous circumstances.

I welcome the government’s amendments. I am sorry they do not acknowledge that the amendment to reduce any entitlement to a pension at all is unwarranted. I hope the Senate will consider seriously the amendments which are going to being moved by the coalition to maintain the entitlement of these wives to a pension even if they cannot establish a psychological condition which warrants their separation from their partner.