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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 7781


Senator SCULLION (10:45 PM) —The minister has provided me answers that are pretty much a broad brush of the areas I wanted to go to. I have to say, Minister, that—and it may be because of the short period of time—the answers to some fairly complicated and technical questions may have been in error. I am heartily disappointed with a couple of aspects of the answers. It is not a matter of the detail. I think the thrust of some of your answers leaves me and, I am sure, many people extremely disappointed.

What I find very difficult to understand—and I am sure most Australians would find it difficult to understand—is why through this process we have somehow made a partner of a veteran less important than the veteran themselves. These are people for whom we have had a special measure because they have cared for a veteran. When people go into a theatre of war, in many circumstances they unfortunately bring it back. Wives have told me, and I am sure many of us in this place have been told, ‘When my husband came back from war we stayed at war.’ We acknowledge the fact that the partner is so important to the continued wellbeing of the veteran that we should treat them differently to welfare recipients. This is an acknowledgement of the special role that that partner plays.

These changes in the legislation appear, Minister, to look at the position of partners and say: ‘We will look after the veterans. No veteran will be worse off.’ The actual payment to the veteran might be to the letter of the law, Minister, but I think it is going to be very hard to convince people that the veteran is somehow better off in the many circumstances where they still rely on their partner. They may be separated from their partner but they still rely on them, particularly when the veteran gets ill. We have found many circumstances where partners return and become the carer again. They may not live in a marriage-like relationship, but the partner certainly is a carer again. I think we are walking away from a position where we have given particular importance to the partner.

That is why the opposition have been somewhat miffed at the motive for this. I understand that the razor gang has been out and everybody has to do their bit of cutting. It is a tough business; I acknowledge that. This issue is too sensitive to politicise, so I acknowledge that everyone has their job to do. You say they are no worse off, but $28 million does not come from me and you, Minister. Somebody else has made a contribution. And if you say it is not the veterans then the only demographic left is veterans’ partners. Veterans’ partners are going to be $28 million or thereabouts worse off. That is an awful lot of money in quite a small group of people. Whilst I appreciate the answers to the questions, the opposition are completely unconvinced by them.

We are going to support the government amendments. The amendments substantially deal with section 2AA, and I think that is a fundamental that will move the legislation forward. It will not go to where we want it to go, but we will always support amendments that move legislation to a better place. I think that is the job of everybody in here. The amendments do not move the legislation to where we think it should be, but we are happy to support them because they do move it to a better place.

I have to say, Minister, that there are still many questions. I have been in the same position in this chamber and I know that the provision of information on short notice can be very difficult. I acknowledge you have done your best. But I am left with the feeling that many of these issues have not been properly thought out. As I said earlier, this has been policy on the run. I acknowledge I make mistakes every day in my life. I just get on with it and change them and fix them. And that is obviously what has been done here. Clearly we have acknowledged that there have to be some changes. There has been some feedback and the government has now moved to make changes. But perhaps the best thing would have been to take the advice of a number of individuals who were very close to the matter. Some time ago, when the legislation was originally dealt with, the shadow minister for veterans’ affairs and member for Greenway, Louise Markus, moved a second reading amendment, which said the House:

… condemns the Government’s stubborn determination to insist that from 1 January 2009 partners who are separated but not divorced from their veteran spouse and who have not reached the age for the age pension, will have their partner service pension eligibility cease 12 months after being separated or immediately if the veteran enters a marriage-like relationship …

That was a very difficult time. Nobody in this place wants suddenly to step in the way of a budget measure. It was a big deal. Suddenly we were all responsible and people were going to hit us on the head with hammers. This is a slightly different circumstance, but the amendments are perfectly where we are going. They are where we should have been going right back then. I think the member for Greenway needs to be commended for the foresight of that particular amendment.

The coalition will be supporting your amendments but we will be bringing other amendments forward. You say the test for this is that veterans will be no worse off, but not only is this a test about veterans; it is a test about families. In these circumstances we cannot excise an individual from the family or community unit, say, ‘We’re just dealing with him,’ and forget about the support groups that naturally support him. All the veterans will tell you that there is no-one more important than their partner. They will acknowledge that, even if they are separated from their partner and the circumstances are not perfect, the most important thing in the period of their lives since they returned from whatever theatre they were in has been their partner. I do not think we can separate them. The government has said, ‘We can’t take it off veterans but in this area who else can we take it off?’ That has enabled it to cut some $28 million. It sounds a lot of money to someone outside this place. Because of the sort of pain and lack of support that this will involve, and in view of the fact that we do not appear to have done much modelling, it is not something we support. We will be supporting the amendment, but we will be moving further amendments so we can have a better circumstance.