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Monday, 30 March 1987
Page: 1694

Mr FITZGIBBON(4.05) —I am very pleased to speak in support of the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 1987. This Bill brings benefits to members of the veteran community-veterans, I might add, who have made a magnificent contribution to the Australian nation and are very deserving of having their benefits improved. I am a very loyal supporter of those men and women who have served our country in times of war. I will fight constantly to see that they are treated justly. I will fight equally as hard for benefits for those spouses who underwent the ordeal of waiting and praying while their loved ones were defending our country. It is perhaps unnecessary to add that the sentiments held by me are held equally as strongly by the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt) and many other honourable members on this side of the House. I particularly pay tribute to the Minister and his staff, who are always conscientious and diligent in assisting with any problems any individual might take to them. I also thank Mr Terry Johnston, the Regional Director of Veterans' Affairs in the Hunter Valley, his staff and all the personnel of the various sub-branches in the Hunter electorate who have extended courtesy and assistance to me.

The sentiments shared by many members on this side of the House are also held by many honourable members opposite but, unfortunately, some honourable members opposite try desperately to score cheap political points at this Government's expense. This present Opposition is more dishonest than any Opposition in the history of Australian politics. The present Opposition, which has more divisions than a picket fence and more in-fighting and treacherous intrigue than a Machiavellian court, appears not to know how to handle the truth. The present Opposition is not prepared to be fair dinkum with the Australian electorate. It will not tell the Australian people the truth. It will not admit that this nation's economic problems are due to the reduced prices we are receiving for our export commodities. It refuses to admit that our current economic difficulties are not the fault of this Government. It is not prepared to admit that this Government is handling difficult economic circumstances far more capably than the Opposition would be able to do were it sufficiently fortunate to win office.

This Opposition has promised to abolish a whole range of taxes in a cheap attempt to exploit discontent, but, as pointed out by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), the Treasurer (Mr Keating) and various speakers on this side of the House, the Opposition has a $16 billion credibility gap. The Australian voter knows that it is impossible for the Opposition to balance its figures. There is no way it could raise the revenue lost if it ever had the opportunity to restore pensions to millionaires and free lunches for the white shoe brigade. No matter how hard it socked the pensioners, no matter how harshly it deprived the non-wealthy and no matter how many Great Barrier Reef islands it sold, there is no way it could provide a humane or rational approach to our nation's economic problems.

The Opposition seeks to win brownie points by saying that we should do more for veterans. Yet, by opposing the Australia Card and by seeking to protect tax and welfare cheats, it is denying this Government $4.7 billion of revenue over the next 10 years. No wonder the coalition parties are proving an autumn party and their members are falling like leaves. The honourable member for Kooyong (Mr Peacock) has fallen; Senator Peter Baume has fallen; and half a dozen other coalition names have drifted past my window.

This Bill brings all veterans the poverty traps reforms announced by the Treasurer in September 1985. These poverty traps reforms have been incorporated into the Social Security Act and will come into effect on 1 July this year. The Bill gives service pensioners the opportunity to earn extra money before the rate of their service pensions is affected. From 1 July single service pensioners can earn an extra $10 a week before their service pension is affected by the income test, and service pensioner couples can earn an extra $20 a week. Additionally, from 1 July a service pensioner with dependent children can earn double the amount of income. The income a service pensioner can receive will rise from $6 to $12 a week per child. This increase means that a single service pensioner with one dependent child will be able to earn up to $52 a week without his service pension being affected. This is an increase of more than 40 per cent over the existing amount allowable. A further benefit of this Bill is the abolition of the separate income test on rent assistance which is provided to service pensioners who pay rent for private accommodation. These benefits will be of tremendous assistance to service pensioners who are battling to make ends meet.

The benefits referred to and other provisions contained in this Bill will involve additional expenditure of $29m in 1987-88 and $28.6m in 1988-89. The legislation provides a sound basis for the Government to continue to improve benefits and services provided to veterans and their dependants. The Australian Labor Party has a genuine and continuing deep commitment to veterans and their families. We know that our veteran and war widow populations are aging and we know that the aging process increases the need for care and treatment, and since coming to office the Labor Government has provided increased funds to satisfy these needs.

Despite the economic difficulties which I have mentioned and which are no fault of this Government and despite the need to reduce the $9.6 billion deficit we inherited, we have bolstered the Veterans' Affairs portfolio. Spending in this portfolio has been increased by $1.5 billion, to a total of $3.8 billion, so that now Veterans' Affairs accounts for 5 per cent of the Budget. This Government, unlike the Opposition, believes that pensions, treatment and other services should continue to be provided through a Department of Veterans' Affairs that remains a separate entity. The Opposition, of course, wants to amalgamate the Department, to downgrade it. It is the New Right's policy to abolish the Department of Veterans' Affairs and to transfer its functions to the Department of Social Security. The leaked Liberal document published in the Australian Financial Review last Monday week confirms the policy to amalgamate the two departments. In fact, under the plan Veterans' Affairs, Health and Social Security are all to be combined into one big department called Community Services, with a junior Minister looking after what are now the Department of Social Security and the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Representatives of the Returned Services League had a meeting with the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Howard) and sought guarantees that the Department of Veterans' Affairs would continue, but unfortunately the Leader of the Opposition was not able to give that assurance.

The honourable member for Farrer (Mr Tim Fischer), the shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs, has spoken in this House but at no time has he given an assurance that the Department of Veterans' Affairs would not be amalgamated. Perhaps he has been too busy running around organising Joh for PM rallies, generally decrying the level of big government in Australia and spruiking flat tax nonsense. The Opposition's policy so far is only to abolish the assets test, at a cost to the Government of $300m a year. The honourable member for Maranoa (Mr Ian Cameron) has been reported as saying on the 7.30 Report that it is the intention of the Opposition to remove indexing of pensions for veterans. The honourable member for Farrer can bleat about cutbacks in veterans' affairs payments but I believe that he should be referring not to cutbacks but to the redirection of funds to the most needy people. Only 3 per cent of service pensioners were affected by the assets test but the $25m savings resulting from that 3 per cent of pensioners being eliminated from service pension payments has been reinvested in treatment facilities for veterans. So there are no cutbacks; it is just a simple case of taking money from the rich, who do not need assistance, and giving it to those poor people who are in desperate need of assistance.

Mr Slipper —Who are you-Robin Hood?

Mr FITZGIBBON —More than $20m has been spent on Concord Repatriation Hospital alone; so if the honourable member opposite wishes to decry this Government's practice of taking money from those people who do not need it and spending it in areas where there is a desperate need for finance let him have his say after I finish speaking. I think he would find it hard to justify such a position, just as he finds it very difficult, I feel sure, to justify some of the policies being pursued by the National Party at this moment.

In times of great economic difficulty the Hawke Labor Government has kept faith with veterans and endeavoured to shelter them from the consequences now being experienced as a result of the years of mismanagement of the previous coalition Government. This legislation is good, sensible legislation and is not being opposed by the Liberals and Nationals because they find that it has no flaws.