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Monday, 30 March 1987
Page: 1696

Mr SLIPPER(4.17) —I am very pleased to have the opportunity this afternoon to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill 1987. As has been mentioned by the shadow Minister, the honourable member for Farrer (Mr Tim Fischer), the National and Liberal parties do not oppose the legislation under consideration. The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill has four main thrusts. Firstly, it aims to bring veterans legislation into line with poverty traps legislation as it applies to social security legislation. It aims also to bring veterans legislation into line with Medicare health fraud legislation; it contains a review of seamen's legislation; and also it corrects minor drafting errors in the Veterans' Entitlements Act.

While the National Party does not oppose the Bill we are debating today, it should be mentioned that the Government's record as far as ex-servicemen is concerned is truly shocking. It is appropriate, in view of the comments of some Government speakers, to emphasise and re-emphasise the words of the shadow Minister last Thursday in this place when he quoted two great former Prime Ministers of this nation-Australian Labor Party leader Ben Chifley, and former National Party Prime Minister Sir Arthur Fadden. Ben Chifley said:

The careers of hundreds and thousands of young men have been interrupted and in some cases partially ruined. There is a break of education, training and opportunity which cannot be repaired. It is perfectly true that experience is gained, but that is not material to an ordinary civil vocation. On this Parliament rests the responsibility of seeing that the right thing shall be done.

The National Party fully supports the statement of Ben Chifley those many years ago and it is a matter of sadness for us to note that this Labor Government has repudiated the words of that great former Prime Minister. Sir Arthur Fadden told this House:

A grateful nation must see that those who are privileged to return from battle areas shall be properly cared for, and that their reinstatement in civil life shall be wisely and expeditiously carried out.

The National and Liberal parties in government have followed the fundamental principles set out in the statements by the former Prime Ministers which I have quoted. I am sorry that the Government, since it was elected in 1983, has continued at every opportunity to denigrate those benefits to our citizens who served this country in time of war. We should remember that today our ex-servicemen would be aged, on average, about 68 years. They are at a time in their lives when they need consideration from a nation which owes them so much. After all, if it had not been for those young men and women who offered themselves to ensure that we remained free, who knows what this country would be like today? Who knows what tyranny this country would have been subjected to if it had not been for the way in which so many of Australia's youth voluntarily offered themselves to go forward, to risk their lives for God, king and country?

The Hawke socialist Government seems to be ripping up the spirit of gratitude which governments, in a bipartisan way, have offered to the veterans of this nation since the end of the war. We have only to look at the Government's record on chopping benefits to ex-service men and women to see that. The Labor Government introduced the assets test on pensions. At every opportunity, members of the National Party, and particularly my colleague the honourable member for Cowper (Mr Nehl), have condemned the assets test. Since its inception in 1985, the assets test, applying to veterans' service pensions, has resulted in over 13,000 veterans having their pensions reduced or cancelled. Thirteen thousand people who offered their lives to ensure that we could remain free have been attacked in this vicious manner by the Hawke Government.

Not content with the seriously adverse effect that the assets test had on our veterans, the Government introduced a mini-Budget in 1985 in which the travel allowance was reduced by half to a flat 11.16c a kilometre, with a reduction in government expenditure totalling $3m. The subsistence allowance, including meals and accommodation, was reduced substantially for veterans, resulting in less government expenditure of nearly half a million dollars in that area. A $300 limit was applied to four categories of dental treatment for veterans eligible for treatment under the dental scheme. The eligibility of some pensioners to obtain benefits under the repatriation pharmaceutical benefits scheme has been terminated.

This Government has been strong on rhetoric and short on action. When the Veterans' Entitlements Bill was first introduced into the Parliament there was a national outcry. The Returned Services League of Australia and other ex-service people were up in arms because the Bill, as originally introduced into the Parliament, completely failed to meet the needs and the requirements of beneficiaries. I would like to take this opportunity publicly to congratulate my colleague the honourable member for Farrer-himself a Vietnam veteran; he went overseas to ensure that this country remained free-the RSL and other ex-service organisations for the way in which it was possible to obtain amendments in 40 out of 41 problem areas. That record would be unsurpassed. I know, from talking to veterans in my electorate of Fisher, that the honourable member for Farrer is highly respected. After the next election-whether it be an early election or an election when the Parliament is due to go to the people-we will see the honourable member for Farrer as a very effective Minister for Veterans' Affairs. The honourable member for Hunter (Mr Fitzgibbon) who spoke earlier will not be a member of the Parliament after the next election. He will be replaced by Mr John Turner, who is already acting as the alternative member for Hunter. The honourable member said that the Opposition opposed the continued existence of the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

Mr Tim Fischer —Rubbish!

Mr SLIPPER —The shadow Minister says: `Rubbish!'. He is quite correct. We ought to recall that it was the Prime Minister, the honourable member for Wills (Mr Hawke), who said, at a meeting of Labor Party factions, that perhaps there should be an amalgamation of the Department of Social Security with the Department of Veterans' Affairs. While Government members have tried to suggest that the Opposition was proposing the amalgamation of the Department of Veterans' Affairs with the Department of Social Security, it should be mentioned that the matter was raised first and foremost by the Prime Minister. The whole issue was horse traded over at one of those sordid factional meetings of the Government Party.

The National Party has placed it clearly on record that we are opposed to the abolition of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The Government should stand up and tell us its position on this issue. The veterans' community has every reason to doubt the Government's sincerity. I have already stated some of the ways in which the veterans' community has suffered from Government cutbacks. I will shortly outline how the veterans' community has suffered further from the knifing approach of the Labor Party. The honourable member for Hunter should take note of the facts when he stands up in the House and accuses the Opposition of supporting the abolition of the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

In my electorate we arrange veterans' seminars so that we are able to discuss with veterans issues of concern to them. Again I would like to thank the honourable member for Farrer for coming to my electorate on occasions to speak to veterans and to reassure them as to where the National Party stands on veterans' matters. Recently we had a meeting at the Pine Rivers RSL. A number of veterans from all parts of the electorate came along. They discussed matters of concern, matters of interest, with the honourable member for Farrer. It is interesting to note that a resolution was carried at that meeting which called on the veterans' community to take note of possible further cutbacks in the Government's mini-Budget in May this year. It also called upon the veterans' community to use its not inconsiderable voting power to work against the Government in the event of the Government not dropping any proposals it has to chop veterans benefits further. On the one hand, we have a government whose attitude to the veterans' community over the last four years has been chop, chop, chop; on the other hand, we have our view, which has been to give to the veterans' community the greatest number of benefits that responsible government can afford.

I referred to the Veterans' Entitlements Act earlier. I mentioned that 40 out of 41 problem areas were able to be solved. That Act tightened up the totally and permanently incapacitated pension criteria to the extent that many veterans who thought they were eligible are now not eligible. Provision was made for termination of the dependants allowance by commutation, albeit on a voluntary basis. The Act provided that there would be no further increases in the dependants allowance. Repatriation cover was extended to those who served on HMAS Sydney and other support ships operating between Australia and Vietnam, but recognition by way of appropriate awarding of medals remains undetermined. The National Party would like to pledge itself to the resolution of this matter as soon as we return to government.

The Budget in 1986 was another slap in the face for the veterans' community. There we saw the deferment of consumer price index related increases to pensions. The hardship that that creates should not be underestimated. My electorate office has been inundated with letters of complaint-letters pointing out that the veterans' community will not tolerate this sort of chopping mentality by the Government.

Mr Sharp —Shame!

Mr SLIPPER —As the honourable member for Gilmore quite correctly points out, it is shameful. This Government stands condemned for the callous approach it has adopted over the last four years to the veterans' community. These are the people to whom we owe so much. We can thank these people for the freedom that we have in Australia today. War widows and their dependants, as well as service pensioners with fringe benefits, no longer have access to the repatriation pharmaceutical benefits scheme. War widows who also receive an age pension will have had the social security component frozen at a maximum level of $60.05 per week. The shadow Minister was largely responsible for ensuring that the alteration in this area was not infinitely more draconian than it ultimately was. Provision in the Federal Budget was also made for the Government to claim from private health insurance funds the cost of a veteran's hospital and medical treatment where a veteran has taken out such insurance. But the key thing confronting veterans today, after virtually 18 months of uncertainty under this Government, is what could be contained, in the May mini-Budget. The Government's record is one that it simply cannot be proud of. The veterans have every reason to be worried at the way in which the Government has treated them over the past four years and have every reason to be concerned that this treatment will continue in the May mini-Budget.

In referring to last year's Budget, it is interesting to note some of the areas of-I suppose from the Government's point of view-savings relating to veterans. I am referring to areas where money has been taken away from ex-servicemen and women. There has been a reduction of 0.5 per cent in average staffing levels which saves approximately $1.425m. A reduction of one per cent in administrative expenses amounted to almost $1m. A reduction of access by war widows and dependants to repatriation and pharmaceutical benefits cost those people $3.81m. The restriction of dual pensions for war widows cost $8m. The recovery of treatment costs from health insurance funds has saved the Government $7m, and the deferral of poverty traps legislation has saved the Government $21.2m. That brings me to one matter which I wish to mention in particular, the question of poverty traps.

When I commenced speaking on this Bill I outlined one of its main thrusts, which is to bring legislation into line with poverty traps legislation as it applies to social security legislation. The Government stands condemned because it has postponed the poverty traps legislation. I said just a moment ago that this has cost $21.2m. Poverty traps can and have occurred-we are very pleased that at last the Government is redressing this outstanding matter-when Commonwealth programs interact to disadvantage the people they should help by trapping them in poverty. The Minister for Social Security points out that the most obvious way that these poverty traps occur is when taxation and social security interact. This is no less true for veterans' affairs pensions. So the matter is now being resolved, but after a very great delay, and after a very great cost to the veterans community as a whole.

I would like to tell the Government that it is about time it took into account what the community owes veterans. It is about time that the Labor Party commenced to honour those very fine words of Ben Chifley so many years ago. It is about time that the Government took into account the significance of what Sir Arthur Fadden said in this Parliament.

Mr Sharp —Hear, hear!

Mr SLIPPER —I thank the honourable member for Gilmore for his support. We in the National Party are prepared to stand up, to use the forum of this place. We are prepared to go throughout Australia to support the right of the veterans community to reasonable assistance from the Australian Government. The Government said in time of war that it would stand by those young men and women who were prepared to offer themselves to ensure that democracy prevailed in this country. Since 1983 we have had an approach of chop, chop, chop. The Government has failed to take into account the genuine needs of people who require government assistance at this time in their lives. We have had the mini-Budget of 1985; we have had the assets test; we had the Budget last year; and we have coming up the May mini-Budget of this year. The Government has an opportunity in the May mini-Budget this year to redress the damage which its disastrous policies have inflicted on the veterans community.

I conclude by outlining in full the resolution which was carried by a meeting of the Pine Rivers RSL held in my electorate on 9 March 1987. It stated:

. . . expresses grave concern at reports that the present Government's May mini-Budget-

(A) may further reduce veterans' entitlements;

(B) may impose tax on certain benefits or pensions presently non-taxable;

The resolution went on to say:

That this meeting requests that the RSL-

(A) makes veterans and the wider community aware of the dangerous proposals which may be contained in the May mini-Budget;

(B) makes strong representations to the Federal Government to ensure that the Government reconsiders and rejects any proposals detrimental to the veterans community;

(C) encourages the veterans community to exercise their not inconsiderable voting strength against the Government in the event that the Government refuses to abandon proposals detrimental to the veterans community.

So the challenge has been made to the Government. The Labor Government now has the ball at its feet. The Government has the opportunity to reject its four years of neglect. The Government has the chance to say that it will do what the Opposition will do which is to treat the veterans community with the greatest generosity that responsible government can afford.