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Monday, 30 March 1987
Page: 1714

Mr COWAN(6.05) —I am very pleased to join in the debate. Opposition members are pleased to support this legislation. We are pleased to see that poverty traps are being attended to and we are always pleased to enter debates that involve our ex-service men and women. Over the last year or so a number of amendments have been made to veterans' entitlement legislation and we have always been keen to debate them. As honourable members may recall, only last year we debated the Veterans' Entitlements Bill. It was necessary that that Bill lie on the table for quite a period simply because of the need to amend the original Bill that was presented to the Parliament by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs (Mr Holding). I am pleased to say that, due to the co-operation of our shadow Minister, the honourable member for Farrer (Mr Tim Fischer), the Opposition parties and, I am sure, members of the Government, together with the Returned Services League of Australia, particularly Sir William Keys and the chairmen of the State branches of the RSL, we were able to achieve certain amendments to that Bill.

At the time that Bill generally satisfied RSL members, but I think their greater concern has been that they have been deprived of quite a few privileges they had in respect of entitlements. As speakers for the Opposition have very clearly said, this has made veterans very wary of any legislation or form of regulation that may happen to amend conditions of RSL members. I do not want to term the RSL a pressure group, but it is very much aware-more aware perhaps than those of us who have not served the country in wars-of the sacrifices that its members have given over the years. Therefore, it wants to jealously guard very much the privileges that this nation owes to them.

Let me make it quite clear that when I speak of privileges, it is compensation that is paid to those who have served their country in times of need. I do not believe that this is a pension. I do not think it ought to be described as a pension. It must be engrossed in our minds all the time that any entitlement an ex-service man or woman receives is compensation for the service he or she has given to this country. As the years pass we want to pass that message on to our children and future generations. I believe that that is the thought of the RSL-that it wants the people of this nation, irrespective of what their political beliefs may be, to understand that the traditions we have and the safeguards within the Constitution of this land of ours which we value so very much are things that have been defended by people who have gone to war to defend our rights and privileges. We need to realise this and to remind our children in our schools of the importance of the Constitution-a Constitution which was based on centuries of experience of the British nation in all those tragedies of war that happened in Britain and in Europe. It was the experience of our forefathers which enabled them to write the 128 clauses of the Constitution which allow us the freedom to be able to speak here in parliament, for the Press to be able to do things it wants to do and for children to go to school and learn what they learn. This is the message that we have to pass on and that must be the foundation of our attitude in respect of any laws or regulations that affect the entitlements of veterans.

Every member of the Government who has spoken today has said that when we get into government, which I trust will be very soon, we may abolish the Department of Veterans' Affairs. That is not correct. Let me make this clear because the National Party held a conference over the weekend. I can speak from the National Party point of view because the National Party has been spoken about today. I do not want to be party political in this matter. It was agreed by us over the weekend to maintain a separate departmental responsibility for veterans' affairs, distinct from social welfare, to ensure that the different character of entitlement, including that of war widows, is preserved. That is very clear. Let there be no more discussion and no more challenges from the Government. That is laid down in the official policy of the National Party. That is what the National Party will abide by. We do not want to hear any more about it from the Government. I and I am sure my colleagues around me have never felt any different. This is not a department that one can hand over to a State to administer. It is not housing, education, agriculture, primary industry or anything like that.

Mr Tim Fischer —It is a Federal responsibility.

Mr COWAN —It is a Federal responsibility to those who have served our nation. We will abide by that responsibility. I do not condemn those pressures that I spoke about earlier and the fundamental issues in the hearts and minds of the people who have served Australia. We have a responsibility whenever we go to schools and other places to pass on the message that we have gained the safety that the people of this nation over the years will be able to enjoy.

As has been said here today, certain cutbacks have been made in veterans' entitlements. Travelling allowances have been halved. I know there have been certain changes in the travelling arrangements of servicemen who have to go for medical treatment. I am pleased to see that there have been some constructive savings. The ambulance service has been abolished except in cases where it is merited because of the condition of the patient. Other cars such as taxis, hire cars and government cars are being used to transport people to hospitals for medical care. I think that is very sound. Subsistence allowances have also been cut. There has been a cut to some of the repatriation pharmaceutical benefits and four categories of dental treatment have been cut. Some of us are very concerned about these measures. Although we respect the need to cut back on government expenditure, we were concerned to see the 2 per cent depreciation in the Defence Force retirement and death benefits scheme. That cut will never be forgotten by those superannuitants. At the time it was calculated that a person receiving a normal superannuation payment, a pension-would lose over $2,000 over a 10-year period. That is a lot of money. Such people do not trust government, whether it be the present Government or whether we are in government. When we start to fiddle with superannuation payments we get into trouble. We do not want to be associated with that.

We have made it very clear that we will abolish the assets test when we get back into government. We will do it for one reason. It is unfair on pensioners and service personnel in Australia. We hear the Minister get up in this House time and again and say: `Hear, hear'. We hear the boys in the back say: `Hear, hear'. That there are 12 millionaires in this country and others who are well off who should not be receiving the pension should not come into it. If we apply the assets test we are depriving people.

I, like the honourable member for Denison (Mr Hodgman), can cite plenty of cases within my electorate. Over 200 people have spoken to me-I have made representations on behalf of many of them-who have been unfairly treated by the assets test. If we implement the assets test we are depriving farmers who want to reside on their land. They might have gone out of dairying or beef because of their physical condition and they might be unable to maintain their properties in a reasonable condition. Parts of the property may have gone back to bushland and pastures may have disappeared. Those people want to live on their properties; they want to die on them. What is the Government doing to them? It says that because a person's next door neighbour may have sold his property for $200,000 that person could probably sell his or her property for $250,000. Although he or she wants to remain on the property, the Government is compelling that person, because of his or her financial situation, to sell the property and to live a lifestyle that he or she does not want to live. We see examples of that every day. This is why the assets test is unfair. A person can sell a property which may be worth $250,000 and buy a three bedroom or four bedroom home, which he does not require, in a choice position in the town, which might be at the seaside. This applies particularly to ex-servicemen. He can then spend the majority of his money which will entitle him to a pension. Is that not a stupid state of affairs?

Mr Conquest —There is a loss of productivity.

Mr COWAN —The honourable member for Hinkler says: `It is a loss of productivity'. It is a loss of many things. It deprives the ex-servicemen who have paid their taxes and served their nation in times of need in order to protect us. The Government says to them: `You have got to do a certain thing if you want to exist.' There are many sad cases. Do we in this country realise what we owe to the ex-servicemen? Do we appreciate what we owe to them? So often we hear members of the Government talking about nuclear free zones and belittling the Returned Services League-because its members went to war. Nobody should go to war in the eyes of this Government. What does the Government want to do? Does it want an aggressor to take over our nation? Does it want to teach the young people attending our schools that there is no need to defend our nation, our privileges and safeguards? I am sure that that is not in the minds of all members of the Government but it is in the minds of some of them. One only has to hear them speaking to see the direction in which they want to go. I believe that the people of Australia are actually aware of the Government's feeling in this respect.

I will conclude by saying a little about our responsibility to care for veterans who are eligible to go into nursing homes and hostels. We must not deprive them of the medical care which they are entitled to receive anywhere within repatriation hospitals or private hospitals wherever those people happen to live. I am sure that every member of this chamber who has a specialist or a private hospital within his suburb or town can instance a case where the Veterans' Affairs Department will not agree to a person receiving treatment within a private hospital. If he does not have private insurance, if he depends on repatriation to pay, he is drafted into Concord Repatriation Hospital, or into a public hospital. Sometimes he must wait because there is no room available at the time. There are urgent cases occasionally when a veteran, upon the advice of his doctor or specialist, needs to enter a private hospital. In such cases, the Department and the Minister must be considerate in assessing the application. It is important that treatment take place as soon as possible. I personally would like to see-this is the reason I have always supported nursing homes and hostels-more of this type of accommodation being made available to our veterans, both men and women. They are the people aged 63 to 70 who fought in the Second World War. The pensions are costing the Government $1.6 billion per year, which is a lot to pay out; but as the shadow Minister has explained time and time again, these people will pass on, so the financial responsibility of the taxpayers will be less and less as the years go on. Let us look after these people now and give them the aged accommodation and care they require.

I am pleased to support the legislation, but one thing about it concerns me. Although the amount that single veterans will be allowed to earn will increase from $30 to $40 per week and for married couples from $50 to $70 per week, the means test should not apply to ex-service personnel. It should apply to social security recipients, by all means, but not to the people who have served this country. We should give them the opportunity to earn money. If they want to earn $150 a week or more, if their physical and mental condition will allow them, that is a privilege we owe them. As I said earlier, their entitlement is in the form of compensation, not a pension. I am pleased to support the legislation.