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Monday, 30 March 1987
Page: 1716

Mr MAHER(6.22) —The honour- able member for Lyne (Mr Cowan) and the honourable member for Farrer (Mr Tim Fischer) and I served in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly with a wonderful man named Arthur Wade, who was and is the member for Newcastle. Just occasionally Mr Wade would relax after dinner and on very rare occasions he talked about his experiences as a prisoner of war. I have no recollection of the war-only very vague remembrances of the death of a neighbour or a neighbour's brother-but Arthur Wade told me and other members of parliament of his experiences in Crete when he was taken prisoner of war.

Mr Cowan —He is a fine citizen.

Mr MAHER —I agree entirely. He was taken to nazi Germany where he was held prisoner and forced to work in the mines. One night when he and other prisoners were returning from their shift one of the Australian prisoners of war was shot in the lift coming up from the mine. He had said something cheeky in German to a guard and was shot dead there and then. These experiences are incredible. Arthur Wade, who was a member of parliament with the honourable member for Farrer, the honourable member for Lyne and me, could tell us first hand about his experiences. He also had a habit of writing `Lang is right' on the outside of railway carriages in Germany-he was an old Langite-and the German high command ordered a special inquiry to be set up into this message that was being carried through Germany. That is another story, but one which is perhaps typical of the attitude of Australian prisoners of war-to see something humorous in a situation of great adversity.

Every member and senator is familiar with the problems of returned service personnel, who are now called veterans, and their dependants, as well as war widows. We all have representations from our local Returned Services League sub-branches and district councils and from individuals who want disability pensions, service pensions or a war widow's pension. I, like some of my colleagues, have been instrumental in helping people obtain pensions and disability allowances. I have even been to the Veterans' Review Board with an elderly lady who was 80. Although I was told that I could not say anything because I was legally qualified, I am pleased to say that she received a war widow's pension. Her case is perhaps typical of many. Her husband contracted severe dermatitis in New Guinea during the war. He came back and, although he lived to be 79, he was a recluse thereafter. This lady said in evidence that the dermatitis made his face bleed and he took to alcohol and became dependent upon it. Even though he lived a full life, the tribunal-I thought, wisely-awarded this lady a war widow's pension and she was paid some money retrospectively. I found it a touching experience to see justice not only being done but being seen to be done in the system. I pay tribute to the members of the Veterans' Review Board and other tribunals and to the people in the Department of Veterans' Affairs, because my experience is that the Department does an honourable and fair job for the service personnel who are its customers.

I must cross swords with the honourable member for Lyne when he called for a withdrawal of the assets test. There is no assets test on the disability pension or service pension, only on the burnt-out digger's pension. To say that people should be able to get a disability pension when they have, as well as their home, an asset worth half a million dollars, which is apparently producing no income-that a person who sits on an asset, be it a property in the country or a block of flats in Sydney or Melbourne, should still be able to draw a pension-is not realistic. We have a difficult economic situation and an adverse balance of payments and we are spending 30 per cent of the Budget on welfare. Do we keep paying pensions to people who have substantial assets or pay the pensions to people who are paying rent and have no assets?

The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill deals with poverty traps and is complementary to legislation introduced under the Social Security Act. The first significant feature of the legislation is that the amount that a service pensioner can earn before the rate of service pension is affected by the income test will be increased from 1 July from $30 to $40 per week for a single pensioner and from $50 to $70 per week for service pensioner couples. The second salient feature is that the additional amount of income that can be earned by a service pensioner with dependent children will double from 1 July from $6 to $12 per week for each child. This will mean that a single pensioner with one dependent child will be able to earn up to $52 per week without any effect on the rate of pension payable. This is an increase of $16 per week, or 40 per cent, over the existing amount payable. I compliment the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt) on increasing the rates. A veteran who has married late in life and has a family, who may be ill or may die, may have children who have to be cared for. The spouse may be working at a part time job one morning per week and it is essential that the spouse should be allowed to improve the family's situation by earning some income.

The third relevant measure in the legislation relates to the service pensioner who pays rent for private accommodation. The legislation previously discriminated against veterans in that, for every dollar of disability pension or any other income that was received, the rent allowance of $15 per week was reduced. This will be considerably liberalised in this legislation, which will provide for much more income before the income test will apply to the rent allowance.

I want to touch on several other aspects of this legislation and to comment on the second reading speech of the Minister, because the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord is in the electorate I represent in Sydney. The honourable member for Lyne referred to some people being forced to go to the Concord Repatriation Hospital. I am sure that he did not mean any slight on Concord, because it is a wonderful hospital. It has 571 beds.

Mr Tim Fischer —A number of beds there are closed at present.

Mr MAHER —It has 19 wards open at present and six closed. They are closed essentially because there is a shortage of nurses, not only in Australia but in every country. I read in the papers today that astronomical sums of money are being offered to attract nurses to North America. I was at Concord today when the Minister opened a facility there called the digital angiography suite.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 to 8 p.m.

(Quorum formed)

Mr MAHER —Before the dinner break, I was about to explain to the House what the Hon. Arthur Gietzelt, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, had opened at Concord Repatriation General Hospital this morning. He opened equipment worth more than $1m, known as a digital angiography suite. In actual fact it is an X-ray process that allows the tracing of dye put through the veins into the brain or any part of the body--

Mr Cohen —I have had it done.

Mr MAHER —I do not doubt that the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment has had this test. In fact I had suspected it for some time. It is literally an X-ray that ignores the bone structure. We all know what a CAT scanner is. It analyses slices of the human body and the make-up of those slices. But this new piece of equipment at Concord, which is for the benefit of the veteran population and their dependants, examines layers of the human body and obliterates bones. When people infer that the Government has not done enough for and is not looking after the veteran population, I give this as another example of what the Government is doing.

Concord Hospital, which is in my electorate, was largely a Cinderella hospital until recent years-until Senator Gietzelt became Minister for Veterans' Affairs. Since then about $17m or $18m has been spent at Concord in building 10 new operating rooms. They are not operating theatres in the sense that people were able to go and watch Pasteur or Lister operating, doing their pioneering work with students looking down. That is just not the case any more. Concord is a major teaching hospital for the University of Sydney, and it is about time that it had new operating rooms. Ten rooms will be built there. Three of the existing seven are being closed. When I was first elected as the member for Lowe, the doctors at Concord took me aside and pointed out that in the existing operating theatres there was only one door. That meant that the clean linen had to come through, and the dirty linen had to go through, the one door. That was a potential disaster. There are now two doors in the new operating theatres. One is for incoming clean linen, and the other for the dirty soiled linen. Some of these new theatres will be special ultra-clean theatres for certain types of operation.

What is needed at Concord is an upgrading of the 1942 block, the main ward block. If honourable members have been to Concord-I am sure it is similar to Greenslopes and other repatriation hospitals-they will know that there is one multi-purpose block. The same architect designed them all. These multi-purpose blocks have not been upgraded at any of the hospitals since 1942 when they were built. What must be done at Concord is to build a ward block. There are proposals for a 168-bed ward block that will allow for an upgrading of the main central block. Concord takes not only the veteran population for New South Wales; it takes 20 per cent in local patients; so that is a significant input. I mention that the honourable member for Lyne (Mr Cowan) made the criticism that some of his constituents were forced to go to Concord, but I am sure that he did not mean to denigrate Concord. I have said that before.

The repatriation hospitals around Australia took 66,644 patients in 1985-86, the last year for which there is a report available. Of course, that includes community patients, where they are taken, which is mainly at Concord. A total of 62,000 entitled beneficiaries were treated at non-departmental hospitals. That means that, for every digger or war widow treated in a repatriation hospital, one was treated in a normal public hospital or in a private hospital. While I am mentioning Concord, I pay tribute to Tony Mulvihill, a former senator, who did much to get the public admitted to Concord Hospital. He did some pioneering work there and he got a commitment from previous governments to admit to Concord 20 per cent of local residents, which is how it should be as there is no other public hospital in the Concord area and the local patients permit a good age mix for medical students to study.

I do not wish to delay the House tonight because the legislation is quite straightforward and quite simple. Most honourable members have made general speeches about the needs of veterans. There is one smaller part of the legislation that deals with the Seamen's War Pensions and Allowances Act 1940 and which relates to the mercantile marines. It just happens that yesterday was the annual Anzac service in Sydney for those who served in the mercantile marines-literally another branch of the Services in the war scene.

Mr Kent —They have never been acknow- ledged.

Mr MAHER —As my colleague says, these people have never been acknowledged. There is not even a national memorial for them in the whole of Australia. In London, at Tower Hill on the Thames, there is a memorial for the merchant marines. But there is no memorial in Australia to the merchant marines. They have their service in my electorate. I went to it last year and again this year.

Mr Cohen —Come and talk to me.

Mr MAHER —I have actually written a number of letters to the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment about the need for a national memorial. I must say, in all sincerity, that he was less than very helpful. He referred me to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, who referred me to another Minister. But it does appear that the merchant marines, from their own resources, will achieve a memorial. All that they want is an acknowledgment of those who died. They do not even know who from the merchant marines died in the First World War. But this legislation will give the merchant marines certain appeal rights similar to those of other veterans so that, if they are not happy with some pension allocation, they have similar appeal rights.

I pay tribute to the merchant marines and to all the diggers. It is coming up to Anzac Day when we will all be attending dawn services and marches as representatives of the national Parliament, as we should do. We do this with great humility. We go to our community centres and parish churches and see the lists of those who served in the forces and those who gave their lives for their country. There is no greater sacrifice and no greater honour than to be able to give one's life for one's country. So often those people are forgotten, which is why a debate in this House on the whole notion of veterans' affairs is so important, so that members of parliament can pay a tribute to those who served, those who died and those who came back damaged. We can look at men such as the Hon. Tom Uren who was a prisoner of war of the Japanese-a man who went through great privations and a man whom we all greatly admire.

I add finally that the legislation is not without cost to the Government. It will cost an additional $29m in this financial year and $28.6m in the next financial year. I urge the House to support the Bill.