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Thursday, 29 June 2000
Page: 18580

Mr SLIPPER (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration) (10:47 AM) —I move:

That the bill be now read a second time.

Australia owes perhaps its greatest debt to the men and women who have served their nation and given their lives in times of war and conflict.

This Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2000 gives effect to a range of measures announced in the budget as part of this government's commitment to honouring that debt.

It includes initiatives to respond to the findings of the Vietnam Veterans Health Study and to properly recognise the service of veterans in a number of conflicts and deployments in South-East Asia.

The Vietnam Veterans Health Study found that Vietnam veterans and their children are more likely to have some adverse health conditions than the general population.

In response the government has developed a range of treatment and support initiatives to meet the long-term health needs of Vietnam veterans and their families.

The Department of Veterans' Affairs will fast-track access to treatment for Vietnam veterans diagnosed as suffering major clinical depression and severe anxiety disorders. This will enable Vietnam veterans to receive help when it is needed, irrespective of whether the veteran has made a claim for pension or of the outcome of any such claim.

Veterans' partners will be given access to free psychiatric assessments. Until now, dependent partners have had access to counselling services but not to psychiatric assessments. This initiative will ensure that partners have access to appropriate mental health assessment and counselling.

And, in recognition that the need for counselling does not end with the end of a relationship, access to counselling services will be extended to include former partners of Vietnam veterans for up to five years after the end of the relationship.

The tragic problem of suicide is one of the most important and most difficult issues facing Australia today.

The Vietnam Veterans Health Study indicated that the incidence of suicide among Vietnam veterans' children is three times that found in the general community.

But suicide is not only a Veterans' Affairs issue—it is something that must be addressed through a coordinated approach by federal, state and local governments working with the community.

Therefore, in addressing the findings of the health study, the Department of Veterans' Affairs has extended the focus of its support programs to bring them into line with the National Suicide Prevention Strategy and National Mental Health Strategy.

Access to counselling services will be extended to cover Vietnam veterans' children up to their 36th birthday. Free psychiatric assessments will also be provided to these children until their 36th birthday to ensure they are referred to the most appropriate treatment and support.

Education and educational support have been shown to play a crucial role in suicide prevention. Therefore, we will extend eligibility for the Veterans' Children Education Scheme to include Vietnam veterans' children who are identified as vulnerable to self-harm or suicide.

There are other important measures, not requiring legislative change, that substantially increase the number and range of programs directed at improving the health, in particular the mental health, of these veterans and their families. These include health promotion and other preventive strategies to address lifestyle illnesses, such as heart disease and alcohol abuse in veterans. Bursaries will be provided to assist children to enter tertiary study. Additional group programs will address the needs of veterans and their families.

This bill also gives effect to the government's decision to rectify a series of anomalies affecting the service eligibility of certain veterans of conflicts in South-East Asia between 1955 and 1975, following the review by Justice Robert Mohr.

The government has decided to grant qualifying service to more than 2,600 veterans of a number of conflicts, including the Malayan emergency and the Indonesian confrontation.

This means that they will be eligible to apply for full repatriation benefits, including the service pension.

An additional 1,500 veterans will become eligible to apply for a disability pension in respect of their service aboard HMAS Sydney, Vampire, Parramatta and Yarra in Malaysian waters during the Indonesian confrontation.

These extensions of qualifying service and operational service in this bill will align service in South-East Asia with the criteria of `warlike' and `non-warlike' service applied to modern Australian Defence Force deployments.

It will also change some dates of eligible service to align them with the dates of the actual operations.

In other areas of the Veterans' Affairs portfolio, this bill includes a change in the calculation of the fortnightly payment of the disability pension and war widow's pension, to align the calculation of grants and increases with the service pension and other income support payments.

This bill also excludes Abstudy allowance payments from the income test for the service pension and other income support payments. This will ensure that a Veterans' Affairs pension recipient whose partner receives Abstudy payments is treated in the same way as other income support recipients with an Austudy partner.

The veteran community deserves our greatest admiration, gratitude and assistance for their contribution to this nation. This government is firmly committed to honouring their service and to ensuring that their needs are met.

I commend the bill to the House and present the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr Martin Ferguson) adjourned.