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Thursday, 31 August 2000
Page: 19850

Mr FORREST (12:51 PM) —I am very pleased, like other speakers, to support the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2000. It is refreshing when the parliament can agree on legislation for some very important Australians. I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this legislation, coming from an area of Australia which has relied on the soldier settlement nature of its development for its prosperity, from which subsequent generations now benefit enormously. I am advised that 3,792 of my constituents are recipients of veterans' support in various ways, which is a fairly significant number, spread across 73 communities over what is geographically about 25 per cent of Victoria. I am delighted to support a parcel of amendments to legislation to make their lives somewhat easier, especially considering that these veterans, particularly those of World War II, are now very much in their twilight years. I often regret the passing of my late father in 1992 and have often resented the fact that he was cheated of his twilight years and even an opportunity to see his own son take up a seat in this parliament. I have always resented that, and that gives me a special empathy with veterans and their families who are often cheated of quality in their twilight years because of the ordeals they endured. It is a sad reflection on the world that, even since that time, there are more and more veterans coming through the process, even as recently as those who returned from East Timor.

The parcel of measures in this particular piece of legislation will be very well received. Some of them are long overdue and some relate to some very significant and tragic events that have occurred. They all come together to make life just that little bit easier for veterans and their families and, from that point of view, I give it my full support. The amendments will assist members of the Australian Defence Force who have been severely injured as a result of their service and also the families of members who have been killed as a result of their service. In particular, there are measures that go toward supporting the family who remain, particularly the children. A further element of this package is the provision of access to counselling and guidance services for children of severely injured or deceased veterans.

The bill will also allow the Repatriation Commission to accept an application for reimbursement of travelling expenses incurred by a veteran travelling to obtain medical treatment. For someone representing a rural area, this is a very special amendment which I am very grateful to see. There are some exceptional circumstances that can prevent a veteran from making an application for reimbursement for this travel expense—ill health and so forth—within that three-month period. I am pleased to see that the commission will be given some discretion in that regard. Introducing some flexibility in this regard demonstrates that the government and, indeed, the parliament—given the support from the opposition—are concerned about the veteran community.

The bill will also complete compensation adjustments associated with the new tax system. These adjustments will ensure that the value of the pension supplement will flow through to the amount of a bonus calculated under the pension bonus scheme and to the farmers income test, which I am very pleased to see. There is some difficulty across the primary production sector of my constituency, where we can often have three generations—the patriarch of the family, himself a veteran, his sons and his grandsons—all involved in the same farming activity. So I am very pleased to see some integration between the criteria associated with that, particularly the Retirement Assistance for Farmers Scheme.

The Repatriation Commission facilitates access to a wide range of health care services for eligible veterans and their dependants. I am pleased to see in this bill the additional flexibility in the provision of allied health services—for example, podiatry and dietary advice—that veterans sadly need. The commission has progressively reviewed the circumstances in which it needs to approve treatment before it is provided to eligible persons. As the Department of Veterans' Affairs has shifted its focus from being a health service provider to being somewhat of a purchaser of services, services are often provided by persons not necessarily connected to the department. This bill reflects these changes and indicates that the parliament is prepared to recognise changes to the way in which health services are delivered. So I am very pleased to see that.

There are a several measures in the bill—I will not actually make reference to all of them—that deserve special comment. In the wake of the dreadful tragedy of the Black Hawk disaster, there is a measure in the bill to make guidance and counselling support available through the Veterans' Children Education Boards to children of ADF personnel who have died. This measure not only covers the Black Hawk incident but also makes provision if such tragedies occur again. This measure will provide the expertise and educational experience of members of the Veterans' Children Education Boards in each state to children who, because of the death of a parent, may be suffering their own personal trauma, affecting their educational process.

There are amendments in this bill which have the objective of implementing three recommendations in Professor Dennis Pearce's report on the roles of the Repatriation Medical Authority and the Specialist Medical Review Council—again reflecting the changing way in which veterans access their health support. A person seeking a formal review of his statement of principles pursuant to the Veterans' Entitlements Act will be required to state the reasons for that review and refer to evidence not used by the medical review. Again, this indicates some flexibility and makes it easier for veterans, particularly those from World War II who are well into their twilight years.

I have referred to the measure relating to travelling expenses. I am very pleased to see this measure, as there are some circumstances, as I mentioned, in which a veteran may not be able to comply with the three-month period. There is also the appropriation of special assistance, the objective of which is to provide apportionment of funds for assistance or benefits granted under section 106 of the Veterans' Entitlements Act. Ongoing discrete appropriation for special assistance is maintained, so implementation of any grant need not be delayed until finance can be arranged. Linking funding of a grant of assistance or benefit under the special assistance provisions with the funding arrangements for comparable assistance or benefits will enable the Repatriation Commission to make a grant when it is required. This bill addresses many amendments that are long overdue. Veterans in my electorate, particularly those who are required to travel to major metropolitan or provincial centres for health care services, will be most grateful that these measures have been addressed.

I would like just to make some broad comments about veterans and the nature and the character of the people I represent. I have always been very pleased to see that the Veterans' Affairs portfolio does not suffer the normal partisanship that can often occur in this place. The Minister for Veterans' Affairs in the former government was always very generous to me in requests I made to him, as is the current minister, the Hon. Bruce Scott. I today made a summary of the additional measures by which the minister has responded to the needs of the nearly 4,000 veterans across the north-west of Victoria in my constituency of Mallee. The measures include the recent provision of veterans information facilities at Swan Hill and Mildura and a commitment to meet ongoing recurrent costs there to meet the support that is given to veterans in their inquiries about access to services. For example, the Swan Hill Veterans' Information Centre received $17,822 and the Regional Veterans' Centre in Mildura, which provides a very much needed service to something like 1,500 veterans just in the Sunraysia community itself, received a grant of $33, 644 to assist them with the delivery of their services.

In total, including all of the assistance being given to veterans to upgrade monuments across the whole of the north-west of Victoria through the Their Service-Our Heritage program, joint ventures with the Department of Veterans' Affairs, the Veteran and Community Grants program and Building Excellence in Support and Training for Veterans' Advocates, over $200,000 has been provided, spread across 70 communities in my constituency. So I would like to commend the minister for those very positive and very practical responses. I receive appreciation from veterans on a regular basis for the support that they see this parliament providing.

I remember Bruce Ruxton, the Victorian President of the RSL, referring to the Hon. Con Sciacca some time ago, when I was in opposition, as being the best Minister for Veterans' Affairs the parliament has ever had. He recently adjusted that comment at a function in Mildura in my constituency out at Red Cliffs RSL. He said that the Hon. Bruce Scott even tips the Hon. Con Sciacca. So congratulations to the minister. I think it is deserving and I have always appreciated the responses that he has provided to me to requests I have made.

Recently a community care seeding grant of $60,005 was given to the Beulah community, which has in the district associated with the town of Beulah about 100 veterans, for the provision of a community bus. It was just a delight to be with that community last week, to hand over the keys to that bus and to see the joy and appreciation on their faces as they appreciated the parliament responding to their needs. Beulah is a very isolated community. Without access to health care in the township, veterans are required to travel. With the support of the state with an amount of nearly $40,000, they were able to purchase a $100,000 bus, which can deliver them to the provincial centre located in Horsham so they can access the health support and associated social activities. It is very important for that age group in their twilight years to be able to enjoy and appreciate the company of others in similar circumstances.

So I am very grateful to the minister and congratulate him on steering this legislation through the parliament and for the negotiations that he has had in getting wholesome and uniform support from the parliament here. I commend the bill to the chamber and look forward to its speedy passage through the other place. I hope senators in the other place will appreciate this is a much needed measure and that it needs a very speedy response by way of positive support.