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Thursday, 1 March 2001
Page: 24847


Mr EDWARDS (10:00 AM) — The Australian Labor Party supports the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Application of Criminal Code) Bill 2000. It is largely a technical and housekeeping bill; however, speaking in support of this bill gives me the opportunity to talk about a number of other issues which are related to veterans and some of the problems they are confronted with.

Last year, I raised the issue of the plight of some veterans who have taken out private insurance which contains a coverage for permanent disability. When these veterans are granted the status of TPI under the Department of Veterans' Affairs they feel that they have an entitlement under their private insurance provisions for a payout. Many veterans, despite having gone through the hoops and faced very difficult and demanding assesments to become TPIs, find that their private insurance companies knock them back and want them to go out to work, either in different employment to that which they have had or in some other way.

I raised the issue of the plight of these veterans because I was particularly concerned about the activities of a couple of doctors who seemed to me to be well and truly in the pockets of an insurance company. These doctors were giving these veterans, particularly those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, an incredibly hard time. I am pleased to say that, following the raising of that issue last year, I have had a response from the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal. As part of that response, Graham McDonald says in his letter:

Your speech of 27 November last year in relation to superannuation total and permanent disability (TPD) claims with the claimant a Veteran has been drawn to my attention. In recent times, other Parliamentarians (from both sides of the House) have contacted me raising similar issues.

He continues:

From the Tribunal's point of view, we do take into account determinations made under the Veterans' Entitlement Act and in particular whether a Veteran is receiving a special rate pension in our determinations as to whether or not the claimant is TPD. A determination made under the terms of the Veterans' Entitlement Act is and cannot be determinative of a TPD claim because the TPD claims must be assessed in relation to the definition contained in the particular Trust Deed and/or Insurance Policy.

He goes on to say:

I have also contacted the Insurer mentioned in your speech. The Insurer was apparently unaware of your comments and was unaware of approaches made to the Tribunal by other Members of the Federal Parliament on behalf of Veteran claimants who had appeals on similar issues before the Tribunal.

This is the only area where I take issue with the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal because my speech was faxed to the particular insurance company and they were made aware of it. However, the writer goes on to say:

The Insurer has given me an undertaking to conduct an urgent review of such cases and co-operate in expediting these to a conclusion. I have raised the issue of the use of the Doctor ... named by you as well as another Doctor on the east coast used by the same Insurer who has an equally firm view as to the PTSD condition.

His concluding paragraph says:

If you are aware of Veterans experiencing difficulty on this or any other issue before the Tribunal, I am, of course, happy to talk to you about how we can best adapt our procedures to assist in the early resolution of their cases.

I was very pleased to receive that response from the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal and I was very pleased to know that other members of parliament, from both sides of the House, had taken this particular issue up. I was able to give Mr McDonald a list of veterans who I am aware are having difficulties with the industry and he has undertaken to see if they can be addressed as a matter of priority. However, I was very disappointed in the efforts of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs when he was contacted by the Hon. John Moore, the recently retired Minister for Defence, about a similar issue. All the Minister for Veterans' Affairs did was to write back to the minister about this particular constituent and, among other things, say:

... the role of an insurer is to provide protection against unexpected losses, it has a responsibility to its share-holders to minimise the company's financial liability.

Fair enough, but I really would have thought that the minister with responsibility for veterans in this nation could have done a bit more than just write, in those terms, to the member who was raising issues of concern about his constituent. After all, if I as a backbencher could take the steps that I have taken and if other members of parliament can take the steps that they have taken in order to address these issues of concern to their constituents—veterans—surely the minister could have done a bit more and, surely, his position would have lent greater weight to the sorts of submissions that other members of parliament have been making on behalf of their veterans.

Hopefully, now that this issue has been raised it will be better dealt with by the insurance companies. I certainly hope so because these veterans are veterans who are often dealing with post-traumatic stress disorders. The attitude of some of the doctors that they are forced to see for the insurance industry is not helpful to their position; it is not considerate of their position and it is not sympathetic to their position. Indeed, the veterans that I have spoken to have come away most upset at the confrontation they had to go through. I am pleased that the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal has addressed this issue and I want to record my thanks for the way they have done that.

I also want to raise an issue that was recently raised with me by the Vietnam Veterans' Federation. I intend to quote in whole a letter which they have sent to me, because the committee will then see that it is not me—a member of the Labor Party—saying these things but a veteran group that has a tremendous record of work and support of veterans who are making this claim for assistance. The letter is under the heading of `Tertiary scholarships for children of impecunious Vietnam veterans':

There seems at this time to be a large number of the children of Vietnam veterans in or about to enter tertiary education. Many of the veteran parents, because of their war caused illnesses, are unable to financially assist. And whilst such tertiary students are eligible for youth allowance or VCES, this does not cover all necessary expenses such as compulsory university administration and sports fees and text books and rent for those living away from home.

The Vietnam Veterans Federation selects some eight students each year for the George Quincey and Peter McCullagh scholarships. For the academic year 2000 we received over one hundred applications. For the academic year 2001 we received over fifty. Nearly all applications fitted our selection criteria of financial need and academic merit. But our limited funds meant that we ended up comparing only those students having to study a long way from home with TPI fathers with little or no other income. Even then, many of these obviously needy students missed out.

Take for instance the daughter of a TPI pensioner (whose name we can provide) who served one tour in the Malayan Emergency and three tours as a door gunner in Vietnam where he won the DFM. He lives in rural NSW. His daughter is in her third year of a Bachelor of Music/ Bachelor of Education degree at Newcastle University. The veteran's daughter gets no help from home as not only is her father incapacitated but her mother must stay home to look after him. Of course, she gets a VCES allowance but this is simply not enough to cover her living expenses plus rent plus her compulsory university administration and sports plus necessary books. It certainly does not cover the cost of a second hand piano and computer she desperately needs for her third year studies. She works part time during University holidays to help pay her way but even then she is struggling. For her, part-time work during the term is not possible with her double degree study demands.

We would have very much liked to award the girl a $3,000 scholarship, but such was the quality of other applications that we could not. After juggling our funds we found $1,000 to grant towards her special need of a 2nd hand piano and computer but we are aware this will be insufficient for both.

Our inability to properly help this girl and others like her is heartbreaking.

IT SEEMS we are going through a period of high need for these scholarships. But as the youngest Vietnam veteran is in his early 50s, the high need is likely to last no more than another five years or so. But whilst that high need exists, the difference between many capable children going on to tertiary education or having to forgo it, is their getting the additional financial support our scholarships give them.

We appreciate that the George Quincey and Peter McCullagh scholarships are not the only ones available to the children of Vietnam veterans. We know that the Vietnam Veteran Trust administers some 30 of its own and 10 of our Long Tan scholarships. But the Trust has found itself similarly overwhelmed. This year they received some two hundred applications, most applicants suffering financial need and having academic merit.

And there is a crisis looming.

This is the last year applications will be accepted for the 30 Trust scholarships. That loss will mean thirty more deserving, perhaps desperate, applicants must be rejected.

WE HAVE ADVISED other veterans' organizations of the deficiency in scholarships and perhaps their efforts will produce a few more. But the present gaping chasm between need and availability plus the loss of the 30 Trust scholarships cannot be bridged by the veteran community.

As you will be aware from the results of the Vietnam Veterans Health Study, the children of Vietnam veterans have suffered a great deal because their fathers fought in the Vietnam war.

We ask that you consider further helping ameliorate the damage done to veterans' children by replacing the 30 Trust scholarships with an added 30 Long Tan scholarships (though in the form of the Trust scholarships) and adding a further 30 to meet the present need.

That letter has gone to the minister. I have taken the opportunity to quote from it here because I know that the minister sometimes takes a very, very long time to respond to veterans and to associations like these. I understand, however, that in the last few months the minister has been able to respond to these veterans a bit more quickly than has been the case in the past. I would certainly encourage him to look at this issue. It does not seem to me that they are asking for a heck of a lot. I know that the minister has the funds, and I certainly hope that he will make them available fairly soon.

The plight of many TPI veterans across Australia has caused much anxiety within the veteran community. Members may recall that I raised the issue of the T&PI Association passing a vote of no confidence in the minister and in the then national president of the T&PI—such was their anger and such was their view that their plight was being ignored, not only by the then association but by the government. There are many veterans, as was pointed out in the letter that I have just read, who are in dire financial straits because they have become incapacitated as a result of their war service. Many of these veterans have children, some of whom are still in primary school, and their needs are not being met.

I believe that we have a responsibility to do the right thing by these veterans. I do not think any of them are asking for support that is in any way greedy or undeserving. As a parliament and as political parties, we must look at the needs of these veterans, because they are doing it pretty tough out there. Of course, they are doing it pretty tough for a whole range of reasons, not least of which is the impact of the GST. I often hear the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs say that education is free of GST. That is rubbish. These veterans have a limited income capacity and they are feeling the full brunt of the impact of the GST. Many of them argue that, over recent years, the rate of payment for the TPI has fallen away, has diminished, in comparison with other earnings, and that their predicament has become much worse. I think there is a lot of validity in their arguments.

I received a letter this morning from Dave Howe, a TPI pensioner. He lives in the northern suburbs of Perth. He has written to the minister and he sent me a copy of the letter. I will read from that letter:

Dear Sir:

I would like to register my support for the National President of the TP&I Association Mr John Ryan and his team for finally doing something for the veteran community. We have for years suffered in silence as our living standards have been eaten away by the T&PI compensation rate only being linked to the CPI. We feel at the very least we should be entitled to the living standards of the average Australian. We served this country gladly, only to be treated as second class citizens when we were injured. Unable to support our families our wives have had to go back to work, if they could. This has caused great hardship and in some cases family disintegration. How many young Australians would you get to join the services if you told the truth about how the injured serviceman is treated when of no further use to the defence department? Especially young servicemen who have not had a full working life to accumulate some sort of safety net i.e paid off the mortgage or have some kind of superannuation to fall back on. They are through no fault of their own sentenced to a lifetime of poverty and disappointment. No wonder many suicide because of the hopelessness of having to deal with their injuries as well as having failed their families. I hope good sense and reason will prevail and you will listen to Mr J. Ryan.

Yours Sincerely

Dave Howe

The Mr Ryan referred to in the letter is the bloke who has recently taken over as the national president of the T&PI Association. He comes from Western Australia; he does this national job from Perth and he travels here when he needs to. I know that he was here recently to lobby the minister. I know that he had a meeting with the Prime Minister's department and he took the opportunity to meet with Democrats and members of the ALP. I sincerely hope that the message that he has delivered to Canberra is getting through. As I said, a lot of these blokes are in a fairly disastrous financial situation and a lot of them feel that they have not been able to do the right thing by their families.

I do not want to spend too much time talking about a bill that, as I said, is fairly technical but fairly straightforward and one that is mainly housekeeping, but I do want to urge the minister to be a little more proactive. I know that, from time to time, when things are raised in parliament, he will eventually get around to looking at them. I raised the example of Clarrie Upton from Queensland, who is a TPI pensioner and whose child has a disability. The family needed a new wheelchair, they approached the minister's department and they did not receive any help. The veteran community went out themselves and helped to fundraise, and they managed to get the family a wheelchair. I understand that since then the minister's department has contacted this family and offered some help. I appreciate that. I think that is the right thing to do, but I simply wish the minister had been able to do that earlier. It may have resulted in the individual getting a better wheelchair and the family being able to do that without seemingly looking for charity. That is the striking thing about most of these veterans: they do not want charity; they simply want a fair go and to be able to provide for their families in the same way as many other families provide for their kids—many other families where the father and the mother can go out to work in order to assist with the family income.

In conclusion, I am becoming increasingly concerned at what appears to be a downsizing in the number of officers working with the Department of Veterans' Affairs. I do not have any conclusive proof that this is happening, although I have a lot of anecdotal suggestions that it is. People from the department are contacting me and saying, `We are losing officers hand over fist. They are not being replaced. We are losing a lot of the memory, a lot of the intellectual knowledge and a lot of the history of the department as a number of officers who have been there for some time go.' They say that, as the department loses these skills, the officers are just not able to provide the sort of service and the level of service that they feel they should be able to provide to the veteran community. This is something that I know the shadow minister, Chris Schacht, is aware of. I know he is concerned about it and that he will also be pursuing this issue. It just seems to me that so many changes are happening to the service that is being provided to our veterans. It is not happening up front; it is not happening by way of honest and open accountable government; it is happening by stealth. I think that is the worse possible way we can treat our veteran community. I think they deserve better, and I think it is about time we started to give them better. As I said, the opposition supports this bill.