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Tuesday, 7 August 2001
Page: 29315


Dr MARTIN (4:38 PM) —The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2001 addresses various budget measures which were announced in the 2001-02 budget. The Labor Party fully support the bill, because it provides an extension of services to veterans and war widows. I think it is important, though, that comments be made about each of the provisions within this legislation, because it is an opportunity to demonstrate that, on matters affecting people in our community who need government assistance, both sides of the parliament should be in harmony. As a consequence, we will not be delaying the passage of this legislation, either in this House or in the Senate.

The first proposal contained within this legislation deals with the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. As all honourable members would know, the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme is going to be extended to include all Allied veterans and mariners with qualifying service from World War I and World War II. It is interesting that this provision should be included now, and I certainly welcome it. Last Anzac Day I was in Wollongong, attending, as I always do, the Anzac Day celebrations and commemorations. I was standing at the cenotaph and talking to an elderly British ex-serviceman who was very proudly wearing his combat medals and so on. He told me that he has lived in Australia for more than 30 years but feels something of a non-citizen because of this type of issue. I had a great deal of empathy with the concerns that he raised with me. I might add that he was from the neighbouring electorate of Throsby—but that is okay. I told him that I would be more than happy to raise the issue in the parliament when the opportunity presented itself. I have done so with our shadow minister, and I am pleased that the government has introduced a budget measure which will deal with the specifics of the issue that he raised with me.

Regrettably, neither the budget papers nor the explanatory memorandum give any indication of the number of veterans who, like my neighbouring constituent, are going to benefit from this initiative. I think that is a little disappointing, and I hope that the minister or one of the government members who speak in this debate might have some information that could clarify that.

I understand from the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, and also from the Bills Digest, which is provided by the Information and Research Services of the Department of the Parliamentary Library, that the estimated costs of over $30 million a year for this scheme would appear to be a little high, given that the proposal extends only to concessional pharmaceuticals. I say that because there are currently about 350,000 veterans who are eligible under the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and the cost of that is about $325 million a year. The Department of Veterans' Affairs does not know how many veterans will qualify, and therefore the cost estimates are conservative in terms of ensuring financial coverage. I hope that is not right. I hope that there has been some information provided and some statistical work carried out to ensure that people are going to be adequately covered by the extension of the scheme under this legislation.

The benefit provides access to only concessional pharmaceuticals, as I said, and this could raise some real questions regarding the extension of the gold card to these veterans. I think all honourable members in this place are incessantly approached by members of the veteran community—and others on their behalf—about access to the gold card. It is a very vexed question that has been raised within party rooms on both sides of this parliament, and governments continue to wrestle with how best to respond. I know that the veteran community has a solution, and that is that the gold card should be made available to almost everybody. It is an issue that has to be kept in perspective but constantly reviewed to see how an extension might operate and the costs to government of that.

Although, as I have said, this legislation is applicable to Allied veterans and mariners with qualifying service from World War I and World War II, repatriation usually rests with the country which they served. But I have to say that it is pleasing that Australia is prepared to give benefits to Allied veterans who have been living in Australia for 10 years or more. That is an appropriate recognition of contributions that have been made. The term `allied servicemen and women' conjures up images of joint service among allies, and people who have made Australia their home for a period of time are getting recognition from this. I would like to hear a bit more explanation from the government about the estimated costs and the number of veterans who will be entitled to the benefit. It is of minor concern because, firstly, we do not want anyone to miss out and, secondly, we want to ensure that there is adequate funding to cover the estimated numbers of people who will be picked up by the extension of this particular benefit.

The second issue that is dealt with in the legislation relates to the beneficial treatment of superannuation assets for people aged between 55 and the pension age. This initiative apparently was not itemised in the portfolio budget statements for Veterans' Affairs. The cost of the proposal is estimated at some $350 million for each year from 2001 onwards, so it is not an insignificant amount of money. It was announced in the portfolio budget statements for Family and Community Services, but it was necessary to incorporate it into the Veterans' Entitlements Act so that veterans were eligible for this benefit also. It is a little unclear which veterans will be entitled to these benefits. We would not want to alarm people unnecessarily, which may happen if there is an expectation that there is a benefit and they then find that that is not the case or, alternatively, if people have a benefit but there has been an underestimation of the financial contribution required from government to ensure that that benefit is adequately catered for and that those eligible do not miss out. These are just questions about the numbers who are eligible and the amount of money needed to pick up the costs associated with the extension of these schemes.

The third issue is the extension of the war widow's pension. It is quite gratifying from a shadow minister's perspective, and from the Labor Party's perspective generally, to see that the government has moved on this. There is a bit of a history to this particular issue, and it is probably worth while spending just a minute or so outlining that history. Prior to 1984, a person who received a war widow's pension and then remarried had their war widow's pension cancelled. In hindsight, that was probably a fairly unsympathetic way to deal with things. We are all wonderful when it comes to the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and the way things should have been done, but that was the fact at the time. The Hawke Labor government changed the relevant legislation such that from 1984 remarriage no longer made a difference to the war widow's pension, and that was welcomed at the time. However, it was not made retrospective, which was an anomaly of the time. As a consequence, the change that the present government is putting in place is certainly welcomed. It extends the Labor government's initial decision not to discourage women from remarrying and aims to ensure compensation is paid for the war related death of a spouse, irrespective of their current marital status. I am sure there are many members of this House who, from time to time, have made representations on behalf of constituents who have been caught by this very problem. It is appropriate that the changes that have been put in place through this legislative amendment will pick up this anomaly. We welcome the change that is being proposed here.

I will go back to the same point I made about the two previous amendments. I am advised by the shadow minister for veterans' affairs that the government has given little indication as to how many people will benefit from this proposal, because there are no exact records of how many war widows remarried prior to 1984. Apparently, once a war widow remarried, the files of that person were no longer needed at the Department of Veterans' Affairs. This means, therefore, that there are no records of widows who will benefit from this decision. This will be a process issue that the department will have to deal with, and I know that the department will deal with this sympathetically. The people who staff the Department of Veterans' Affairs do have an empathy with people in the veteran community, but there may well be some lengthy administration process that has to be gone through so that things are verified and checked, and so on. That will have to happen to ensure that this benefit goes to people who are entitled to it. Clearly, it will mean that checks will need to be made. A paper trail will have to be followed and people will have to provide information. I hope that the government will ensure that those resources are made available to the DVA to enable those particular claims to be processed reasonably quickly. We would like to think that the pensions will be ready and in place for eligible recipients by January 2002. Considering that there are some delays in claims in the DVA at the moment, we need some assurance that the administrative process will not hinder the implementation of this initiative. At the same time, we do not want to impede the excellent work that the Department of Veterans' Affairs carries out on behalf of the veteran community.

This legislation will correct some anomalies. It will extend some benefits that had been identified by previous Labor governments as far back as 1984. It will probably correct an anomaly that existed then even though, with the best intentions in the world, the government of the day tried to fix the problems of the war widows' pensions. I think the extension of the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to Allied veterans and mariners with qualifying service is important.

The other thing that we need to say is that people who believe they qualify for this service need to understand that there are fairly strict definitions of those people who qualify—those people who have qualified in terms of war related service in World War I and World War II. Again, I would hope that this is not going to create some tensions within the community at large and that, where people believed they qualified but when the strict and very reasoned guidelines that are there for defining people who are eligible for these benefits are explained they perhaps do not meet those criteria, they understand the reasons for it.

When it comes to a range of issues associated with people who in one form or another served this nation in times of great difficulty and stress in times of war, there are still concerns about issues associated with eligibility in respect of recognition. At one end of the spectrum can be questions associated with the granting of a DVA pension. At the other end of the spectrum it could be recognition through certificates of remembrance. In the middle could be things like the awarding of medals for people who served in different theatres of war or in different operations, perhaps even in Australia. The recent appropriate recognition of national service people was a case in point. It is still an arguing point among people within the RSL community and others in the veterans' community as to whether eligibility was appropriate, whether recognition was appropriate, whether people should be able to join the RSL as a result of this, and so on. A lot of these are internal matters for the RSLs of Australia to debate, but nevertheless they are important.

As I say, I think these are issues with which people would find no fault. This is a welcome initiative and was contained within the budget. I guess some people who are a little more cynical might say that the timing of this is interesting—we are, after all, only a matter of months away from an election. I accept the acknowledgment by my good friend the honourable member for Kooyong—shaking his head, saying that the looming election had nothing to do with this, that it was introduced for this budget and that to start next year was simply a matter of coincidence and chance. I accept my friend's now nodding in agreement on that particular issue.

I do believe that these are appropriate measures that need to be dealt with. I think it is appropriate, as funds have become available, that the government has put these measures in place. It is appropriate that both sides of this House support the legislation. I again indicate on behalf of the Labor that we certainly support the legislation.