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Tuesday, 7 August 2001
Page: 29326

Mr MURPHY (5:38 PM) —I rise this afternoon to support the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2001 because it makes important changes to the lives of members of the veteran community, including those in my electorate of Lowe. I will begin by congratulating the government for extending benefits under the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to Allied veterans and mariners who had qualifying service during the First World War or Second World War, who are aged 70 years or over and who have been resident for 10 years or more in Australia.

We know that the history of the repatriation system shows bipartisan support for the veteran community; I mentioned this yesterday during the debate on the motion by the member for Barker in relation to the Kokoda Trail. But we also know that the Australian repatriation system is a generous system—and rightly so, because it ensures that people who put their lives on the line for their country receive the compensation they justly deserve. The extension of the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to Allied veterans and mariners is notable because it is a departure from the historical position that health care needs of veterans are the responsibility of the country they served.

When I worked in the Department of Veterans' Affairs many years ago, it was my experience that an allied veteran had more chance of backing the program at Randwick than of succeeding with a claim for entitlement to pensioner benefits from another government, in comparison with our repatriation system. An applicant, during my experience, almost had to demonstrate evidence of their gunshot wounds to get a successful claim. We should be very, very proud in Australia that we have such a generous scheme. In the main, there is bipartisan support for the repatriation scheme—and, when there is a change with the election on 17 November this year, nothing will change for the veteran community.

Mr Brough —Ha!

Mr MURPHY —I am sure that the election will be held on 17 November; I have no doubt about that. Anyhow, I am not here to talk about that.

I want to share with the House the campaign that I participated in for the restoration of the war widow pension to widows who had previously been a recipient prior to 1984, who had subsequently lost that pension because they had remarried and who subsequently became widowed. I want to take you through this campaign because it will show how you can achieve things and get happy results, I am pleased to say, thanks to the government—and I will give them credit where it is due. A widow in my electorate wrote to me on 22 March 2000, saying:

Dear Mr Murphy

I would be most grateful if you would kindly assist me with information re your views on the reinstatement of War Widows' pension to widows remarrying before 1984.

I was granted a War Widow's pension after my first husband died from heart problems only 12 years after we married in 1951. I remarried another WW II veteran in 1979 losing my pension at this time. We shared only 8½ years together before he also passed away as a result of heart and colon cancer problems.

Since 1984 war widows remarrying are no longer penalised as we were and their pensions are for life.

I am now 75, an age group in which other widows in my category find themselves widowed twice and no pensions. We, as a group, are interested in and seeking the views of government and politicians re the restoration of our pensions when they are so sorely needed. Our only “crime” was to remarry before 1984.

I have resided in the Lowe electorate for 37 years.

I appreciate the fact that you are a very busy gentleman but I would indeed be grateful if you could furnish me with an affirmative or negative answer to my query on the reinstatement of War Widows' pension to those still alive who remarried before 1984, by the 29th March 2001.

Yours sincerely.

I wrote back to this lady on 23 March and, inter alia, I said:

... I would be more than happy to make representations on your behalf and the behalf of other war widows in your situation to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, the Hon. Bruce Scott MP ...

May I also suggest that you and other war widows you know, who are in a similar position to you, organise a petition to be tabled in Federal Parliament. My staff member, Mr John Fisk, would be available to help you draft the petition.

I then wrote to Minister Bruce Scott on 6 April and, inter alia, I said:

Dear Bruce,

Mrs ... subsequently married another WW II veteran in 1979 and lost her pension. Sadly only 8 years later her second husband also passed away ...

Due to the above circumstances Mrs ... is not now eligible for a war widows pension. But, if through other circumstances she had remarried after 28 May 1984 she would now be entitled to the war widows pension.

This is an anomaly that should be rectified for Australians now in the twilight of their lives. Would you please investigate the case of Mrs ... and others in a similar position with a view to granting them the war widows pension as a matter of urgency.

In the meantime, I received a copy of a letter from another widow in a similar position in Victoria, who wrote to the widow in my electorate. On 11 April 2001, she said:

It was nice to talk to you last evening and I have received the two pages from you regarding the suggestion of John Murphy MP to instigate a petition to all our War Widows on the list. At today's date there are 101 and with the coverage in the country and suburban newspapers currently appearing the number will grow somewhat.

I think it is a brilliant idea and I am sending this to you today as I feel it is very important that we move as quickly as possible. It will take some time to get the petitions to each of our War Widows and then to have them returned to the Minister. I think there should be a time limit of about one week to ten days from receipt of the petition by the War Widow.

I will talk to you soon and ... I do appreciate what you are doing. We are powerful now and will continue until we get our just reinstatement in full.

I did not read that out just because I thought that what I suggested to them was particularly brilliant. It was the sort of thing that any member of this House would do in respect of widows who were also representing other widows in a similar situation. Attached to that letter was the case for the reinstatement of the war widows benefits. What the war widows put to me was quite simple. They said:

We are asking for the reinstatement of our war widows' benefits equal to those war widows who remarried after May 28, 1984 and are retaining full benefits.

We are War Widows exactly as those who remarried after May 28, 1984.

Most are widowed again.

The figure quoted by the Government is 4000 War Widows who remarried prior to May 1984. This matter has been given considerable publicity in the newspapers Australia wide, Channel 9 Current Affairs and Alan Jones 2UE Talk Back and many replies have been received. As of this date, April 11, 2001, these number approximately 101 War Widows who remarried prior to May 28, 1984 and lost their benefits. This is a considerable difference from the quoted 4000.

The Government consistently says a gratuity of 12 months of war widows' pension was given to War Widows upon their remarriage. This too is erroneous. In the letters received from these War Widows, it was stated by most that they received only a few weeks of gratuity. It certainly was not always 12 months as the Minister continues to advise us.

Further to the foregoing paragraph, the Government for years has stolen the rightful War Widows' benefits from us in deciding that a remarriage date would determine our eligibility for War Widows benefits. This is discriminatory, unjust and a grave anomaly which the Government admits but has done nothing to rectify.

The Government has calculated the cost to have our benefits reinstated to these `4000' war widows as 64 million dollars over four years, (this figure is highly questionable). It has never calculated the value in dollars of our justifiable benefits they have kept.

The Veterans' Affairs Minister has refused to meet us when requested in our letters. In reply from his office to correspondence from War widows, the same letter with similar paragraphs has been sent to all of us over the years.

The age of these War Widows range from approximately 74 to 93 years. Most are frail, vulnerable and unable to stand up for their rights but they have written after hearing or seeing the publicity, and in some cases a friend or a member of their family for them, and are so appreciative that at last we are standing up as a force to be reconciled with. This will continue until we get our rightful benefits back. We will not take less.

Our Veteran husbands died in horrendous circumstances and had their lives devastated and shortened in defending Australia. These gallant brave young Australians trusted that the Australian Government would take care of us even into our old age. It has not done so. We suffered irreparable sorrow for Australia and now are standing up for this discrimination to cease and our lawful rights to be reinstated. Many remarried in grief, remarried for their children, or to combat loneliness and the majority ended very unhappily divorced and financially devastated.

We have never forgotten our Veteran husbands who died for Australia, but the Australian governments have.

On 12 April, I received another letter from my constituent, who wrote:

Dear Mr Murphy

Thank you most sincerely for your correspondence of 6 April, 2001. I do so appreciate your interest and readiness to assist me and other War Widows in our efforts to regain lost and much-needed pensions.

On reading the suggestion contained in your letter to further our cause, I was filled, firstly, with great appreciation, then confidence that, with your readily-given assistance and knowledge of procedure in such cases, we might now succeed, after the futile efforts of the past.

I immediately forwarded a copy of your correspondence containing information to our organiser ... in Victoria. She, in turn, telephoned immediately to express her absolute delight on reading your suggestions, with which she heartily agreed. I am enclosing her written response to me together with an amended list of War Widows as another 12 names have surfaced.

Personally, I think her suggested time limit of 7-10 days from receipt of petition by War Widows for it to be returned is too short and a little more time be given. However she is most enthusiastic about your plan. You undoubtedly will have your own ideas and we will be guided by you on details such as this.

Once again, Mr Murphy may I state my deep appreciation for your valued assistance and the representations you made on my behalf to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. We, in the Electorate of Lowe, are indeed fortunate to be represented by such an approachable, concerned and helpful member. Thank you.

That's very nice, isn't it? I am not in the habit of doing this, for the benefit of the minister at the table, but this is good news and I am going to give an accolade to the government and Minister Scott, for whom I have a deal of regard, as I have expressed to him previously.

Mr Brough —You're a generous man.

Mr MURPHY —No, Minister Scott is a decent man. On 26 April, Minister Scott wrote back to me and said:

Dear Mr Murphy

Thank you for your representation of 6 April 2001 on behalf of Mrs ... concerning restoration of war widows' pensions to widows who remarried prior to May 1984.

Under current legislation war widows who remarried prior to 29 May 1984 relinquished their pension. However, those widows who remarry after that date can retain their pension. This has been the policy of successive governments since 1984 and has been reconsidered on numerous occasions. The policy was first recommended to the Hawke Labor Government by an Advisory Committee on Repatriation Legislation which included representatives of the veteran community. It also included representatives from the War Widows Guild.

Restoring eligibility to war widows who remarried prior to 1984 was again examined in 1994 by an independent committee of inquiry, the Veterans Compensation Review Committee. It also concluded that it would be inappropriate to restore the pension to this group of widows. The reasoning behind this decision included the payment of a gratuity in 1984 to those widows (equivalent to $10,700 in today's terms) upon the cessation of their pensions.

The Government appreciates the role partners of veterans have played in looking after our returned servicemen and servicewomen. However, restoring the pension to war widows who have remarried prior to 1984 would cost $65 million over a four year budget cycle and would need to be considered against other competing priorities within the Veterans' Affairs portfolio. Nevertheless, I will continue to keep this issue in mind when considering future portfolio initiatives.

When I received that letter I was a little disheartened, notwithstanding my efforts to assist the war widows around Australia with a petition to be tabled in parliament, so I took the liberty of placing a question on the Notice Paper. Parliament was in recess at the time and we did not resume until 22 May, budget day, when my question, No. 2549, appeared on the Notice Paper. It read:

(1) Is 28 May 1984 the date of effect before which Repatriation legislation will not allow for the continued payment of a war widow's pension on remarriage.

(2) Is the retention of war widow's pensions by persons who remarried prior to 1984 a social justice issue of finding a best balance between equity and financial resources.

(3) Is the estimated number of pensions provided to war widows who had subsequently remarried prior to 28 May 1984 120 and not 4000 as he had indicated earlier.

(4) In the light of the statistically small number of war widows who remarried prior to 28 May 1984, does equity in distribution of war widow pensions to all such remarried widows now outweigh the financial constraints prohibiting the reissue of those war widow pensions; if not, why not.

(5) What is the cost of restoring war widow's pensions to this group of widows.

Notwithstanding what I now know in terms of the actual numbers of approximately 4,100, Minister Scott, to his great credit, replied to my questions—unlike the indolent Minister for Health and Aged Care, who refuses to answer my question, and I stand here after question time and ask Mr Speaker to follow that up, but unfortunately without much success. To his credit, Bruce Scott replied:

I am pleased that in the 2001-02 Budget the Government announced it would introduce legislation to amend the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 restoring war widow's pensions to all widows who relinquished this pension on their remarriage prior to 28 May 1984. Subject to the passage of these amendments, the restoration of pension would take effect from 1 January 2002.

This budget measure would cost $86.8 million over the four year period to 2004-2005.

That answer to my question No. 2549 appeared in Hansard on Tuesday 19 June 2001. So on the day my question appeared on the Notice Paper, which was the day we returned after Easter for the budget session, to its credit the government granted and restored war widow pensions to the category of war widows who had lost those pensions and who had remarried prior to 1984. I want to give a commercial to the government and to Bruce Scott for that, and to share with you how a campaign can work. Ultimately, my next step in the process would have been for me to table a petition, but we no longer needed to do that.

On behalf of those war widows and others in my electorate who have benefited in that regard, I express their deep appreciation to the government for the restoration of those pensions. It is not often that those of us on this side of the House are so generous, but it probably has something to do with the fact that we are talking about veterans' affairs, and the general spirit of cooperation in relation to those matters and helping those who fought for our country and their dependents. I support the amendments that provide beneficial treatment of superannuation assets for people aged between 55 and pension age. That is another good initiative from the government. This is all good news over here.

In conclusion, I notice that the member for Cowan referred to the case of McPhee which went before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. He was denied a pension because he was doing voluntary work. I support the comments made by the member for Cowan, who is a distinguished soldier and a distinguished Australian. Somehow or other, the AAT must have got this wrong. I do not think that we should be denying a special TPI rate pension to someone because they do a lot of active voluntary work, particularly if they are helping other ex-servicemen through their ex-service organisations. I am aware of many other senior figures in the ex-service community who are also recipients of TPI special rate pensions and who are very active in representing ex-service people and who quite rightly say that they should not be denied payment of their TPI pensions for the great service that they have given to their country. It is the least that we can do. I hope that Minister Scott, in this spirit of bipartisanship, will have a good look at the McPhee case because we should be encouraging TPI veterans to participate actively in the community with voluntary work. Perhaps I could draw the attention of the Deputy Speaker to the fact that my time has expired and, as much as I would like to keep talking about veterans, I will cease my remarks forthwith. (Time expired)