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Tuesday, 7 August 2001
Page: 29334

Mr St CLAIR (6:23 PM) —I rise to support the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2001. It is always good to come into the House and speak on a bill for which there is bipartisan support. This bill brings in entitlements, support and assistance to a group in the community, as the member for Dawson said, who have contributed so much to the building of this great nation. As I go around my electorate, I often look back—as I am sure many do in this centenary year of Federation—at the contribution that our service men and women have made over 100 years. We have a position in the world that is unique as a democracy— a democracy which is quite the envy of the rest of the world when they look about and see what we can do.

I would like to highlight a number of issues. I know they have been spoken about in varying ways, but I think it is important to assure the Australian public that we respect and support these measures. I would like to make a few comments with regard to bringing in assistance for different groups in the community through budget measures. You cannot bring in programs, expand programs or do the things that you want to do to assist people unless you are in a very strong financial position. The member for Paterson said that he felt that the bill may not have gone far enough, and I can certainly understand that, but it would not have gone anywhere if this government had not been in a very strong, sound and fiscally responsible position—which is a long way from the position we were in when we came to office in 1996, because of what we were left with. Congratulations need to go to this government, which has been able to get us into this position of being able to bring in programs that provide some assistance.

As was mentioned, this is the sixth budget in which the government has continued its commitment to acknowledge the sacrifice that our service men and women have made for their country—a sacrifice which has made it one of the great democracies. The government works closely with veterans, as does the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. The member for Maranoa, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Bruce Scott, has been to my electorate quite frequently, meeting and having a very close personal relationship with many sectors of the ex-service community. He is therefore able to identify those issues of concern that ex-service men and women raise with him. The bill restores entitlements for some 3,000 war widows who remarried before 1984 and had their pensions cancelled at that time. A year or more ago, Minister Scott visited a group of war widows in Tamworth, and that was one of the issues that was raised with him. That issue has now been resolved. Resolving this issue will end the legislative discrimination that has, over the last 20 years or so, created two classes of war widows.

In talking about the minister and the war widows, particularly the war widows in Tamworth, I would like to take this opportunity to talk about another issue that was raised. Quite often when our elderly war widows come home from hospital, they have difficulty doing simple things, such as reaching a telephone. A request was made to see whether something could be done to assist those war widows who return from hospital by lending them portable telephones so that they can use them in bed or take them with them in case they fall or have an accident. The minister was able, through the budgetary system, to come up with a great deal of support. In fact, I think nine or 10 mobile extension phones have been provided to the war widows in Tamworth. I thank the minister on behalf of those war widows. When I visit with those war widows, they continually mention their use of those particular telephones. The restoration of the entitlements for war widows will ensure that all widows and widowers whose partners have died for their country will be treated equally under the repatriation system.

The bill also acknowledges the service of our British, Commonwealth and Allied veterans who served alongside Australians during World War II, providing them with full access to prescription medicines under the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Eligibility for the RPBS will be extended to those veterans and merchant mariners who are aged 70 or over, have qualifying service from World War II and have been resident in Australia for more than 10 years. Like their Australian counterparts, our Allied veterans are facing an increasing need for medicines as they grow older. This initiative will ensure that the British, Commonwealth and allied World War II veterans can access a full range of prescription medicines covered by the RPBS. The veteran community has widely welcomed this measure to improve the quality of care for Allied veterans. There is a very strong camaraderie between all veterans— British, Commonwealth and Allied veterans—no matter where they are, and I think we see that in our community. This initiative is very much appreciated by those who served with us during those very difficult years.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 p.m. to 8.00 p.m.

Mr St CLAIR —Before the dinner break, I was just starting to go through the budget items which this government has been able to bring in because of the strong financial position it has been able to responsibly bring itself to. The government has extended its commitment to providing quality aged care to the veteran community with a $6 million funding boost to the residential care development scheme. This will extend the scheme for another year. The RCDS was established to assist ex-service organisations and community based aged care providers to upgrade residential care facilities for the veteran community.

The tangible effects of this can be seen in Tenterfield, where just over a year ago a constituent came to me because her bathroom needed to be remodelled. She fell within this scheme and, 12 months later, we have been able to make some representations to the minister and to assist her. She saw me a couple of weeks ago when I was in Tenterfield on my bush business tour and she came up to me, with tears in her eyes, to say that the actual work had been completed and what a huge boon it had been for her to be able to have this sort of assistance in her own home. Along with the philosophy generally on aged care issues of being able to assist our older Australians to stay in their homes, this program has been an enormous boon for them to have some of that renovations work done to their places to make them more livable for them, particularly when it comes to such things as bathing or getting access to the house itself. That is again a tangible demonstration of where these programs actually do deliver a great result.

The National Ex-service Round Table on Aged Care has strongly supported the continuation of this scheme and this was endorsed by an independent evaluation of the scheme, which is also very important. The initiative provides further financial support for those organisations seeking to provide veterans and war widows with a high-quality access to residential aged care services. Again, that is a great initiative that the minister has been able to bring in in the budget because of our very strong financial situation.

Among other issues and measures for the Veterans' Affairs portfolio, the Commonwealth is providing a one-off payment, and we have heard a bit about it tonight, of $25,000 to Australian service personnel and civilians who were held prisoner of war by the Japanese during World War II, or their surviving widows or widowers, who were alive on 1 January this year. I have spoken before in this House of the fact that this has been a very welcome initiative of this government. Some say it does not go far enough, but I can certainly say that I do not think there are many people who have not been touched by this one-off payment.

I have been involved. One of my wife's uncles was a Changi prisoner who has since passed on and his widow was able to receive this payment. I have had calls from numerous others through the electorate of New England. I think there are about 21 or 22 ex-POWs within the electorate of New England and I think some 60 widows or widowers who were going to be beneficiaries of this. I know from the phone calls that I and my staff have received that it has certainly been welcome indeed. The payment, as we have mentioned here before, recognises the unique hardship and suffering of Australians held in Japanese POW camps during the Second World War.

We have continued funding of agency arrangements to maintain an expanded network of Veterans' Affairs offices. These agencies, as we are all aware, play a crucial role in delivering services to members of the veteran community who live in rural and remote areas of Australia. There will be further development of the quality use of medicines program to encourage the prescription and safe use of medications that best meet individual veteran patients' health needs.

With regard to the London memorial, the government has allocated $6.4 million to build a major new war memorial in London commemorating Australia's service with Britain over the period of the two world wars. The memorial was announced last year by the Prime Minister and the British Prime Minister. It is planned to be erected in Hyde Park and to become a focal point in London for Anzac Day services.

On the issue of memorials, all of us in our electorates—particularly country electorates—have some wonderful memorials about. In the town of Emmaville, which is some 60 or 70 kilometres north-west of the town of Glen Innes in my electorate, there is a wonderful war memorial made out of Italian marble commemorating those who served in the First World War. We needed to have quite a bit of restoration work done and some capital works done with the war memorial there to preserve it in good condition. When I was there recently formulating with the local community a proposal to this government—and of course to this minister—it gave me a chance to reflect on the enormous contribution that so many of our little towns made to our world war efforts.

When you have a look at the Their Service, Our Heritage program projects that we have been able to put in place to restore some of these memorials and you start going through the lists of names, it is quite humbling to see how many from one family, for example, made the ultimate sacrifice and how many people from these smaller communities gave this enormous service generally. I am pleased to have been able to announce today a grant under the Their Service, Our Heritage program by the minister to the community up there so they will to be able to restore the memorial to its original condition and preserve it. Minister, I note that you are in the House, and the community is very appreciative of the fact that you have been able to see your way clear under this program to assist them. As you can imagine, they are very proud of their memorial, as we in other places are of ours.

Minister, this brings me back to the fact that we are only able to bring in these programs because we are fiscally responsible as a government. We are only able to bring in programs to assist our veterans because we are in the black—we cannot do it if we are in the red, but we can certainly do it in the black. I thank you for that and I thank this government for being fiscally responsible. I commend the bill to the House and I am pleased that it has support from both sides.