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Tuesday, 7 August 2001
Page: 29337

Mr BRUCE SCOTT (Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence) (8:09 PM) —in reply—I rise to sum up the debate on this very important Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2001 Budget Measures) Bill 2001 and thank all those members who have spoken on this bill in the House. I thank them for their comments and contributions and I also thank the opposition for their support for the passage of this very important legislation.

With its sixth budget, this government has continued its commitment to acknowledge the service and sacrifice of those who served their country and to resolve anomalies to develop a fairer and more consistent repatriation system. This government has always worked closely with the ex-service community to identify issues of concern and to address those issues. It is important that we are able to work with the ex-service community because they are the ones who, over 82 years, have been instrumental in preserving the fundamental principles that have underpinned the repatriation system. The 2001-02 veterans' affairs budget included targeted initiatives that I am sure will further advance the interests of our veteran community. As most members who have contributed on this bill have acknowledged, the ex gratia payment of $25,000 has already been paid to the ex-prisoners of war of the Japanese, including the widows of ex-prisoners of war of the Japanese and the civilian detainees.

Importantly, the bill will also restore the entitlements of some 3,000 Australian war widows who remarried before 1984 and had their pensions cancelled. These pensions will be issued again on 1 January 2002, the date this initiative will take effect. Already, my department advises me, we have had some 2,300 inquiries since the budget. That indicates that the estimates we had in the budget are accurate and that we will in fact receive some 3,000, if not more, applications from war widows who had remarried prior to 1984. An important thing about this initiative is that it will end legislative discrimination that for almost 20 years has created two classes of war widows. It will also ensure that all widows and widowers whose partners have died for their country will be treated equally under the repatriation system. That will create fairness and equity and remove a glaring anomaly that should never have existed for so long.

The government has acknowledged the service of Commonwealth and Allied veterans and Allied mariners who served shoulder to shoulder alongside Australians during World War II. This bill will provide them with full access to prescription medicines under the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. This measure, too, will take effect as of 1 January next year. Eligibility for the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme will be extended to these 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 Commonwealth and Allied veterans and mariners are facing an increasing need for medicines as they grow older. The initiative will also ensure that Commonwealth and Allied World War II veterans and mariners can access the full range of prescription medicines covered by the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme at concessional rates. The same eligible Commonwealth and Allied veterans and mariners will also be able to claim the pharmaceutical allowance from my department if they do not already receive this as a service or age pensioner.

I know, as I have travelled around since the release of the budget, that the veteran community have welcomed these three measures and see that, from their point of view, further anomalies in the repatriation system have been removed from the rules and entitlements that apply to our veterans.

The bill also contains measures to amend the rules applying to early withdrawal from a superannuation fund. The profit component on superannuation that is withdrawn by a member of the veteran community aged 55 or older is no longer assessed as income. That, too, has been a welcome initiative of the government for our veteran community. It will align veteran benefits with all those introduced into social security law from 1 July 2001.

In conclusion, I again thank the opposition for the assistance they have provided the government in making sure that there was a smooth passage for legislation straight after the budget for the prisoner of war initiative and for their cooperation in ensuring the passage of this legislation to bring about much needed amendments and address anomalies that existed in the Veterans' Entitlements Act. I thank the House and I commend the bill to the House.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.