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Tuesday, 21 August 2001
Page: 29850

Dr MARTIN (4:30 PM) — I understand that the honourable member for Aston will be making his first speech in this place on this legislation, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Further Budget 2000 and Other Measures) Bill 2001, following my contribution on behalf of the opposition. I extend to him our best wishes, and congratulations on his win in the Aston by-election. We look forward to his contribution during the course of the debate on this important piece of legislation. We wish both him and his family—who I understand will be joining him today—all the very best for what is always a memorable moment.

At the outset, I indicate on behalf of the opposition that the Labor Party fully supports this bill. My colleague the shadow minister for community services, the member for Lilley, indicated when a similar measure came in for the provision of benefits for people under the Family and Community Services Legislation (Simplification and Other Measures) Bill 2001 that the opposition does not always support the government in some of the bills which deal with older Australians. There have been widespread concerns, which we have brought into this chamber, on this as an issue. We have seen, for example, concern expressed by people in the community about promises of $1,000 compensation for the introduction of the GST not being delivered to older Australians. We have seen attempts being made to bribe certain sections of the older community with $300 in the last budget, but, again, only going to a certain element of the pensioner community and not looking after those who are on disability or carers benefits. We have seen other promises about access to health care, dental health care and so on all cut out. It is therefore a little unusual at this stage for us to be coming in and saying to the government on this piece of legislation, `We think you have got it right.' But we are happy to do so because the measures that are outlined in this legislation are designed to mirror those changes I alluded to a moment ago that have occurred in the social security system.

This bill seeks to ensure that both the social security department and the Department of Veterans' Affairs operate consistently. I know that from time to time people express concerns that, for one reason or another, governments are a little slow in aligning the benefits that apply within both Veterans' Affairs and the department of social security. Again, this is one of those elements; and, for consistency, it is important that this legislation is passed.

I do, however, indicate on behalf of the opposition that we will be moving a second reading amendment in the Senate. That amendment is designed to remove the assets test from the Department of Veterans' Affairs disability pensions when someone is applying for a social security pension. So that the government has some forewarning of this, I will read that amendment, which I again point out will be moved in the Senate and not in the House. My colleague the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, Senator Schacht, will move that, at the end of the motion for the second reading, the following words be added:

But the Senate calls on the government to remove the anomaly whereby veterans' disability pensions are assessed as income for social security purposes, by introducing an amendment to the first available bill.

That, to us, makes eminent sense and we are a little concerned that the government has not taken this opportunity to incorporate that particular change into the legislation that is before us today.

I am sure many of us moved around our veterans' community last weekend to commemorate what was truly a significant event on behalf of Vietnam veterans. Vietnam Veterans Day, which was on Saturday, falls on the anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. I am sure many of us took the opportunity on the weekend, as we attended various commemorative services in our electorates, to reflect on the sacrifices that many of those people have made for their country. In the case of our Vietnam veterans, at the Battle of Long Tan some 201 Australians lost their lives. They were overwhelmed by a force that was 10 times greater. It was a significant battle for the way in which people rallied to the Australian cause, as demonstrated by that commitment in the field in Vietnam. I sat and reflected, in my electorate in Wollongong, on that contribution at what was indeed a very moving ceremony. Regrettably, the weather in Wollongong on the weekend was not as good as it could have been—the gales were blowing through at the site of the Vietnam Veterans Commemorative Memorial on Flagstaff Point. But what delighted me was that there was a coming together of relatives of people whose names were on that commemorative wall, people who had served there and people who knew of people at the Battle of Long Tan. It was an opportunity to reflect on the commitments they had given on behalf of their country. I pay tribute to them, as I am sure everyone in this House does, has done, and did on Saturday in their various electorates. It is important that on such occasions we reflect on some of these issues.

I had the great pleasure in the last parliament to be the shadow minister for veterans' affairs for a short period. In that capacity, I accompanied the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Bruce Scott, and 30 ex-diggers who had been in the Battle of Long Tan on their journey back to commemorate the 30th anniversary. It was an absolutely moving experience to go back with the people who had been there, and I have made comment on it in this place in the past when dealing with veterans' affairs issues. I watched the mixed emotions that swept over them—most of them had never been back; they embraced a sense of reconciliation with what had happened. They came in contact with a number of people from what had been the North Vietnamese army, whom they had fought against. We had one meeting with the general who commanded the great mass of people that came up against the Australian group at Long Tan on that night. It was interesting to see them sitting around as old soldiers just talking about the issues. There was a collective sense of reconciliation at the time.

It is important and appropriate, when legislation that lends support to those members of the veterans' community comes before the parliament, that there is bipartisanship and support for it. This bill is widely supported amongst the ex-services community. It has been a major priority both for the TPI pensioners and for the RSL. The amendment Labor will move in the Senate has widespread support in the veterans community, because the assets test by Centrelink usually affects veterans most in need of monetary support.

My friend and colleague the member for Cowan will also be speaking in this debate. He understands the issues associated with the veterans' community and shows that in the contributions that he makes. I am sure he will be speaking to the amendment from his experience. The legislation is particularly important for us all as we travel around our electorates and meet with the various constituent bodies that make up the veterans' community. They are looking to the legislators of this nation for remedies to perceived problems. This is one such measure. I commend the minister for bringing the legislation into the parliament.

I would say to the minister, though, in all seriousness and in the spirit of bipartisanship, that the amendment that Labor are proposing in respect of the assets test is the most significant priority both for TPI pensioners and the RSL. The relationship with Centrelink and social security is something that the government should look at, and I am sure they will. I commend the legislation to the parliament and wish it a speedy passage. The opposition will support the legislation, but we will be moving a second reading amendment in the Senate.

Motion (by Mr Ronaldson)—by leave— agreed to:

That standing order 81 be suspended for the duration of the first speech by the Member for Aston on the second reading debate on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Further Budget 2000 and Other Measures) Bill 2001.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—Before I call the honourable member for Aston, I remind the House that this is his first speech. I therefore ask that the usual courtesies be extended to him.