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Tuesday, 21 August 2001
Page: 29861

Mr O'CONNOR (5:29 PM) —I rise to support the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Further Budget 2000 and Other Measures) Bill 2001. This is a very important piece of legislation which relates particularly to the entitlements of our veterans community. This bill is a package of amendments to implement several measures designed to improve the delivery of income support benefits through the repatriation system to our veterans. A number of these measures reflect changes in the social security system. These proposed amendments to the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 will provide for more generous treatment for income support recipients whose partners receive periodic compensation payments, such as those paid to them by insurance companies. For example, under current legislation, if a person currently receives a compensation affected payment, the couple's combined pensions are reduced by one dollar for every one dollar of the periodic compensation received. Under the proposed new legislation, under the new measures, the dollar for dollar reduction will apply only to the pension of the person who receives the periodic compensation. If the amount of compensation received exceeds the amount of that person's pension, then the excess will be treated as the ordinary income of their partner.

With the income-free area and the taper that applies to ordinary income, these new measures will result in an increase in the amount of income support payments to couples who have low levels of income from compensation payments. There is a range of other amendments that apply to the social security system, to simplify provisions relating to the recovery of compensation. These other amendments will provide for the direct recovery of compensation debts from compensation payers and insurers, in circumstances where there has been an overpayment of pension because of the treatment of periodic compensation as ordinary income.

This bill also amends the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 in relation to the treatment of unrealisable financial assets, in the assessment of hardship provisions under the assets test. Under such hardship provisions, such unrealisable assets will not be regarded as a financial asset when applying deeming provisions under the income test, and the treatment of income streams will be amended to ensure that the conditions applied to income streams under the means test will be clear and unambiguous. Finally, this bill will change the payment of income support instalments, currently rounded off to the nearest 10c. In future, instalments will be paid to the nearest one cent. This will bring these Veterans' Affairs arrangements in line with the calculations of pension instalments paid throughout the social security system.

Like other speakers in this debate, I take the opportunity in the context of this debate to say a few words of support for the Vietnam veterans community in my electorate of Corio. The Geelong Vietnam Veterans Association, which is ably led at the moment by its legendary president, Peter `Sully' Sullivan, is one of the strongest branches of the association in Victoria. I first came across members of the association at the very first Anzac Day march I attended as the member for Corio. I was invited by the Vietnam veterans to attend their reunion at the drill hall in Myers Street at the conclusion of the march, and it was an invitation that I was very pleased to accept. Much to my amazement, I was the only politician to accept the invitation on the day. I was informed by the Vietnam vets who attended that particular gathering that it was not the habit of politicians or civic leaders to accept their invitation to turn up to the reunion.

It was my first acquaintance in a civic sense with the deep sense of hurt felt by Vietnam veterans at their treatment by the general community and with their feelings of isolation from others not only in the veterans community but in the wider community at large. Since that time, I have watched the local branch of the association grow in numbers and expand its role in meeting the welfare needs of Vietnam veterans not only in the Geelong region but in the Western District of Victoria particularly. The association has grown enormously in credibility as the scope of its operations has widened. The Vietnam veterans now occupy an honoured place in the veterans community of Geelong and also in the general community of Geelong—and now, I think, in the nation at large. I pay tribute to the local office-bearers of that association who down through the years have, with the enormous assistance of family and friends, built up the local branch to the point where it now performs a very important welfare and support role and provides improved services to World War II veterans and to other veterans as well as those in the Vietnam veterans community.

We on this side of the House are fortunate in that we have among our ranks Vietnam veterans, such as the member for Cowan, who is articulate and keeps before our caucus, and indeed this House, matters relating to the entitlements and welfare of Vietnam veterans. We have also been very fortunate in the past to have had in government Labor ministers, such as the member for Bowman, Con Sciacca: veterans even now speak in hallowed tones of his enormous contributions to their community and to other veterans communities throughout Australia. The Vietnam veterans of Geelong can be assured of the commitment of a future Labor government to consult with them on matters relating to the welfare of their members.

Only last weekend, I attended a dinner held by the Vietnam Veterans Association in my electorate. It was very well attended not only by members of Geelong's wider veterans' community but also by civic leaders. It was a source of some pride for me to hear the veterans' stories of their experiences and what they are doing collectively to improve the welfare of less fortunate veterans in their communities. They have built a substantial and wonderful welfare network that operates out of the St John of God Hospital and the Geelong Private Hospital. As the minister is at the table, I will later say a few words about that service and about how the government might assist it to perform the very important functions that it is now being called upon to do.

I also attended last Sunday a memorial service at a Vietnam veterans' memorial that is being constructed on the Geelong Road. I am particularly pleased that that memorial has been constructed not only from voluntary donations from a wide cross-section of the Geelong community but also by the former Labor government. I acknowledge once again the contribution of the member for Bowman in securing some funding for that memorial. It is in a very public place. When the service is held on a Sunday at about one o'clock, with the Vietnam veterans assembled, it seems that the Geelong community is well aware of the importance of the ceremony that is taking place. Cars slow down. The more youthful, exuberant drivers honk their horns in acknowledgment of the veterans and their friends, relatives and supporters who gather to honour the memory of their comrades who fell in that very contentious involvement so many years ago. The Geelong veterans' community, as well as other Vietnam veterans throughout Australia, were left with some deep and permanent scars as a result of the trauma of that combat experience. It was a sobering ceremony. Afterwards, it was great to join members of that Vietnam veterans' community at the North Geelong Football Club and to hear once again of the efforts that they are making to improve welfare services and to meet the real needs of their fellow veterans in Geelong and the surrounding regional community.

While the minister is at the table, I would like him to note the comments that I am about to make. In the next couple of weeks, I will forward to him a request for some modest funding for the association in Geelong. When I met with its representatives the other day, they explained to me how what started out as a very small voluntary service for Vietnam veterans has now widened into a very important service for members of the World War II veterans' community. The centres at the St John of God Hospital and the Geelong Private Hospital are staffed by volunteers, and they are finding the increasing demands that are being put upon them quite an onerous burden to bear. When they conducted their discussions with the local Department of Veterans' Affairs officers on the wider issue of the delivery of welfare services for Vietnam veterans in the Geelong and Western District community, two welfare organisations were in existence. Much to the credit of the Geelong Vietnam veterans—and it was not an easy task—they have come together with one management committee that is very progressive, committed and dedicated to improving the services that are provided to Vietnam veterans in the electorate of Corio and in the electorates of Corangamite and Wannon as well. It is an important outreach service to veterans who hitherto have not had access to the advice and support that are now being provided by their welfare agency. The committee has done what any reasonable government could have asked it to do.

I ask the minister to give serious consideration to my letter when it comes across his desk. The Vietnam veterans in Geelong are asking for only a modest amount of money to provide some clerical and front-desk support so that they can better meet the needs not only of their own community but also of World War II veterans who now seem to be coming out of the woodwork, if you like, and fronting their organisation. The Vietnam veterans want to provide support to them as well, but they need basic clerical and administrative support. It is not a large amount of money, but I believe that they have been advised by departmental officers that, because they had not amalgamated the two welfare bodies before the current three-year funding round began, they now have to wait until the three years are up to be considered for support. That is how I understand it. There may be an avenue within the bowels of the funding arrangements in the department to provide that base level of clerical support. It is not a big ask—I believe that it is about $30,000 to $40,000—but it would provide permanent, consistent front-office support and support for volunteers who are giving up increasing amounts of time to counsel World War II veterans and other veteran communities. I know that the minister has the interests of the Vietnam veterans community at heart, and I applaud the measures that the government has taken on behalf of veterans. These issues can be approached in a bipartisan way in the interests of the veterans communities in our electorates whom we are elected to serve.

With those few remarks, let me say that we support this legislation. I commend the Vietnam veterans, their wives and their enormous network of supporters for their tremendous work in the Geelong community, not only on behalf of their own constituents, but also on behalf of the wider veterans community. In recent years, I have seen them grow in stature and confidence in the way that they approach the welfare task. I have seen their skills improve. They are committed to doing the right thing by the government of the day. They are simply requesting at this point, when increasing burdens are being placed on the voluntary effort, that governments recognise in a very small way the contribution that they are making. I am sure that when that letter comes across his desk, the minister will give it his thoughtful consideration, and we all hope for a positive outcome in terms of providing additional support that is urgently needed now in Geelong.