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Tuesday, 21 August 2001
Page: 29863

Mr BRUCE SCOTT (Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence) (5:47 PM) —in reply—I present the correction to the explanatory memorandum. The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (Further Budget 2000 and Other Measures) Bill 2001 is a non-controversial, but very important, piece of legislation. For more than 80 years, the repatriation system has provided a comprehensive range of benefits to compensate veterans and their dependants for injury, disability or death resulting from their wartime service. A key component of these compensation benefits has been income support, recognising that the impact of wartime service can have far-reaching effects upon the ability of veterans to support themselves and their families. Almost 380,000 members of the veterans community receive some form of income support payment through my department. As a government, we are committed to ensuring that this group of Australians benefits from a sound and equitable income support system.

The amendments to this bill will further improve the delivery of income support benefits through the repatriation system. They also reflect legislative changes to the social security system, ensuring that both systems continue to operate consistently as well as fairly. An important measure is a change to the treatment of couples in receipt of income support where one of the partners receives periodic compensation payments such as those paid by insurance companies. Currently, if a person receives a periodic compensation payment, the couple's combined pensions are reduced by $1 for every dollar of periodic compensation received. The amendments in the bill will treat the partners more fairly. In future, the dollar for dollar reduction will apply to the pension of the compensation recipient. If the amount of compensation exceeds the amount of that person's pension, 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 amendments will result in an increase in the amount of income support payments to couples receiving a low level of income from periodic compensation payments.

Other amendments, again reflecting changes in social security, will simplify the recovery of compensation debts. These will provide for the direct recovery of debts from insurers in circumstances where there has been an overpayment of income support pension because of the treatment of periodic compensation as ordinary income. The bill will provide fairer treatment for income support recipients who have financial assets that are regarded as being unrealisable under the hardship provisions of the assets test. In these cases, such assets will also not be regarded as financial assets when applying the deeming provisions of the income test. This means that, in future, the actual return on an unrealisable asset will be counted as ordinary income rather than the deemed rate of return. 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, the bill will change the payment of income support instalments, which are currently rounded to the nearest multiple of 10c. In future, instalments will be paid to the nearest cent, again ensuring that the repatriation income support system operates consistently with the social security system.

During five years in office, this government has demonstrated a commitment to improving the repatriation system to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of those Australians who have served their country in times of war and conflict. I am happy to say that this bill represents another small step in that process, and that it also provides a more generous and equitable treatment for veterans.

In conclusion, I would like to thank members on both sides of the House for their contribution to this bill and their comments in relation to the bipartisan nature of their support for veterans' entitlements. That is as it should be. I also noted that the speakers, and I am sure many members of both sides of the House, attended Vietnam veterans' services on Saturday last, and I think that is great to see. Vietnam Veterans Day commemorates the battle of Long Tan but it is the day on which Vietnam veterans remember those who served, those who died and those who still suffer. It is the day that they come together with their mates. It does not diminish the importance of Anzac Day as the national day of commemoration, but it is the day on which Vietnam veterans focus collectively together. I spent the day in Brisbane and attended the memorial service in Anzac Square in Brisbane following the march.

Also, the day before, just by way of interest, I was on board HMAS Brisbane. It was on its final trip into Brisbane. HMAS Brisbane has a great historical link with the Vietnam War, being the only ship that remains in the fleet at this stage that was involved in the Vietnam War—it in fact fired the last shots in anger in the Vietnam War. It also had distinguished service in the Gulf War. I was able on that morning to announce, the day before Vietnam Veterans Day, importantly, that HMAS Brisbane is going to be gifted to the people of Queensland. There are a couple of issues yet to be worked through. I know there is a lot of support in the community for her to remain a memorial and museum and remain above water. The government certainly will be looking at all the propositions that are brought forward in relation to that. We want to make sure that it is sustainable in the long term. If that is not possible, HMAS Brisbane would obviously be prepared as a dive wreck, and I notice the Premier of Queensland has already written to the defence minister indicating that he would like to see it rest off the Sunshine Coast. But we have a little way to go on that issue at this stage. Importantly from the point of view of the people of Queensland and the people of Brisbane, the government is prepared to gift HMAS Brisbane to Queensland. It is a most appropriate gift to the people of Queensland.

I will also make a couple of comments on the contribution made by the member for Corio in relation to his application for some funding for volunteers who provide support and service to Vietnam veterans in his electorate. Obviously, those processes are always determined initially by the department through the processes at state level and then on to the national office. But if he has written to me I want to make sure that he has encouraged them to put in an application through the due processes. I am always happy to receive representation from anyone from either side of the House, as I think I have demonstrated since being minister. My doors are always open to hear of any concerns or any ways we can help our veterans, and importantly in the member for Corio's case the volunteers, who I know do such a tremendous job, both in his electorate and of course all around Australia, in helping our veterans.

Finally, I want to make a couple of other comments on the comments by the member for Cowan in relation to medals for those members of 6RAR who were in the battle of Long Tan. He would be well aware of the fact that in fact 15 Commonwealth decorations were awarded as a result of action by members of 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment during the battle of Long Tan. These decorations ranged from Distinguished Service Order to Mentioned in Dispatches, and 6RAR was also awarded the United States Presidential Citation.

This government did complete the End of War List for Vietnam, and I am a little surprised at the member for Cowan's comments with regard to the South Vietnamese offer recognising the actions of 6RAR. Because there was no formal award or unit citation made, it is not possible to retrospectively recognise what may have been South Vietnamese intentions, given that the Republic of South Vietnam no longer exists. But I do say, as I have said before—I have said it in this House and I say to the member for Cowan and to anyone in this House on either side of the parliament—that if there is a veteran out there who believes they have received a formal foreign award or decoration in the form of an official citation in relation to the battle of Long Tan, I would encourage them to take the appropriate action, which is to make application to my office, and I will be happy to have the matter examined by Defence, as well as by foreign affairs. If there is information out there where a veteran believes they have received a foreign award and there is official documentation for that citation, I am certainly happy to take the matter up.

We on this side of the House, when we completed the End of War List Vietnam, examined that issue. It was also examined when the Labor Party were in government under the CIDA review in relation to honours and awards. It is an issue that was covered very comprehensively. I repeat my offer to the member for Cowan that if he has got information that would sustain the suggestion that there was an official recognition by the South Vietnamese government we would certainly be happy to have it examined completely. I remind him that it was this government which completed the End of War List Vietnam. I encourage him to bring any of those issues to my office if he or any veteran believes that there is documentation that can support them—and specifically the allegation in this case that these veterans have not been given their official or rightful entitlements in relation to these awards.

In conclusion, I thank all members who have spoken in this House and I thank the opposition for their support of this legislation, which is beneficial legislation. I thank the House.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.