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Thursday, 22 August 2002
Page: 5540

Ms HALL (10:16 AM) —I join the member for Paterson in saying that it is extremely important that we honour our veterans. Their contribution to Australia has been enormous. I honour every veteran within the Shortland electorate and thank them for their commitment to Australia and for their ongoing commitment to the community that they live in. The commitment that the veterans made at their time of service continues. They were prepared to make sacrifices for their country, but now they make sacrifices for their communities and they constantly work within their communities to ensure that those communities are better places for everyone who lives in them. I join with previous speakers in recognising the role that veterans have played in protecting Australia, the service that they have given for their country and the ongoing service that they give to their communities.

The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2002 has been introduced to rectify drafting problems in the original legislation. It is unfortunate that so often in this place we have to come back and revisit legislation that has gone through the House and alter it in order to rectify problems. I think that it is a problem that the government should look at. It should ensure that legislation is properly drafted when it is introduced. More emphasis should be placed on looking at the implications that that legislation has. When I was a member of the state parliament, I was involved in the Joint Parliamentary Regulation Review Committee. One of the things that we did there was to ensure that a regulatory impact statement was prepared for every piece of legislation. That tended to pick up a lot of the problems that we constantly see being put before the parliament. I do not remember us having to revisit legislation to the degree that we do in this parliament. I really believe that that is something the government should take on board. It should put more effort into ensuring that it gets it right the first time.

The amendments to the original legislation should be supported. They remove double counting, whereby third-party compensation paid to a veteran for the same injury currently receives both the disability and the service pension, and reduce both of those. Obviously, this should not happen; obviously, it should have been picked up in the first instance. I think it is important that this amending bill is passed. The previous bill that went through in March led to a reduction in pensions as a result of third-party lump sum payments. It was restricted to the number of couples to whom the lump sum was paid without affecting the pension which was previously received; however, it was not clear that any necessary recalculations were limited to cases that were after 20 March 1997. Once again, it is purely a technical matter, and it is something that would have been taken care of if the proper steps had been taken when the legislation was introduced.

This bill also deals with rent assistance for people in retirement villages; once again, that is something that needed to be fixed. There is a technical amendment that allows payment for mobile phones under the telephone allowance, and I can assure the House that a number of pensioners are now using mobile phones. They are a viable option and they are actually a cheaper option for them than having a land line, and they should not be penalised because they are trying to balance their budgets. Once again, this is something that should have been addressed initially.

The bill deals with an entitlement act for the payment of rent assistance to families who receive a family tax payment where a veteran is disadvantaged compared to others. Talking about rent assistance, I think there is another issue that relates to war widows. War widows who are renting and who have a gold card are being denied rent assistance through Centrelink. This is another issue that the government needs to have a look at because I think it is an unintended consequence. It is a consequence that is causing hardship to a number of people and one that needs to be revisited, just as the government has revisited access to a range of welfare benefits for those people who reach the minimum requirement of 57 years of age but are restricted from eligibility for the seniors health card until they are 62 years old. The issue of rent assistance is one that really needs to be looked at. It is pleasing to see that the payment of the partner's pension to partners of veterans has been fixed up, because it is not right that they should be ineligible. Finally, it was important that the telephone allowance was amended. As I have already indicated, these are matters that we should not have had to revisit.

There is another issue I feel I should raise in relation to veterans. It is an issue that has started to become quite a problem and one that a number of veterans are contacting my office about. Veterans can no longer use their gold card. General practitioners and specialists are rejecting their gold card when veterans go to see them. I am sure that members on both sides of the House are extremely concerned about this. I believe it is part of a campaign. Doctors are lobbying for an increase in the fees for treatment of veterans under the Repatriation Private Patients Scheme.

I am sure that members on both sides of the House have received letters from the AMA setting out why there should be an increase in the fees that are paid. I also understand that the minister has been meeting with doctors. This is something that needs to be resolved immediately. It is having an enormous impact on veterans in communities such as mine. The Shortland electorate has the second highest number of veterans in a Labor-held electorate in Australia, so I am very aware of the implications for those veterans and of the hardships that it will cause and is already causing them. I surveyed 24 doctors in the northern part of my electorate and found out that 21 per cent of those doctors are no longer accepting the gold card for our veterans. That really is not good enough.

Our veterans deserve to have the medical treatment that they are entitled to. They were prepared to make sacrifices for our country, and the least that this country and this government can do is ensure that they get the treatment that they deserve. I would have thought that members on the other side of this House would be prepared to join with me in this campaign. It is not about naming one doctor or another; it is about ensuring that our veterans in our communities can use their gold cards in the way that they have been promised they can use them. Doctors argue that they can no longer afford it, that the rates are too low and that the medical indemnity insurance premiums are adding to their costs, but these are not good enough reasons. The government needs to talk to them in order to resolve the problem, and they need to ensure that our veterans can get the medical treatment that they have been promised with that gold card.

The problem is exacerbated in areas such as mine because there is a considerable distance between Medicare offices. The government chose to close a Medicare office which necessitates a number of older people having to drive or catch buses that take them over an hour to get to a Medicare office. There is not an appropriate level of Medicare easy claims for them to be able to access their payments through pharmacies. This problem with the gold card is causing hardship to people throughout my electorate and throughout the country. I have received phone calls from a number of veterans from the Central Coast part of my electorate. There is already a chronic shortage of doctors and poor access, as I have mentioned, to Medicare offices. The fees that doctors are charging are increasing, and that relates to the medical indemnity insurance crisis which the government really has not worked on solving.

There are a number of really severe problems that our veteran communities are facing. They continue to face them, and the government continues to refuse to act to solve these problems, even to the extent of increasing the problems and hardships that they have. I urge members on the other side of the House to actively campaign within their party room to see that this issue with the gold card is resolved because it is hurting veterans and it is hurting them now. I think it is one of the priorities for the government. I support the amendments that this bill seeks to make to the existing act. In doing so, I urge the government to take more care with their initial legislation to ensure that we do not have to continually come back and revisit legislation. Maybe they should make a little bit more use of regulatory impact statements.