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Thursday, 22 August 2002
Page: 5543


Mr HARDGRAVE (Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs) (10:30 AM) —I am here at the request of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, who is detained on other business in the House, and I am pleased to be involved in the second reading debate of the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2002 and to sum it up. I would like to thank the members for Cowan, Gilmore, Paterson and Shortland for their contributions. The members for Gilmore and Paterson gave very fine addresses which offered tremendous insight into their commitment to the veterans in their communities. We appreciate the support of the members of the Australian Labor Party on the legislation contained in this package but note the contrast between the member for Cowan and the member for Shortland. While the member for Cowan offered us brevity and credibility, the member for Shortland did not. I, like the members for Gilmore and Paterson, have a lot to do with the veterans in my community. I will delay the House a moment to acknowledge that the Saluting their Service initiative that Minister Vale offered Australia the other day, which is a continuation of a longstanding tradition of good government packages of celebration and commemoration—celebration of the spirit of the people involved and commemoration of the service that they gave so that we can enjoy the freedoms we have in this country—is an initiative worth getting behind.

The Stephens RSL is my electorate last week had yet another Victory in the Pacific Day commemoration. It was a very short ceremony where, sadly, this year the numbers were down to just 20 people. Norm Ballard, the president, and Jim Clarkson, the secretary, offer the stewardship they have offered for years. It was saddened by the passing of Keith Boyling, who, after 55 years, was one of the longstanding members of Stephens RSL. It is worth noting also Sherwood RSL's Kokoda Track Memorial, which I had the high honour of opening the other week. President Ron McElwaine, his predecessor, Miles Farmer OAM, Graeme Loughton and others associated with that club ensure that the saluting of service takes place in the grassroots of our community, and that is something worth recording in this place.

It is right, as all members in this debate said, that we take time to consider our responsibilities to uphold the commitment we gave service personnel of many years ago and of more recent years that we shall remember them, that we will always honour them and that we will assist them. This Sunday, the Brisbane South branch of the National Servicemen's Association are having the second event of the conferring of National Servicemen's Medals, and they have asked me to come and participate in that. As a representative of the government and as somebody who assisted them in their fight for that medal, it is an extremely high honour that they pay me—as somebody who has never put on the uniform, who has never fought for this country and who has never been prepared because the opportunity has never availed itself due to their efforts. I grew up in an environment where the Vietnam War was on the nightly news and I breathed a sigh of relief when national service was ended and the war itself stopped.

The bill before us, while very important specifically to the veterans' community—whether or not it is part of the ongoing effort of government to finetune arrangements and to continue to make them relevant and up to date—is relevant for Australians of all backgrounds. The veterans community share with children. They show children so much of what they have done; they relate to children. In my electorate, Wellers Hill State School now have a wonderful memorial in their grounds where veterans come and tell the tales of what they did when they were in their late teens and early 20s. The kids of today greatly appreciate that service. They do have a greater understanding than many might give them credit for.

Acknowledging that it has been the work of governments of both sides of the political spectrum, I suspect that, along with the member for Cowan, the member for Bowman on the opposition side would have a high level of credibility, as he was a fine veterans' affairs minister—as, indeed, the member for Maranoa was and the member for Hughes is now. In paying tribute to the member for Hughes as the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, I acknowledge the way in which she and the RSL President, Peter Phillips, are trying to involve those who have come from other cultural backgrounds to live in Australia. I believe very fine efforts are being made these days to involve all Australians of all backgrounds in this sense of commemoration and honour.

This government and its predecessors have, over the last eight decades, developed a comprehensive repatriation system that recognises the special standing and the needs of the veterans community. The Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2002 is further evidence of this government's continued commitment to improve the compensation and assistance that is provided to veterans and their dependants through the repatriation system. The system provides a wide range of benefits to compensate veterans and their dependants for injury, disability or death resulting from their service during wartime or other conflicts.

This bill includes minor policy changes that will improve the operation of the repatriation system by removing some anomalies to ensure that all veterans and their dependants are treated fairly. Other changes included in the bill will improve the delivery of the benefits and services that are provided under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. The bill also includes amendments to the VEA to reflect legislative changes to the social security system that will ensure that both systems continue to operate consistently and fairly. The bill amends the compensation recovery provisions to remove the anomaly that has caused some civilian compensation payments that had been offset against a disability pension to also be counted as income for the purposes of the income test. The compensation recovery provisions are also being amended to provide for the direct recovery of debts from compensation payers and insurers in respect of the partner of a person who has received lump sum compensation.

The bill will also clarify policy in relation to telephone allowance to ensure that eligible persons with a mobile telephone service and no traditional fixed line telephone service are eligible for the telephone allowance. The bill also contains two measures that will align the eligibility provisions for rent assistance for veteran pensioners with those of the Social Security Act 1991. The first will ensure that pensioners who receive a base rate family tax benefit with no rent component will also be eligible for rent assistance under the VEA. The second measure will ensure that the treatment of retirement village entry contribution payments under both acts is consistent for the purposes of being eligible for rent assistance.

Further anomalies which will be removed by measures contained in the bill are those that relate to the eligibility criteria for the Pension Loans Scheme. The Pension Loans Scheme provides additional income support to eligible persons in the form of a loan. Included in the amendments are changes that will enable certain persons who are not a veteran or the partner of a veteran to have access to the scheme. Other changes will enable eligible income support supplement recipients to be eligible for the scheme from the earlier qualifying age rather than from the pension age. Similar amendments to the eligibility criteria for the Commonwealth seniors health card have also been included in the bill to enable war widows and war widowers to be eligible for the Commonwealth seniors health card from qualifying age rather than from the pension age.

During its six and a bit years in office, this government has had a demonstrated commitment to veterans and their families to improve the repatriation system to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of those who have served our country. The Howard government continues to demonstrate that commitment to veterans and their families with the initiatives contained in this bill. No group in our community is more deserving of our admiration and gratitude than those men and women who have served Australia in times of war and conflict. The passage of this bill will therefore be yet another step forward in meeting the changing needs of the veteran community. The bill will ensure that greater numbers of the veteran community will be able to enjoy the high standard of compensation and care that the repatriation system provides through increased access to its generous benefits and quality health care services—which are, indeed, the envy of the rest of the world. I commend this bill to the chamber.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.

Ordered that the bill be reported to the House without amendment.