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Monday, 26 August 2002
Page: 5650

Mr EDWARDS (8:32 PM) —In dealing with the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2002 Budget Measures) Bill 2002 and the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002 tonight, we recognise that both bills contain measures of a drafting nature, rectifying oversights in drafting from previous legislation, including some discrepancies which have arisen through imperfect interaction with the Social Security Act. Most of these drafting changes, while necessary, are not controversial. For that reason, we have no problem in dealing with these on a cognate basis.

One such clean-up of note within the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002 removes an accidental anomaly concerning different offsetting arrangements between two parts of the Veterans' Entitlements Act where widows are affected. This was unintended and the correction is therefore beneficial. Within the same bill is a provision which relates to a mechanism to be inserted into the Veterans' Entitlements Act allowing for easier incorporation of non-legislative documents or other statutory instruments into statutory instruments governing the operation of some benefit schemes. While a concern with this issue will be articulated by the shadow minister in another place in due course, I simply note that this concern does need to be put on the record, though it is not sufficient at this stage to cause us to withdraw our support for the bill.

With respect to the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2002 Budget Measures) Bill 2002, there is only one key issue of note, and that is the amendment which provides for the indexation of the income supplement of war widows. We support that move without hesitation, though I put on the record our strong objection to the snide, cheap remark of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs that the freezing of war widows' social security benefits in 1986 was a Labor Party act of meanness. It was nothing of the kind, as the minister well knows. It was no more than an adjustment which should have been realised many years before when it became clear that, inevitably, war widows would become eligible for a range of other benefits which was never intended and that there was a degree of doubling up in the payment of pensions, which should have been foreseen but was not. I will not dwell on this now except to say that we firmly believe that support given to war widows, when compared with the age pension counterpart, is now appropriate.

In addition to the war widows pension being indexed by MTAWE—male total average weekly earnings—and non-means tested, we believe that the income support supplement, ISS, at $125 per fortnight, indexed by MTAWE is also reasonable. As we all admitted, it could be more generous but at this stage, when most of the widows are of retirement age, it is reasonable. We therefore support this provision. It is inevitable and no doubt will be welcomed by widows, as it prevents any further erosion of their combined benefit. That does not mean, however, that we are content with all the details surrounding support for widows, because there are some areas of neglect which will be dealt with in some detail in the debate in the other place. There are of course other issues which I raised in the House as recently as last Monday, and I can assure the House that we will continue to raise these issues until they are addressed.

I want to compliment Senator Mark Bishop, the shadow minister for veterans' affairs, for his work on exposing the government's attitude to holders of the gold card. As we know, the gold card entitles holders to health care to cover all conditions. This includes treatment as a private patient in a public or private hospital. The government, however, has failed to remunerate at a reasonable rate doctors treating gold card holders. The result is that the gold card is no longer the guarantee to the level of health cover or care that it used to be and to which these veterans and, for instance, war widows are justly entitled. Senator Mark Bishop has rightly highlighted these concerns. It was very interesting to see the minister's office, as late as a week ago, denying them; yet I see the issue was pretty well aired on the ABC this morning. The government has been big on trumpeting the extension of the gold card to the veteran community. Its challenge now is to ensure that the extension of the gold card is not negated by the government allowing it to be devalued as a means of ensuring the quality health and related care for our veteran community.

Another area of concern for me relates to veterans' access to Hollywood hospital, in Western Australia. Hollywood hospital is a private hospital run by the Ramsay group. I say at the outset that I have a high level of regard for the quality of health care at Hollywood generally. I am, however, concerned at the number of veterans who are being turned away from Hollywood and pushed off into other areas of the public health system. I am aware of several occasions when this has recently occurred, and it has impacted on both city and country veterans seeking treatment in Perth.

My office had a call a couple of weeks ago from some constituents who were very concerned about their mother. Those concerns were taken up by my office and were fixed. Having just returned from a parliamentary trip to visit our troops in Afghanistan, I was pleased to receive a note from the family. It said:

Dear Mr Edwards

Just a note to say thank you to the staff in your office for the work they did in securing a bed for our mother ... who is a gold card recipient in Hollywood Private Hospital. She was admitted to Royal Perth last Thursday at 4.30 through the emergency department after being told no beds were available at Hollywood. At 1.30 the next day she was still sitting in a chair in the “transit lounge”. After a phone call to your office and speaking to Rick Giblett, a bed was found at Hollywood.

That is one example. I am aware of lots of others, including one from a fellow in Exmouth, north of Perth, who contacted me because he was quite offended at the lack of treatment that he received. It is less than two years ago that I raised in this House the issue of a young Vietnam veteran who had some problems in getting into Hollywood hospital. He was sent off to another hospital in an inappropriate way. The next day, he was admitted to Hollywood but discharged himself and, very sadly, took his own life. Those people who were looking after him had a view that the treatment that he got impacted to some degree on his decision to take his own life.

I know there are a number of people in Perth who are concerned about this issue. One of them is Blue Ryan, the National President of the T&PI Association. Blue Ryan is absolutely—150 per cent—dedicated to the members of that association. He has raised some concerns. Unfortunately, instead of addressing some of those concerns, there are some people who have taken to denigrating Blue around the place. It is not the way to deal with the issue. There are some problems there and they should be addressed. As a result of the letter and the approaches that have been made to my office, I will be asking the minister's office for a briefing so that I know exactly what has happened in relation to the particular constituent issue that I raised. Generally I have a very high regard for the level of treatment within Hollywood. The problem is this: if you cannot get in there, how can you access it? Our veterans are entitled to that good level of health care, and they should not be shunted around, for whatever reason that is occurring.

The other issue that I want to turn to once again is this issue of the rewrite of the Military Compensation Scheme. I have a press release here, dated 11 June 1997. It quotes then Minister Bishop:

Mrs Bishop announced that work will proceed on developing the single, self-contained military compensation scheme for peacetime service which covers only military personnel. This will be considered by Cabinet by the 30th of June next year.

That was 1997, and we are still waiting. When I was given responsibility by the ALP side for the rewrite of this Military Compensation Scheme, I wrote to the minister involved and reiterated a commitment that was given by the Labor Party some years ago—that we would adopt a bipartisan approach to this rewrite because an immense amount of work has had to go into it. But I did say that ultimately the bipartisan support will be dependent upon the detail of that new piece of legislation, and it will be dependent upon the support of the ex-service organisations that are being consulted as a part of that rewrite. Those ex-service organisations, including the RSL, the Vietnam Veterans Association, the Vietnam Veterans Federation and others, have a very important role to play because it is their responsibility, based on their experiences as ex-servicemen and women, to ensure that the new Military Compensation Scheme will look after current soldiers—those serving today—and those who will come in the future.

I must say that I am very pleased at the way that the ex-service community have really knuckled down to the task. If the government thought that the ex-service organisations were going to be some sort of a pushover, they were very wrong, because the people who are serving as part of that consultative group are very conscientious indeed. I recently had a letter from the Vietnam Veterans Federation relating to the new Military Compensation Scheme. I will quote from their letter, which is headed `The new military compensation scheme':

More is required of members of the Armed Forces than any other public service. Soldiers, sailors and aviators give up a great deal of liberty for the needs of a service which is ready to face Australia's enemies. A new Military Compensation scheme is needed to cover its unique demands and its dangers.

To their credit, the government has taken on the task of developing such a Military Compensation scheme. The government's idea is to base the new scheme on the `workers compensation' model. In fact, the Department of Defence was well down the track of developing the new scheme when it became clear that its `lean, mean' workers compensation model ran foul of the principles of the long established and tested Repatriation compensation system covering Australia's war veterans.

I am reliably informed that the Department of Defence resisted having to incorporate these long established principles into its scheme and has been made to reconsider its position only by some strong and persistent objections from a thankfully vigilant war veteran community. I understand that there may still be some resistance in the corridors of Defence.

As far as I am concerned, this resistance to incorporating the best of the way we have looked after war veterans in the past into the new Military Compensation scheme must cease. Amongst those matters of importance which have been resisted by Defence are:

Establishment of separate streams involving different nomenclature and additional benefits for those with war service.

The establishment of a category of totally and permanently incapacitated (TPI) for those rendered unemployable by war service.

Recognition of and compensation for lost careers.

Acceptance that a soldier, sailor or aviator injured in battle to the point of unemployability should not be humiliated by an inability to provide decently for his family. It is unacceptable that his children should be deprived because their father was disabled whilst fighting Australia's enemies. Acceptance that soldiers, sailors and aviators, whose ability to earn a living has been destroyed whilst fighting Australia's wars, deserves a standard of living at least that of the average Australian family.

They go on to say:

Rights enjoyed by war veterans in the compensation appeals system are also under threat from a reluctant Defence Department. The right of appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal with legal representation provided by Legal Aid is much valued and much appreciated by war veterans. This enthusiasm is not shared, it appears, by some of those tasked with developing the new Military Compensation Scheme.

As far as I am concerned, this valued right enjoyed by war veterans must not be abolished.

And in developing the new Military Compensation system, the Department of Defence should look again at the appeals system for servicemen and women with only peace-time service.

Just as the armed forces demands more from its members, so it has more responsibility for those members' welfare. The quid pro quo for obedience up is responsibility down.

It is distressing, therefore, to see young, inexperienced, impecunious soldiers, sailors and aviators, thrown, unassisted into the legal maze of the Military Compensation appeals system.

The armed forces should, at least, assist members to prepare their cases.

That is signed by Tim McCoombe and Graham Walker, two very well-known advocates for veterans in Australia. I value their opinion and I hope that the government consultative group that is looking at this new MCRS will value their opinion as well.

I now turn to the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia and some of the things they have said in relation to this rewrite of the Military Compensation Scheme. I raised last Monday, during the grievance debate, the fact that the younger veterans group has been excluded from this consultative process. I asked the Minister for Veterans' Affairs whether she would look at putting the Gulf War Veterans Association, peacekeepers and peacemakers on to this consultative committee, because at some stage they will have a right and will want to have a say. I would have thought that it would have been better to pull them into the consultative group now and give them the opportunity to have their say and be a part of any new rewrite. But that has not happened yet.

In one of their many contributions, the Vietnam Veterans Association have said:

Employment within the Australian Defence Force (ADF) requires that the individual undertake training for war, peacemaking and peacekeeping. The inherent dangers of such training set the members of the ADF apart from all civilian occupations.

That seems to be something that the Defence department does not really accept at this stage, but I know that many within the Department of Veterans' Affairs do. I hope that the Veterans' Affairs hierarchy is trying to argue with Defence over the current impasse to ensure that some of the benefits that these ex-service organisations are talking about are written into the new Military Compensation Scheme. The Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia argue:

The VVAA notes with some concern that there is a mind-set within Defence that:

this is workers' compensation legislation based on the premise that the burden of proof is on the claimant;

all are treated the same under the Act; and

only those who see active service against an enemy will have a lower standard of proof.

The Defence argument is that the number of truly totally impaired personnel in the future is likely to be small. It gives no credence to the fact that a predictable proportion of soldiers returning from war are physically and mentally incapacitated to the extent that they could never hold down a job. There is considerable evidence that the proportion of soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, for example, is exactly the same for peacekeeping as it is for fighting a war.

Defence concludes that the classification of Totally and Permanently Incapacitated (TPI) will not exist in the new scheme where arrangements are designed to support each individual on the basis of their level of impairment and their needs.

The document is fairly detailed and well researched. I congratulate Barry Billings and others who have worked on that for their contribution. In their submission, under the heading `Conclusion', they state:

It is mooted in some quarters that the veteran's entitlement and compensation scheme should be brought into the 21st century.

Modernisation may well be applicable to service today in the Navy, Army or Air Force, but to discard the benefits so generously given by the people of Australia to those who have seen active service against the enemy is to deny the historical and beneficial care given to those whose lives have been changed forever.

A modern compensation system based on Defence service alone, denies the sacrifice and deprivations encountered by those on warlike service.

The VVAA will continue to work towards reaching a conclusion which is mutually acceptable, and which will protect the interests of future veterans and Defence personnel without eroding hard-won benefits.

It has been said many times that; `Australia has the Best Repatriation System' in the world that caters for the care and needs of the Veteran community. This is due to the `much amended' Veterans Entitlement Act and the will of the Australian people. We suggest that its replacement has to be `Better than Best'.

That is the end of the quotes from that submission from the VVAA. I implore the minister, the government, the Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs to listen to these ex-service organisations and to respond to the things that they are saying. If they do not, the years of work that have gone into this rewrite will be jeopardised, because there is no way that the veteran community are going to roll over and allow the benefits that they have fought for and accumulated over many decades to be wiped off under a rewrite of a military compensation scheme which will, as I said, put currently serving veterans on a lesser level of support than those people who are already entitled under the Veterans' Entitlements Act. We are talking about those soldiers who currently are serving in places like the Gulf, Kuwait and Afghanistan. I think the very clear and strong message from the veteran community is that those soldiers, sailors and aviators are as entitled to a good compensation scheme as are any veterans who have gone before them. That is a position that I would strongly agree with.

I have covered the areas that I wanted to cover. As I said, the opposition supports these bills, although there will be some further arguments in another place—when they get to the Senate. I am sure that some of the issues which I briefly touched on at the start of my speech will be teased out and dealt with in more detail by the shadow minister in that place. In conclusion, I reiterate the fact that we on this side of the House are prepared to have a bipartisan approach to this rewrite of the Military Compensation Scheme. It is a big rewrite; a lot of work has gone into it. But if the detail is not to our liking and if the ex-service organisations will not sign off on it and support it, then there is absolutely no way that the government can look to the opposition for support. We support the bills.