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Tuesday, 27 August 2002
Page: 5789

Mrs MOYLAN (5:49 PM) —I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2002 Budget Measures) Bill 2002 and the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002 in the House today. Over the years that I have been in this place, many servicemen and their wives and, indeed, members of the War Widows Guild of Australia have been to see me in regard to appropriate payment for women who have spent the better part of their lives caring for husbands who have come back from wars and serving our country. Apart from having to care for their families alone, sometimes for substantial periods of time, these women have often had to dedicate their lives to looking after a spouse who has returned with injuries that affect their ability to work and fully participate in family and social life. And, of course, many women were faced with the situation of their partner or spouse never returning at all. So it is an important piece of legislation to ensure adequate support and care for partners of people serving our country in the military services.

I have started by talking about women, and I think that is an important issue, particularly in this day and age. We have seen our forces serve in the Gulf, in East Timor and in Afghanistan—all very dangerous places to be at the height of the troubles—and often in peacekeeping missions, which are also quite dangerous, in different parts of the world. We have seen many more women now in active service than perhaps at any other time in our history, so this legislation refers not only to widows but to widowers.

The purpose of this legislation is to provide for the unfreezing of the rate of income support supplement paid to the recipients of the war widows or widowers pension. This income support supplement can be paid in addition to the war widows pension, but at a lower rate than other income support pensions. This is in recognition that the war widows pension is also paid. The proposal is to reverse a decision made by the Labor government in 1986 to pass legislation that froze the rate of income support payment. It was purely a budget saving measure where the government was looking to curb spending and to rationalise welfare assistance. This was made very clear in a speech by the then Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Senator the Hon. Arthur Gietzelt, admitting to the need to incorporate very large reductions in spending. So it was that a lower and frozen rate of income support payment was introduced.

The change we are debating today has been a long time coming. I am pleased that the representations of many of the war widows and guild members in my electorate of Pearce, and others in Western Australia, have been heeded by the Howard government and that this change is finally being introduced through this legislation. The measures were carefully considered by the government when they were first proposed in a policy paper called `Supporting those who served'. In this paper the government promised that, if elected, it would abolish the frozen ceiling rate of income support. That commitment was specifically to introduce twice-yearly indexation of the income support payment to increases in the male total average weekly earnings—otherwise known MTAWE—or in the consumer price index—the CPI—whichever is the greater.

Last year, the total number of people receiving the war widows pension was 110,656, of which 79,491 were also receiving some rate of income support payment and nearly 70,000 were receiving the maximum frozen rate of income support payment. This is a significant number of people, mostly women, who will benefit from the first six-monthly indexation increase, which applies from 20 September this year. The indexation increase factor used is that applied to the single rate of service pension. Both the age pension and the service pension are currently indexed twice yearly, using the CPI or the MTAWE, whichever is the higher.

It was interesting to read some of the historical background to the support of returned service men and women and their families. The Parliamentary Library provided a very good summary in the Digest to this bill. The Defence Act 1903 did provide compensation in case of death, injury or disease contracted while on active duty, but the Commonwealth Compensation Act in 1912 provided for members of the Defence Force not on active service with a rate of payment for total and partial incapacity for work based on workers average weekly earnings. By 1914 the War Pensions Act was introduced and provided for payment of war pensions to dependants of incapacitated and deceased members of the Defence Force. It is interesting to note that the war widows pension was paid as a compensation for war loss, not as income support or income maintenance. The war widows pension and war disability pension have never been subject to an income or assets test. There is a notion that war widows payment is an income support system like other pension payments. It is not and never has been the intention to treat the payment like other incomes assistance such as the pension; it has always been paid as compensation for war loss.

The bill also includes consequential amendments to the Social Security Act 1991 and the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 arising from the introduction of the income support supplement in 1995. The amendments will remove the remaining anomalies in those acts that were caused by the absence of a reference to the income support supplement. Some of those adversely affected by the anomalies included the surviving partners of war widows and widowers who are ineligible for a bereavement payment under the Social Security Act.

The coalition have had a strong long-term commitment to the care of veterans and their families. These measures add to a long list of improvements the coalition government have made, since coming to office in 1996, to support veterans and their families. Whether it is compensation, care or the commemoration of veterans' service to their nation, the coalition have delivered significant improvement to their support and care. These measures give effect to the coalition's election promises.

I was very pleased when, in June, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs visited Merriwa in my electorate when she was on a visit to Western Australia and announced a contribution of more than $1 million in federal government funding to help build new nursing homes and to upgrade existing facilities in Western Australia to look after ageing veterans. There are a large number of veterans and their survivors at Merriwa, and the RAAF Association have received a grant of $528,000 towards construction of the Edwards Lodge at Merriwa. This will be a 48-bed facility offering both high and low care, with one-third of the beds dedicated to providing care for members of the veteran community. The RAAF Association at Merriwa is committed to honouring the wartime service of Australian aviators. The lodge will be named in honour of the late Sir Hughie Edwards, who was loved by many and was a great Western Australian. He was a former governor of Western Australia and a decorated hero who won the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and the Distinguished Flying Cross during World War II. So this government's commitment does cover a number of areas. The government are also looking not just to what has happened in the past but to the future needs of veterans as this population ages and their needs change. By the year 2007, two-thirds of all veterans and war widows with gold cards will be over the age of 80.

While looking after these older veterans, as I have said, the government is keen to ensure the care of younger veterans and to establish appropriate policy in that regard. So the government has set up a consultative forum between Defence and prominent ex-service organisations to promote dialogue between current and former ADF personnel on defence service personnel matters. The government has also established the National Ex-Service Round Table on Aged Care to examine future initiatives to provide assistance to aged members of the veteran community and their carers in the decade ahead. In addition to that, in 1999 the government established the Defence Links Project, which was initiated to explore ways to better deliver services to the veteran and Australian Defence Force communities. For more than eight decades the repatriation system has cared for veterans and their families, and these bills continue the government's commitment to care for veterans and their families.

I must say in closing that I do think, in relation to comments made by the member for Greenway, that the department is very sensitive. I frequently have a bit to do with the Western Australian Department of Veterans' Affairs and I have to say that it is very sensitive to the needs of the veteran community in Western Australia. My experience has been that the federal department is likewise sensitive and responsive to the needs of veterans in our community. I think it does an exceptionally good job in looking after our veteran community. I support the department and the minister in these changes that have come before this House, and I strongly support these measures.