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Tuesday, 27 August 2002
Page: 5797

Mr JOHN COBB (8:00 PM) —I rise to speak on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2002 Budget Measures) Bill 2002 and the related bill. These bills will allow the twice-yearly indexation of the ceiling rate of the income support supplement and service pensions paid to war widows and war widowers. This government has stressed its commitment to veterans in our community, and the bills underline that promise. An electorate like Parkes has a very high number of veterans, evidenced by the sheer number of calls received for national service medal applications. It is important that we as a government understand that we must support veterans, war widows and war widowers.

The government made an election commitment to index the ceiling rate of the income support supplement and service pensions paid to war widows and war widowers. The bills enable the twice-yearly indexation of the ceiling rate of the income support supplement and service pensions to also reflect movements in the cost of living and wages. This will mean that we can ensure our war widows and widowers are effectively looked after, even when the cost of living is substantially rising. The veteran community, and in particular the War Widows Guild of Australia, has lobbied strongly for the frozen ceiling rate to be abolished, and I believe we should listen and act. The group knows exactly how much support war widows and war widowers require. My electorate has, as I said, a significantly high number of veterans. The income support supplement is intended to provide financial assistance for war widows and widowers with limited means to support themselves. Those receiving the income support supplement will not need to do anything to benefit from the removal of the freeze, as their payments will be indexed automatically. Caring for our war widows remains a major priority in Veterans' Affairs, with increasing numbers of widows entering the repatriation system as the veteran population ages.

These are not bills that will benefit only a small number of war widows and widowers. Around 90 per cent of income support supplement recipients now receive the ceiling rate, and some 81,000 war widows and widowers will benefit from the initiative. It has been suggested that the government should simply remove the ceiling rate in order to provide equity between all income support pensioners. The fact remains that the ceiling rate rules were introduced by the then Labor government in 1986. Between that time and 1996, subsequent Labor governments failed to address the inequality created by that decision. The coalition commitment to address the inequality created is at a cost of $84.7 million over four years.

These bills will provide that equality that has for a long time been absent. The system will also become fairer and more supportive of war widows and widowers. The proposal to index the ceiling rate will prove fair when taking into account the additional benefits that are available to war widows, such as access to gold card repatriation treatment benefits and the continued tax-free and non-means tested status of the war widows or widowers pension. The initiative aims to provide equality for all war widows and widowers. It aims to provide peace of mind for, and economic support to, the war widows and widowers. As the ceiling rate increases over time, the group will benefit from the indexation as the rate rises.

The income support supplement and service pensions paid to these people were frozen in 1986, and the ceiling rate is now over $3,000. The ceiling rate will be increased in line with increases in service pensions. One of the benefits of the bills is that they will enable the payment of the income support supplement to be backdated for eligible recipients who previously were receiving a social security pension or benefit. What this means is that, at the end of the day, these war widows or widowers will not be disadvantaged by their transition into the repatriation system. Since coming to office, this government has made it a priority to address any anomalies in that system.

It is vital that, as a parliament, we honour those who have served in the defence of this nation. As a government, we have made a firm commitment to our war widows and war widowers. Bipartisan support of these bills should be a mere formality. The passage of this legislation would be just one more step forward in meeting the needs of the veteran community and particularly of those Australians whose partners have died as a result of their service. It is essential that the government and the opposition continue to support the war widows and widowers in our community, not just in our own electorates but also in the country as a whole. Veteran support is one issue that the parliament have to be bipartisan on.

War widows and war widowers have to be confident that their support payments will be sufficient, even when the cost of living is raised. They must have peace of mind and financial security where it is possible and where the government and the people of Australia—whom they supported in their hour of need—can provide it. With many war widows and widowers in my electorate, I know that these bills are needed and that they must be supported by the House.