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Tuesday, 27 August 2002
Page: 5799

Mr KING (8:06 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak again on legislation that further demonstrates the government's commitment to veterans and war widows. I particularly commend the government on the implementation of measures in the budget since the last election, and I commend the Minister for Veterans' Affairs on her hard work in this regard.

Before I attend to the details of the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2002 Budget Measures) Bill 2002 and the related bill, I wish to say something about the RSL contribution in New South Wales, and in the eastern suburbs of Sydney in particular. I firstly wish to congratulate Mr Keith Hall, the newly elected president of the RSL in New South Wales, on his election at the end of May. This is the first opportunity that I have had to do that publicly. He is making a very strong contribution already to that important movement in our state. I had the pleasure of meeting Keith Hall last Friday night, at the annual general meeting of the Bondi Junction-Waverley RSL sub-branch in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. I am reliably informed that he has worked very hard since assuming office and that, just last weekend, at the state council he presided efficiently and courteously over the moving of some 86 resolutions through the council. He is to be commended. He took over from Mr Rusty Priest, who made a tremendous contribution to the RSL in New South Wales. In light of what we have seen already, Keith Hall will make a similar, if not enhanced, contribution.

I also want to briefly say something about the work and the contribution of the RSL sub-branches and clubs in my area. The eastern metropolitan district association of the RSL contains some 18 clubs, two of which are island clubs—one on Lord Howe Island and the other on Norfolk Island—with in excess of 5,000 members, and they are presided over by a committee headed by Mr Bill Harrigan. That committee works terribly hard to ensure the services provided by the RSL movement, in coordination with the government and other public authorities, are to the broad community across the east. I am very proud to be part of that community as a serving officer in the Australian Reserve and to participate in its activities from time to time. Just the other day I had the pleasure of being involved in a medal ceremony—and I know the Minister for Veterans' Affairs often adorns those not just in New South Wales but around the country—handing out medals for the National Servicemen's Association. The Reverend Douglas Parker of the Uniting Church in Vaucluse heads the organisation in the eastern suburbs and must be commended for doing a tremendous job.

With those comments, I now turn to the substance of the legislation before the House—legislation which demonstrates the government's warm commitment to veterans and war widows. It implements the coalition's election commitment to improve benefits provided to war widows generally. Australia has recognised the importance of compensating war widows since the passage of the first War Pensions Act in 1914. As a society, it is important that we recognise not only those who make the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country but also their wives, husbands and partners, who are bereaved as a result of the courage of those men and women who defend our shores.

The first of these two bills will end the unfair treatment of war widows and widowers that was a legacy of the last Labor government. War widows are currently entitled to receive the war widows pension, which is appropriately exempt from asset or income testing, as compensation for the loss of their partners. In addition, since 1995, most war widows have been entitled to receive an income support supplement of up to $124.90 per fortnight, depending on need—that is, subject to asset and income testing. That income support supplement and the arrangements that preceded its introduction in 1995 have been effectively frozen since 1986, with the exception of a one-off increase that was a result of the introduction of this government's new tax system. The freeze on the income support supplement did not reflect the practice of the federal government to index other income support measures. At the last federal election, the coalition announced its intention to introduce indexation of the supplement. That election commitment, which is implemented in full in this bill, will benefit 81,000 war widows and widowers across our nation. I know that the bill will be welcomed by the 640 war widows and widowers who live in my electorate.

These reforms reflect the government's broader commitment to ensure that the services of our veterans are properly recognised through services, financial support and the commemoration of their service during times of peace and conflict. The extension of the eligibility for the gold card, another election commitment fulfilled in this year's budget, is another example of the practical support the Howard government has been giving to our veteran community. In this context, many members of parliament will be aware of concerns within the medical profession about the adequacy of fees paid to doctors and specialists through the gold card scheme. I am pleased to have been informed that the government has been working closely with the AMA to ensure that services continue to be provided to gold card holders. I congratulate the Minister for Veterans' Affairs for her work in this area. I am sure that our medical profession will continue to be able to provide a high level of service to those who have given so much to our community.

I have been concerned about the Labor Party's disgraceful attempts to cause concern among veterans by claiming that hundreds of doctors are abandoning the gold card scheme. Those claims are false and deliberately designed to cause concern. It is my sincere hope that the Labor Party treats veterans with respect and understanding by recognising the consequences of trying to score cheap political points on an issue like this. Support for our veterans should be a matter of bipartisan pride and not a cause for division. Many members had the opportunity last week to attend the launch of Saluting their Service by the Minister for Veterans' Affairs in this place. I was one of them. I take the opportunity to congratulate the minister on that fine initiative, and I commend this bill to the House.