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Tuesday, 27 August 2002
Page: 5800

Mrs VALE (Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence) (8:13 PM) —in reply—I have been following debate on the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2002 Budget Measures) Bill 2002 and the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002 with great interest. I would like to compliment the various speakers on their level of interest and obvious dedication to our veterans. I must, however, respectfully correct some of the members' comments. The member for Cowan tried to justify the freezing of the war widows social security benefits in 1986 as a necessary `adjustment'—I think that was the term. The fact remains that it was applied by a very mean-spirited Hawke Labor government and caused a distinct disadvantage to our war widows, a very special group within our community which deserves greater respect and recognition. I am delighted to be part of this government, which has acted to remove this unfair and iniquitous imposition on our war widows. I do, however, recognise and appreciate that both sides of the House support this welcome measure.

I also note with concern the member's statement that some of his constituents approached him and raised an issue about their inability to gain admission to Hollywood Private Hospital in Western Australia. I have been reliably informed that, although this is not a regular occurrence, most hospitals at times will be unable to accept admissions due to a limit on their holding capacity. I am not aware that Hollywood Private Hospital pushes veterans into other areas of the public health system when that situation occurs, as quoted by the member. I would be grateful for further details from the member for Cowan of any such occasions, and names and dates would also be helpful for the investigation of such a complaint. It should be noted that veterans holding gold cards can gain admission to public hospitals as private patients. I will certainly look into this allegation as a matter of priority as soon as I receive the relevant information.

I also note that the member for Shortland raised the issue of doctors in her electorate not accepting bulk-billing for veterans. She says that four out of 25 doctors she canvassed claimed not to bulk-bill pensioners, but it was not clear from her speech whether they would refuse to treat veteran gold card holders. I would also like to assure the House that this government is committed to providing the very best health care for our veterans and, should any of them encounter such a situation of doctors not accepting their gold cards, they should contact my department immediately. However, I am at a loss to understand the point that the member for Shortland was making with regard to the submission by the Partners of Veterans Association and their concerns about the war widows pension. I note that this submission was forwarded to the Clarke review, however, and I am therefore confident that the issues raised will receive the attention that they deserve.

I also would like to take the time to explain to the member for Stirling that the issue of the anniversary medal for national servicemen is not a matter for the Department of Veterans' Affairs. In addition, unless a person has been on active service, they cannot be referred to as a veteran. The National Service Medal is not a matter pertaining to this portfolio or the bill currently before the House. I suggest that the member has been ill informed on this issue. However, as the Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence, I can inform the member that there was no date specified for the delivery of the commemorative medal. As a matter of fact, applicants were informed at the time that their applications would be processed on a first come first served basis. There are over 300,000 eligible national servicemen and, to date, 1,500 medals per week are being dispatched by the honours and awards unit. This is a significant effort from that department, well above the rate of estimated delivery as advised to the government earlier this year. Each application must be thoroughly checked for the validity of its details, an onerous and time-consuming task. Instead of ill-informed criticism, the honours and awards unit deserve our praise for their splendid commitment to ensure the recognition of our nashos.

Turning to the bills before us, for more than eight decades our Australian repatriation system has cared for veterans and their families. Our repatriation system provides a comprehensive range of benefits to compensate veterans and their dependants for injury, disability or death resulting from their wartime service. A key component of these compensation benefits has been income support, recognising that the impact of wartime service can have far-reaching effects upon the ability of veterans to support themselves and their families. More than 380,000 members of the veteran community receive some form of income support payment through my department and we are committed to ensuring that this group of Australians benefits from a sound and equitable income support system. The majority of the amendments made by these bills will further improve the delivery of income support payments through the repatriation system. The remaining amendments made by the bills reflect minor policy changes which will improve the delivery of services. The bills will also include amendments to the Veterans' Entitlements Act, which reflect legislative changes to the social security system, ensuring that both systems continue to operate consistently and fairly.

The key measure of the budget bill implements the government's 2001 election commitment to remove the freeze on the ceiling rate of the income support supplement for war widows. The income support supplement provides financial assistance for war widows and widowers with limited means of financial support. The income support supplement has been paid by the Department of Veterans' Affairs since 1995. Prior to 1995, war widows and widowers had received income support through the social security system, in addition to receiving their war widows or war widowers pension from the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The changes made at that time ensured that they could receive both their war widows pension and income support payment from my department.

The ceiling rate of income support payable to war widows was frozen in 1986 by a mean Hawke Labor government. The only increase in the rate since that time was the four per cent increase from 1 July 2000 made to all income support payments as part of the government's package for pensioners in the transition to the new tax system. The budget bill provides for removal of the freeze that has been imposed on the ceiling rate of income support supplement. The amendments made by the bill will provide for the twice yearly indexation of the rate of income support. The bill also provides for the same indexation arrangements to be applied to the frozen ceiling rate as are applied to the rate of service pension. As with the early implementation of the measure to restore pensions to war widows who remarried before 1984, this measure will end a longstanding iniquity in war widows benefits imposed by the Labor government.

The other amendments made by the budget bill include measures to remove an anomaly in the payment of the income support supplement to new war widows and widowers who were previously receiving social security benefits. The anomaly arises because the payment of the war widows or war widowers pension may be backdated for up to three months before the date of the claim was made. For those war widows and widowers who are eligible for the income support supplement, that payment is only payable from the date that the claim is lodged. The backdating of the war widows or war widowers pension has disadvantaged war widows and widowers because they lost their eligibility for social security benefits for the period during which they were eligible to receive the backdated war widows or war widowers pension.

The amendments made by the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2002 Budget Measures) Bill 2002 will provide for the backdating of the payment of income support supplement to the date that the war widows or war widowers pension becomes payable. The amendments will ensure that widows and war widowers who were previously receiving social security benefits will not be disadvantaged by their transition to the repatriation system. Further amendments made by the budget bill will correct an anomaly in the family situation rules. These are applicable to an income support supplement recipient whose partner is not receiving a pension or other benefit from either Centrelink or the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The other bill, the Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002, comprises mainly minor technical and consequential amendments to the Veterans' Entitlements Act. The bill also includes some minor changes in policy that will remove anomalies, extend benefits and provide for an improvement in the delivery of services.

The bill includes amendments to remove an anomaly in the treatment of compensation received by war widow or widower pensioners who receive pensions under either of the two different parts of the Veterans' Entitlements Act that provide for the payment of the pensions. The amendments ensure that the compensation payments received by war widows and widower pensioners, receiving a pension under either of the different parts, will be treated the same for the purposes of the compensation recovery provisions. The bill also includes beneficial measures, with amendments which extend the eligibility for the education entry payment to invalidity service pensioners, while other amendments will provide for the eligibility for rent assistance to some persons paying rent for living in public housing for which another person is paying rent.

Other amendments made by the bill will clarify existing provisions in the Veterans' Entitlements Act. The bill includes amendments to ensure the child related payments still being included in the pensions received by a small number of service pensioners will not be subject to the compensation recovery provisions. Other amendments will clarify the period during which the pensions of special or intermediate rate disability pensioners are reduced for participants who have successfully undertaken a vocational rehabilitation program. The bill also includes amendments that will provide for the better management of activities within the Veterans' Affairs portfolio. The bill includes amendments that will clarify the powers of the secretary and the Repatriation Commission to delegate their powers under subordinate legislation and amendments to provide for the appointment of persons to act as a member of the Veterans Review Board during a vacancy of that office.

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 were ineligible for a bereavement payment under the Social Security Act. During its six 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 in times of war and conflict. These bills reflect that commitment, which is clearly represented in the further improvements to the repatriation system that are contained in these bills. The measures contained in these bills will ensure that the veteran community will continue to enjoy a high standard of compensation and care through access to appropriate benefits and quality health care. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.