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Thursday, 25 March 2004
Page: 27345

Mr HUNT (11:25 AM) —The Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Electronic Delivery) Bill 2004 brings together two very important themes. Firstly, it addresses the questions of care, attention, concern and simplification of life for our veterans. Secondly, it does that by bringing to pass some of the government's initiatives in relation to electronic delivery of services. It is a very simple combination and it is the latest in a series of different initiatives to help the veteran community. In particular, this initiative will help veterans from RSLs such as Hastings, Crib Point, Dromana, Rosebud, Rye, Sorrento and Cowes within my electorate, all of whom play not just a social role but also an important role in ministering to the pastoral and personal needs of many of the veterans who suffer and have significant problems with which they need to deal.

In looking at that, I want to deal with three things. Firstly, I want to deal with the background of Australia's response in relation to veterans' affairs and the needs of our veterans. Secondly, I want to deal with the importance of these changes, specifically in relation to the electronic delivery of services. Thirdly and very briefly, I want to deal with some of the provisions. Under existing provisions for a claim, an application or other document must be properly lodged by having been sent to the department at an approved address or delivered to a designated person. In other words, it has to go physically to the right person. People need greater access to essential government services. The physical barriers for some veterans mean that it is more difficult to access these services where it involves postal or personal delivery. It is just a fact of life that, for veterans with real, severe physical challenges, sometimes it is simply not possible to take those steps.

These amendments seek to ensure that there will be electronic lodgement of claims, applications and other relevant documents to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. It is about making life simpler and easier. It does not cut off any options; it simply opens up a new electronic delivery channel which is a way for veterans to communicate with the Department of Veterans' Affairs and access their entitlements. Not all veterans are in a position yet to be able to do that—that is absolutely the case. But there are many who can do that. One of the things that we should be doing is trying to educate, inform and encourage our veterans so they will be able to use electronic services.

This bill comes against a particular background. I am delighted that the Minister for Veterans' Affairs is in the Main Committee because, in particular, I want to refer to the government's response to the Clarke review and the major amendments and outcomes from that. The recommendations that the government has accepted from the Clarke review of veterans' affairs can largely be grouped into five broad areas: firstly, service eligibility; secondly, access to the gold card; thirdly, benefits for totally and permanently incapacitated veterans and access to disability benefits for recipients; fourthly, rehabilitation; and fifthly, a selection of other measures.

In particular, I want to commend the government's action in providing an additional $267 million over the next five years to implement these recommendations. Perhaps the most important of the recommendations, and one on which I particularly commend the minister on the advocacy and the fight that she showed within the cabinet, was ensuring that the TPI benefit would be calculated in future not just against the CPI but against male total average weekly earnings, known as MTAWE, or the CPI—whichever is the greater over a time frame. That is a very important practical issue and a very important symbolic issue for veterans. I am delighted that we have been able to deliver that. It is a big step forward. It was a challenge. I spoke in the House only a number of weeks ago advocating this. I am pleased that the cabinet and, in particular, the minister have been able to take steps on that front. I think it is a very important step.

In addition, under the Clarke review we have seen an increase in funding, with a rise in pension rates from 20 March this year of $11.40, to $464.20 a fortnight, with the maximum rate for couples to increase by $9.60, to $387.60 per fortnight per person. The TPI pension rose this year by $8.40, to $771 a fortnight. However, veterans in need, such as a single TPI recipient on an age pension with no other income, will be eligible to receive an additional $257.60 a fortnight. These are all practical and real improvements, along with the fact that more than 19,000 disability pensioners who receive their income support from Centrelink will benefit from the change and on average will receive an additional $40 a fortnight.

Perhaps a very important thing, because I know that I have some people with strong connections to former Korean prisoners of war, is that the government has accepted the committee's recommendations to extend an ex gratia payment of $25,000 to all surviving prisoners of war held captive during the Korean War and the widows or widowers of prisoners of war held captive during the Korean War. This is in particular in recognition of the extremely inhumane conditions they endured. They served Australia. They were captured. They suffered. It is critical that we recognise the extraordinary level of suffering they went through.

The benefits in the Clarke review are not one-offs. They follow on from a consistent pattern of recognising and caring for the veterans community in the period since 1996. In particular, since coming into office in 1996 we have increased spending on veterans affairs from $6.4 billion to $10 billion in the federal budget for 2003-04. That is an increase dramatically in excess of the CPI rate. It is a real and tangible increase in the benefits available to our veterans community. In addition, the Howard government has shown its commitment by increasing spending for veterans' health from $1.7 billion in 1996 to a record $4.1 billion this year. It has more than doubled the amount of spending over that eight-year period. Furthermore, as of 20 March 2004, dependants of Australian Defence Force members killed in compensable circumstances on operational service will be entitled to a range of indexed compensation benefits which will be significantly increased. I hope that the need for this is negligible but I recognise that, where there are service men and women who have given their lives, it is utterly incumbent upon the government to ensure that their families are compensated in a real, meaningful and significant way.

That brings me finally to the questions in relation to the government's commitment to electronic resources under this particular bill. The bill is in line with the government's commitment to putting all appropriate government services on line since the passage of the Electronic Transactions Act 1999. This act aimed to remove the existing restraints which prevented a person from utilising online resources in order to fulfil obligations under federal law. It is recognition of the fact that, as a society, our means of communications have evolved, are evolving and will continue to evolve.

The Electronic Transactions Act applies to all Commonwealth laws after July 2001, unless they have been specifically excluded from the legislation. What that means here for veterans is that we will be able to simplify and make easier the way in which they can submit their claims, their applications and their documentation. I think those steps, whilst we do need to educate, provide information and give teaching to the veterans community, are important steps forward. I believe that this bill, whilst largely technical in nature, is a continuation of the decisions we have made since 1996 to dramatically increase the benefits available to the veterans community and, most recently, under the Clarke review, with the most important decision being the change to increase the rate for TPI by calculation against not just the consumer price index but also male total average weekly earnings—whichever is the greater over the time period. Finally, this bill helps with these simple changes to allow electronic lodgement of documents, which will assist our veterans and make their lives easier. I commend this bill and wish it speedy passage through the House.