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Monday, 21 June 2004
Page: 30984


Ms HALL (8:10 PM) —As always, it is a privilege to speak in the chamber when you are in the chair, Deputy Speaker Price. The Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Direct Deductions and Other Measures) Bill 2004 before us today is an omnibus piece of legislation and brings into force a number of changes which I think overall benefit veterans. My only question is: why has it taken so long for it to be introduced? I will go through a summary of the proposals. Part 1 of the bill proposes a facility for direct deductions from pensions. That will extend the currently limited range of pensions with that facility to include disability pensions and war pensions. That is something that should be in place, and it is very unfortunate that it has taken so long to be put in place. There is a proposed increase in the VC allowance and indexation of that VC allowance in line with the CPI. That will be $3,230. Also proposed is an automatic grant of income support supplement. The bill looks at the calculation of disability pension arrears. There is also a provision that proposes the inclusion of Norfolk Island and amends the legislation to provide eligibility for veterans' partners and widows living there who are currently excluded.

The calculation of the payment of rent assistance to veterans is subject to a means test in which the disability pension is included as income. It is not clear how this is calculated, and this amending legislation will look at some of the drafting shortcomings there. A section of the legislation looks at the calculation of arrears, assets and deeming. It deals with a loophole that was identified as a result of an AAT decision. It looks at deemed income, accrued returns and clarification of the definition of income for returns accrued but not paid from financial investments. There are proposed means testing exemptions on superannuation, rent and superannuation assets. There is a ceiling rate for service pensions and a couple of other minor amendments that all go towards improving the legislation and making it a little better for veterans—something that we are not used to seeing happen.

I support the comments made by my colleague the member for Cowan about the snide, cheap shot by the Minister for Veterans' Affairs at the ALP. One would have thought that anyone with any nous at all would have known that the ALP have a policy platform for veterans. All you have to do is visit the web site. It has been available since late January. Not one veteran has any doubt about what the ALP stand for. We stand for the opposite of what this government stands for. We stand for a fair go for veterans—something that they do not expect from this government. One thing we do not stand for at all, though, are the cheap shots from this minister, who is now acknowledged as the worst Minister for Veterans' Affairs ever. That is something I hear on a daily basis; I am sorry, Minister.

The minister might do well to read the policy. She might learn something about real policy from the ALP policy. It is not about cutting ribbons around the world. It is not about pushing to the front when the cameras are around. It is not about hollow self-promotion or basking in the past glories of veterans. It is about real people with real needs. Minister, read our policy—take it and copy it for your own, if you like. That would be standard for the Howard government. We have seen that practised time and time again in this House.

With respect to the criticism that the ALP did not ask questions at the consideration in detail stage of the appropriation bills, let me ask: what would be the point? I was in the Main Committee. I saw the minister arrive and I had a list of questions I was going to ask her but then I thought: `Why worry?' She never answers any questions. Every time she is asked a question in this House it is never answered. It is quite clear that the minister is not capable of answering any questions on veteran matters. There is a strong chance that she would get it wrong—or simply flick the switch to cutting ribbons or to the colour of her hat. Minister, if you are willing to answer some question then take this on notice: why do you continue to cut services to ageing veterans and war widows under the Veterans Home Care program? I am being contacted on a daily basis by veterans who are most upset about the fact that their home care is being cut. The maintenance part of that Veterans Home Care program is almost non-existent, yet the purpose of that program was to assist veterans. What the minister has done is raise expectations and put in place some home care only to take it away from veterans at a later date.

Another point I make about that program is that the method of telephone assessment is not the right way to do things. It is inadequate and it is not delivering the right outcomes for veterans. That is one of the questions I would have liked to have asked you, Minister. Why was the budget for home care cut by $4 million? The minister might like to answer that question also. How do you define the special rate as to whether it is income or not? Once again, I hope that the minister might like to take this up when she is summing up on this legislation. Why are you denying veterans access to aids and appliances? That is also a common complaint that I receive in my office.


Mrs Vale —Why don't you write to me then?


Ms HALL —As the minister should be aware, I have written to her about this on a number of occasions and I get an answer back from the minister but, unfortunately, nothing ever changes. The needs of our veterans are not considered in their context. Minister, how much harm has been done by your refusal—and this refusal goes through to next January—to do anything about specialists refusing to treat, under the gold card, veterans with serious medical conditions? I appreciate that you have announced in the budget additional funding to come into play, but that is not until January next year. To the veterans in my electorate who cannot see a urologist or an orthopaedic specialist and have that specialist accept the gold card in full payment for their service, that is not good enough. Veterans who have defended our country in times of need and who always believed that their government would look after them are very disappointed. They believe that that gold card should deliver them the care and treatment that they need and deserve but, time and time again, veterans are attending specialists only to find that that specialist will not accept their gold card. I will be watching very carefully to see whether or not there are any changes in January next year.

The minister may like to look exasperated about this but these are real people who are struggling and hurting. There is one gentleman living on the Central Coast of New South Wales who has been so severely disadvantaged by the fact that he cannot get a urologist that he has had to change urologists and travel further. In that area, that is an extreme disadvantage. He is a real person who has been really hurt by her inaction, and there is the same sort of problem within the Lake Macquarie part of my electorate.

Minister, why can't war widows be paid their rent assistance until late September? Why does it have to be held off for that long? They have waited and waited and they still have to wait longer. My final question—the big question—is: why has this bill been in the House since 25 March and not been dealt with? The questions could go on and on, but I feel that they would never receive the proper answers and would not be taken seriously. Like the many veterans and widows who write to the minister and write to me with questions and asking for assistance, I know that we will never get the answers to these questions.

Why don't we bother asking you, Minister? I think the proof is in the pudding. Like veterans, we are sick of the syrup and the empty homilies. We have watched with disdain the process of the Clarke report to which 3,000 veterans and widows made submissions and were dismissed with total contempt. Believe me: people really committed to that process. They went to great lengths to prepare submissions and they felt extremely upset by the response and tardiness of the government and the whole process. Veterans know, as we do, that it was a stalling device to get the minister from one election to another. Fortunately, veterans can see that. Veterans know that they have been duped. They know too that the government was mean and tricky in its first response to the Clarke report and that the Prime Minister was rolled by his backbench. I am sure that the minister was pleased that that happened because surely she must have some compassion and concern for the veterans that she represents here in this parliament. Veterans know that the full intention of the Clarke report was to do nothing—that is what they felt at the end of the process.

This now brings me to the bill once again. Minister, there is a bit of policy in this bill, as I mentioned earlier, which, as I say, has been sitting around waiting for your attention since 25 March. The bill makes a number of technical changes, some of which I highlighted in the beginning of my contribution to this debate. Why has it taken so long to bring them forward? The minister is willing to rush around the world cutting ribbons, but here in the parliament all we get is neglect—and all the veterans around Australia get is neglect.

Direct deductions and electronic payments are things that most people around Australia have had available for a long time. Why has it taken so long for these things to be made available to veterans? The resulting situation is as silly as this example: in South Australia, war widows can only have their rent deducted if their whole pension is paid into the housing trust. The trust takes the rent out and then returns the balance to the war widows, for whom the need outweighs the inconvenience. This bill has been sitting about in this place since 25 March, and those widows have been inconvenienced in the way I have just described. We can presume that the systems are ready and that this can start tomorrow. I am sure that the minister would want that to happen—this to start tomorrow and those electronic deductions to come into play straightaway, so that the widows in South Australia might not have to continue to suffer that inconvenience. The minister might like to tell us when it will start and what veterans and widows have to do to take advantage of this service.

The rest of this bill is largely a clean-up of some odds and ends which affect very few veterans. Given the complexity of this act, this is not surprising. What is surprising, however, is that it takes so long to mirror changes made in the Social Security Act. Why is it that changes made to one act are not also made at the same time to the other act? I do not understand that. I cannot understand why it takes so long and, Minister, I do not think veterans can either. Is there a moat full of crocodiles between the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the Department of Family and Community Services? Why do we have to suffer these inconsistencies when we have one group of pensioners affected? More to the point, when are we going to get some consistency between two stovepipes?

Let me now turn to an issue I touched on earlier—that is, Veterans' Home Care. No doubt the minister will not be able answer my earlier questions on Veterans' Home Care. If she had been able to, I am sure she would have acted to look after those veterans severely disadvantaged by the cutbacks that they are suffering. They are people like the elderly gentleman living in the Lake Macquarie part of the Shortland electorate who has very limited mobility and is confined to his house. He is just managing to stay there—he is hanging in there by his toenails. He has had his home care slashed. A phone call from assessors in Brisbane told him that he did not need the level of care he was receiving. I honestly do not understand how someone on the other end of the telephone can all of a sudden determine that a man with very limited mobility who is unable to take care of his home without assistance all of a sudden has a lesser need. It just does not make sense.

Minister, if you cannot answer those questions, maybe you can look at reviewing the fact that the home care budget is fixed to the number of card holders there are. The number of card holders is shrinking, and so too is the home care budget. What sort of logic is this? The problem is that those who remain on home care are, like the gentleman I described to you, becoming frailer and beginning to need more services to keep them out of institutionalised care. After all, the purpose of the Veterans' Home Care program is to keep people living in their homes—to keep them out of an institutional environment.

The government has told us that Access Economics concluded that Veterans' Home Care pays for itself. I would agree with that, because I think the longer you can keep a person in their home the more it will save the community and the better it is for a person's wellbeing. That is to the advantage of everyone concerned, and you do not end up with veterans in residential care facilities. That is the last option. If that is the case, then what is the logic in cutting the budget for the Veterans' Home Care program? I really do not understand. I think that it would be good policy to invest more in the Veterans' Home Care program, in order to keep people like the gentleman I described a moment ago from living in a residential facility. I think the cutback is simply perverse.

On a second issue, Mr Deputy Speaker, may I refer to the reductions and cutbacks which are clearly under way in the Department of Veterans' Affairs with respect to veterans' aids and appliances. Apparently, it is a bold bid to save some departmental running costs. Tenders have been called for the supply of aids and appliances, to reduce the number of suppliers to a very small number. That has happened within my own area. It might sound efficient, but it is not necessarily the best idea. It is not about delivering good service and it is not about delivering the right appliance or the right aid for a veteran. A veteran's aids and appliances are determined by that veteran's individual needs. What will happen to the odd-job man who has been installing those handrails for the veterans? Minister, I actually do not believe that is the right way to go, so, whilst I support this legislation, I do have some serious concerns about it—and I do have concerns about your ability to answer those questions that I have posed to you. I believe that the veterans' community would like some straight answers. They would like some action from the minister, and they would like a demonstration of the fact that she has real care for their needs. (Time expired)