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Monday, 21 June 2004
Page: 30988

Mrs VALE (Minister for Veterans' Affairs) (8:30 PM) —in reply—I thank members for their contribution on the Veterans' Entitlements Amendment (Direct Deductions and Other Measures) Bill 2004, particularly the member for Moncrieff and the member for Flinders, and I warmly acknowledge the opposition's support for this bill. The bill gives effect to a number of minor policy measures that will enhance services to veterans and their dependants, continuing this government's strong commitment to improving the repatriation system to ensure it operates as effectively as possible in meeting the needs of the Australian veteran community.

Firstly, the bill will extend the direct deduction arrangements to recipients of disability pension and war widows or widowers pensions. The direct deduction arrangements will enable regular deductions to be made from these pensions for payments such as rent to state housing authorities. These arrangements are already available to service pension and income support supplement recipients. The bill will increase the Victoria Cross amount by 15 per cent, taking it to $3,230 per year. The bill will also provide for the annual indexation of the allowance in line with movements in the consumer price index. These amendments reflect changes to the allowance provided to British VC recipients by the British government and recognise the special place held by Australia's Victoria Cross winners.

Other amendments to the bill will enhance support for veterans' partners who receive the social security age pension or wife pension through my department, by providing automatic eligibility for income support supplement following the death of the veteran partner. In a further measure of support for veterans' partners, the bill will ensure eligibility for the partner service pension. It includes certain partners who are resident in Norfolk Island. These amendments correct an anomaly in the provisions that meant certain partners resident in Norfolk Island were not eligible for the partner service pension.

Other amendments will correct minor policy flaws and align the Veterans' Entitlement Act 1986 with social security law in relation to the deeming of certain income and assets, the income and assets treatment of superannuation benefits and compensation recovery provisions. Many of these amendments represent relatively small changes to our repatriation legislation. However, this finetuning of the Veterans' Entitlement Act is important to those members of the veteran community who will benefit from these changes, and the government sees this legislation as continuing to deliver on its commitment to those who serve in the defence of our nation.

Some of the speakers raised some issues, and I would like to address them. The member for Cowan mentioned that I raised the point that no member of the opposition turned up to ask questions in the debate of the appropriations bill last week. He mentioned that it was intended as a snub to me—not to the veteran community. It seems that the best method of defence is always attack, and that is a pretty good spin to put on a failed appearance. But the fact remains that the opposition leader also failed to mention veterans' issues in his speech in reply to the budget. On another occasion that would not have escaped the notice of the veteran community, out of the 200 promises pledged by the opposition leader in the past 200 days only one had anything to do with veterans' issues. I also point out, and it has been raised by the member for Shortland, amongst other things, that in the Labor Party's platform—a policy document of about 300 pages—any mention of veterans' issues occurs in the last pages, as if in an afterthought, and even then in ambiguous language and so very guarded as to give concern to any person who would look to see the directions that the Labor Party might take in regard to veterans' issues.

The member for Cowan also raised an issue regarding a Mr Wilby and some letters that had not been answered from my office. I am surprised if he has not yet received a response, and I do apologise to the gentleman if that is the case. I will make inquiries of the department tomorrow. I point out that my department does receive a large volume of correspondence—around 8,000 letters a year—and replies may inevitably be overdue, especially if they do require some investigation, but I will make inquiries tomorrow on behalf of the member for Cowan for this gentleman.

The member for Kennedy raised the issue of the need to do more for our Vietnam veterans. I—and, I think, all in this place—agree that not enough was done at the time our Vietnam veterans returned home from the war. I would like to point out that this government has introduced a range of initiatives especially to assist Vietnam veterans and their families, and they have been very successful—especially our successful heart health program. The government also committed $32 million of funding in the 2000-01 budget in response to the findings of the Vietnam veterans health study that was undertaken by this government. This funding benefits both the veterans and their families. This government funds and supports the health of those children of Vietnam veterans who may suffer from specific health problems like spina bifida, cleft palate, or certain leukaemias or cancers. This has been very well received by the veteran community. Of course, we can always have a look at issues and discuss them with the veteran community, which we do in our consultation process, to make sure that their needs are being met. I note the member for Kennedy also raised the issue of medals. I have had a word to him and referred him to the Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence, who has the responsibility for medals.

I think perhaps the member for Lyons was very confused by this bill. I think he actually confused this particular bill with the Clarke bill. He raised issues about what was being done for the children of veterans. Again I am happy to be able to inform him that we have introduced some very practical measures to assist the Vietnam veterans' children, including the Vietnam Veterans' Children Support Program, which is a very popular sons and daughters program. Also, we have doubled the number of Long Tan bursaries—there are now 30 presented every year for tertiary education to assist specifically the children of Vietnam veterans. Also, as I said, the specialist health care needs of the children are looked at and the Vietnam veterans' children do have access, as do the Vietnam veterans' partners, to our Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service, which I understand is very well received.

The member for Shortland raised several issues. She keeps saying that she does not understand. There seems to be quite a lot that the member for Shortland does not understand. She again made the point that the ALP platform has been available since January. As I pointed out earlier in my comments, it is hidden at the back of a 300-page document. I remind the member of the failure of the opposition leader to mention one word about veterans in his reply to the budget. The member for Shortland also asked about the reason for the delay in bringing this bill to the chamber. We tried to seek agreement from the Labor Party to have this bill discussed in the main chamber, but it refused, hence the bill had to take its place in the queue to come to this House.

The member for Shortland raised some very serious allegations about cuts to our Veterans' Home Care program. Nothing could be further from the truth. This program, which is very popular with veterans, has not been cut. We allocated an extra $8.6 million to this program in the budget of 2003-04. The level of service from this particular program for our veterans has been maintained. As a matter of fact, the demand the veterans have for this program shows how popular it is.

The member for Shortland talked about the purpose of the program. As our veterans and war widows become more frail and aged it may be that this program no longer suits their needs. The purpose of the program was to provide low-level domestic assistance, respite care and support with hazard reduction in the home and in the yard. There may be some veterans whose needs are greater than that, and perhaps they should be assessed for a community aged care package or a program that caters to a higher level of need. I am aware that some veterans in frail and declining health may need to go to a nursing home, but the purpose of Veterans' Home Care is to provide low-level care to suit the needs of the veterans and to help them to stay in their own homes for as long as they can.

Over 100,000 veterans and war widows have been assessed for this service using the telephone assessment instrument, which we believe is highly effective. I understand that the member for Shortland has some complaints about it but, on my advice, this assessment instrument is similar to the HACC assessment instrument. The member for Shortland said that this program has been cut by $4 million. The amount of money that has been allocated to this program in this budget reflects the number of white or gold card holders that will make up our treatment population for the future. Sadly, it does reflect the fact that the number of aged and frail veterans in our community is declining.

Again, the member for Shortland raised the issue of specialists and said that her veterans have to wait until January for a response from the Department of Veterans' Affairs. This government has always guaranteed that our veterans will receive specialist care if and when they need it. If the member for Shortland has in her electorate a veteran who is going without specialist care, I need to know about it immediately. We will find a specialist for any of her veterans who are in such a position. To my knowledge, no veteran has gone without specialist care. I urge the member for Shortland to speak to me personally about veterans in that position. I would like to know who they are. Indeed, I ask her to contact my office tomorrow and let me know who they are, so that I can make sure that they receive the specialist care they deserve.

The member for Shortland asked when the government's arrangements for the income support supplement or the rental assistance for war widows will be carried through. I can assure the member for Shortland that that will be done as soon as our department can accumulate the database that is required. There is a need for information that we have never had in our department before—the number of war widows who happen to be in private rental. That information has to be garnered from the war widow community. However, I do think it is very rich of the member for Shortland to ask about what the government is doing about war widows. It was the Labor Party—I am sure I do not need to remind you, Mr Deputy Speaker Jenkins—that froze out the income support supplement and the indexation arrangements thereto, in the mid-1980s, against war widows. As a matter of fact, the issue is something that is often brought up by the war widows community when I see them. The member for Shortland also raised the issue of veterans' home appliances. We certainly are not cutting that budget; we are streamlining the mechanism for delivery. I am sure that the member for Shortland will find that, when we have a closer look at how we can deliver better, her veterans will certainly be very satisfied.

That is about all the answers I have to the questions that were raised by members. Again, I thank them for their contributions to the debate. I invite the member for Shortland to speak to me personally about any issues of concern she has with her veterans. I am here to deliver and to answer—and, indeed, we will. In that regard I commend this legislation to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.