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Wednesday, 15 June 2005
Page: 122


Mr EDWARDS (5:47 PM) —Although the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (2005 Budget Measure) Bill 2005 affects some 44,000 veterans and war widows, one would normally have described it as non-controversial. But in fact, as I will point out, this bill corrects a dirty deed of the Howard government. In essence, it gives to self-funded retiree veterans what all other self-funded retirees received last year—namely a $200-a-year allowance. This is entitled the ‘seniors concession allowance’ and is similar to the utilities allowance paid to those in receipt of a pension. These were election promises made by the Prime Minister as he sprayed billions of dollars around like confetti in his bid to win the last election. Basically, the seniors allowance is a non means tested giveaway to assist self-funded retirees to pay their power and gas bills, their car registration and their water bills, as a trade-off for the utilities allowance given to pensioners.

This allowance, which was first introduced in December 2004, is paid in two instalments each year, in June and December. The utilities allowance paid to pensioners is also paid in two instalments—in March and September. For veterans with the gold card who are already in receipt of the service pension or the income support supplement, the utilities allowance was paid along with that of the rest of the pensioner population. To be eligible for the seniors concession allowance, a person must hold a Commonwealth seniors health card. Consistent with other veteran entitlements, it is available at age 60, compared with the age limit of 65 for other retirees. But of course, as we know, gold card holders have no need of the Commonwealth seniors health card because all of their health care needs are taken care of.

As a result, those veterans and war widows who are classed as self-funded retirees—that is, not receiving payment of the service pension or the income support supplement—missed out. This, it must be said, was either a negligent oversight or a deliberate ploy to save money. Either way, self-funded retiree veterans were denied, without any reason or explanation, what normal self-funded retirees were given. If it was a negligent oversight then the government should be condemned for its carelessness in ignoring 44,000 people, who were effectively discriminated against. If it was deliberate, the same applies. Perhaps some explanation and apology should be given.

The silliness of this situation has been demonstrated by the fact that those veterans and widows eligible in their own right for a CSHC could apply for a CSHC and so become eligible. As I understand it, some in fact have done so. In that way the oversight or omission was circumvented, hence the silliness of this whole issue.

The matter does not end there, though. One would have thought that with an error of this kind, where a sizeable portion of the population has been effectively cheated, payments ought to be made in arrears. Not so in this case; in fact, it is worse. The first payment to self-funded veteran retirees will not be made until December this year. That means a loss of two payments of $100 at least. Of course the gloss put on this is, as usual, one of extreme generosity and kindness. In fact the minister’s deceptive spin in her budget press release did just that—it made this measure the centrepiece. Veterans and war widows need to know that this is nothing of the kind. They have in fact been short-changed. This is a benefit that was provided to everyone else late last year.

This is typical of the duplicity and fudging of which this minister is a specialist. Indeed, when we look at the entire veterans budget this year, we see that it is a nonevent. If this bill constitutes the centrepiece and it is effectively a fraud, then the whole budget package is a fraud too. Let’s look at the detail. Putting aside all the spin and rhetoric, the House will notice in the budget papers that there is only $10 million for new budget measures in 2005-06. Against this there are savings of $52 million, which flow on from the health portfolio. Apart from the long overdue increase in dental limits, there is no change in entitlements.

As for the $411 million increase in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs total budget, most of that is due to normal cost increases—$393 million, in fact. In the budget papers these are described as ‘parameter adjustments’, ‘variation in rates and fees’, ‘growth in numbers and/or usage rates’ or ‘movements between low-cost and high-cost services’. The so-called initiatives for anaesthetists and allied health providers are part of those normal increases. To this $393 million you need to add $60 million, which was carried over from the budgets of previous years. So, in these government policy initiatives for veterans, the government has taken the veteran community backwards. The savings exceed new spending—it is as simple as that.

So that is all there is to this paltry measure. Veterans have been conned again, and many feel cheated. I challenge the minister to show good faith to the veteran community by making this bill retrospective to December 2004. Only in that way can the honourable thing be done. However, having said that, I also say that of course the opposition supports the bill. 

I want to touch on an issue which has become much more prevalent in recent years and to which much more attention has been given within the veteran community and the broader community—that is, the issue of what is loosely termed ‘wannabes’. I know, Mr Deputy Speaker Lindsay, that you have spoken in this place on this issue. The Australasian military imposters web site contains this definition:

Often called by the derogatory term “wannabe” these are men and women who may or may not have served in the armed forces, but who fraudulently misrepresent themselves as having served; often in a theatre of war by their words and actions, and by wearing of medals and other accoutrements to military service to which they have no entitlement.

Bearing that in mind, I want to refer to 2003, when some legislation was introduced into this House to deal with that exact matter. The minister at the time put out a press release on 26 March 2003 headed ‘Increased penalties for defence medals fraud’, which stated:

Penalties for fraudulently claiming Defence service will increase 15-fold under legislation introduced into Parliament today by the Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence, Danna Vale. “Our community holds veterans and serving personnel in the highest regard,” Mrs Vale said.

“Their service and sacrifice in Defence of our nation deserves protection from those who wrongly seek to claim the same honour and respect.”

Under the Federal Government’s proposals, the penalty for wrongly claiming to be returned soldier, sailor or airman, or wearing medals to which an individual is not entitled, will increase from a $200 fine, to a maximum penalty of $3,300 and up to six months imprisonment.

…         …         …

Mrs Vale said the changes were a result of concerns of the Government and the wider community regarding practices that were unlawful, deceitful and disrespectful to veterans and service personnel.

“The increase in these penalties will enable the Government to better protect the honour of Defence veterans and service personnel,” Mrs Vale said.

“I call on the Opposition parties to support this legislation as soon as possible so that we can provide the increased protection.”

I will come back to that last sentence shortly. Later in 2003—I do not have the exact date—the then minister responsible for medals put out a press release headed ‘Fake veterans to face imprisonment’, which read:

People fraudulently claiming to be returned soldier, sailor or airman could face six months imprisonment under proposed laws passed through the House of Representatives today.

Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence Mal Brough said anyone falsely claiming to be a returned service man or woman should face the force of the law.

“It’s a disgraceful act that warrants a strong penalty,” Mr Brough said.

“Many Australians have served our country proudly and wrongly claiming to be a veteran is an insult to those men and women.”

Along with a maximum prison term of six months, the fine will increase from $200 to a maximum of $3,300.

The Defence Legislation Amendment Bill also increases the penalty for the wearing of medals to which an individual is not entitled.

Both those press releases are fairly strongly worded and both address an issue which the veteran community is very concerned about. The unfortunate thing is that action is not meeting the rhetoric of those press releases. I will give you just one example. I recently received some correspondence from the bloke who is the webmaster for the Australian Special Air Services Association. He said:

Graham,

Below is a copy of an e-mail I sent to the AFP in Perth, regarding one of the many impostors. This chap has claimed to be one of the most respected Sgts in the SAS during Vietnam, and I guess the rest of his lies are in the e-mail below. The text of the reply from the AFP is at the foot of this page.

From the response to my email, I can only assume that it is a budgetary consideration that prevents an investigation taking place. I do appreciate that prioritisation must occur. I also feel that resources must be made available for enforcement of ALL laws, not just those that get the most attention. I ask that you question the minister to consider providing the necessary resources to address this most frustrating situation that the Veterans community is facing.

Regards—

and it is not important to know his name. He also sent me part of a letter which he wrote to the AFP in Perth. It said:

The veterans community is frustrated with the perceived lack of diligence being applied to such cases, which allows these people to continue living a lie. I also understand that this man ... may in fact be a Veteran, but there is certainly no record of any such person having served in the Australian Special Air Service Regiment.

I would appreciate your consideration of this situation, and I am available to travel to Perth if so needed.

Sincerely

Webmaster

Australian SAS Association

I want to read to the House the response that this gentleman from the SAS Association received. A letter dated March this year headed ‘Re: Wearing of SAS Honours/Awards Whilst Not Entitled’ said:

Thank you for your correspondence concerning the above mentioned matter forwarded to our office on 7 March 2005. This matter was presented to the Perth Operations Committee on Monday, 21 March 2005.

The AFP has primary law enforcement responsibility for investigating criminal offences against the Commonwealth. Operational activities and the needs of clients are assessed from a variety of perspectives to ensure that resources are directed towards highest priority activities.

The AFP must therefore ensure that its limited resources are directed to the matters of highest priority and the decision to accept or reject matters for investigation is guided by this principle.

Following the assessment of the information provided, it is with regret that the AFP is not able to accept the referral.

They then invite the complainant to discuss the matter by further contacting them.

When people choose to impersonate a veteran, in so many circumstances they will choose to impersonate a member of the Special Air Services. They will claim that there is greater secrecy; that they cannot talk about where they served, what they did or when they served. It appears that it is easier to get away with impersonating a member of the SAS than perhaps impersonating someone in other areas of service where records can be more easily kept. This is something that members of the SAS and members of the veterans’ community, regardless of who it is that is being impersonated, are becoming increasingly agitated and concerned about.

When you understand the rhetoric of the press releases to which I referred earlier, you can understand that many in the veterans’ community feel that they have had their expectations raised by rhetoric in press releases but that there is no practical or real enforcement. In the final sentence of her press release at the time, the then Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence said:

I call on the Opposition parties to support this legislation as soon as possible so that we can provide that increased protection.

I call on the government to honour its own words and now, having put this legislation through with the support of the opposition, to provide the sort of protection that that legislation was supposedly going to provide. I know that the member for Hughes, the former minister, will be the next speaker from the government side. I invite the member for Hughes to explain to the House and to the veterans’ community the rhetoric of her press release and why she and subsequent ministers with responsibility for this area have not met their needs. I call on her to explain why it is that, on the one hand, government ministers can raise the expectations of the veterans community but, on the other hand, do nothing to meet those expectations. It is a hoax. I hope that the government—and, in particular, those people who are responsible for this legislation—will do something now to defend the government’s inaction.

In closing, I want to also call on the minister to rethink a particular piece of policy which I understand she has signed off on. It relates to the access that children of veterans have to the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service. This is an access which is greatly valued by the children of veterans. I understand, however, that the minister has agreed to a proposal to cut off that access at the age of 36. I call on the minister to reconsider that piece of policy if that is indeed the case. I would think that the amount of money involved would be minimal, yet the assistance and help, encouragement and support that these kids of veterans have received through the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service more than warrant their continued access. It should not be a matter of dollars and cents because, as I have said, I think the amount involved would be minimal—indeed, negligible—so why is it that the minister has agreed to this cut-off age? I know this is something that the Vietnam Veterans Association in Western Australia is going to take up with the broader veteran community, and I would encourage them to do so.

Last week in Perth, I addressed a meeting of Kids of Veterans at Hollywood hospital. It was very well attended. There were about 50 people there. I want to compliment them on the wonderful job that they are doing; I want to compliment the Vietnam Veterans Association in Perth particularly for the wonderful support that they are giving to these kids; and I want to say to Peter Ramsey, the President of the Vietnam Veterans Association, that he and his association should be very proud of the work that they have done in support of these kids over a period of a couple of years. I want to encourage him to keep up that work and that support.

I also briefly want to acknowledge the wonderful work done by some of these Kids of Veterans members. Andrea Willsher, Danielle Garland, Tracey Negus, Angela Blaszkow, Rachel Healy, Meredith Haywood and Natassja Hannay should all be very proud of the leadership that they have shown and the work that they have done in setting up and supporting this Kids of Veterans organisation. They have been a wonderful encouragement to veterans; they have set a great example. These young people, some of whom have done it a bit hard, should be very pleased with all that they have achieved.

In conclusion, I again call on the minister to recognise this group of Kids of Veterans and ask her not to adopt the cut-off of 36 years of age. There are some kids out there—I do not think a lot of them—who will benefit greatly from access to the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service, a counselling service which has done a great deal over a long period. I would hate to see that access shut off simply because someone has reached a certain age. I ask the minister to consider the arguments I have put tonight and to consider the views of the broader veteran community, who I know will support continued access to Kids of Veterans regardless of age. The opposition supports the legislation.