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Thursday, 16 June 2005
Page: 13

Mr JOHNSON (9:50 AM) —It is a pleasure to speak in the parliament today on the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (2005 Budget Measure) Bill 2005, which the Howard government seeks to pass through the parliament. This is an important bill that will impact very positively upon all Australians it seeks to assist, particularly the veterans in the Ryan electorate. I support this bill very strongly and I commend it to the parliament. I want to take the opportunity in the parliament today to speak on some of the very strong points that this bill seeks to articulate and then to follow through with their application to the people of the community of Ryan.The coalition government very strongly believes that the Australian veterans community deserves our full support, our very generous recognition and our care, and also, very importantly, commemorates them for their part in fighting for the freedoms that we so enjoy in this country.

The government has always sought to maintain a very fair and very responsive income support system as well as a compensation mechanism that can be as straightforward and as efficient as possible. We have a repatriation system that I believe is one of the best in the world—indeed, it is surely the envy of the world—and the government is committed to maintaining it and to improving it as far as it can. During the years of the Howard government, spending on veterans affairs has increased by more than 60 per cent. The Howard government came to office in the new year of 1996. In 1995-96, spending on veterans was some $6.2 billion. Today it is $10.8 billion. I want to continue to urge the government to allocate resources to this important part of our society. This is an increase of $278 million, and I know that the veterans community in the Ryan electorate will be pleased that the government continues to respect their role in our society by acknowledging them in this way.

The Australian budget is some $220 billion. The government plays its part very strongly and acknowledges the role of veterans through a contribution to the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio of almost $11 billion, which I think is a very positive statement. The coalition achievements in this area are very significant. I think it is worthy of members of the government to continue to articulate them in their respective electorates. The increased financial support for service pensions and war widows and widowers is very significant, as are increased compensation payments for veterans with disabilities and improved health care for older veterans and, importantly, for veterans with disabilities.

The government also continue to extend our support for former prisoners of war, for whom we have the greatest respect for what they have endured. Practical support for the Vietnam veterans and their families is very significant. We also support the Vietnam veterans through the Vietnam Veterans’ Children Support Program, something that is very important in the Ryan electorate, where there are a significant number of Vietnam veterans. There is also greater flexibility for younger veterans and the current serving personnel through the new Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Scheme.

The government are also very keen to place emphasis on encouraging community pride in our military history. We do that through many programs, of course, and I think all members of this parliament would acknowledge that that is very important. The expansion of the Australian War Memorial is something that I think we should all take pride in. In 2004-05, the government provided $11.6 million over four years to expand this very important war memorial here in Canberra.

I also want to commend the government for its commitment to excellent health services and the very generous income support and compensation that was provided in this year’s budget. This bill is going to extend the seniors concession allowance to more than 44,000 gold card holders who do not already receive the seniors concession allowance or the twice-yearly utilities allowance. It is going to deliver on the Howard government’s 2004 election campaign commitments. The non-taxable allowance of $200 is paid in two instalments of $100, the first one in June and the second one in December. This will be indexed twice annually. The allowance will assist with the cost of rates, water and sewerage and motor vehicle registration.

Let me take the example of vehicle registration. This is of course state revenue. I want to commend the government for helping veterans in this area by alleviating the cost of that. It is important that we continue to show our support. The new allowance is necessary because state and territory governments will not provide self-funded retirees holding a Commonwealth seniors health card with the concessions they deserve. Quite frankly, I think this is an absolutely outrageous situation, and I call on the state government in Queensland to play its part in recognising veterans and relevant self-funded retirees.

The coalition has sought to provide further concessions to this group, offering state and territory governments some $75 million. Quite remarkably, no state or territory government has taken up this offer. For the life of me, I cannot understand why. I call on the Queensland Premier to play his part in acknowledging what the Queensland government can do. The Queensland government is awash with GST revenue, and of course we all know the history. The Queensland Premier was the first to sign on to the GST agreement with the federal government, yet the Queensland government fails to allocate its revenue to some of the very important measures that the Commonwealth government is supporting. Let me just mention for the veterans of the Ryan community and the RSL groups, who I am sure will be very interested in this, that GST revenue for the states is some $37 billion. I think some portion of that should go to the veterans community. Some portion of that should go to the Ryan veterans. I will continue to support that and advocate that it takes place. In fact, the GST revenue is $37.3 billion. Again, I call very strongly on the Queensland Premier to have his government allocate some small amount of that to the veterans.

The seniors concession allowance is targeted at retired aged persons not on an age or service pension. It is proposed to provide the allowance to gold card holders over service pension age who do not already qualify for the allowance for utilities. The majority of gold card holders who will benefit from this legislation will be those over service pension qualifying age and with incomes in excess of $50,000 in the case of a single person or $80,000 with a partner.

This year’s budget further strengthens veterans health care and provides important services in a number of areas. Let me give some examples. I want to talk about the eligible veterans who receive the benefit of medical expertise in hospitals when they go in for surgery. The fees of anaesthetists, for example, are going to be increased by some 20 per cent from 1 July. I want to thank this important group in the medical profession for what they do in terms of their medical specialty and the role they play in taking care of not just veterans but also other members of our society. The government will introduce a single claim system for anaesthetists to claim fees from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, reducing red tape and administration costs.

It is important for us in the parliament to do all we can to continue to minimise and, where possible, eliminate red tape, not just in this area but in business. This government is continuing to do that. It is something that I am very committed to. Red tape chokes our businesses. Red tape chokes efficiency in departments. It is important that this government places a strong emphasis on minimising and, where possible, eliminating unnecessary red tape. It is very relevant in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, where the department should be commended for undertaking a significant amount of reform.

Fee increases will be delivered to local dental offices that provide dental services to eligible gold and white card holders. Fees paid to allied health professionals such as chiropractors, osteopaths, dieticians, physiotherapists, psychologists and social workers will also increase over the next four years. The allied health professionals are an important group in our community because they take care of our veterans in a very important way. I think we in the parliament should acknowledge the role that they play in looking after our veterans. From 1 July 2005 the fee increases will be phased in each year, with a total increase of 13.6 per cent. These are going to be some very important increases. This will be in addition to the normal indexation. The annual monetary limit for high-cost items will almost triple, rising from $749 to $2,000 a year. This will reduce the amount that veteran patients have to pay for high-cost dental services—for example, services such as crowns. Aged care accommodation bonds will be exempt from the DVA and social security assets test.

I want to take this opportunity in the parliament to strongly compliment and commend those in the electorate of Ryan who dedicate their lives to the veterans community. Of course many of these are members of the RSL sub-branches. The Centenary Suburbs RSL Sub Branch is headed by Don Robertson. The Gap RSL Sub Branch is headed by Graham Wilson. The Sherwood-Indooroopilly RSL Sub Branch is headed by Ron McElwaine. The Kenmore-Moggill RSL Sub Branch is looked after by Mr Paul Coleman, and very admirably. The Toowong RSL Sub Branch is under the stewardship of Mr Kerry Gallagher. These are fine Australians in the Ryan electorate who play their part in our community by taking care of veterans and doing all they can to address issues that concern them.

I know that the 2005 budget initiatives are welcomed by these veterans in the Ryan electorate. Ryan is home to a very active, engaged and involved veterans community. More than 3,000 veterans live in Ryan electorate and it is a great pleasure for me to engage with them on issues of importance to them. It is a great privilege indeed to know many of them personally. These are very inspirational people. I think all members of parliament have similar sorts of people in their respective electorates—and I pay tribute to all of them.

I want to acknowledge in particular in the parliament today the efforts of one Ryan resident from the suburb of Westlake, Mr Ian Caverswall. He is a wonderful individual and is heavily involved in activities in the local Ryan community. He is the president of the ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee of Queensland and someone very committed to the cause of veterans security and the role of veterans in our country.

The ADCC has a very special history in our country, and particularly in the state of Queensland. I want to reveal to the parliament a little about this wonderful committee. The ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee of Queensland has a very special history. Following the successful withdrawal of Australian troops from the Gallipoli peninsula in December 1915, a public meeting was called by the then Lord Mayor of Brisbane to discuss how we could acknowledge those Australian troops. The idea of Anzac Day celebrations came to the fore at that time. At this meeting Mr TA Ryan, a member of the Queensland Recruiting Committee, put forward a proposal that the deeds of these young Australians be forever commemorated. The committee appointed by this historic meeting came to be known as the ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee of Queensland, or the ADCC. It held its first meeting on 3 February 1916. This was the beginning of our most sacred commemorative day.

The ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee of Queensland was responsible for producing a special medallion this year to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Anzac landing at Gallipoli, as well as the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The medallion is representative of the struggle and the sacrifices of Australians who have served their country in times of conflict. This week I had the great pleasure of presenting to the Prime Minister one of these very impressive medallions on behalf of the ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee of Queensland. I know that the Prime Minister has a very deep personal affinity with our Australian service men and women. It is widely known that his family made a contribution to this country’s freedom through the sacrifices of his father and grandfather in the great conflicts of the 20th century. He was particularly touched to receive this special token.

As a younger member of this parliament and as someone whose own grandfather fought in Asia against the Japanese, I want to take this opportunity to thank those in the community of Ryan, and particularly the Anzac Day committee, for coming up with this wonderful memento to acknowledge and to honour those who have played a part in this country’s history. I look forward very much to meeting with the Centenary Suburbs RSL Sub Branch—of which Mr Ian Caverswall, whom I mentioned a moment ago, is a member. I will be speaking to them at the invitation of their president, Don Robertson, about what the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the government are doing in terms of our commitment to and our policies for our veterans community. They have asked me to present an Australian flag to them. I will be doing that with particular pleasure. I encourage the younger people in the Ryan electorate as well to pay tribute to the role of veterans.

Today I want to also make mention in the parliament of Veterans Support and Advocacy Service Australia, an organisation in the Ryan electorate based in Toowong. Veterans Support and Advocacy Service Australia received a grant of $37,497 from the Building Excellence in Support and Training Program, the BEST Program, which the Howard government supports. This is going to go a long way towards supporting the important work that this group performs. As I said, they are based in Toowong. I had the opportunity to take the former minister to meet them during the last parliament. I look forward to having the opportunity to take the minister in this parliament to Toowong to make their acquaintance. They are a wonderful group of people and I pay tribute to them.

In terms of the grant specifically, $6,380 was allocated for laptop computers, $3,300 for a printer, $2,200 for a desktop computer, $6,000 for ongoing running costs, $880 for a bubble jet printer and a significant amount of money for a photocopying machine. It is very important that this amount of money is received by this group because they allocate it very efficiently. They run their organisation in a business-like manner. I know that they appreciate that this is taxpayers’ money and that they value it for what it is worth because it makes their job a little easier.

This is a year of anniversaries. It is not only the 90th anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli; it is also the 60th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, which commemorates the end of the Second World War in Europe, and the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. In our part of the world, this year also marks the 60th anniversary of Victory in the Pacific and the end of World War II in this hemisphere. The Pacific is an important part of the world, and it is an important part of Australia’s place in the world. Having grown up in Papua New Guinea, the Pacific is an area that I would like to focus on in my time in this parliament and see what our country and our government can do to assist the Pacific in a general sense in terms of economic development and social stability. Those of us in the parliament who have had the opportunity of going to PNG know it is a beautiful country which saw a terrible conflict in World War II. The town that I grew up in, Wewak, is littered with memorials that should remind young Papua New Guineans of their history and of the past Japanese presence in their country. It is important that those of us who have a connection with places in the Pacific like PNG continue to speak of them at the appropriate time.

The government will continue to work with the ex-service community in this country. We will continue to acknowledge them and continue to honour them through the programs that I have articulated in my speech on this bill. We will also continue to support them in an appropriate financial way. The 2005 budget further strengthens our work on the important issues that are relevant for veterans, particularly health care. I commend the work that the minister does in this portfolio and commend, very warmly, this bill to the parliament.