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Thursday, 16 June 2005
Page: 17


Ms ANNETTE ELLIS (10:10 AM) —I rise to speak on the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (2005 Budget Measure) Bill 2005. In doing so, I bring with me to this place a very good and close relationship with a vast number of individual veterans and their families, with the organisations from my community and with the national service people. I am honoured and pleased to have the privilege of representing them in this place. This bill will see 44,000 veterans and war widows throughout Australia, many of them within my electorate of Canberra, finally receive the seniors concession allowance promised to them by the government in the 2004 election campaign. The seniors concession allowance, much like the utilities allowance, is a payment that allows self-funded retirees to pay bills such as power and water bills and car registration. The allowance is available to all self-funded retirees over pension age who are not on a pension and who hold a Commonwealth seniors health care card.

The 44,000 veterans and war widows will now receive this payment, six months after its implementation and six months after the first payment—a payment that they were promised but did not, until now, receive. They did not receive it, because the government forgot to include them, I believe. To be eligible for the seniors concession allowance, you have to have a Commonwealth seniors health card. What we on this side of the House know—and what apparently the government forgot—is that gold card holders do not need a seniors health card; they already have the gold card. Many veterans and war widows who are self-funded retirees have subsequently missed out on the allowance simply because they did not have a Commonwealth seniors health care card. The 44,000 veterans and war widows who were forgotten—by reason of neglect, which I doubt, or by reason of penny-pinching, which is possible—by the government have yet to receive an apology for the delay in this payment. But I guess we have come to expect from this government behaviour of this kind when it comes to looking after our veterans. Hyperbole and speeches and expertly orchestrated ceremonies manufactured for maximum media impact, in my observation of veterans affairs related issues, seem to be the No. 1 priority of this government. Issues such as adequate health care and welfare for veterans have come a poor second over the years of this government.

In this year’s budget we saw the minister, resplendent with bells and whistles, announce a $411 million increase in the DVA’s total budget. At first glance, you could mistakenly think the government had finally taken a serious interest in the wellbeing of veterans and had taken on board the need for adequate funding. A second glance and every subsequent peek at those figures point to an unmistakable and less welcome conclusion. Despite the minister’s hubris, the budget provides only $10 million for new measures in 2005-06. This is set against savings of $52 million from the health portfolio. Of the $411 million increase in DVA’s total budget, $393 million comes from normal cost increases in the DVA budget. To this $393 million is added $60 million carried over from previous years’ budgets. In fact, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has managed to save $82.3 million. As the new budget measures only add up to $10 million, we can clearly see that in net terms the budget for veterans has gone in what I think, sadly, is becoming the government’s favourite direction—backwards.

What did we hear from the current minister? Did we hear any apology to veterans for not taking that fight through cabinet, or just an honest reflection of the reality of the situation? We did not. One may have hoped that the minister would have been fighting to ensure that the endemic funding problems would finally be addressed. But, unfortunately, over the course of these last nine years funding for veterans has continued to regress as the government lurches from one crisis to another.

We still have the problem of inadequate funding by DVA for veterans’ dental care. That has been mentioned, but let us look at the facts. The Australian Dental Association began last year its campaign for increased fees for the treating of veterans. What action, you may ask, is the government taking to fix this problem? According to DVA officials at the February 2005 Senate budget estimates:

... some options are being prepared for the consideration of government.

And:

... we are not in a position to negotiate anything. We are in a position to consult widely with the industry ...

And:

We have continued the development of material which would support examination of the prices paid for dentistry.

In short, the summary of the DVA evidence is that nothing has happened and nothing is likely to happen to meet the full requirement of the sector.

And there are also the problems with veterans’ access to specialists, which has also been mentioned. There are now 366 specialists nationally who have effectively refused to accept the gold card. They include orthopaedic surgeons, ophthalmologists, urologists, general surgeons, neurosurgeons, ear, nose and throat specialists, plastic surgeons and psychiatrists, to name just a few. Ten of these specialists are from the ACT. Whilst the government washes its hands of veterans health care and specialists feel they cannot afford to subsidise treatment for veterans, the problem will not go away. Before making an appointment, veterans need to check that their specialist actually accepts the gold card, to avoid having to pay a significant gap payment or to take out private health insurance. In my electorate of Canberra, I have received several letters from anaesthetists writing to me to express their concern over the inadequate remuneration they receive from DVA. Unlike other medical specialists, anaesthetists did not receive on 1 January this year an increase in their fees for treating veterans. Australia-wide, this has resulted in some refusing to accept the gold card.

The previous speaker, the honourable member for Ryan, has been touting information that there are going to be increases to deal in part with some of these problems from 1 July this year. Be that the case or not, the real point that has to be made is: how on earth did the situation ever get to the point it is at now, where people like anaesthetists and other specialists are writing to local members like me, saying that if the government does not do something with the funding arrangements for their specialties then the gold card is going to become almost worthless to its holder? Any bleating about increased payments now really must reflect upon the situation, where it has got to and why people have been put in that position. The government says it values these veterans so much, so how did it ever let the situation get to the point where there was a question to be raised in the first place?

As I have stated before, I really believe this government is obsessed with the ceremonial side of veterans affairs. It loves plaques, monoliths, statues, ribbon cutting and anything that will allow the Prime Minister, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs or any other member of the government to get on a stage in front of a camera. We saw this displayed in the recent and unfortunate events at Anzac Cove earlier this year, when it was decided to disrupt that site. We have heard about it in this place and in the media constantly.

I have to also mention the questions that have recently been raised about Hellfire Pass. I am not sure what the current status of that is. I do know, however, that I have heard on my local radio station here in Canberra elderly veterans expressing very serious concern about what may be happening at Hellfire Pass. In fact, it would be good if the minister or the government could clarify this position and say that there is not a problem. There appears to be another problem, another disregard, another possible lack of consultation with the veterans sector and the people involved. I was concerned to hear an elderly gentleman on ABC Radio here in my electorate of Canberra clearly saying that he was part of the party that spread the ashes of Weary Dunlop in Hellfire Pass and how concerned he was to then know that there was disruption to that site because somebody had come up with the ‘good’ idea of raising a monument of some kind in that area. I do not know what the current state of affairs is with this situation. I do know that the issue has been raised by the veterans.

When government members come in here and try to give the impression that the veterans of this country are their major concern, that without them they would be devoid of any services, let us just cut through all of that and look very carefully at what really is happening. Dental care has gone backwards, the gold card has become of less worth to the people who actually hold one, and monuments are being raised, seemingly with no consultation with veterans. Really, a bit of honesty would be a good thing to hear from government when we are talking about issues relating to veterans in this country. These are people that we all value. All of us in this place understand the commitment that they made. But what I will not accept is some hubris from government that tries to create an impression that they are the best friends of everybody concerned with the veterans community. That is not what the veterans in my community tell me and it is not what I hear within my community generally. Never get between a minister, a PM and a Veterans Affairs monument, that is all I can say!

It is a shame to see the way this government has tended to treat veterans and how it has failed to meet the challenges associated with providing health and welfare to our veterans community. This amendment to the legislation is symptomatic of the government’s approach to veterans affairs. Of course it is something we support. Of course it is something that, in itself, is non-controversial. The controversy is really why it is necessary to have the amendment in the first place. If careful consideration had been part of the original decision by government then this amendment would not have been required. Of course I support it, and I support it on behalf of my veterans. I am sorry to see that they are being considered for this payment later than everybody else—that should not have been the case, but it appears to be the case. I am happy to stand up on their behalf and acknowledge a belated thankyou to the government. But, please, next time try to make sure that the legislation that you bring into this place on behalf of the community and on behalf of veterans actually includes veterans and does not leave them behind. We do not think they should be left behind. We do not think they should be used in a political way, as we see so often from this government and from this Prime Minister. It is something that I could never agree to, and I am sorry to see it happen time and time again.