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Thursday, 16 June 2005
Page: 20

Mr RIPOLL (10:21 AM) —The Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (2005 Budget Measure) Bill 2005 will affect some 44,000 veterans and war widows. I am always pleased to offer my support to measures which benefit our veterans and past service men and women who have given so much to Australia in their service for our country. I put on the record that it is my belief—I do not have any data to back this up, but I reckon it is pretty close—that Oxley has one of the highest veteran numbers of any electorate in Australia. I would absolutely say with full confidence that it is probably the strongest veteran community in all of Australia. I am very proud to—

Mr Hunt interjecting

Mr RIPOLL —Absolutely; Oxley would be the strongest veteran community in all of Australia. I am very proud to represent them. In fact, I have very fond memories of the time soon after I was elected in 1998 when I started to go into depth in terms of representing my community and found a huge gap in services that had been provided—or recognition, as it were, for veterans in the Oxley community. I am sure that is reflected in other parts of the country. I set about trying to turn that around and looked much more closely at the needs of our veterans. Over the years, I have organised a number of functions and gatherings with our veteran community and opportunities for them to discuss their issues. I think that has proved very beneficial for me as their local representative and also for them—that our veterans have a place where they can air their issues and discuss things that are important to their community.

I am always happy to speak on veteran issues, particularly entitlements. With our veterans, one of the strengths of our country should be that, if we ask them to do things for us—if we ask them to go into battle, to risk their lives and to make those supreme sacrifices—then, as a country, as a nation and certainly as a parliament and a government, we should be prepared to meet our obligations to them when they come back, to look after them physically and mentally, to look after their families and to do what we promised we would do.

I am happy that this bill makes some corrections to what was an oversight by government. It corrects a gross oversight in relation to what I can only say was incompetence—and I do not use that word lightly—at a ministerial level within the department. We must face up to this. This is not the only example. There have been quite a number of examples of ministerial incompetence. I would not even stop at saying that it has been just this particular minister; you could take your pick of a string of ministers holding portfolio responsibilities for our veterans under successive Howard administrations since 1996.

Mr Hunt —I thought you said you wouldn’t say it lightly. You’ve just been railing against the whole cabinet.

Mr RIPOLL —I will take the interjection. Government members get upset about this, but the reality is that I do not draw my conclusions about what ministers do in this portfolio from my own view but from that of the veteran community. It is what the veteran community tells me. It is actually what is taking place out in the community and it is the reason I am on my feet today speaking on this bill. Government members can get upset about this, but it is just the reality.

In essence, this bill will extend to self-funded retiree veterans what all other self-funded retirees received last year—namely, a $200 a year allowance. The seniors concession allowance was introduced in December 2004, implementing a government election promise. This allowance is intended to assist self-funded retirees with energy, rates, water and motor vehicle registration costs. Initially eligibility was restricted to retirees with a Commonwealth seniors health card, for which veterans are eligible but which they may not have accessed due to their possession of a veterans gold card. Either by intent or oversight, the allowance was therefore not paid to gold card holders, though they were not precluded from applying for the Commonwealth seniors health card if they wished. This proposal extends the CSHC related benefit to 44,000 gold card holders.

While I am speaking about gold card holders, I would also put on the record my concerns that over a number of years the value of the Commonwealth seniors gold card, particularly in relation to our veterans, seems to be diminishing in the community in terms of access to services that they get. Again, these are not my views; these are the views of veterans in my community—and, more widely, the view in other communities where people tell me these things. When you look at what is happening in the devaluing of that veteran entitlement, you ought to be very concerned.

There are some special provisions to prevent double payments and to provide the allowance to gold card holders under the age pension age of 60 to 65, recognising the different age eligibility of veterans. The first payment will not be made until after 1 December 2005, and there is no provision for retrospectivity.

The explanatory memorandum attached to the bill anticipates that this proposal will cost an extra $200,000 in 2004-05, increasing to $9.8 million in 2005-06, $8.9 million in 2006-07 and $8.9 million in 2007-08. This is a total of $27.8 million over four years. It is a substantial amount for government, but, more importantly, a substantial amount for veterans—something that veterans are entitled to and should have received on time. The ‘on time’ issue in this department is becoming a very sore point. Not many things are on time or as they should be.

The content of the bill is considered to be non-controversial in nature, and in large part is, but some criticism of the government is justified. One would have thought that with an oversight of this nature—the oversight that this bill is rectifying, where a sizeable portion of the population has been effectively cheated—payments would have been made retrospective. We are not talking about just anybody in the community—not those maligned, victimised and continually pilloried by the government. We are talking about our veterans, the people who are the first ones to see the government with ticker tape parades, handshaking and all the things that come with returns and parades. When it comes to the small things, the little things that matter and make people’s lives just a little bit easier, we do not see the same sort of urgency to deal with issues.

Hopefully, the department itself—I will not look to the minister; I will look to the department—will get some of this stuff right. If they can get the timing of a welcome home parade right, make sure the Prime Minister and the minister are there on time to shake hands and make sure they get in the photos, surely, on matters that affect the veterans directly in terms of some extra payments and eligibility for entitlements, there should be some urgency from the department to make sure that veterans do not miss out—that they tick issues off and make sure that they get those entitlements on time. It is their responsibility; it is their department. The effect of this change will be that veterans now get the allowance that they are due but cannot have it backdated. It means the loss of at least two payments of about $100.

The government tried its best to put a positive spin on this when it was announced during the budget week. The government tried to make out what wonderful people it is made up of and just how generous they all are with taxpayers’ money, almost as if it were their own money. Veterans, on the other hand, are a very clever bunch; they know when they are being dudded. They have been short changed, and they know they have been. Again, last year, this benefit was provided to everyone else but them. There is government urgency in some areas, but not when it comes to some in the community—and certainly not to our veterans. On the face of it, this seems typical of some of the actions and timing we have seen from this department and the minister.

I will take a moment to mention briefly a number of other veterans’ issues. There is the issue of the deseal-reseal, which is an ongoing festering sore for government. There has been inquiry after inquiry, with supposed goodwill from government members. It really bewilders me—that is probably the only suitable word—how government members, having the power of government, can continually walk into veteran meetings on issues such as the deseal-reseal matter, look people in the eye and say to them: ‘Yes, we’re dealing with your issues. Oh, we’re very concerned. We’re going to deal with this; we’re going to do something.’ I say to them: what is it that you are going to do? What is it that these government members are going to do?

Just last week I had a meeting in Ipswich, which was organised by the deseal-reseal group—again, still pursuing what is a just entitlement to compensation for pain and suffering these people have experienced over many years as a result of their service. I am afraid to say that today we still have a government that refuses to budge. There have been numerous inquires. There is enough evidence, enough information now on the table for the department and the minister, the government, to make a decision. I think a bare minimum expectation is that, before any more of these people actually pass away, the department and the minister, the government, make a decision and deal with the issues of these people one way or another. There is only one way to deal with them though, and that is to recognise their pain and suffering and to compensate them for it.

Many issues are important to veterans and not just those that relate to payments—although their payments are very important, because most veterans live from week to week or month to month; they are not exactly flush with cash and they are dependent on their rightful entitlements. However, before I conclude, I want to raise another issue of exceptional importance to them, and that is the approach of a very important date: Victory in the Pacific, the end of World War II. I have raised this particular issue in the past on a number of occasions, and I thank the government for making available $10,000 to each federal electorate so that electorates can celebrate the end of World War II. It is now 60 years since that war ended and it is a very important time for my community. It will be a time—I suspect probably the first in Oxley and perhaps in other electorates—when we gather all relative veteran based organisations and bodies. I was pretty surprised at the total number in my electorate. You work with these people over many years but never do a headcount of exactly how many disparate groups there are. When the whole lot were finally pulled together in order to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, I realised that I had 28 separate veterans’ organisations in my electorate. That is why I said earlier that I probably have one of the largest veteran communities in all of Australia; I most definitely have the strongest, and I am very proud of that.

Mr Hunt —Proud of you?

Mr RIPOLL —They are much prouder of me than they are of government. Let me tell you: I cannot repeat the words that they use to describe government members and ministers. But let me not digress from this very important issue because of some silly interjection from a government member.

Mr Hunt —Silly?

Mr RIPOLL —Very silly. In the very small amount of time we were given by government to organise celebrations, I called a meeting of my veterans in the electorate of Oxley to discuss what we would do. As you would expect, we had not been sitting around waiting for government handouts before we did something. Nearly all of these groups had already planned some sort of community activity to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II—and I am very proud of that, because there will be many functions in my electorate. I felt that it was very important that, as their federal member, I represent all of them at once—probably for the first time—in terms of this important day. We are working towards that goal.

So I thank the minister and the government for the $10,000 grant. It is small but it is helpful. It will not be enough in terms of the celebrations we are going to hold on that day, which will involve our schools, our community, and our different veterans’ organisations, including our RSLs, but it certainly will go some way in offsetting the cost. I am very proud of that.

This bill, which corrects an oversight, a stuff-up by government, is beneficial to veterans. I agree with and support these measures. Indeed, I would agree with and support any measures which directly assists our veterans, particularly in extending eligibility for the seniors concession allowance to a group of gold card holders who are not currently eligible for the allowance. I think this is a positive move and I welcome it.