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Thursday, 16 June 2005
Page: 24

Mrs DE-ANNE KELLY (Minister for Veterans’ Affairs) (10:36 AM) —Firstly, I would thank the members who have spoken in this debate: the members for Cowan, Hughes, Shortland, Paterson, Richmond, Ryan, Canberra and Oxley. In summing up the debate on the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (2005 Budget Measure) Bill 2005, an important piece of legislation for our veteran community, I say that the passage of this legislation will benefit up to 44,000 Australian veterans, war widows and widowers by giving them access to the government’s seniors concession allowance.

The allowance was introduced by this government in December 2004 as an election commitment to help older, self-funded retirees pay the costs of water, sewerage, electricity, rates and motor vehicle registration. A similar allowance, the utilities allowance, was also introduced to assist Australia’s older pensioners. This bill will extend eligibility for the seniors concessional allowance to holders of the gold repatriation health card who are over veteran pension age and who are not already eligible for the seniors concession allowance or the utilities allowance. Once the legislation is passed, the first payment of seniors concession allowance to eligible gold card holders will take place in December 2005. This initiative recognises the needs of older gold card holders and continues this government’s strong track record in supporting our older veterans.

The opposition have asserted that this is a fix-up and this group of veterans has missed out on this payment from December 2004. Plainly they do not understand the nature of the payment. The payment is subject to an income test. The government has recognised the unique circumstances of the veteran group in Australia and the respect in which they are held, and made a decision to extend this benefit to them without the need for an income test. This is clearly an additional measure for the benefit of veterans and war widows.

It is part of the veterans’ affairs budget, which in 2005-06 will provide more than $10.8 billion for the care of the veteran and defence force communities, a rise of $278 million on 2004-05. In breaking that down, the 2005-06 budget commits $4.6 billion to veteran health care, an overall increase of $203 million on the previous year, and $6.1 billion for compensation in income support, up from $6 billion last financial year. It includes an additional $79.1 million over four years to strengthen the medical services available to eligible white and gold card holders by increasing the fees paid to anaesthetists, dentists and a range of allied health professionals. The government have made a significant effort in the past two years to ensure that gold and white card holders continue to have access to the health care they need. We have increased fees for local medical officers and specialists, injecting an additional $325 million into the veterans health system. Far from the claim by the member for Oxley that the gold card is losing value, in fact it is at a record number and a significant increase in local medical offices has occurred as a result of the government’s efforts. This budget continues that process.

I am pleased to note comments following the budget from none other than the Australian Medical Association, whom one would expect to be well abreast of issues related to health. The then President of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Bill Glasson, made the following comment. He commended the minister and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs:

... for acknowledging the unique problems and challenges of health care for veterans and coming good with funding in the election and the budget.

The annual limit for high-cost dentistry items will also be increased, from $749 to $2,000 a year. This new limit will significantly decrease the amount the veteran has to contribute and means veterans may now be able to receive such services free of charge, where previously they could not do so.

In the area of compensation and income support, as well as $27.7 million over four years to extend the seniors concession allowance, the government has committed $8.5 million over four years to carry through on another election commitment to exempt aged care accommodation bonds from the DVA assets test. This exemption will apply from 1 July to all lump sum bonds until the bond is refunded to the person or their estate when they leave aged care, regardless of when the bond was paid. The exemption will also allow a person who pays their accommodation bond using periodic payments to rent out their former home without the rental income or the value of that home affecting their rate of pension.

The comments made by the opposition today are ill informed, in fact, with regard to the current actions of the Repatriation Commission involving reviewing the existing 36-year age limit for the children of Vietnam veterans having access to the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service. The existing age limit of 36 years for children of Vietnam veterans automatically accessing the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service was contained in a legislative instrument made under section 88A of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986. That legislative instrument was titled ‘Veterans’ entitlements determination (counselling and psychiatric assessment—former dependents of Vietnam veterans) 2000’, instrument No. 26 2000 and was made by the Repatriation Commission on 8 December 2000. The legislative instrument is a disallowable instrument and was tabled in both houses of the parliament in late 2000.

The instrument was made as part of the government’s response to the report titled A study of the health of Australia’s Vietnam veteran community. That study raised serious concerns about the mental health of the children of Vietnam veterans. The validation study in 1999 noted that the largest group of Vietnam veterans’ children were then aged 25 to 29, and it found that suicides were more prevalent in this group than in the wider Australian community. In the 2000 budget the government announced a range of measures to respond to the findings of this study. This included recognition of the continuing needs of these former dependants of Vietnam veterans, who, due to their age, were no longer children covered by the requirements of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986. The instrument specifically gave these former children of Vietnam veterans access to counselling services and psychiatric assessments through the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service.

Paragraph 16 of the explanatory note that accompanied the instrument when it was tabled in the parliament specifically included the following commitment by the government:

The majority of children of Vietnam veterans are now in the 25- to 29-year group. Their ongoing needs will be kept under review, but the available evidence has not established a current need for higher age limit. The age limit is consistent with the limit that is applied to the community youth suicide prevention programs.

Accordingly, the foreshadowed review of the instrument and the 36-year age limit is presently under way and will shortly be considered by the Repatriation Commission. The review will include appropriate consultation with key stakeholders before a final decision is made.

I now want to move to some of the other claims made by opposition speakers. One is that there are large savings in this portfolio. That statement is incorrect. It misunderstands the tables in the portfolio budget statement that refer to a technical accounting adjustment in relation to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Scheme. Overall there has been a net increase in the amounts allocated.

This is a budget from a government who listen to the concerns of veterans. It builds on the strong support we have provided to the veteran and Defence Force communities, including last year’s commencement of the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Scheme, which is now working to meet the needs of the next generation of veterans. This year the Australian repatriation system marked 87 years of serving our veteran community. It remains a vital commitment to those who serve in the defence of our nation. Under this government the repatriation system will continue to work to meet the needs of serving members, veterans and their families.

I would like to read from one of the other responses made to the government’s budget. It states:

Generally the response to the budget has been a positive one—in particular, the efforts demonstrated by the government to address the difficulties with some specialist issues related to the gold card that have caused much angst among the veteran community and the $600 payment to those carers of our most disabled veterans in receipt of the carers allowance.

That response is from the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia, an organisation that we find very constructive to work with.

In closing, I would like to refer to some of the comments that the opposition have made about regard for veterans. Regard is a great deal more than simply financial, but in terms of finance the figures speak for themselves. In 1996 when we took government the total Veterans’ Affairs budget was $6.5 billion. In this budget it is now $10.8 billion. The government have worked very hard to give credit and respect to, and to support, our valued veteran community. The repatriation system will continue to meet the needs of serving members, veterans and their families. I thank all members for their contributions to this debate and commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.