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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 179

Mr HARDGRAVE (11:26 AM) —I am very pleased to speak on any matter relating to veterans affairs. I thank the member for Bruce for his generous observations—which is often the case as the veterans area of public policy is a fairly non-partisan one. Both sides of politics rightly appreciate that we could not be the sixth-oldest continuous democracy in the world had it not been for those who were prepared to serve our country at times of war—indeed, at times of peace—and to put on the uniform, which is something many of my generation have not done. I note that the member for Cowan will speak after me. It is most certainly something that he did. As a generation that simply inherited their good work, I pay tribute always to those who have served our country.

I will remark a little further on a couple of aspects. I recently returned from visiting some of our contemporary men and women in the ADF who are at work with the Royal Australian Air Force based in the gulf and with the Royal Australian Navy based on the HMAS Toowoomba. They are working in the northern part of the Arabian Gulf. The work they are doing there keeps alive the tradition of many generations of veterans. Australian servicemen and servicewomen have always gone out to make friends, even in the midst of the worst of conflicts. The men and women serving in our ADF today are keeping that tradition alive, and I simply say that everybody in this place—indeed, all around Australia—has a great reason to be very proud of the men and women of our Defence Force who are right now making friends in the gulf.

I have a story to illustrate that. A chap out of Brisbane—a lieutenant in the Navy who is involved in interdiction parties as part of securing assets belonging to the Iraqi people in the northern gulf and who boards a variety of fishing vessels and large freighter vessels—rang his wife, as he is allowed to do these days, and said, ‘I want to seal a deal; I want to make friends wherever I go.’ She sent up a carton of clip-on koalas and, now, every skipper on small fishing dhows or large international freighters gets a little clip-on koala every time the Aussies come on board. I use that story to illustrate the debt that we owe our veterans, the way the men and women of today’s Defence Force are continuing that good work and the reputation we have earned, everywhere we have gone, of being decent and honourable. In the worst of conflicts, in the height of battle—or in times between battles—Australian service people have always gone out to do the very best by those they are there to help and to work with. I am therefore very happy to support the measures contained in the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007.

The member for Bruce, as the opposition spokesperson for veterans affairs, highlighted a number of matters contained in last night’s budget. I do not wish to labour this for too long, but, like him, I welcome the recognition that prisoners of war in the European theatre of the Second World War were not the subject of Hogan’s Heroes type treatment. Any time that someone is held captive by an opposing force is a dreadful time. In the very rich environment that we have in this country today—a result of the government’s strong economic record but mainly because of the passion and ability of people in business to create wealth—we must go out of our way  to distribute that wealth to those sorts of people. So I am pleased about that.

Also, the doubling of funerals benefits for veterans is long overdue. I am sure that the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs will address the TPI and disabled matters that the member for Bruce raised, but it is worth saying that last night’s budget delivered a special rate disability pension increase of $50 per fortnight and an intermediate rate pension increase of $25 per fortnight. Those with disabilities and infirmities as a result of war are never adequately compensated, but the government has stepped in the right direction with regard to that. As you, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, would know because of your strong passion for the veteran community—not just when you were the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs but consistently during your time in this place—the Clarke review looked very closely at whether or not the special rate pension should be considered. The government is always willing to take advice from the veteran community in these matters. I do not think that we can ever compensate veterans enough for what they go through, but we should always pay them a debt of gratitude.

Before dealing with the detail of the bill, I want to record my enormous lamentation. Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, you would have met this gentleman. Stan Crisp BEM—British Empire Medal—the Secretary of the Yeronga-Dutton Park RSL for many years and the receiver of the Centenary Medal, sadly passed away in the worst possible way. Sadly, in this country veterans die every day, but Stan was a hero at war, a hero in peace and a great worker in our community. His funeral is tomorrow. We did not see him at Ekibin Memorial Park or Gair Park this year—two events that the Yeronga-Dutton Park RSL organises. Stan lost his battle with cancer, which came upon him suddenly, but he lived to be a good age and worked very strongly in our community. He told me years ago, ‘Go and get a bit of navy in you, son.’ The main reason I was happy to visit the troops on HMAS Toowoomba, as I said at the Ekibin Memorial Park Anzac Day service, was Stan Crisp’s urging. Stan, thank you. We are going to miss you, mate. Thanks for everything that you did.

This bill is going to make a number of technical changes to the way the Veterans’ Entitlements Act and the compensation acts work. The definition of ‘compensation affected pension’ will be amended so that the telephone allowance, the advanced pharmaceutical allowance and the education entry payment, when paid to certain service pensioners and income support pension recipients, are included in the compensation recovery provisions within the act. This will ensure that any payments that have been made during a compensation preclusion period are recoverable under the compensation recovery provisions. Currently these payments are recovered directly from the pensioner separately to any overpayments, and we are making a change there. The change will have little impact on the recovery provisions, but will obviously deliver a far better service to the veteran community and also remove the indignity of the recovery process.

Equally, we are going to insert written notification requirements. There is not currently a legislative requirement. There are procedural guidelines which the Department of Veterans’ Affairs follows which require the provision of these notifications. These amendments will ensure that pensioners are notified of any determinations regarding their income support entitlements. Again this will ensure that there is dignity through the process.

There are amendments concerning the receipt or return of adequate consideration of a deprived asset to promote greater fairness. The amendments remove the requirement for an asset to be double counted. I mean no offence to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs folks who are here, but I find it strange that a lot of government departments are forever labouring our aged population, the older members of our population, with requirements to report things. I am not making policy on the run, but I suspect that, if you paid everybody above a certain age a pension and let the tax system sort it out, you could remove a whole pile of bureaucracy and reduce the impact on a lot of everyday people. I do not know why the oldest in our community are always being impacted upon.

I welcome this particular legislation because it also says to veterans: ‘We’re not going to impact upon you as much as we might have in the past by these sorts of procedures. In fact we are going to give you greater dignity by removing some of the inconsistency between the Veterans’ Entitlements Act and social security law, for instance.’ That is certainly the case in some areas in the way this particular legislation will operate.

There are changes regarding the bereavement payment for carer payment recipients under social security law that relate to the Defence Force income support allowance. It is intended to put social security income support recipients in the same position as they would be if their disability pension was regarded as exempt income. Including DFISA in the bereavement payment for carers will certainly achieve that intention.

There are various other changes, including rent assistance allowance for those eligible for family tax benefit and restoring a legislative base for paying rent assistance under the VEA to income support pensioners who are not eligible for family tax benefit. DVA have always paid rent assistance within the spirit of the intention of that legislation—that is, to income support pensioners. We are making these sorts of changes and these sorts of provisions to ensure that our veterans community is better served.

I do not disagree with the aspirations of the member for Bruce to do more. He has to work very hard as the shadow minister for veterans’ affairs because the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Hon. Bruce Billson, works very hard. He is very enthusiastic and a bit of a Peter Pan in that I do not think he ever wants to grow old—a bit like the Minister for Ageing, really—and he embraces our veterans community. He listens to them and offers them respect—lest we ever forget the effort that veterans of the distant past, of the recent past and, indeed, of today have made for this country. I do not think we can ever do enough to repay that debt, their efforts on our behalf, but we must always be looking for new ways to serve them as they have served us. I commend this legislation to the House.