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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 186

Mr MELHAM (11:57 AM) —With colleagues from both sides of the House I have recently been privileged to participate in local awards ceremonies to recognise our veterans with the Australian Defence Medal. This is one of many ceremonies I have been proud to be part of in my 17 years in parliament. At these awards, and indeed as I move around the electorate, I am constantly amazed by what these men and women have experienced and achieved. Our veterans served at Gallipoli, the battlefields of western Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East during the First World War. Whilst sadly there are no World War I veterans still with us, their legacy lives on in their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Veterans also served in South-East Asia, the Pacific and New Guinea as well as Africa and Europe during the Second World War. Since 1945, they have served us proudly in the Pacific, Korea and Japan and helped keep peace in Africa. In the seventies they served us in Vietnam. Most recently they have served in East Timor, the Solomons, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Only last month I attended Anzac Day ceremonies together with the odd smoko in my electorate to recognise and to remember our coming of age as a nation. It is a wonderful experience to be present at a school acknowledging our veterans and to see the children grow in understanding of exactly what we are commemorating. The phrase ‘we salute their service’ is more than just words. It is a commemoration of their contribution to who we are as a nation.

The bill before us today, the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007, is a technical bill containing a range of amendments to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 and other acts which affect the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio. The amendments are minor housekeeping amendments which would correct some unintended consequences of the current drafting and better align the income support and pension arrangements under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act with those of the Social Security Act 1991.

I wish to take this opportunity, however, to make some remarks about our veterans. Too often we see on television or read in the newspapers about the health concerns facing our veterans—health concerns that are both physical and mental. A quick Google search provides a massive list of studies and statistics on matters relating to the health of veterans. Let me just refer to one. A story in the Australian newspaper on 29 January this year quoted from documents obtained under freedom of information laws. These documents revealed, as the article starts:

ONE in four Australian soldiers who served in Vietnam has made a successful claim for post-traumatic stress disorder.

One in four is a cruel reflection of what our Vietnam veterans have experienced. It is an appalling national figure. The article also states that there is now an impact on our service people from recent military operations in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. The article goes on to quote Professor McFarlane, head of the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Military and Veterans’ Health and a senior adviser in psychiatry to the ADF. Professor McFarlane stated that post-traumatic stress could manifest years after the events that had caused the actual harm. He is quoted as saying:

“Someone can function extraordinarily well in combat and break down some years later.”

This is just one of many thousands of stories which indicate the extent of the illness we are dealing with. I can have little respect for a government that stands up and says how proud it is of our veterans and yet does little to ensure that they are looked after with special care on their return to civilian life. It is simply unacceptable.

I wish to refer to a letter I received from a returned serviceman from Picnic Point in my electorate. Mr John Shields wrote to me regarding the inconsistency of this government’s current indexing of the totally and permanently incapacitated disability pension. To be eligible for a T&PI pension, a veteran must be in receipt of 70 per cent or more of the general rate disability pension; unable to work more than eight hours per week because of his or her accepted disabilities, and for those disabilities alone; suffering a loss of income that would not otherwise be lost; and under 65 years of age. There are also special rules for granting the pension to a veteran who is 65 years or older in recognition that this is normally considered pension age.

In my electorate of Banks, according to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs statistics provided by the parliamentary website, there are 112 T&PI or special rate pensioners. Their average age is 72.22 years. Mr Shields drew my attention to an article in the Vietnam veteran newsletter dated March 2007. This article provides a copy of a letter from the Vietnam Veterans Federation of Australia to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. The essence of the letter is the loss of value in the T&PI pension since 1979. The bottom line, according to the author of the letter from the VVFA, is:

 The TPI pension was 47.3% of the average wage in 1997 and it is now 43.5%. The TPI pension is losing its value.

As I understand it, the T&PI pension is adjusted in line with the cost-of-living index. Incomes in the form of wages tend to increase at a faster rate than the cost-of-living adjustments. By 2004 the T&PI pension had lost $78 in value because adjustments are made in line with the cost-of-living index rather than average wages. Prior to 1997 all Commonwealth pensions were increased in line with the consumer price index. There was a lag factor, as I indicated earlier, whereby wages increased more quickly than the cost of living; therefore, pensions were always behind. In 1997 the increases to almost all Commonwealth pensions were readjusted to reflect increases in the average wage rather than in the CPI. The exception was the T&PI pension. Recently there was another change, and 60 per cent of the T&PI has been indexed to movements in the average wage.

I fail to understand why this is the case. Why are T&PI pensioners any different to general disability pensioners, age pensioners or war widows? This simply does not make any sense. Labor has determined that this is a gross injustice and that it will resolve it if elected. The shadow minister, the member for Bruce, said at the ALP national conference on 29 April:

We need a Veterans’ Affairs policy that focuses on restoring the value of compensation - it is not enough for a Government to introduce services, it must maintain them to avoid a recurring cycle of playing catch ups as we have seen with the current Government.

Delegates, the value of compensation for our most severely disabled war veterans has been eroding compared to the standard of living in the broader community. This is unacceptable.

The Labor government would restore the value of the T&PI intermediate rate and the extreme disablement adjustment pensions by indexing the whole of these pensions to movements in male total average weekly earnings or the consumer price index, whichever is the greater.

It is anticipated that such a change would directly impact on 43,000 war veterans with disabilities. Certainly, it would improve the lot of 112 T&PI pensioners in the electorate of Banks. In the budget, the Treasurer announced an increase of $50 a fortnight for special rate T&PI pensions. I am pleased for these pension recipients that this increase has occurred. It is better than nothing, but surely the Treasurer and the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs realise that there must be some certainty beyond the whim of any government in terms of these increases, which is why I suggest the formula be as I have stated. Certainty can quite simply be achieved by tying the pension rate to the male total average weekly earnings. It is not too much to ask that people know from week to week, year to year, exactly what they can anticipate in terms of their pension. There is no point in just waiting until a budget before an election for the anticipated increase.

The Labor leader and the shadow minister in a joint statement on 6 May estimated that under Labor’s proposal the recipients of the T&PI pensions will be $1,700 better off with their pensions building up to $30 more a fortnight than they otherwise have been. Labor has listened to this country’s veterans such as Mr John Shields of Picnic Point, and promises to act to fix the problem. This should not be a political issue for either side of politics. It should be an issue embraced by both sides of politics. Veterans deserve it. Anyone who puts on a uniform for this country deserves to be properly looked after when they return. They do not deserve to be ignored. They do not deserve the bean counters to continue to do a job on them as they have done year in and year out.

The budget delivered last night showed that we are awash with money. The veterans in our community should be looked after and dealt with the same as other recipients of welfare benefits in our community. They should not be discriminated against. They should not be treated in a way that is costing them thousands of dollars that they otherwise are entitled to. I do commend the bill to the parliament.