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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 188

Mrs ELLIOT (12:08 PM) —I rise also to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007. As we have heard from other speakers—let me say from the outset that Labor supports this bill—veterans affairs is an area which always requires improvement. It is certainly an area which I am very passionate about and I am very committed to being a very strong advocate for veterans and their families, not just in my electorate of Richmond but nationwide as well.

This bill addresses a number of housekeeping items in regard to veterans affairs legislation. Nonetheless, these are important amendments which streamline the process and regulations by which veterans access government services. These amendments will better align the income support and pension arrangements under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act and those of the Social Security Act 1991. Passage of these amendments will see sensible changes that will actually help veterans and their families access those services of which they are most deserving. The provisions of the bill address anomalies from the original act and its subsequent amendments. Labor welcomes these very overdue changes.

As we have heard, this bill comprises five schedules. Schedule 1 details changes better outlining other compensatory provisions for veterans and their families, with particular reference to spousal income. In this sense, it better aligns the VEA with the Social Security Act 1991, which will result in less confusion for these families. Schedule 2 deals specifically with medical issues for returned service men and women. This is an area of veterans legislation in which we can and must see improvement. It is so important to deal effectively with the ongoing health problems suffered by many veterans and of course the flow-on anguish which affects their families and loved ones and those close to them.

As we have heard other speakers say today, the experience of military service, particularly in armed combat, often results in both harrowing physical and mental conditions which are indeed very complex. In recognition of this, the process in which returned service men and women access these services should be as straightforward as possible. Of course, that cannot always be the case; nonetheless, this should not weaken our commitment in this area. Specifically, schedule 2 amends the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004. It allows that any unintended or intended injury or disease arising from medical treatment for an existing service related ailment will be counted as arising from that original diagnosis. It allows provisions for the medical profession to deal with the health issues of veterans without the timely and confusing process of tracing liability—and this certainly is an overdue yet welcome provision within this bill.

Schedule 3 is straightforward, simply repealing redundant provisions that have been in the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act as a result of the amendments to the VEA that were later repealed and substituted. Schedules 4 and 5 deal with issues relating to veterans pensions and taxation. Schedule 4 will ensure that income support supplements for veterans included in the list of payments are exempted from the requirement to provide a tax file number to investment bodies for certain investments. So it brings the income support supplement in line with other payments claimed by veterans.

Schedule 5 deals specifically with Defence Force income support allowance payments. The provisions of this schedule align this payment with the way an ordinary age pension will be treated in regard to taxation requirements. Simply put, these payments will receive the same tax exemptions that exist on the age pension. Commencing on 1 July this year, this is a sensible provision which will help veterans and their families deal with taxation issues.

As I stated earlier, Labor supports these changes. They are uncontroversial, yet their debate gives this chamber an opportunity to reflect on the commitment that veterans have shown our country through their service and, indeed, the way we honour and respect that service. My electorate of Richmond has one of the highest number of veterans in the country. I am often touched by their stories and saddened by hearing of the difficulties they face, both medically and in accessing government services. Indeed, veterans and their families face a unique set of challenges—challenges which they should be assisted in dealing with by the full commitment of the Australian government. I wish that I could say that this is the case. The unfortunate truth, however, is that the Howard government has often neglected this group.

I want to touch specifically on the area of lack of resources provided for those veterans and their families suffering from mental health issues as a direct result of their service to Australia. Mental health issues for veterans are areas that are often misunderstood in terms of treatment as well as the government provisions available to those needing treatment. Of course, the complexities involved with these issues, particularly with post-traumatic stress disorder, are very involved. Simply put, there are not enough resources and there are not enough people trained to understand these complexities and the multitude of issues surrounding mental health for veterans. There is not enough support for families living day in and day out in these particular situations.

Veterans and their families often face an uphill battle in understanding and accessing the support services in this area and are very often reliant on underresourced non-profit organisations for very vital support. These groups, committed to helping veterans and their families wherever they can, of course do a wonderful job, but they are indeed facing an uphill battle. More resources are long overdue in both understanding and treating the difficulties faced by veterans once they complete their service. This is certainly an issue that I will continue to fight for. It is vitally important that we do have an improvement in services in this area.

The Labor Party recognises and understands the complexity of veterans affairs issues. These issues are on a number of fronts: health, including mental health, which I have just outlined; finance; and recognition of service, just to name a few. They are complicated issues which must be addressed of course by the whole community but ones in which the federal government should play a very vital and leading role. In response to this responsibility, the federal Labor Party has recently outlined its policy to increase benefits for our nation’s most severely disabled war veterans. These are the men and women who have paid a staggering price in the service of our country and the men and women who have indeed been severely neglected by the Howard government.

Essentially, Labor’s proposal will restore the value of the special rate disability pension—TPI and TTI intermediate rate. These pensions, on which thousands of veterans and their families rely as often their only source of income, have been steadily eroded by the Howard government. I was very pleased to see that a Rudd Labor government will address this gross injustice, particularly for the over 600 veterans in Richmond who will be direct beneficiaries of a policy such as that. Of course, the problem is one specifically of indexation. Over the last 10 years these pensions have been indexed only to the CPI. Estimates are that, because of this, the value of the pension has decreased. In the case of a special rate disability pension, the loss in value has been over $70 per fortnight.

The Labor Party is committed to addressing this injustice. In 1997 the Howard government indexed a range of pensions, but the above rate general pension was not one of them. The undeniable fact of this decision by the government is that veterans are now struggling to meet the day-to-day increased cost of living. Federal Labor will index these pensions to the total average weekly earnings or the CPI, whichever is greater. This will of course have a very significant impact on thousands of families. It is the very least we can do for these men and women, many of whom have paid a very high price in the service of our country.

I urge the Howard government to see the humanity in this proposal and adopt it as soon as possible. I do not believe there has been another issue which has been of such sustained and passionate concern in the veterans policy area over the last 10 years as this particular one. Certainly many veterans in my electorate have approached me over the last few years concerning this matter, and I was very pleased to see the shadow minister for veterans’ affairs and the opposition leader making this announcement last week.

As I said before, Labor stands ready to support any initiative that the Howard government makes in this area. We certainly encourage it to come forth and follow our lead and match that commitment. I was quite appalled that the veterans’ affairs minister attacked this plan to increase the benefits. Federal Labor has challenged the minister to explain why he is opposing increasing these benefits. It is quite disheartening to see that Australia appears to have a veterans’ affairs minister who does not appear to be supporting our veterans. I believe this is a cynical and tired government that has consistently ignored the difficulties faced by veterans. It should feel shamed, particularly on this specific issue.

A fortnight has passed since this country paused on Anzac Day to honour the commitment and sacrifice made by our returned servicemen and servicewomen. Services were held right across the country to acknowledge veterans in our community. Particularly in Richmond, it is wonderful to see more people coming out each year to these services, whether it be the dawn services or the marches during the day. It was an absolute honour that Peter Cosgrove was able to attend the march and the service that we had at Kingscliff. It was wonderful to see so many younger children involved and taking the time to remember and respect the service of so many.

As I stated earlier, my electorate of Richmond does have one of the largest numbers of veterans in the country. One of my greatest honours as an MP is being able to constantly meet with them and the local RSLs and different veterans groups throughout the community, work with them and hear their concerns firsthand. I am sure we all agree it is moving to hear those stories when they speak of their experiences, their service and their often great hardship and sacrifice. But it also inspires me to fight for recognition for them and their service. It was wonderful to see so many people recognising that service on Anzac Day.

Previous speakers have said that, with different community functions of late, we have been able to recognise them through the presentation of the ADMs. Last year in Richmond many community groups worked together with veterans groups to have the first Richmond Remembers event—which is a week-long series of events involving schoolchildren and the community—in which we took time to remember the service of veterans from all conflicts. It is an event that I hope will continue for many years, as everyone in our community remembers the service of so many.

In conclusion, I reiterate that Labor supports the changes I outlined earlier. We are pleased that the government has put them forward and is dealing with the anomalies that have occurred through the amendments to the original legislation. With regard to issues facing veterans and their families, however, I emphasise that there is much more to be done in this area. It is quite disheartening that the Howard government has often neglected to deal with the unique difficulties that veterans and their families face. As I have said, federal Labor has already put forward a plan to rectify the area of indexation of the pensions provided to our most severely disabled war veterans. Again, I strongly urge the Howard government to see the injustice of the system currently in place and to do the right thing and introduce legislation which would deal with it. It would certainly receive great support right across the chamber. This is an area that has to be addressed.

I am very privileged to represent the many hundreds of veterans living in the Richmond electorate. I believe our nation is indebted to those courageous Australians who put their lives on the line in the service of our country and I remain absolute in my commitment to honouring them and their place in our history.