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Wednesday, 23 May 2007
Page: 162

Mr NEVILLE (10:19 AM) —It would be fair to say I am a fierce advocate of Australia’s veteran community. I was amongst those who pushed the amendments of 2004 to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act and I continue to argue for improved benefits for the veteran community. I have great respect for the member for Franklin; he always speaks from the heart. I think we all have pockets of worry with regard to veterans that we would like to see fixed. But there was some good news. Just taking the prisoner of war compensation package, as I remember it we started with the Japanese POWs because of the intense cruelty most of those were subjected to, and to some extent that was true of the Korean ones. I think it was always the government’s intention to move that on to the European ones; I think it was just arranging an order of priority. I take his point that they are all getting older, and I will make that point later in my speech. To have served in the Second World War, other than putting your age up or being a naval midshipman, I think you now have to be a minimum of 79 years of age—most would be 80 or more. They are certainly people who are reaching the age where their fragility starts to take over and vulnerability is there, and we certainly should stay focused on it.

There are two groups that I worry about. One is people who did not actually serve overseas but dismantled ordnance between 1944 and 1947. I used to think that they were one of the most deprived groups. I remember taking the matter up with the department once, and they said to me—and this is not pejorative of the department: ‘Mr Neville, they never faced the enemy.’ Perhaps not in real time, but they sure did because every time they took a spanner to a mine or a torpedo or an unexploded bomb they took their lives in their hands—every single day that they touched a piece of ordnance. I think they faced the enemy and faced extreme danger.

Another group was those Australian troops who were caught in places like Canada and the UK, but particularly Fiji. A lot of young Australians used to work for CSR and companies like that in Fiji. When the Pacific war broke out, they could not get home. Transport was commandeered, so they were stuck in Fiji and joined the British colonial army. If you see photos of them, you would swear that to all intents and purposes they were an Australian unit. They wore the slouch hat and did everything exactly the same as they would have done in Australia, but they were under British command. The interesting thing is that we have this protocol that veterans entitlements come from the country in whose army you served, and a lot of people, the widows of these guys, want to know why they do not get the same benefits. The wives were in Australia while the husbands were in Fiji for the duration of the Pacific war, and they want to know why they cannot get the entitlements.

Because self-government devolved to Fiji after the war, they are now only entitled to Fijian benefits, which are nothing like ours. Perhaps there should be a case for the small group of veterans who were trapped and who served in other Commonwealth countries during the war to receive full Australian entitlements, or their war widows should. That is an anomaly that I will continue to preach in this place because I think it is a case of injustice. They were people who were prepared to serve, and the only reason they did not join the Australian Army, which they would have preferred to join, was that they could not get home.

Going to the bill itself, the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007, we move another step towards improving the benefits and the support available to veterans. Although there is always more that we can do to honour our veterans, I believe the bill contains some very positive measures that should be welcomed. The amendments contained in the bill enhance and streamline Veterans’ Affairs’ administrative practices and will bring provisions in the Veterans’ Entitlements Act more into line with those of the Social Security Act 1991. I would like to briefly discuss some of the contents of the bill and perhaps make some more insightful comments about the debt we owe to the diggers for giving us the nation we live in today. I do not think I am too far off the mark by saying that our service men and women gave us the free nation we live in today. I do not just take that as rhetoric; I think it is very much the case. I was contemplating that this morning when I was listening to efforts by the British government to extradite a former KGB agent for allegedly killing someone in the UK with a shot of plutonium, I think it was—a very cruel way to kill someone. I could not help contrasting our way of life, the British and the Australian systems of law and order and good government and honouring extraditions, with some other countries that think they can get away with that sort of thing. I am not necessarily suggesting that Russia will do something improper, but I think people who do those sorts of dreadful things should come to justice.

When I say that these veterans played a part in making us a free nation, I do not just say it as a matter of rhetoric. They gave it to us with a considerable amount of courage, quite often spilling their own blood in the never-ending commitment to serve the nation. We just heard from the member for Franklin about the sacrifice Graham Edwards made for this country and about the efforts he made and continues to make. We are honour bound to acknowledge and repay these veterans for their contribution and to allow them to have a quality of life commensurate with the quality of life other Australians enjoy today. The benefits we have given to carers and pensioners go some way to acknowledging that, but for veterans—or the ones I deal with—the biggest thing in their life concerns medical, paramedical and pharmaceutical services et cetera. Many of their requests for entitlements focus around health. Our gestures may never fully compensate veterans for their experience, but the proposed changes to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act which would be enacted through this bill go some way towards it. I believe in generous and fair benefits for veterans and, although some measures contained in the bill will result in changes to compensation recovery provisions, I encourage the government to consider what other assistance they can provide to veterans.

The bill contains changes to the assets test provisions of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, as well as compensation payments to veterans, and extends certain benefits to eligible veterans. It removes several anomalies between the Veterans’ Entitlements Act and the Social Security Act which have created confusion in the system. There are many similarities in the provisions of the income support payments under the VEA and the SSA, including rates of payment, income testing, assets testing and the treatment of compensation income. It is important that we clarify the relationship between the two systems to ensure consistency and equity for the recipients.

I will briefly touch on some of the technical aspects of these amendments which deal with tax treatment of veterans, pensions and assets, bereavement payments and the eligibility criteria for assistance and compensation. The bill will ensure that one-off payments of family assistance under the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (More Help for Families—One-off Payments) Act 2004 do not count as income under the act, bringing the VEA into line with the Social Security Act. It also makes some technical changes to the way the Veterans’ Entitlements Act and the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act operate.

The definition of ‘compensation affected pension’ will be changed so that the telephone allowance, the advanced pharmaceutical allowance and the education entry payment, which are paid to certain recipients of service pensions and income support pensions, are included in the compensation recovery provisions within the act. That means that any payments that have been made during a compensation preclusion period are recoverable under the compensation recovery provisions rather than directly recoverable from a pensioner, separate from any overpayment. Even though this is only a minor operational change, I believe it will deliver a far better service to veterans whilst removing any indignity associated with the recovery process.

This bill will also require the Repatriation Commission to provide written notification of income support pension decisions and to make a written record of those determinations. The commission will have to present its findings in writing based on the facts and evidence and give clear reasons for its determination. The commission will also have to provide a copy of its decision, findings and rights of appeal to the claimant, except in cases where information is of a confidential nature.

It is particularly important for people going through the often emotional process of having their claims for war widows pension or disability pensions assessed by strangers. Not only do they experience the stress of waiting to find out their future financial situation but they often feel exposed by having the veracity of their claims questioned. Providing a written explanation of the commission’s decision on claims and outlining the appeal process for the claimant gives them some measure of surety and comfort at what is often a very tense and emotional time. I can tell you this, Mr Deputy Speaker: when people come into my office they are certainly stressed out when these things are under way.

I particularly applaud the government’s decision to extend the eligibility for rent assistance to recipients of the special rate disability pension, otherwise known as the TPI pension. I have met with many veterans groups throughout my electorate, including members of the Extremely Disabled War Veterans Association at Hervey Bay, who have raised the rent assistance issue. I encourage the minister to further consider extending the eligibility for rent assistance to other groups of incapacitated veterans, in particular the Extremely Disabled War Veterans Association members.

I also applaud the bill’s amendment to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004 with regard to injuries and disease that emanate from treatment for service related injury or disease, as well as its clarification that there is no burden of proof for the acceptance of liability of claims.

I am a great believer in the government giving proper recognition to people for their war service. I found my meeting with these veterans at Hervey Bay a very great learning experience. These people of course have suffered some of the worst disabilities, and they have written to me. In addition to the matter I just raised about extending rent assistance, they have raised the matter of half-price taxi vouchers for carers of EDA veterans. Quite often the carers of these veterans are themselves getting old. It is often difficult for them to get around. I will read a paragraph from a letter from June Harper, the secretary of the Extremely Disabled War Veterans of Australia Central and North Queensland Association. As I said, I met them at Hervey Bay. It states:

The main points were Half Price Taxi Vouchers for Carers of EDA Veterans, many are too old to drive or have never done so, and the cost to them of getting to Doctors or visiting their Veteran in hospitals quite large, in many places there is no suitable public transport, even if they could use it, which many can’t.

She then asks: is this state?—meaning is this a state matter.

That invites me to say how we could address this matter. I was talking to the minister’s advisers just before I got on my feet. Apparently there is not a ministerial council between the Commonwealth and the states on veterans matters. I suppose veterans matters have always been almost totally the exclusive province of the Commonwealth. However, there is a half-price voucher system operating in some states. I wonder, if it cannot be done through the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. He could call on his colleague the transport minister to see at the next ministerial council meeting of that particular group—and I encourage the minister to do this—whether we can get some arrangement of extending the pensioner entitlement, in those states which have an agreement with their taxi companies, to the carers of veterans.

The other method, I suppose, would be if the Commonwealth itself extended a voucher system to carers—and I do not underestimate the amount of work there would be to set it up. However, the whole idea of this carers system is, firstly, to give dignity to the veterans; secondly, to facilitate their health and general welfare; and, thirdly, to keep them from being institutionalised. So if we do not support the carers it is somewhat self-defeating. The longer the carers can look after these people, the greater the saving to the Commonwealth. In an overall cost analysis, the cost of a handful of taxi vouchers is probably not that great compared with, for example, the cost if a carer can no longer afford or is no longer capable of doing some of the things the veteran needs and has to drop out or the veteran has to go into institutionalised care. I think the cost difference for extending the voucher system would be absolutely minimal compared with the cost if the veteran has to be taken into some institution.

They also make the point that, despite the government’s private health insurance rebate, it is still pretty hard for the carers of veterans—not just veterans; the whole community, for that matter—to maintain their own private health insurance. Although we have extended the veterans entitlement to a 35 per cent rebate at 65 and 40 per cent at 70, might there not be a case for those carers of veterans to get perhaps a 45 per cent rebate? I might add that that was my original proposition to the Prime Minister when we raised this matter the first time. So those are matters that I would like to see transacted in the future.

In my last few minutes in this debate I would like to thank the minister for the $17,400 for a bronze statue which is now on the Cenotaph in Anzac Park in Gladstone. I might add that the state government matched that $17,400. I went to the unveiling of the statue two days before Anzac Day; it was a marvellous ceremony. It is an outstanding work by a young sculptor, Jerko Starcevic, and it will be a long-lasting tribute to servicemen. We did something different with that sculpture. Instead of the traditional digger on the .303, we used a post World War II digger—someone who would have served in the jungles of Malaya or in Vietnam. It is quite clear from the uniform that the statue is of a veteran of that era; and the rifle is an SLR, which to Vietnam veterans would be very evocative, I imagine, of their service. That was a great day and I congratulate the minister, the Queensland government and, in particular, Mayor Corones of Gladstone on showing that bit of extra concern for the post World War II digger.