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Wednesday, 23 May 2007
Page: 166

Mr RIPOLL (10:39 AM) —It is always a pleasure to speak on veterans affairs issues and bills, and I am particularly pleased to speak on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007. It is a pleasure because I have a lot of interest and concern in the affairs of veterans not only in my community but right across Australia, as I know many other members and senators do, and for good reason. I have a lot of veterans in my electorate, perhaps one of the larger veteran communities in all of Australia. Over the years that I have been the member for Oxley, I have grown not only to know their community better but also to understand their community much better. I believe I have developed a very strong, good working relationship with the veteran community, as I think all members of parliament and senators should do. In doing that I have managed to better understand and better inform myself of what it really means for them to be veterans—not just for the veteran personally but for their families, for their children and for their friends as well.

There are many issues that revolve around being a veteran today, and some are highly complex issues—compensation, welfare, wellbeing, mental health and physical health. Again, as I just said, these are issues not just for the veterans themselves; they impact on their families and friends and their children. So it is significant today that this chamber debate this bill and make some very necessary changes, some long overdue changes, to the veterans affairs legislation, which needs to be improved.

It is also significant because it is the first opportunity I have had since Anzac Day to speak in this chamber on veterans affairs issues, so I will put on record that Anzac Day this year was a great event, as it always is. It is a commemoration, it is a special celebration in remembering those who have gone before us and fallen, and it signifies all those veterans who have served our country. It was with great pride that I attended a number of Anzac Day events in my electorate and was represented at many others. It is with great pride that I note in my electorate, and in other electorates—in Ipswich as well as in Brisbane—that Anzac Day is becoming more and more significant, more and more important, that more schools are being involved, that young people are being involved and taking the time out. They are coming out earlier. They are going to the dawn services. We are seeing some of the largest crowds we have ever seen.

People might have different views as to why that is the case, but it does not really matter why that is the case. I think it shows and demonstrates an interest of the community, an interest of young people, that our history is important, that our veterans are important, that the things that they did for us are important and that we should never forget that—that the mottos of Anzac Day and the words that we speak on those days, ‘Lest we forget’, are serious, solemn words. They are there to ensure that we do not forget and that we recall the deeds of the past. We know that Anzac Day is not a celebration of war or even of victories, for that matter; it is a commemoration, a remembrance day, and a very important one. I thought I would take the opportunity while speaking on this veterans affairs bill to note that.

Not only should we be looking after veterans for the things that they have done for us but veterans themselves take great pride in looking after others. They do it for themselves when it comes to looking after their own. They set up their own advocacy groups and help groups. They make sure that one mate looks after another mate, and I think that is the most important step, the very first step. They cannot do it on their own, and that is something that government needs to understand. While they are prepared to put in the time to volunteer and do the things they have to do, they cannot do it on their own. They need assistance. They need professional services, professional officers, counsellors and also money. They need funding, because these things do not just happen as a matter of course. They need the support of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs also. They also need understanding from the department, which I know they do have—maybe not always as best as it could be, but it is certainly very good—and they need the understanding of the government and of the minister.

That support is important for the work they have done for us in the past, for the things they have done for us, and for the work they continue to do in the community—within their own community and in the broader community as well. There is a great spirit of volunteerism within the veteran community. I do not know what it is about them, but I know that in my community—and it is always a great source of pride for me—whenever there is a volunteers awards day, whenever you need volunteers, whenever something is happening in the community, they are the first to stick their hands in the air. They are the first to give freely of their time. They are the first to want to contribute to their community. Perhaps it is because they have served, perhaps it is because of their military background and training, or perhaps it is just because they really are decent people.

I want to also mention that this legislation affects a whole range of people: those who would have served in World War II, through to Vietnam, to more recent conflicts—Iraq, Afghanistan—and to peacekeeping. Certainly in my community, veterans are well represented in all those fields and many others as well. This bill will certainly deal with a whole range of people in the veteran community.

It is just a housekeeping bill, though. It raises a number of issues and tries to provide better service for current arrangements within the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. It tidies up a number of things that are out of date and do not work any longer. It is no surprise that federal Labor support this bill, because ultimately it corrects unintended consequences of the current drafting and improves the arrangement of income support and pensions for our Australian veterans. While I say that we support it, I also add that there are some parts of the bill which I personally have issues with, that concern me and that I do not think are completely appropriate. Nevertheless, the bill in its entire form is worthy of support because it does help veterans.

The other issues we can continue to debate in this parliament. I think if there is anything we can say about debates in terms of veterans affairs issues it is that there is great bipartisanship from both sides of the Australian parliament. While we might disagree on some of the timing issues, some of the minor detail and other improvements that could assist veterans, at least we all agree on those things that will help veterans and are for the betterment of veterans’ lives.

What is disappointing, though, is that the Howard government continues to deprioritise a range of very important issues currently associated with our veterans. This I find more than disappointing. In fact, I find it surprising that after 11 years in government it has not found the time, the will or the tenacity to listen enough to veterans to understand some of their issues. In relation to this bill I speak in particular of issues of indexation, which have an impact on all veterans who receive some type of assistance from the government. This is important because of the mental health issues that I raised before and a range of other problems that are encountered by our veterans that need to be promptly addressed.

It is not limited just to those types of issues. Veterans, like other ordinary people in the community, face a range of day-to-day problems associated with just getting by, just with surviving, existing. While it is true to say that we have got a strong economy—we hear it every day and we are not shy to talk about it; nor is the government, I suppose—it is not evenly distributed. Some people are doing exceptionally well, and that is the reality, but many others in the community are actually doing it tougher than they have ever done it. I think one of those groups in the community that are doing it particularly tough today, right now, is veterans. Veterans are doing it tough. Their pensions do not quite cover this new, great economy that we have. It is a good economy, but it costs a lot to be part of this new economy and not all veterans can afford to be part of this new economy. This is not something that I have come to a conclusion on by myself; this is something the veterans are telling me. They are saying: ‘Our pension and some of the allowances we get just do not match the extra costs of living today. They just aren’t matched by what we receive.’

That is why I said earlier that I am disappointed that, after 11 years and a lot of crowing about how great the economy is, the government have not taken the time and have not felt it was important enough to go to the core parts of indexation, pensions and compensation for veterans in our community to try to balance that up and make things a bit better for them. I like to think I can apply some pressure to government from time to time, particularly on these issues. What I hope does not come out of this is another advertising campaign. I think we have all seen plenty of advertising campaigns. What I would like to see is some money spent on veterans directly. I do not think you would have to tell the whole community. I think that, maybe by doing it, veterans would know. They would know it in their hip pocket. They would know instantly. They would know it through their newsletters, at minimal to nil cost to government. I hope that out of this we do not get some flash advertising campaign which actually costs more than any of the changes that the government might put forward.

Fixing this ongoing indexation problem for our veterans would restore value to their payments. I do not think I would get any argument on that. I am hearing some murmurs across the chamber from the Liberal Party. I wonder whether they are arguing that veterans do not deserve proper indexation. I am not sure, but I hope that is not what they are saying.

Mr Ciobo —Of course not.

Mr RIPOLL —Good. I just was not sure. I hope they are not here arguing against indexation, because that would be very disappointing. I hope the government after 11 years is not making light of these issues and is taking these issues very seriously, as I am today.

I reaffirm my commitment to our veterans. I remind the people who are listening or reading this speech that to date Labor under Kevin Rudd is the only party that has made the commitment to our most severely disabled war veterans that they will have their pensions adjusted to take account of not just the cost of living but also the standard of living. That is an important point that should be understood by government—it is not just the cost of living but the standard of living. Veterans today are probably doing it tougher than they have ever done in the past, and that is very disappointing. We are living in good times but they are not good times for everyone.

Under a Rudd Labor government, these veterans will no longer have to depend on the government to deliver these one-off catch-up payments. Catch-up payments are always generous and are always a good thing, but I would like to see catch-up payments more than just once per election cycle. This is more important than that. This is more important than just once in a while in a budget. A real commitment from government would be to say: ‘Let’s fix the endemic problem. Let’s go to the core of the problem. Let’s fix that. Let’s not have veterans worrying about this issue continually. Let’s not have the debates, the backwards and forwards, over how much a catch-up payment should be, about whether they deserve it and about whether they should get it.’ Of course they should get it and of course they deserve it.

This should not be a political tool; this should not be used as propaganda in election campaigns. This should be done automatically. This should be done as a matter of course. This should be done for the benefit of veterans, not for the benefit of government. Catch-up payments, handing out money—their money, taxpayers’ money—are not about self-promotion; they are about doing the right thing by veterans in the first place. This is about making sure you do not ever need catch-up payments. In the end catch-up payments are an admission of failure. They are an admission that you have done the wrong thing. They are an admission by the government that after 11 years they did not get it right and still have not got it right. That is what catch-up payments are—an admission of fault.

Indexation is the core problem. By fixing that problem you will make it better for veterans. At the end of the day they are the people we are trying to help and serve. They have served us; it is now time for us to serve them. Labor has promised that over the first four years pension recipients would be $1,700 better off, with their pensions building to be $30 a fortnight more than they otherwise would have been. This is the proper way to go. While it is a lot of money, in the end it is not a lot of money. It is a bit like the tax cuts. They are certainly welcome. It is a little bit of money. It is always good to get some of your money back. Of course, you are not going to get all of your money back—and I think veterans will understand that too. They are not asking for a whole heap. They are not asking for huge handouts. What they are asking for is a fair go. They do not want the one-off catch-ups. They actually want proper indexation. They want to have these matched properly.

This bill has a number of key provisions relating to income support and assets. It is split into five distinct schedules. It is important when we mention these that we outlay our concerns as well for the veteran community as a whole. I have talked extensively on indexation and the potential if we do not do this to compromise veterans’ standards and wellbeing. The second schedule looks at rehabilitation and compensation. Again I shake my head because I cannot understand or believe that in 11 very long years there has not been a time when the government thought it was important enough to look more closely at veterans and the issues very close to them.

As we saw, there was some aid in the budget, but the government did not take the time to specifically address veterans’ issues. I hate to sound like a broken record on this matter, but the government are out of touch. They are out of touch with the community and they are certainly out of touch with the veteran community.

The budget made no specific reference to mental health issues or the suicide rate or any other serious issue within our veteran community. These issues need to be seriously and adequately addressed by government. The RSL in fact has called for priority assistance on these matters for some time, particularly within their recent budget proposal, and Labor has long been calling for these issues to be addressed. But, as I said, unfortunately, it has not occurred to date. It has fallen on deaf ears. I am hoping that the government do not get scared off by this. It may be a slightly controversial topic for government; otherwise, you could not find any other reason why they have not dealt with it as yet. I see that the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs is here. I welcome him. I know he is a good supporter of veterans. I have welcomed him to my electorate and he did a good job, so I will acknowledge that. While he is here, I ask him to take note and to properly look after veterans.

In conclusion, I raise a couple of things specifically in the bill, as well as other matters. Claims processing times are an issue, and I think the minister needs to look at that very carefully. There has been a blow-out in the time it takes for veterans to get their claims processed. That concerns me. In fact, there has been a 400 per cent blow-out in claims processing times. I do not think it is good enough, and I am sure the minister does not think it is good enough, either. Maybe he should look at that. It would be no surprise to find that perhaps staffing is at the core of the problem. Over the last two financial years, staffing levels of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs have notionally been down by 12.5 per cent. I understand from this budget they will be down again. Fewer staff obviously means more work, more pressure and slower processing times. Again, that is simply not good enough.

In the time available to me, I conclude with a commitment from Labor, from Kevin Rudd and from me. A Labor government will increase benefits for our nation’s most severely disabled war veterans. A Rudd Labor government will restore the value of the special rate disability pension—TPI and TTI intermediate rate—and the extreme disablement adjustment pensions by indexing the whole of those pensions to movements in male total average weekly earnings or to the consumer price index, whichever is greater. And, for the first time, Labor will take up the catch-up payment problem, and the admission of failure by government through a catch-up payment that they have not done the right thing.

Labor need to make the acknowledgement. I always hear platitudes to veterans and they are wonderful to hear. We attend Anzac Day ceremonies and other ceremonies that remember the fallen. We have to remember not just the fallen but those who come back with mental health and physical disability issues. We have to understand their particular issues, their needs and their situations in the community, their families and their children’s health and we need to make that special effort. I do not think it is a lot to ask government. I have had a look at the budget, and so has everybody else in the community. And there is plenty of money and more where that came from—I am sure the government are happy to tell us—because they are certainly ripping it out of people’s pockets. While you are ripping it out of people’s pockets, do not forget to put some of it back into veterans’ pockets because they deserve it for the things they have done for this country. They never asked to go and defend us. We asked them to do so on our behalf as a whole community and I think it is only right that, while they do their duties, we should carry out our responsibilities.