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Wednesday, 23 May 2007
Page: 171

Mr BILLSON (Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence) (10:59 AM) —in reply—The Howard government has further enhanced our world-class repatriation system. It recognises the nation’s special and sincere duty to those who have served and the special standing and needs of our veterans community. The Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (2007 Measures No. 1) Bill 2007 is further evidence of the Howard government’s recognition of the need to continually evolve and enhance our world-class veterans affairs system and to tirelessly and continuously pursue improvements in the delivery of repatriation services and support to Australia’s veterans and their dependants.

This world-class repatriation system provides a comprehensive range of benefits to compensate veterans, serving members and their dependants for injury, disability and death resulting from their service. It has been built over many decades. It has been built on the foundations of solid principles, sound rationale and a clear understanding of the specific demands, potential consequences and unique implications of military service. To breach these fundamental repatriation principles means risking these time-honoured and respected foundations and the community’s support for our beneficial veterans affairs system and the exclusivity now accorded to our ex-service community.

The changes made by this bill will improve the efficiency of the delivery of those benefits and other services that are provided to veterans, serving members and their dependants under both the Veterans’ Entitlements Act and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act. The bill also makes amendments that will further align certain provisions of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act with the social security law. The bill includes amendments to the Income Tax Assessment Act that will clarify the status of Defence Force income support allowance payments and provide for the inclusion of income support supplement recipients in the group of persons not required to provide a tax file number.

The amendments made by the bill to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act are technical amendments to correct some of the anomalies in that act. These amendments will extend the circumstances in which liability can be accepted for injuries or diseases caused or aggravated by the consequences of medical treatment provided in relation to a service injury or disease. The bill also amends the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act to clarify issues concerning the onus of proof for liability claims. These amendments recognise that within the service environment, where documentation and evidentiary material may be lost or unavailable, it may be difficult to prove a connection between that service and the injury, disease or death. The amendments to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act include amendments to the compensation recovery provisions that will be applicable to supplementary payments, such as telephone allowance, advanced pharmaceutical allowance and education entry payment, that are payable to certain service pensioners and income support supplement recipients.

The Defence Force income support allowance provisions are amended by the bill to include changes applicable to the recovery of overpayments and to provide for an increase under the bereavement payment provisions of the Social Security Act to carer payment recipients in certain circumstances. Other amendments rectify an oversight which has meant that the Defence Force income support allowance pension bonus could not be paid after the eligible person died or if their claim had not been determined at the time of death. The bill also inserts additional provisions to ensure that written notification of determinations is provided to claimants of service pension income support supplement, Commonwealth senior health cards and lump sum advances. The bill makes enhancements to the means test provisions to allow the disposal of assets provisions to be disregarded in circumstances where an asset is subsequently returned or adequate consideration is subsequently received. The amendments will address some potentially unfair outcomes, including the possibility of double counting of assets in some situations.

The bill also clarifies the arrangements relating to the payment of pensions and the provision of treatment for a person who is in jail. The amendments made by the bill will align the Veterans’ Entitlements Act with the Social Security Act so that the pension will not be payable only with respect to the days the person is in jail. Other amendments will make it clear that the treatment under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act is not provided to persons in prison, as this is the responsibility of the relevant state or territory.

The bill also expands the definition of ‘jail’ to include persons being lawfully detained in a prison or elsewhere pending trial or sentencing, and we will also include those persons who are in a psychiatric confinement environment after being charged with an offence. The bill includes a number of other minor and technical amendments to repeal redundant references and provisions and to correct minor errors in the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. The proposed changes contained in the bill will enhance my department’s capacity to deliver benefits and entitlements for our veterans and Defence Force communities.

This bill is further demonstration of the Howard government’s ongoing commitment to this deserving group of Australians. The merit of this, yet another package of Howard government initiated enhancements and improvement to our veterans affairs system, seems uncontested, with Labor once again simply falling in line behind the Howard government’s work. I welcome their support for these measures. It is interesting that Labor seeks to associate itself with the hard work and the sustained efforts of the Howard government to support our veterans and Defence Force communities. We saw it with the contributions to this debate, with the opposition again recognising that the Howard government was doing the right thing, and pledging its support with hollow words of bipartisan support but then switching back to type with basic politicking and grievance peddling.

With an election approaching, we can expect Labor to show a belated interest in veterans, purely in search of their hope, hoping veterans will forget the years and years of Labor disinterest and the dismal appreciation of their needs amongst the veterans community. Remember the last election policy and its paltry commitments. Labor will become more shrill, more slippery, more superficial and more sensationalist in their claims and accusations.

Let me touch on some of the themes and claims peddled by Labor during this debate. This year’s budget totals $11 billion. It has been allocated to best manage and address the challenges of a changing veterans affairs landscape, with a growing number of younger veterans and, sadly, a reducing number of older veterans, as they move to a more peaceful place.

This $11 billion veterans affairs budget is up from $6.5 billion when the Howard government was first elected. Sound economic management and the prosperity nurtured by the Howard government have made this huge funding increase achievable and sustainable. It is a further meaningful and tangible demonstration of this government’s ongoing commitment to fully discharge our nation’s special duty to those who serve and further evidence of the Howard government’s ongoing support for this very deserving group of Australians.

The recent federal budget provided some further support for veterans with service related disabilities receiving the special rate and intermediate rate pensions, with fortnightly payments boosted by $50 and $25 respectively, thanks to the $160 million budget allocation. Twenty-nine thousand veterans will see this pay rise in July. This is $160 million of new money. Why? Because these veterans have been recognised as having had their working life cut short because of illness, injury or impairments relating to their service. The economic loss to the veteran is recognised by the ‘above general rate’ component of the veterans compensation payment in addition to the compensation paid for pain and suffering associated with the service related disability. Had those injuries not occurred, those people would have the opportunity to be in the workforce. They would be able to benefit from the prosperity that our nation is basking in and that is benefiting all those who are able to be employed. That missed opportunity is why above general rate payments are indexed to movements in CPI or with reference to movements in male average total weekly earnings in a manner consistent with the service pension indexation. The Howard government’s boost to special rate and intermediate rate pensions is principled, sound and substantial. It offers policy integrity and consistency with the fundamental repatriation system principles.

The veterans community welcomes this Howard government initiative and the beneficiaries will see tangible increases in their pensions, starting in a handful of weeks, amounting to a yearly boost of $1,300 for special rate recipients and $650 for intermediate rate recipients year on year and indexed in a manner consistent with the service pension. To manage and lead a portfolio of $11 billion requires a need to recognise and explain with clarity and with principle the policy parameters in the initiatives and to demonstrate that they have been thought through.

On the eve of the federal budget and on the back of criticisms that Labor’s national conference and election platforms are veterans affairs policy-free zones, the Labor Party blurted out a media announcement designed to chase media headlines and to distract attention from the Howard government’s positive, principled and thoughtful budget initiatives. Well, that is politics—but we do know that, when it comes to veterans affairs policy, all Labor has is politicking. You see it in the way that Labor reacts to my examination of its superficial media stunt announcement. Labor takes its lead from its leader, Kevin Rudd. Kevin is not big on detail and neither is the enormous spin doctor and PR machine that pre-choose Labor’s words for maximum media impact and minimal policy content. Labor was pleased with the headlines and the internet chat its announcement generated, some of which claimed a $30 increase in pensions for the beneficiaries.

What was not well understood was the actual announcement itself, which did not offer any immediate increase in pensions. In fact, it offered none of the remedies to the problems that Labor claimed existed. You have heard previous members in here talk about restoring value. There was absolutely nothing restorative in the Labor announcement. It said that, in its first budget after it may be elected, a changed indexation method would apply. If that indexation method produced a benefit, then it would be a benefit in the eyes of the veteran. But that would not start until 2008. In the press release, cobbled together through words designed to confuse and mislead people, the claim of a $30 increase was actually related to what might happen by 2012 if indexation projections as they claimed proved to be true. There was no restorative character whatsoever in that announcement.

Also, the claimed change to indexation reflects no method of indexation currently used anywhere in the Commonwealth. MTAWE or a percentage of it is used as a benchmark against which this government has legislated that pensions will not fall—25 per cent of MTAWE is a legislated benchmark against which aged-care pensions and other related income support payments will not fall. It is not a matter of indexation by CPI or MTAWE, whichever is greater. There is no such method of indexation currently used by the Commonwealth. So the announcement claims to be something that it is not, suggests or misleads people into believing a benefit will be delivered soon when it will not be. It is then applied to a range of payments, including those not related to economic loss, and then denies that very treatment for 100,000 other veterans who are also receiving injury, pain and suffering compensation but are excluded from the Labor announcement.

When I point out these very real, very substantial, very unprincipled characteristics of the Labor policy, I am accused of being against pension increases. What a juvenile account of my remarks by the Labor opposition spokesman. Nothing could be further from the truth. What he has been stung by and what is understood by thinking members of the broader veterans community is that the policy he is bringing forward is discriminatory, it is unprincipled and it vandalises and undermines some of the key principles and key foundations that allow governments—successive governments—to implement a pro-veteran beneficial system that is characterised as being responsive, sound and principled against the veterans’ experience. That is what this is about.

I even saw—I am not sure whether it was rhetorical or a statement of confusion—that the member for Banks posed the question: ‘What is the difference between the TPI and the old-age pension?’ Where do you want to start? There are an abundant number of differences and this seems not to be understood and appreciated by the ALP. They have a policy position that introduces a method of indexation never used before that discriminates against those who are also receiving injury payments and does not offer any meaningful benefit until 2012—the gall, then, of the Labor Party to attack the government’s direct, demonstrable, meaningful and substantial benefits in the budget. It is quite bizarre.

I think there is some recognition of this because, just moments after the budget announcement, the Labor Party were contorting themselves to try to again hitch their wagon to the initiatives and the policies of the government, saying, ‘Of course, what the government has done is right and proper,’ and somehow suggesting that, because the growth in the economy had produced an interest in MTAWE related adjustments, that was a problem that the government had created and therefore we should fix it. What a novel approach by the alternative government! Anything that ever happened in the past is not something they need to be concerned about: is that the message that the veterans community should get? Because that does reflect the articulation of their policy, which shows a very limited appreciation of what is actually happening in the veterans community.

Moreover—and it is worth emphasising—I am not the slightest bit convinced that Labor would be able to implement their policy statement because it is so fundamentally flawed and cobbled together and offends so many key aspects of the repatriation system. We know about MTAWE. I understand why the Labor Party do not. Under their 13 years in government there was a reduction in real wages. So people are looking to the CPI for salvation at a time when the economy grows and you see prosperity in the workplace—this is why MTAWE becomes important. But its application needs to be understood, and the principles based on which you seek to embrace MTAWE and reference it need to have a percentage point if you can link it to the current methods of indexation used for other pensions. Labor have failed that test, and I expect that we will see another contorted effort to try to patch over that and say, ‘Of course, this is what was meant, blah, blah, blah,’ giving more evidence that there is not the skill and the work and the insight needed to develop veterans affairs policies.

Some other issues were raised. I heard about the processing of claims—claim times and the like. That is interesting as well. But to arrive at the attack, which has been parroted by Labor members, means to ignore a great body of evidence and focus, as if looking at the issue through a straw, on a very narrow set of material.

You heard the previous member accusing the government of some 400 per cent blow-out in claims. The only case where that could be substantiated relates to the new military rehabilitation and compensation system when in the first year there were two claims processed. So their basis for that comparison is two claims. They then failed to recognise that the claims processing capability within the department scales up in response to the claims effort that is brought before it by those lodging claims. That evidence has been provided over and over again, yet the Labor Party find it convenient and politically opportunistic to ignore the facts of the matter. In fact, the concerted effort to address large numbers of claims, including the deseal-reseal claims and, more particularly, long outstanding claims, has seen outstanding claims in general made under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act actually reduced by 15 per cent since July 2006 to become the lowest number of outstanding claims in over a decade. So it is important to realise that when people are trying to present an argument, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth are actually three different things. If one wants to engage with integrity and sincerity it is best to address those three factors when making such claims.

Notwithstanding the other reforms that are being made, such as the task force we have put in place to further streamline claims processing to see what initiatives can be put in place there, and changes to the business improvement process for above general rate claims, we have also got working parties working in partnership with ex-service organisations to look at work practices that could refine the claims process and not only improve the quality of the claims but also streamline their processing. Why? Claims processing is a collaborative exercise. The department does not stop the clock while it waits for other material or input from others involved in that collaboration. That is understood by the veterans community but seems not to be understood by the Labor Party. We have also got a single access point for defence records to simplify and speed up the exchange of information. There are also other management processes being trialled to try to expedite this claims process. All of these are very significant initiatives.

What was most disturbing about some of the commentary was the further use of selective information. The member for Cowan purports to represent the veterans community by circulating and re-parroting very selective parts of information. He referred to a tragedy. I have such respect for the family concerned—and I extend my condolences to them—that I will not trawl through the detail of that tragedy. To see parts of a psychiatric report read into Hansard and to then accuse the department of not being responsive is unfortunate. Somehow the report ended up in the hands of the member for Cowan, yet those representing the individual did not see fit to actually share that information with the department. It is indeed a tragedy on a tragedy. There is also other material that points to the broader, more complex and full life that that individual lived. Again, this selective use of material overlooked some other very important factors in that case. I will not go any further, other than to say that I find it disturbing and disingenuous and that it is a great disappointment to those in the veterans community that the Labor Party continued to peddle very selective material.

We saw this in their remarks and involvement in an interview between me and Cynthia Banham. I have never before seen a condolence motion used for a cheap political attack. I was amazed, and I share with many others how appalled I was. To claim that there was some special insight and to ignore the account of that interview that even the newspaper itself has published is a new form of selectiveness and a new form of appalling political conduct that I have not seen before. I suggest to the Labor Party: if you are serious about veterans affairs—and it is a serious business—you need to approach it in a more holistic, genuine and informed manner, otherwise the veterans community will continue to be disappointed in the Labor Party.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.

Ordered that this bill be reported to the House without amendment.