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Thursday, 20 September 2007
Page: 51

Mrs GASH (12:22 PM) —Before I start, I would like to wish the member for Cowan all the best. He has been a great friend and a great confidant. He has taught me a great deal about veterans affairs. He has been into my electorate a number of times. I know that the member for Cowan—I can say this; he cannot—should have been the shadow minister.

If nothing else, this government listens and delivers—and in no area more than in the area of veterans entitlements. This government has a long and illustrious record of looking after veterans and their needs and this bill is yet another initiative that can be added to the long list of benefits that have been delivered. The coalition government has substantially increased spending on income support, compensation and health care for veterans and their families, and has actively supported the commemoration of Australia’s unique military heritage.

When the coalition came to government in 1996, spending on veterans affairs was $6.2 billion per annum; now, in 2007-08, it is over $11 billion per annum. This increase is at a time when, sadly, the number of veterans is decreasing. The coalition has enhanced and will continue to enhance Australia’s world-class repatriation system. There is no other country in the world that looks after its veterans to the extent that Australia does. The coalition has continued to ensure that this system evolves and improves as the needs of the veteran community evolve and change.

I will turn now to what we have done to date. In 1999 we extended the gold card eligibility to Australian veterans aged 70 or over with World War II qualifying service. In 2006 we announced more than $600 million to ensure that veterans with gold or white cards continued to enjoy access to free, high-quality health care. We provided cancer related health care to all Australians who took part in the British nuclear testing program in Australia from 1952 to 1963. We reinstated the war widows pension for those widows from whom the previous Labor government took it away. We introduced veteran partnering arrangements with private hospitals. We expanded the booked car with driver service to eligible veterans and war widows who are 80 years or over, legally blind or suffering from dementia for travel to all Department of Veterans’ Affairs approved treatment. We provided free treatment for post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depressive disorders, whether they are service related or not.

We introduced a range of health programs, such as the Right Mix and Heart Health. We established Veterans’ Home Care, providing community based care services to more than 120,000 veterans and war widows. We provided transition management assistance to full-time Australian Defence Force members who are being discharged on medical grounds. We introduced the Building Excellence in Support and Training, BEST, program and the Training and Information Program, TIP. BEST provides funding to ex-service organisations for staffing and equipment, while TIP provides pensions and welfare training to ESO nominated practitioners throughout Australia.

We extended eligibility for the Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to British, Commonwealth and allied veterans aged 70 or over with qualifying service from World War II who have lived in Australia for 10 years or more. We expanded the Long Tan Bursary from 30 $6,000 bursaries over one or two years to 50 $9,000 bursaries over three years. We provided a $29.5 million package of support for Vietnam veterans and their families to address the findings of the Vietnam Veterans Health Study. This was in addition to the extensive range of benefits, treatment and counselling services already available to veterans and their dependants through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service.

We established the HomeFront program to prevent falls and accidents in the home, to assist the veteran community to remain living independently in their homes for as long as possible. We assumed responsibility for the daily care fees of former prisoners of war in low-level aged care, saving each $250 a fortnight, and now pay aged-care fees for all former prisoners of war. And of course we initiated a full and comprehensive review of entitlements contained in the Veterans’ Entitlements Act, commonly referred to as the Clarke report.

Those are all real achievements, but they do not stop there. There are still many more items that I could mention that have been delivered—too many to mention in the time available to me. This bill adds yet more benefits for our veterans. It ensures that disability pensions maintain their value relative to wages and other payments. The veterans have called for this and we have delivered. From March next year the EDA will be increased by $15 a fortnight. Labor, on the other hand, said nothing until we made the announcement on 11 September. We are also going to increase the general rate of disability pensions by five per cent, and we can do this because of the way we have managed the economy. What better way to thank our veterans than by giving more benefits as we can afford them. We have made these increases affordable—something the other side cannot guarantee, if the state Labor governments are any guide to the way that Labor run things.

But that is not all. We have also looked after the war widows. We will be increasing the non-indexed component, formerly called the domestic allowance, by an additional $10 per fortnight to $35 per fortnight starting in March next year. That payment, from that time on, will be fully indexed with reference to the CPI and MTAWE. We want to look after our veterans and the families that look after them. That is why we have committed to the $330 million package announced earlier, and that is more than $1.6 billion in new funding in the past 18 months. We listen and we act.

As Chair of the government’s Defence and Veterans Affairs Committee, I am proud to have played a small role in delivering these benefits to our very deserving veterans and their widows. I commend my colleague the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs for his hard work in his portfolio. I know it has not been easy at times. It has been a real pleasure to work with him and the rest of the team, and that is the way it should always be.

I can only reiterate to the veterans community that these benefits have only been made affordable by virtue of the strong economy we have built in our term—something that cannot be guaranteed under another regime if the history of past and present Labor regimes means anything. I particularly want to thank all of our veterans, especially those that I represent in Gilmore. Their patience, loyalty and understanding of the issues have been a great support and encouragement, allowing me to continue to be strong in lobbying for further changes. I recognise that there is always more to be done, and, with their continued support, we will continue to deliver. I commend the bill to the House.