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Thursday, 20 September 2007
Page: 60

Mr BILLSON (Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence) (1:05 PM) —in reply—I start by commending all the contributors to today’s debate: the member for Gilmore, with her passion for the veterans community; the member for Wakefield, with his very direct experience of being in the military; the member for Hinkler—an excellent speech, sir, encapsulating the issues; my colleague, sparring partner and, it seems, travelling companion much of the time, the member for Bruce; the member for Cowan, who has been tireless in his advocacy for the veterans community; and, of course, the member for Ballarat. Yes, I did smile when some of those email sources were mentioned. I know the member for Ballarat is very supportive of her veterans community.

This is a good news day. It has been put to me that the Veterans’ Entitlements Amendment (Disability, War Widow and War Widower Pensions) Bill 2007 is one of the most substantial reforms to the compensation system for our veterans community in living memory. Some people’s memories are longer than mine, but this is a remarkable day. It is a very important day. The Howard government and its predecessors have, over many generations, developed a very positive, beneficial, world-class and comprehensive repatriation system that recognises the very special standing and needs of a very special group within the Australian community, and that is our veterans community.

We as a nation have a profound and special duty to those that have served our nation. I often refer to the fact that the peace, prosperity and pluralism we enjoy today did not just happen; there was great courage and sacrifice and for too many there was long suffering as a result of their service that secured this blessing that we have: to live in this country. Today that work continues as we share our good fortune. It is almost as a demonstration of thanksgiving that our men and women of today’s military continue to work in many theatres around the world in partnership with other nations seeking to achieve what we enjoy here, where decisions about the direction of the nation are determined by the weight of argument, not by the weight of oppression, and where the calibre of leaders and of their ideas, not the calibre of a firearm, shape the direction of the country. We in this country are indeed blessed and our serving men and women carry forward that work and defend the heritage of the service that is encapsulated in our veterans’ support system.

This bill is further evidence of the Australian government’s recognition of the sacrifice of and service by veterans and their families. The pain and suffering caused by war, defence-caused disabilities and the loss of opportunity caused by ill health resulting from that service deserve fair and beneficial compensation and the optimum support that we as a nation can provide. The loss of a spouse or a partner—perhaps a lifelong companion—calls for fair compensation and support. This is understood by all sides of this parliament. This has been understood by successive governments. This has been demonstrated by positive action by the Howard government not just with this package, as significant as it is, but also through a constant process of reform and enhancement that has been ongoing for many years.

The changes made by this bill will, from March 2008, increase disability pensions by five per cent resulting in an increase of up to $20 per fortnight for all disability pensioners at or above the general rate and a proportionate benefit for those receiving compensation payments from within the general rate table. The bill will also change the way the general rate is indexed, so from March 2008 the general rate disability pension will be increased twice annually with reference to both the consumer price index and the male total average weekly earnings index. This method of adjustment currently applies to service pensions and the above general rate disability pension. It does apply and it has applied to those elements of veterans’ payments because they take account of income support and the economic loss of missed opportunity; therefore, the connection between an economic loss and the wage related index is absolutely right and correct.

But, in keeping with our ambition to have a best practice injury compensation system, we are extending that new methodology to the general rate—that is, the non-economic loss element for pain and suffering. Today the major injury compensation systems in Australia still revert to the CPI to maintain the purchasing power of those payments. But we have recognised that there are some jurisdictions where, even for the non-economic loss payment and the compensation for pain and suffering and loss of function, there are to be found some examples where a wage related index is used. It is always our ambition to have a best practice system, the most beneficial system, for those that have served our country. It is right, proper and principled to embrace that method of indexation for all of the payments, the economic loss payment and the non-economic loss payment, to take account of not only the maintenance of purchasing power—that is, the inflationary impact on those payments—but also the present economic environment of strong wages growth and low inflation and to help maintain the relative value of all disability pensions as they relate to the broader good fortune within the Australian community. So those economic and non-economic loss components will now be indexed through that more beneficial arrangement.

The bill also provides for a further one-off increase of $15 per fortnight to the above general rate component of the extreme disablement adjustment disability pension with effect from March 2008. The EDA beneficiaries are receiving additional compensation because of the profound lifestyle effect of their service related injuries, illnesses and impairments after their working life. This is distinctly different from the intermediate and special rates, for which an additional payment is made to recognise that the recipients’ service related conditions have impeded their opportunity to work and that they have missed out on the opportunity and the benefits that are available from engagement in the labour market. This is why the concept of compensation and the way in which we make these payments and index them are very important: it is so that all of us in this parliament can look to the 21 million Australians and say, ‘There are sound and principled reasons why we as a nation invest $11 billion a year in the care and support of the 460,000 members of our veterans community.’ This increase to the EDA rate will be in line with the increases to the special and intermediate rates of disability pension introduced in the 2007 budget. That $160 million package saw the intermediate rate increase by $25 a fortnight and the special rate increase by $50 a fortnight. The recipients well deserved that pay rise, in my view, and the economic circumstances made it achievable and sustainable.

In relation to the war widow and war widower pension, the bill will increase what was formerly called the domestic allowance component by $10 to a $35 per week fortnightly payment. This rate has traditionally been frozen. My research suggests that it has been adjusted twice since 1974—once in 1974, to take account of the inflationary impact of the then Whitlam government, as I understand it, and then more recently when the tax reform package was introduced. That rate has been traditionally frozen save for those two examples. The component will now be indexed twice annually with regard to both the consumer price index and male total average weekly earnings. Although these measures make a significant change to the indexation methodology of the disability pension payment system, the bill also provides significant direct increases to certain disability pensions and war widow and war widower pensions in recognition of the government’s commitment to and appreciation of those who have served and those who have suffered as a result of their service. Finally, it should be noted that these changes come into effect from the earliest possible date, which is March 2008.

I will just touch on the issues raised by some of the other speakers. This package is good news. The shadow spokesman mentioned that some of the discussion and feeling about this matter dates back about a decade. From the emails I receive, it dates back much further than that. It even dates back to the Whitlam era when, at that time, the inflationary impact of economic policies was cited as a reason why disability payments and pensions for veterans were not adequate. As I understand it, the ex-service community has been raising these issues for all of my adult life.

There is also an issue related to protests that the member for Cowan drew attention to. Indexation is one of a range of issues which a nation needs to address. We have a changing veterans community. It is beholden on us to ensure that the system which supports them changes, adapts, evolves and is enhanced to make that system as comprehensive and supportive as it can be for those changing circumstances.

There has been some talk about politicising the matter. I always find that rather amusing, as those who call for bipartisanship usually bookend such a comment with a few gratuitous slaps at their political opponents. Much of the commentary is partisan.

Mr Griffin interjecting

Mr BILLSON —Much of the commentary, as my colleague opposite says, involves robust engagement. Much of it is politicised. That is the nature of politics, where the battle of ideas is what we are on about. I think it is appropriate that people put forward their respective ideas and let the electorate judge how sound or otherwise they are.

Others have characterised the debate. I recall with glee the opposition introducing the VVF’s account of history. It is at best a characterisation. It is more likely sourced from ALP press releases because it is a very one-sided and partisan commentary. But such is the prerogative of those who put that material out. The member for Wakefield highlighted that the work continues in support of our veterans community, and I recognise that and, like all of us, guarantee him my ongoing positive, passionate and persistent approach to addressing these issues. The member for Ballarat touched on a number of issues. The Vietnam Veteran Family Study, as she would know, is a very high priority for me. Embracing the veterans community is a part of that work, which will see benefits available for the veterans community—insights gained well in advance of the other pathways that were being advocated.

I also want to draw attention to the member for Gilmore’s contribution. Joanna Gash is a tireless advocate for the veterans community, and I value greatly her wise counsel and respect her advocacy. The member for Wakefield, with his military service, is also a source of great insight, and I value and appreciate his advice. The member for Hinkler encapsulated many of the key issues. He has been long held as an advocate of the veterans community, and he works tirelessly in that goal.

I also pay tribute to the ex-service communities generally. I mentioned a number of them when introducing the bill and also in response to a question earlier in the week. Blue Ryan and the TPI Association have been working tirelessly on this issue. But it is also an issue for all in the veterans community and that sentiment is embodied in the government’s response. The package which we are discussing here is just short of half a billion dollars. It is on the back of a $160 million increase in disability pension payments introduced through the budget. So $650 million of change has occurred since May. It is not a small package; it is comprehensive. Labor, to its credit, has been making some calls, but its $116 million package is not $650 million. Some have been saying that it is the same. Again, that is an unfortunate and inaccurate characterisation. The maths alone illustrate how that is misguided. The package that is being embraced today, unlike what has been advocated by those opposite, provides up-front payments, as the budget did. It is a proposition not advanced by the opposition but one embraced, funded and implemented by the government. This package, I think, introduces a much-deserved increase in the general rate table—again, a proposition developed, introduced, resourced and now being enacted by the Howard government. It has not been mentioned by the opposition. It also introduces these changes from March 2008. The opposition was advocating an introduction in September 2008, and that has caused much anxiety within the veterans community. Why was the opposition proposing to delay the introduction of its measures until late 2008? That created some uncertainty.

The government has acted decisively to transform an announcement of a little over a week ago, and a second instalment yesterday, into legislation that is before the parliament today, being debated with the support of the opposition—and I thank them for that—so that it may find its way into the other house and be embraced.

Finally, I wish to thank the ex-service organisations in my own electorate. Some question my judgement for seeking the role of Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. It is a character-building role. The constituency is not shy in putting forward its views. I occasionally joke that a good week for me is only one effigy of me being burnt! It is a challenging role, but it is a role which is a great honour for me to carry forward. Working in collaboration and partnership with the ex-service community, the ex-service organisations and veterans in the greater Frankston and Mornington Peninsula area gave me a fine training. I had been well prepped on all the issues that I have had to address since February last year by the veterans in the Dunkley electorate, and I thank them for their forbearance, their wise counsel and their encouragement. I commend the bill to the House and thank all participants for facilitating its passage.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.