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Wednesday, 14 May 2008
Page: 2793

Mrs BRONWYN BISHOP (10:01 AM) —The opposition is supporting the Veterans’ Entitlements Legislation Amendment (2007 Election Commitments) Bill 2008. It does so because it believes that additional benefits to veterans are always an important thing to be looking at, that veterans are people with whom this country has made a contract and that, because of their service and the sacrifice that they make for this nation, they should always be considered a special case, in the sense that they are not welfare recipients but people who receive compensation and other payments because of that contract between a grateful nation and veterans who serve the nation.

The bill, very simply, does three things. Firstly, it extends the automatic grant of certain pensions. In other words, it amends the Veterans’ Entitlements Act to extend the automatic grant of a pension payable under part II or part IV to the eligible dependant of a veteran or member, where the veteran or member immediately before his or her death was in receipt of an intermediate rate disability pension or temporary special rate disability pension. Secondly it extends the income support supplement to all war widows or war widowers and amends, again, the Veterans’ Entitlements Act to extend eligibility for the income support supplement to a person who is a war widow or war widower who is under qualifying age and has no dependent children, is not permanently incapacitated for work and is not the partner of a person receiving an income support pension, which were previously requirements to receive that supplement. Thirdly, there is the extension of disability pension bereavement payments. Schedule 3 makes amendments again to the Veterans’ Entitlements Act to extend the 12-week bereavement payment to the estate of a single veteran or members in receipt of a special rate or extreme disability adjustment disability pension who die in indigent circumstances.

You can say that the extension of the automatic qualification for the war widows pension for surviving partners of intermediate rate and T&PI rate disability pensioners is a logical step. Currently, the automatic qualification for the surviving partner only applies to some intermediate rate disability pensions, where the disability involves the loss of one or more limbs. This is probably an old-fashioned way to be looking at things, and this is a good thing to be doing.

However, despite those good things which the government has decided to do and which the opposition is very pleased to support, I think in the light of the budget you can look at the government as perhaps giving with one hand and taking away with another for different sections of the veterans community. Indeed, the word ‘veteran’ did not appear in any of the budget statements. Presumably veterans, who are very largely retired and do not fit the category of ‘working family’, are left out in the cold. In fact, we are seeing much more that, if you are an aspirational family or if you are a retired person, you do not fit the mould of a working family and therefore you are going to be left out in the cold.

If we look at what the budget does for veterans—what it takes away from them—we see that, while there was an entitlement for partners of eligible service pensioners to take a pension at the age of 50 if they were women, that is now going to be pushed up to 58.5 years of age. Think about it. This is not the gradual increment that we saw when we increased eligibility for the age pension for women from 60 to 65, being the same age as for men; this is a sudden, one-off hit. If you are part of a veteran family which has been planning on that entitlement to come into place, you are suddenly going to be penalised—no warning, just sudden implementation. There has been no consideration of and no concern about how these families may have been planning—just simply a savings measure of $35 million.

We have heard a lot in the rhetoric about how this government is focusing on inflation, that this budget is all about delivering on promises, that it is a fiscally responsible budget and that they are really fiscally conservative people. The three core promises made by the current government before the election were that it would come in and it would reduce interest rates, reduce the cost of food and reduce petrol prices. There is nothing in this budget that will do anything to reduce any of those things and therefore it does not deliver at all on core promises.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—I would draw the member back to the bill before her at this time, which is in respect of veterans.

Mrs BRONWYN BISHOP —Thank you for your comments, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hear them, and I would point out once again that veterans are part of our community. Veterans are affected by the budget strategy. Veterans were affected by the rhetoric that was out in the debate before the election when the government, which was then in opposition, said that it was going to be for veterans and it would always have veterans in mind when it made decisions about the way in which taxpayers’ money was to be spent. I am simply pointing out that this did not happen. The bill before us, in fact, is one that does do three good things—small things; small adjustments, you can say, in the overall scheme of things—but the government has given with one hand and has taken away with the other.

If we go back and look at the background against which this bill has been introduced and the sorts of policies that the Howard government introduced to make veterans recognised in a way in which they had not been before, probably the most significant thing that the Howard government did was, in 1999, to make the gold card available to all Australian veterans over the age of 70 or with qualifying service in World War II. In 2002 this was extended to veterans over 70 with qualifying service from any conflict. In 2001 we extended the orange card, which provides access to subsidised pharmaceuticals, to British, Commonwealth and allied veterans over 70 with qualifying service from World War II.

The most important thing about the gold card is that it gave veterans the equivalent of private health insurance without having to, in fact, pay a premium. Partners of veterans who received the gold card, on the other hand, are not covered unless, when they become widows or widowers, they meet the necessary criterion and can be covered by the gold card. There are many, many carers who take out private health insurance so that they are covered for the sort of medical care that they require and regard as essential. And yet, from this budget’s changing of the criteria for those who must take out private health insurance, it is estimated that something like 800,000 people are likely to leave private health insurance, which means premiums are going to go up, which is going to affect carers of veterans in particular, and there are going to be probably 800,000 people thrust onto the public health system. So, whilst we are pleased that this legislation gives an extension of the automatic grant of pension entitlements, and whilst we are pleased to see that the income support supplement is going to be extended in the way it is paid, and whilst we are very pleased about the bereavement payments being extended, when you look at the impact of other government policy upon our veterans community—and we must look at it as a veterans community—we see that they are in fact being penalised.

A further piece of legislation came into the House today—it was introduced this morning by the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs—which is going to implement the carers payment. We certainly have agreed to facilitate that bill coming through so it can be paid expeditiously. But, after all the debate we had about the impact and the importance of the carers bonus payment, in this budget there is no provision for it in the forward estimates; it is a one-off grant. We paid it for four years. The government was prepared to scrap it; after pressure from us it was reinstated. But it is a one-off payment, only for this year. Again, when you couple that with the impact of the anticipated rises in private health insurance premiums—and many of them use this bonus payment to contribute to their private health insurance premiums—there is no guarantee for anything past this year.

So, in the overall assessment of the policy being pursued with regard to veterans benefits, we see this piece of legislation, which was introduced prior to the budget coming down, as needing to be viewed in the budget context to see what its real benefit is for the veterans community. I would simply say that, whilst we are supporting the Veterans’ Entitlements Legislation Amendment (2007 Election Commitments) Bill 2008 without hesitation, the rest of the budget strategy is not one where veterans are being considered at all—and, indeed, it is to their detriment, as we see when we start to read the fine print in the budget. So I simply say that we welcome these initiatives but, in the overall debate, and looking at the way in which veterans are being treated in the overall picture, the government is found wanting.