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Wednesday, 14 May 2008
Page: 2795


Mr HAYES (10:13 AM) —I am proud to support the Veterans’ Entitlements Legislation Amendment (2007 Election Commitments) Bill 2008, which will boost the allowances paid to many of our veterans. This government and the Australian community are justly proud of our veterans, our ex-service men and women, and the measures contained in this bill will go some way towards improving the wellbeing of Australia’s veterans and the wider ex-service community.

Unlike the Howard government—which over 11 years made many promises to the ex-servicemen’s community, promises which by and large were received with a great deal of cynicism out there—this government will provide a fresh approach to veterans affairs. The government considers that the provision of robust services and support for the ex-service community is a sincere way to demonstrate our genuine gratitude for and recognition of the bravery and sacrifice that many of Australia’s men and women of the armed services have made on our behalf over many years. They are people who deserve the highest respect and it is only proper that, as a consequence, that be reflected in the way we as a society treat these men and women who have served this community. This is something that should stay very much in the minds of government, particularly when we sit down and make laws affecting the lives of those who have represented this country. It is something that should always stay with us. When we make decisions, and despite all the parameters that are made in respect of decision making, we should at least be conscious of the fact that the decisions we make are being made on behalf of those who have represented this country, in many cases in very adverse circumstances.

This bill contains three measures that were part of Labor’s pre-election commitment: extension of the income support supplement to war widows and widowers who are under the qualifying age and without dependants, extension of the disability pension bereavement payment to single veterans or members who are in receipt of the special rate or extreme disablement adjustment disability pension or who died without sufficient assets to pay for their own funerals, and the automatic grant of war widows or widowers pensions to widows or widowers of veterans or members who were in receipt of the temporary special rate or the intermediate rate disability pension immediately prior to their death.

Before I talk a little more about each of these matters, which are contained in the bill, it is also appropriate to reflect that it is not just ex-military members who will be affected by this legislation. As you are aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, for some time in my past I represented many of the police officers in this country, and through the Police Federation of Australia efforts were made to ensure that those police officers who have served in overseas areas, particularly in respect of Cyprus and East Timor, are similarly treated, firstly with respect but also in terms of the veterans entitlements provisions. Therefore, those persons who have represented this country as law enforcement officers overseas will also be beneficiaries of the decisions which have been made as a consequence of this piece of legislation. As I say, these people were seconded police officers from various states and territories and indeed from the Commonwealth, the AFP. They will now be covered by the Veterans’ Entitlements Act in respect of these provisions. So it is not just the military but also law enforcement officers who, in exercising their duties under the command and control of their senior officers and representing the interests of Australia overseas, in hostile theatres, will be accorded the appropriate respect by this government and the Australian people.

I have had many discussions in my electorate on these issues, whether it be with the Ingleburn RSL president, Don Keefe, and its secretary, Bernard Connell—both of whom are returned servicemen—or with Max Chin, from the Dredges Cottage, Campbelltown, which does a sensational job in looking after the interests of veterans, or with Ken Foster, from the veterans affairs association. All of these people are very passionate about the issues of their colleagues, the ex-servicemen, whom they continue to represent.

I can appreciate that in some quarters these fellows might actually be seen as whingers. Let me tell you there are no finer advocates of the interests of ex-servicemen. They make sure the entitlements of ex-servicemen are not only recognised but also addressed. I very much respect their forthright attitude, their commitment and, quite frankly, the compassion that they show to their fellow colleagues. Only this week we had the opportunity to witness in the Great Hall a ceremony to commemorate Coral and Balmoral. I think it is fair to say that just about all members of parliament were there. What particularly struck me was that a number of ex-servicemen, obviously very proud of their medals, left that room in tears. It was a time to celebrate and commemorate their activities, but obviously there is continuing pain. It is worth while recognising that. Simply being a returned serviceman and being valued—and rightly so—in our community does not necessarily remove the pain and the anguish that many of these people and their families have carried for a lengthy period. Therefore, I do not see the advocates of our veterans as insatiable whingers. I think they are very much the heroes out there. They are keeping all of us focused on the real issues for ex-servicemen, on how those issues change from time to time and quite frankly on ensuring that the men and women who have served this country in difficult circumstances are treated properly and with the respect that they deserve.

I will now return to the issues of the bill. The first measure will extend income support to war widows and war widowers under the qualifying age without dependants. Under the existing legislation, a person is eligible for income support if they are a war widow or widower and have reached the qualifying age—for men, that is 60 and, for women, that is the age of 58½—or have a dependent child or are permanently incapacitated for work in accordance with the determination under section 45AA of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986 or are partnered and the person’s partner is receiving a service pension income support supplement or social security pension. Labor believes that situation is unfair. Labor made a commitment in respect of that in the lead-up to the last election. As a consequence, this bill removes the requirement for war widows and widowers to be over the pension age, to have a dependent child, to be permanently incapacitated or to have a partner in receipt of income support. This measure, I am reliably informed, will extend the eligibility for income support to approximately 1,400 war widows and widowers immediately and will provide additional support to help them meet their costs of living. Payment of an income support supplement on the grounds of permanent incapacity will be retained in order for incapacitated war widows and widowers and wholly dependent partners who are under pension age to continue to access their income support supplement as a tax-free payment.

The Rudd Labor government is committed to providing care and support to ex-service families following the death of veterans. That is why the government will extend the disability pension bereavement payment in respect of a single veteran or a member in receipt of a special rate or extreme disablement adjustment disability pension who dies without sufficient funds to pay for their funeral. Currently, only the widow or widower of a veteran or member on certain rates of the disability pension receives the bereavement payment, which is 12 weeks of the disability pension upon the death of a veteran or member. Whilst this payment is effective and is designed to assist a person in the gradual adjustment of their financial situation and to defray costs at a time of bereavement, it at present only applies to the member—


Mrs Bronwyn Bishop —Madam Deputy Speaker, I seek to intervene. Under the relevant standing order that operates in the second chamber, I wonder whether I could ask a question of the member opposite. My question is that—


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—Is the member for Werriwa willing to give way?


Mr HAYES —No.


Mrs Bronwyn Bishop —He is required to hear the question first.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER —No, he is not. I have to ask first before you put the question. That is the rule.


Mrs Bronwyn Bishop —Thank you.


Mr HAYES —This measure will extend the bereavement payment to the estate of single veterans or to members who are in receipt of the special rate pensions. This will be of some significance, particularly where people die in indigent circumstances—that is, where they do not have sufficient moneys to cover the funeral costs. The assistance to veterans and their widows is being extended to provide sufficient financial assistance to families to properly recognise the death of veterans in that respect. This measure, as I say, is very much directed to families in helping them defray those costs at a particularly emotional time in their lives and also ensuring that a member can be farewelled with decency. This bereavement payment will be made to the estate of the deceased veteran and will be matched by those currently paid to the partners. So it will be at the same rate and, as is provided presently, it will have the tax-free status of the payment of the 12 weeks of disability pension.

Finally, Labor will extend the automatic granting of pensions to include partners of temporary totally incapacitated and intermediate rate pensioners to provide some peace of mind to those veterans and their families. This bill will extend the automatic grant of war widows or widowers pensions to widows and widowers of veterans or to members in receipt of the total special rate or intermediate rate disability pension immediately prior to the death. Currently, if a veteran is in receipt of the totally permanently incapacitated and extreme disablement adjustment pension and dies, the partner will receive an automatic grant of the war widows pension. This clearly forms an anomaly in respect of the Veterans’ Entitlements Act 1986, which treats temporary totally incapacitated and intermediate rate pensioners less equitably than other, similar pension recipients. With this bill, the Rudd Labor government will extend the automatic granting of the pension to include partners of temporary totally incapacitated and intermediate rate pensioners, to provide some relief and assurances to those veterans and their families.

Under this government, the veterans community can expect that this plan for action will be delivered. This is the first step in a concentrated effort to address a range of issues around veterans entitlements, services and wellbeing and recognition of our veterans. This government will ensure that veterans do get what they deserve—that is, a fair go. The government believes that the provision of robust service and support for the ex-service community is a sincere way to show our gratitude for and recognition of the bravery and sacrifice of those Australian men and women. As the Prime Minister said on 13 August 2007:

There is perhaps no greater duty that we as a nation and as a parliament have than to honour, remember and express our gratitude to those Australians who have served in the defence of our nation in times of war, because our security and liberty have not come without a price.

The measures in this bill clearly demonstrate that this is a government that is serious about its pre-election commitments to look after those in our defence communities and our veterans communities and their families, and this bill is the first down payment. I commend the bill to the House.