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Wednesday, 14 May 2008
Page: 2802

Mr MELHAM (10:48 AM) —Madam Deputy Speaker Vale, the member for Fadden might have had more credibility in his contribution if he had given a bit of the history, which you more than most would be aware of, of what happened with the former government and their dealings with veterans affairs and how you yourself had to go and defend the indefensible to your caucus and got savaged badly, which resulted in a reappraisal of the submission that your cabinet required you to put before your caucus to do with the Clarke review. Oh, yes, the former minister knows. No-one on either side can take the sanctimonious view in relation to this area. Of course veterans deserve more, and it is a hard battle getting anything out of any expenditure review committee of either political persuasion. Generally, the way we achieve it is over time, in a gradualist approach, and people do the best they can.

Do not come in here and rail against the Labor Party, which has only been in office for a short while. It would be quite easy to rail against the former minister, who did the best she could in the climate she encountered. I know the former Minister for Defence Industry, Science and Personnel. These are not portfolios that have the luxury of other portfolios. You have to fight tooth and nail—generally to Treasury boffins. Ministers of either political persuasion deserve support—and there is a lot of bipartisanship. So do not come in here and make out as if one side is more evil than the other.

Mrs Bronwyn Bishop —Madam Deputy Speaker, I seek to intervene.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. DS Vale)—Is the member for Banks willing to give way?

Mr MELHAM —I am always prepared to take a question from the member for Mackellar. I know that it is always without notice.

Mrs Bronwyn Bishop —Thank you. The question I would like to put to him is this: could the member opposite explain why the government, of which he is a part, is in this bill expending a total over four years of $7.5 million to extend benefits and is taking away benefits to veterans worth $35 million over the same period? Is that just and equitable in his view?

Mr MELHAM —As a former minister you know that savings have to be found within various portfolios in relation to expenditure. As a former minister you know about the dividends that have to be produced in various portfolios—

Mrs Bronwyn Bishop —Not with a surplus of $22 billion.

Mr MELHAM —and you know that if you want to put forward new proposals you have to find funding within your own department. It then becomes an issue of priorities. Priorities over time are examined and sometimes they are changed. But I tell you one thing I am confident about: I am confident about this Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. Alan Griffin over time will prove to be one of the best ministers this portfolio has seen. He ran your policy towards the end of your government. Your policy was dictated, in effect, by the shadow minister. That is recognised within the veterans community and in relation to his achievements in this bill and in terms of the budget process. I know what happens on the email system and I know what happens in the veterans community in relation to this minister. They like him, they now he goes in to bat for them, he is across the issues, and he visits them. Senior members of the veterans community are very happy with this bloke and they have good reason to be, because they have one of the best in the pack. The former minister should know this: there will be no better defender of veterans in the Labor Party than Alan Griffin, the current Minister for Veterans’ Affairs.

He has a lot of credibility in the community. I have a large veterans community. My electorate was settled after the war, so it has housing commission and war service homes. I have been committed to veterans issues for the 18 years I have been in this parliament. The veterans kit that my office produced—

Mr Hunt —That means you are a veteran yourself!

Mr MELHAM —No, you do not have to be a veteran. This argument that you have to be a veteran to be able to advocate on behalf of veterans is complete garbage.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Member for Banks! Member for Mackellar, do you have a point of order?

Mrs Bronwyn Bishop —Yes. I asked a question, which the member opposite elected to take and then did not answer. I asked him did he think saving $35 million to spend $7.5 million was justified. He has not answered the question. Now he is deviating from the substance of the bill. I would ask him to answer my question and then return to the substance of the bill.

Mr MELHAM —What I say in relation to all these thing is that they have to be viewed on their merits. It is not just a mathematical argument as to what you are spending and what you are saving. You look at the nature and quality of the benefits that people are receiving, you make an assessment in relation to that, and sometimes you have got to make some decisions. Sometimes you take some short-term pain for long-term gain. Some of the benefits that we are offering now over time will come to be more substantial benefits to the broader veterans community.

I think the only numbers that former Minister Bishop has been worried about are leadership numbers that always evaporated when it came to her. I do not need to be lectured by her about numbers. As for this argument that you necessarily have to have a uniform—you do not. There are good people on both sides of this House that have the interests of veterans at heart, because they have listened to them and they have sat down with them. Anzac Day is a wonderful experience. We are all sympathetic.

The point I make to you is that you can take cheap shots at whatever minister you have of whatever political persuasion, but they have to go into battle in their budget process—and, yes, they do get done over, because sacrifices are made, and there are some decisions that are hard to defend, because that is how they end up at the end of the process. I am sure the former minister did not win her battles. She might have won the battles to create a few medals so she could pin some medals on some veterans, but when it comes to funding it is a harder process. I say to the chamber that the veterans entitlements legislation bill that is before the House today deserves to be supported and that for too long veterans have not been treated with the respect or, indeed, given the financial support they deserve. I do not say that what they have at the moment is sufficient; they are entitled to more. Of course they are entitled to more. Anyone who puts on a uniform in this country deserves to be looked after and so does their family.

The other day I represented the Minister for Defence in welcoming home six members of the forces who were serving in the Sudan and I listened to their stories. Before that I represented the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs in farewelling the veterans who were going to Beersheba to serve with the light-horse and I listened to their stories—and, if it were up to me, I would give them everything they asked for. But it is not my decision, nor is it the opposition member’s, nor is it the former minister’s and nor is it the former Minister for Defence Science and Personnel’s. You have to go in there and fight for a pool of money against people who basically do not want to give you money. So that is how in the end we try and come together from the back bench, with our point of view and our experiences, to drag them kicking and screaming.

I want to pay tribute to the current minister, because I know the work that he did as shadow minister and is now doing as minister. Veterans are getting benefits because he is smart, he knows how to argue his case and he does not take no for an answer. He is backed up by a deputy and by Public Service officials who are very hardworking and genuine in their commitment to the veterans community but who themselves are restrained by the policies that past governments have delivered. So you have to look at the work he has done in the short time he has been in the job. He has credibility—and that is not coming from me. Go and ask your veteran organisations. Read the emails you receive from particular veterans who love emails and send them around to the community. Forget the political stuff; you are here running a political case. If you want to run your politics, that is fine. If that is how you think you are going to get your agenda up, you have another thing coming. As someone said, I have been a veteran here for 18 years. Run the merits of the argument; do not play the man.

Mrs Bronwyn Bishop —Madam Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. Before you took the chair, when the Deputy Speaker was in attendance, she did take the trouble to remind me when I was speaking that I should return to the nature of the bill, and I did. This is the second time I ask the member opposite to return to the nature of the bill. I think we all accept there is room for wide-ranging debate, but I really do think he has gone beyond the pale.

Mr MELHAM —I am happy to return to the bill, but, Madam Deputy Speaker, let me tell you, if the member opposite thinks that I am going to remain silent when I cop garbage interjections and interjections that are aimed at demeaning a minister and what this government is trying to do for veterans, she is kidding. I will respond to every single one of your questions and every single one of your interjections.

In relation to the bill before the chamber, what did the previous speaker, after he railed against the Labor Party, say at the end of his speech? Limp-wristed, he supported the bill, because when you come to the merits of it this bill deserves supporting. When you look at the merits of this bill and debate the matter, this is a bill that deserves support. So let us get back to the bill—I am quite happy to.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. DS Vale)—Thank you, Member for Banks.

Mr MELHAM —But do not use the bill as an excuse to belt up the Labor Party and then limp-wristedly say, ‘Oh, yeah, and by the way, we support the bill before the House.’ I did not hear one thing in the short time I was in the chamber against the bill itself. The bill was used as an excuse to rail and to make political diatribes. I do not want a lecture from the member opposite about my ability to respond to what I heard in this chamber. That is what got me riled up. Yes, I came here with a prepared speech, which my staff worked on. But what worked me up was the garbage I heard from the previous speaker and I was not going to allow it to go unremarked.

The minister did visit my electorate prior to the election and 80 veterans and people with an interest in veterans affairs came along. They took questions and he spent considerable time with them and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. The thing I liked about him was that he did not mislead them. Where he would not be able to deliver, he did not mislead them. He basically said, ‘That’s going to be a hard one.’ I think part of the problem at times is that we tend not to give the honest responses to some of the questions that we are asked and people are misled into thinking there is a chance for some of the benefits they are seeking.

I have enormous confidence in the minister. Today we are debating a bill that to some extent came from those community consultations. The issues in this bill were raised in the community consultations. As I said earlier, it is not all that needs to be done; it is just a start. This is the first instalment. Labor has already delivered on its promise that resulted in the amendment of the social security law, the Veterans’ Entitlement Act 1986 and the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2004, to give increased and more timely financial support to older Australians and to people with a disability, to carers and to veterans. The Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs introduced this legislation on 14 February this year, and eligible pensioners will have been receiving those payments from 20 March. For the first time, veterans and their partners receiving the invalidity service pension, partner service pension or an income support supplement will also receive the allowance. In addition, an increased rate of telephone allowance from $88 a year to $132 a year will be available to around one million veterans. In increasing the annual utilities allowance from $107.20 to $500, to be paid in quarterly payments, to match the utilities bill cycle, Labor is ensuring that people will have funds to assist them in payment of those regular bills. This bill includes several measures that were part of Labor’s 2007 election commitments. Labor have always had a genuine commitment to our veterans and that will continue.

As I said, Labor is fulfilling its election promises and this bill is part of that process. There are three key measures the bill introduces, and these will make life a little easier for some of our veterans and their families. First, the bill will extend the income support supplement to war widows and widowers under qualifying age. In the past, this was available when a veteran reached qualifying age—for men it was 60 years and for women it was 58½—or if they had a dependent child or if they were permanently incapacitated and prevented from working. Under this legislation, the eligibility for the income support supplement will extend to a person who is a war widow or widower, who has not reached qualifying age and who has no dependent children. In effect, the current eligibility criteria will become redundant. The net effect of the measure will directly impact on approximately 1,400 war widows or war widowers. I repeat: 1,400. Second, the bill extends disability pension bereavement payments. Currently a widow or widower on certain disability rates receives a bereavement payment equal to 12 weeks of disability pension on the death of a veteran. The new measure will extend the 12 weeks disability pension bereavement payment to the estate of single veterans or members in receipt of a special rate disability pension or the extreme disablement adjustment disability pension if they have died in reduced circumstances. With the extension of this measure, the veteran’s estate will have time to adjust to his or her changed financial circumstances and to defray any costs associated with the death of a veteran. This payment is in addition to a funeral benefit, which is also payable to indigent veterans or members and is a contribution towards funeral costs.

The third measure contained in the bill extends the automatic grant of war widow or war widower pensions. Under the current act, this was granted under circumstances where the veteran was in receipt of specific pension entitlements. The grant of a war widow or war widower pension will now be extended to include those partners of a veteran or member who immediately before his or her death was in receipt of intermediate late disability or temporary special rate disability pension. These measures will go toward fulfilling our obligation as a government and as a community to our veterans. I know that those opposite acknowledge that these are benefits. That is what is actually before us, and that is what riled me a little bit earlier. I did not appreciate coming in and just hearing a political diatribe. Let us deal with each bill on its merits. If it is beneficial, so be it. If there is detriment then, yes, get up and have a go at the bill.

Madam Deputy Speaker Vale, you of all people would know how difficult this area is from when you were in government. It is difficult for whoever is in office, but at the end of the day what I have always been about and what my office has always been about, because of the nature of my community, is to do whatever we can for our veterans community. The veterans kit that we produced has been without peer for the last 15 to 18 years in parliament. Indeed, it was picked up by organisations and used as the model. As I said, I know that there is genuine support on the other side. It seems to me that what whoever is in government should be doing is marshalling those resources in a bipartisan fashion to try to change government policy to the benefit of our veterans. I am not standing up here trying to claim a moral superiority in this regard; I do not. But I know about advocacy and I know how to get results. As I said earlier, history will end up showing this minister to be one of the best veterans’ affairs ministers. He has not taken a backward step in the short time he has been there, nor did he as shadow minister. He has tried to work out every way he can to advance veterans causes in an honest way, in a compassionate way, and he has tried to do it in a bipartisan way. I know that the shadow minister who is his opposite is also genuine in that regard.

As indicated in the Bills Digest for this bill prepared by the library, in the past the automatic granting of the war widows pension was considered appropriate only for what was effectively a significant physical disability. This has tended to exclude those who suffer from psychiatric disability or other types of physical disabilities. The Bills Digest commented that this is an old-fashioned idea. This initiative of the Australian government means that many widows or widowers will not have to apply for the benefit in a protracted manner. In the past, the process has often been contentious and lengthy. This is a very positive move forward in recognising the care and support provided by those who were the partners of veterans with significant disabilities. In my electorate there were 3,236 net beneficiaries of Department of Veterans’ Affairs pensions and treatment cardholders as at 28 September 2007. Sadly, this number dropped over the previous three months to 3,165 total net beneficiaries as at 6 July 2007. This bill is just one in a long line of Labor legislation that will be introducing social security advances in Australia.

It is a benchmark of Labor governments that care and support is provided to those who need it. In 1901 the Constitution gave power to the Commonwealth to legislate for invalid and old age pensioners. A review was conducted during 1905 and 1906 and legislation for both was passed in 1908. Finetuning was then provided by the Fisher Labor government during 1909-10, and this ensured that the old age pension was payable to people who were aged 65 and over or who were aged 60 years and over and were permanently incapacitated for work, and it extended to women over 60 years of age. Subsequent refinements and innovations were provided to age pensions, disability pensions and carers by the Scullin, Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke and Keating governments and, in all fairness, I should mention the updates under the Lyons, Menzies, Holt, Gorton, Fraser and Howard governments. So, in the area of veterans entitlements, Labor has a proud record since Federation and that is why I took exception to the attacks on the Labor Party from those opposite. At the end of the day—(Time expired)