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Wednesday, 14 May 2008
Page: 2811


Mrs GASH (11:26 AM) —As the once chair of the coalition government’s defence and veteran affairs committee, I am always an enthusiastic supporter of any initiative that appropriately rewards the contribution of our returned service men and women. It is important that we do so and to be seen to be doing so, because any intending recruit into our defence forces would be gauging how much their government is prepared to underwrite the risks they will be asked to take. But, before I go any further, I am tempted to make a passing comment on the title of this bill, the Veterans’ Entitlements Legislation Amendment (2007 Election Commitments) Bill 2008, and on the part in brackets especially. I mean, is there that much uncertainty over Labor’s defence credentials that a bill needs to have incorporated in it the words ‘2007 Election Commitments’ bill? It either demonstrates smugness or a very prickly sensitivity to past failures. I wonder whether this will be a feature of other government bills incorporated as a standard format for each bill.

That aside, I did want to raise another associated issue, and that is the government’s position on the claims of the Korean veterans who are seeking recognition for those who died on service after the armistice in Korea. I do recall that a deputation of Korean vets called on the then shadow minister last year and certain commitments were made in relation to post-armistice service. As far as I am concerned, that was an election commitment and should have been incorporated in this bill, if it is honestly titled.

On 9 October 2006 in the House, the present Minister for Veterans’ Affairs seconded a motion that called on the government to award medals for Korean post-armistice service. My question is: when will that promise be fulfilled? There is no provision anywhere in this bill, so can it be assumed that the promise made to the Korean vets by the then shadow veterans’ affairs minister was a non-core promise? The minister spoke about proper recognition, which ostensibly suggests that post-armistice service should be viewed as warlike and therefore attracting entitlements under the act. At least that is the impression the veterans gained after their meeting.

The member for Barton, who moved the motion, described the review committee’s recommendation for the awarding of an Australian general service medal and a return from active service badge as very sensible. This seems to imply that a Labor government would grant full entitlement under the act for post-armistice service. That is exactly what the Korean vets are asking for now. The member for Barton said at the time: ‘If the coalition government is serious about taking care of our soldiers, it has to put its money where its mouth is’—a fair statement. Now, will this government do the same? Will you honour the commitment you made to these vets and will you do it now?

In the minister’s second reading speech to this bill, he said in his opening remarks: ‘I am pleased to present legislation that demonstrates this government’s commitment to Australia’s veteran community.’ The Korean vets and I will also be pleased when the minister introduces legislation giving life to his government’s commitment to them. Let me quote what the Labor Party policy says. It says:

Implement Post Armistice Korean Service Review recommendations

The post-armistice Korean service review was established to examine the level of recognition that service in Korea from 1953 to 1956 should be given.

The review made six recommendations, but the Howard Government chose to ignore four of them.

Under a Rudd Labor Government, Defence will implement all of the recommendations of this review. This will fully support the efforts of the Korean War Veterans Recognition Committee to gain the recognition they deserve.

But the few provisions contained in this bill I do support, because it builds on the many initiatives introduced by the previous government—achievements such as increasing the amount of combat ready troops from the 45 per cent we inherited to the 66 per cent we left in November.

We increased funding to veterans from $6.2 billion in 1995-96 to over $11 billion in 2007-08—an increase in real terms of 25 per cent. For the first time ever, we linked service to the war widows pension by legislation to a fixed and measurable benchmark: 25 per cent of male total average weekly earnings. We restored the pension rights of thousands of war widows that were cancelled by Labor. We recognised the suffering of POWs with the payment of a bounty to each POW. We instigated a review of the act to ensure that needs were being properly addressed by contemporary standards. And we initiated many more reforms to ensure our veteran community were, arguably, the best looked after in the world. I applaud the fact that the government has adopted this philosophy and continued to support our veterans with these measures. I am delighted that the war widows and war widowers have their extended income support supplements, because it will certainly be of some assistance in what is shaping up to be stormy times ahead as far as the global economy is concerned.

One of the things we did for widows and widowers of veterans in 2001 was to establish a program to enable these worthy people to stay in their homes longer by providing home care. The other measures introduced by this bill are also welcomed, but there is still much to do and I welcome the minister’s undertaking to better look after those in the veteran community. The minister can rest assured that we on this side of the House will be making sure that there is no slippage of that undertaking because there is no disagreement on the fact that this country owes its veterans a very large debt that should transcend any political campaign promise. George Washington had the wisdom to recognise that you are judged by your deeds when he wrote:

The willingness of future generations to serve in our military will be directly dependent upon how we have treated those who have served in the past.

It is most laudable for a government to fully support its defence community, some of whom become veterans following war service. We did this through the Clarke review of veterans’ entitlements, and just a few weeks ago another review panel also set up by the Howard government made recommendations for valour awards for some of those who participated in the Battle of Long Tan. I hope this government recognises the wisdom of George Washington’s words and upholds the recommendation to award Major Harry Smith, Lieutenant Kendall and Lieutenant Sabben retrospective awards for gallantry in the field. Every day delayed signifies a grudging reluctance to do the right thing, and I would strongly urge the government to authorise these awards without delay.

As always, there is much to be done. If this government adopts the policies for veterans that we took into the election last year, they will have no argument from either me or the veteran community. But let us just have a quick look at what this Rudd Labor government offered veterans—or should I say did not offer veterans—in the budget that was announced last night. The Rudd government budget has left veterans out in the cold with two very significant changes which were announced. One of them was that the Rudd Labor government from July 2008 will increase the service pension age eligibility for partners to 58.5 years for women, which is up from the previous 50 years. This measure is estimated to save the Rudd government $35.1 million over four years. Veterans are one part of our community who must be exempt from budgetary cuts as we are eternally indebted to them for the sacrifices they have made for our nation. By raising the eligibility age, the Rudd government is condemning our veterans’ families to financial stress and hardship. Veterans and their families who have planned their future budgets based on this entitlement will be worse off under the Rudd government. This measure demonstrates the total disregard the Rudd government has for the contribution that our veterans have made to our country. With a surplus of $21.7 billion there is no need to punish veterans’ families.

In addition to the above measure, the Rudd Labor government has announced that it will no longer provide a service pension for partners who are separated from, but still legally married to, a veteran. And commencing on 1 January 2009, access to the service pension will cease 12 months after separation or from the beginning of a new marriage-like relationship of either the veteran or the partner, whichever comes first. They could still be married at this point in time. It is well known that veterans have problems. We should be assisting reconciliation, not penalising.